Birds are an endless source of fascination, be it their behavior while courting, or their effortless grace in flight. Many photographers have felt the urge to try and capture this beauty in camera and then run into difficulties. As a genre, bird photography is one of the most challenging. But, with a little know-how and some technical skills getting stunning bird photographs is something that anyone can achieve.
I’ve enjoyed meeting the challenges of bird photography for many years. I don’t claim to achieve perfection all the time, but I’ve picked up lots of useful tips over time and I’m pleased to be able to share them with you here. Let’s start by thinking about where you could photograph birds…
Bird photography in your own garden
If you’re new to bird photography, a great starting point is your own garden. If you have a bird table or feeding station, it’s easy to tempt the local wildlife in with the right food. A basic bird seed mix or sunflower hearts are popular with many birds, as are suet balls. Place your feeding station near trees or shrubs and the birds are more likely to visit. Nearby shrubs give the birds somewhere safe to hide, and they save energy because they don’t have far too fly. You could even put up a nest box to tempt some of the local birds to breed in your garden.
Building up trust
As birds begin to visit your garden more, give them a chance to get used to your presence nearby. Spend time in your garden, perhaps reading a book, or enjoying a cup of coffee. Over time, the birds will realise you’re not a threat and will ignore you. Then, when you bring your camera out, they’re more likely to continue feeding and you’ll be able to get some great shots!
Find bird photography locations near to home
Another good location for bird photography beginners is your local park, especially if it has a pond or lake. Ducks and geese there will be used to human contact and will likely come much closer than they would in the wild. This means their behavior is more predictable and you don’t need such a long lens.
Nature reserves can provide access to more species
If you want to see a greater variety of birds, in a natural habitat, it’s worth visiting nature reserves. Many have made paths, so you don’t need to go too far off piste, and they often have bird hides too. These allow you to sit in relative comfort (although not necessarily warmth!) and watch the birds for as long as you want. The birds are likely to be further away than at the local park, but you have at least a reasonable expectation of seeing something that’s worthy of a photo.
Bird photography in the wild
The final option is to go into the wild and find birds to photograph there. This form of bird photography comes with fewer guarantees – you could sit in one spot for hours and not see a thing. However, if you have some local knowledge about species which frequent the area you’re visiting you’ll increase the odds.
Bird Photography Tips
Here are some tips I’ve learnt over the years. Some were passed on to me by fellow photographers, while others have been learnt through painful experience!
1. Be cautious and quiet in your movements
Move slowly and quietly around the birds. They’re notoriously skittish and any abrupt movement can scare them away. This includes the way you lift your camera. Rather than lifting it quickly to your eye, as you would elsewhere, make it a slow, subtle movement. If you’ll miss shots by moving slowly, try to keep the camera to your eye as much as possible. If you’re sitting you may be able to find a way to brace your arms on your knees to help take the weight.
2. Approach the birds gradually
When walking towards birds, do it in small stages. All birds have a comfort zone. Beyond the perimeter of this comfort zone they’ll be watching you, ready to fly away if they deem you to be a threat. It’s a good idea to take a few ‘safety shots’ when you first start approaching a bird. By doing this, you’ll know you’ve got something in the bag in case the bird is spooked and flies away. You can always crop the image later if this happens. From there, gradually edge closer, moving quietly and slowly, taking a few frames every few steps. With luck and patience you’ll get some great shots much closer!
3. Look out for young birds
Juvenile birds are often more tolerant of human contact than their parents. This is simply because they haven’t yet learnt to be scared us. The fledgling Blue Tits in our garden last summer were very trusting, allowing me to get incredibly close at times. This trust doesn’t last forever though, so make the most of it and take lots of photos before they lose their boldness!
Practical Tip: do remember to turn off the focusing beep and engage silent mode if your camera has one. While you’re at it, silence your mobile phone too!
4. Talk to the birds
One wildlife photographer I’ve come across talks to the birds quietly as he approaches them. His logic is that a predator would approach in silence, so the birds realise you’re not a danger. I’ve tried this with our garden birds, with some success, but I can’t promise it’ll work with all species!
5. Don’t chimp!
We’ve all done it – you check recently taken photos on your camera’s LCD, while oohing and aahing, like a chimpanzee! Aside from quickly double checking your exposure settings, does this help you get better shots? No! While you’re admiring the photos you’ve taken, that rare species you were hoping to photograph might turn up, and you’ll almost certainly miss is. Admire your photos when you get home, not in the field.
6. Be ready for take off!
Did you know that many birds defecate just before flying away? It’s obvious really – they’re lightening the load before take off. This is a handy sign that a bird is ready to take flight so keep your eyes open. It might help you catch that magic action shot!
7. Get to know the birds you’re shooting
Do the birds you’re photographing have a regular perch they return to time and again? Do they roost in a particular hollow tree? Or perhaps a flock of starlings gather in a specific location every night before taking to the skies as a murmuration? A little knowledge can go a long way to making that killer shot.
