There can be a very interesting way of categorising bird photography …. the habitat of the birds . While basics still remain same , shooting a forest bird , grassland bird , shorebird , in their respective habitats all need different techniques . Here we will deal with the nuances of shooting shorebirds . Do watch the space for other shooting styles .

Shooting on the beach has its own challenges . The fine sand and moisture are the biggest threat to our equipment . Salt water can be corrosive and the residual salt particles can wreck havoc with the lenses and cameras if they find a way in . Also , since the beach has no place for us to hide , the bird can spot us from a distance . So approaching shorebirds is a huge task.

Protecting equipment :

So how do we ensure that we keep the intrusive sand and moisture out of our precious equipment . The cheapest way is to use a sheet of plastic which would cover the lens and the camera and use rubber bands at both the ends to seal it off . Neoprane padded body and lens coats are also helpful , but they do not seal it completely . There are some cool rain covers which offer great protection . . Once you finish shooting ensure that you blow clean the lens and the body before putting it back for storage. Always carry some silica gel handy with you which you can put in the bag . This would ensure that the lenses and cameras are dry till you reach home . A second round of cleaning and blow drying is always recommended after you reach home / hotel . At home , I use the DigiCabi for storing the cameras and lenses . It keeps your equipment at optimum temperature and humidity .

Best time to shoot

The best time to shoot shorebirds is early morning – mid morning in the west coast and then early evening till a bit after sunset in the east coast . This is true when you want to shoot with the light . Remember you can make some brilliant silhouttes shooting against the light on the beach . Some inlets / islands  in your coast might offer different directions to shoot , so ensure that you do a bit of research and be aware of the oppurtunities they would present .

The other timing you should be aware is the migration pattern and breeding times for the subject you wish to shoot . Most of these shorebirds have some brilliant breeding plumages . A dull bird in other seasons will turn into an art form during breeding .

Knowledge of the tide timings is critical while making good images . Many times , we see photographers who come back with abundance of amazing images , and when we arrive at the same location we see that the birds are miles away . Makes you wonder how the photographer actually approached these skittish birds . Trust me the photographer did not have to run behind the birds …..the birds approached him instead . The trick is to reach there 2-3 hrs before high tide . Since the water is steadily coming in , the birds too start coming inshore . If you can ensure you get hold of a vantage point …all you need to do is sit and wait .

So early morning /evening ,during breeding season , 3 hrs before high tide is the perfect time to shoot shorebirds . Sadly ,such coincidences are few and far , and it pays to ensure that you research well in advance . This would ensure that you are not too dependant on your ‘luck’.

Making the image

Shooting at the beach will give you loads of oppurtunities to make portraits , high keys , flight images etc . The angle while shooting is very important if you want a winner . Birds on the ground give a great chance to make a ground level image , while lying flat on the ground . This would ensure that you have a clean background . But the moment you shoot from a height , this same advantage poses a problem . The background ( sand) is too close to the bird and you are shooting the bird at an akward angle . So, the key is to ensure that you lie flat on the ground .

This also makes you look very small and so the birds are not very wary about approaching you . The flipside is that you would be very uncomfortable lying on the wet sand . So ensure that either you are in old clothes …not much worry of damaging the clothes or if you can bear the sweat , use a plastic cover as a sheet on the ground .

Using the tripod ( the lowest you can go) , bean bag , a child’s scooter , skate board , or contraptions such as the skimmer all help movement while keeping the lens as close to ground as possible . Do not , under any circumstance keep the lens on the sand .

When the bird is approaching you due to the tide coming in , try and make some wide images . Check on the histogram for the exposure on these images . There could also be a case where you will have to keep moving back . Remember to dial in + ve exposure for white birds .

Most of these waders fly and hover when the water comes in and then settle down when the water recedes . These are great oppurtunities for some good flight shots . If you have another body and lens in the 300-400 range , it is a perfect situation to be in . You can use this combination for flight images .

While shooting birds near to the waves , ensure that you do that while is wave is forming and not breaking . The waves break into white foam and it can be seen as disturbing lines and formations in the Background .

Most of the waders also fly in groups . They make for some very interesting creative images using the patterns they make while flying . Remember to try hi key / slow shutters to maximise your experience .

Shooting from a boat

It can be good idea to explore the possibility of a boat ride while shooting near the beach . The advantages are that it tends to become a natural hide , as birds are not too wary , and they infact approach these boats to try and get some easy meal . Make sure that you can handle your equipment in the boat specially if it is a small one . These boats can make it very difficult for you to balance yourself and the equipment and you might end up losing your precious camera . Small lenses are better for smaller boats . The bigger boats normally would have space to set up your tripod . It is always better to inform the boatman beforehand that he would have to cut off the engine before approaching the birds . Remind yourself that it is not worth risking life and equipment for an image , so ensure that you do not push him ( in terms of safety) especially for an image . Grey herons , purple herons , mangrove birds like kingfishers , stilts , sandpipers , flamingoes , terns , littel herons etc are quite approachable from the boat . Raptors like the White bellied Sea Eagle , Ospreys , Marsh Harriers , etc also let you approach when on a boat . Ensure high shutters by pushing up a bit of ISO to make these images . Image stabilised lenses are a great asset while shooting from boats .

So the next time you head to the shore for some shooting , remember to do some research, carry loads of fresh water, sunscreen if possible , a change of clothes, towels and maximise your shooting experience . And please do not litter the pristine environment :)

38 thoughts on “SHOOTING / PHOTOGRAPHING Shorebirds”

  1. Nicely written indeed and, as usual super pics :-)

    Word of caution while shooting with the tide coming in.
    Its better to have a non photographer friend watching for the water coming in. If you dont watch out, you could get splashed by the odd wave/ and incoming water.

  2. santanu nandy

    Location: Mumbai, Maharastra

    Good article. Under the heading..shooting from boats there is a typo….”Make sure that you can handle your equipment in the boast specially if it is a small one………..”the boast should read the boat.

  3. hayath mohammed to me
    Very nicely written, each of those tips showing the experience that has gone in :)

    Keep the fabulous work going.


  4. Very informative article with some cracking images….
    Am sure your tips will prove very useful in the field..
    Thank you!

  5. Sounds-a-tweet
    Mad Sound Recordist
    Location: West Midlands

    Perhaps you ought to re-title this as Photographing Shore Birds.
    I saw your title on my RSS feed and was quite shocked.

  6. Keith Reeder
    Watch the birdie…
    Location: Blyth, Northumberland, NE England

    Hi Rakesh,

    looks great.

    Unfortunately, almost none of the “thumbnail” images link to a bigger version: and of the ones that do, the BHG opens a Dunlin image, and the in-flight Flamingo opens a Great Crested Tern.
    Keith Reeder

    Canon 7D, Canon 40D, 100-400mm USM IS

  7. S Smith
    Location: London

    A helpful blog post and some great images there.

    Keith, most of the thumbnails gave a larger version when I tried—a couple of wrong links though, I agree.

  8. Interesting Blog. Thanks for taking the time to put it together.

    One thing I disagree with is your advice about the tides. My own experience is that different birds can be found at different tidal periods. So I no longer pay attention to tidal schedules. All it means is that I’m shooting different species.


    1. Thanx Dave for visiting the blog . Your point is very well taken . But the point I was trying to make is that the degree of difficulty is higher when you go at arbit times . But if you are armed with the knowledge of the right tide timings and bird behaviour , chances of you coming back with winners increases .

  9. Dr.Nirmala Sridhar
    Location: Mumbai,Maharashtra

    Wonderful article-very helpful as I picked up a few pointers….hope I put them to use!!!
    Warm regards,

  10. Lovely article. Shows the amount of effort that you have put in to get the images. Can you tell me how much focal length is sufficient for waders?

    1. Thanx Kartik . From a boat , you can shoot from 70mm if you have a skilled boatman . Gulls and terns are quite brave when it comes to hovering around fishing trawlers . 300mm + is a desirable focal lenght for other situations .

  11. Thanks a lot for such a crisp and to-the-point write up. I just loved your tip to shoot while the wave is forming and not while breaking. Invaluable tip from your experience. Otherwise, predominantly non-shore bird photographers would learn only after making these mistakes.

  12. Keith Reeder
    Watch the birdie…

    Location: Blyth, Northumberland, NE England
    All working now, Rakesh – beautiful images, and very good advice.

    Your BHGs have really strange eyes compared to the birds we have!
    Keith Reeder

    Canon 7D, Canon 40D, 100-400mm USM IS

  13. chris butterworth
    Location: Wirral / Honshu / Hokkaido / Sabah/ Micronesia
    Hi Rakesh. Just a note, the ‘Black-headed Gull’ is Brown-headed Gull. brunnicephalus not ridibundus.

    “End of the world or not, Peonies and Camellias will still produce beautiful flowers ”
    Hagakure Kikigaki
    2010 bird list – 1024 species

  14. navin dutt to me
    Apr 26

    rak 2847 and rak 4643 are outstanding. Will read it in detail over the weekend..
    Great going Rakesh
    warm regards

  15. Tushar Nidambur to me
    Apr 27

    Hi Rakesh,
    Is this correct??
    ‘Remember to dial in + ve exposure for white birds .’

    I would assume the whites would be burned on overexposure!


  16. Fantastic piece of info…..definately will consider the points next time I visit a shore…..

    thanks for your efforts…..

  17. Ajay Sonarikar
    Location: Pune

    informative article with great images ( as usual ). can u specify some interesting coastal places in Konkan area ( closer to Pune ) which can be visited. Any particular season ?

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