Take note of the way the birds behave too. A raptor might preen or stretch its wings before flight, to warm up its muscles. If you know a pair of birds are nesting in a particular location, look out for them feeding their young nearby. Or perhaps you’re out shooting in the spring when the birds are courting. In that case, look out for special courtship behavior which would make an interesting photo.
8. Photograph behaviour, not inactivity
Whenever you can, look for interesting behavior in the birds you photograph. In the camera club world, judges often, rather disparagingly, call a static bird a ‘chick on a stick’. Of course, the judge doesn’t know that you may have waited all day in a sub-zero hide to capture that shot, but it makes the point that some activity is more dramatic!
9. Wake up early or stay late
As with many genres, bird photography is best done at certain times of day, and it’s all about the light. The definition of photography is ‘drawing with light’ and this is particularly crucial with bird photography. The best times to photograph birds are early morning and late afternoon, when the light will be softer and more directional. It also happens to be the time when birds are most active, which is handy!
10. Avoid harsh light and bland skies
Shooting in the middle of the day is generally less conducive to good photos, as direct overhead sunshine can blow out highlights and create harsh shadows. However, on days when there is light cloud cover you could potentially still get some attractive shots of static birds.
Good light is especially important for photographing birds in flight. Achieving a good exposure with a bird flying against a bland white sky is all but impossible. You’ll either end up with a blown out sky, or a dreadfully underexposed bird.
11. Have patience
This one is perhaps one of the most important rules of bird photography. It’s not something you can do in a hurry. Birds will only cooperate on their terms, so be prepared to wait a while for that perfect moment!
Bird Photography Camera Settings
Now we get to the nitty gritty technical details. Knowing the right settings for your camera can make or break that photo opportunity – the difference between success and failure. Here are the settings I commonly use:
Aperture Priority Mode
Shooting in aperture priority mode is a great way to control the way your subject stands out from the background. More often than not I’ll shoot with the widest aperture my lens will allow – that could be f2.8 or as narrow as f6.3, depending on the lens. This means the background will become blurred, and the bird will stand out more in the picture.
Shutter speed choice
Birds move quickly, so a fast shutter speed is your best bet. Small garden birds flit around incredibly fast, as do raptors in flight. For these I’ll aim for an absolute minimum shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second. If there’s enough light for me to achieve an even faster shutter speed that’s even better.
Larger birds, such as owls, swans and geese move at a more leisurely pace, so you might get away with something a little slower. Of course, if you’re photographing a Tawny Owl snoozing in its favorite roosting spot, you could probably shoot much slower. If in doubt though, go as fast as possible!
Remember the reciprocal shutter speed rule
If you’re shooting with a long lens you need to ensure your minimum shutter speed is the reciprocal of your focal length to avoid camera shake. So, a 400mm lens would need at least 1/400 of a second to be sure of a sharp shot. Of course, if you’re photographing a fast moving bird you’ll need a shutter speed much faster. Hummingbirds, for instance, beat their wings so quickly that even at 1/2000 you’ll see some blur.
Sometimes slow can work though…
Having stressed the need for a fast shutter speed, there are occasions when you might wish to do something a little more creative. If you have a steady hand, you could try panning with a bird in flight at a much slower shutter speed. You’ll have a high failure rate, but it’s sometimes possible to capture the bird’s body sharp, while the beating wings are blurred through movement. It’s wonderful when this works and I recommend you try it sometime.
Consider using Auto ISO
I often use Auto ISO when photographing birds. Most modern cameras offer Auto ISO, but usually default to a shutter speed that’s fast enough to avoid camera shake. More often than not, this isn’t fast enough for birds, but you may be able to set a minimum shutter speed in camera. If your model offers this, it means you don’t have to think about changing the ISO as the light changes.
If your camera doesn’t have a minimum shutter speed setting I would recommend setting the ISO manually to achieve your chosen shutter speed. Bear in mind though, that if light levels change significantly you’ll need to adjust your ISO up or down to compensate.
Practical Tip: Remember too, that modern cameras generally still make excellent images at higher ISO settings. A little noise in your final pictures because you chose a higher ISO can easily be reduced in post production. But a blurred picture because your ISO was too low cannot be remedied!
Focus on the eyes
The most important thing when photographing any living creature is to focus on the eye that’s nearest to you. The eyes are the thing we first connect with so it feels wrong when they’re not sharp. Your subject will feel more alive too if you can capture a catch-light in the eyes – that’s a small flash of brightness. Sometimes this isn’t possible on overcast days, but it’s desirable. If you’re photographing a bird in flight, tracking its movement, aim to focus on the head and body.
Engage Continuous Autofocus
I almost always shoot in Continuous Autofocus (C-AF) mode, even when photographing birds perching on branches. This is because I may move slightly, and the birds will hop around. Using C-AF means the camera immediately adjusts for any small changes without me having to refocus. On Canon cameras this mode is called AI-Servo. It does mean you need to move your focus point to the area where you want the camera to focus though. If you’re used to using a central focus point and recomposing you might find it better to stick with Single AF.
Focusing on birds in flight
For birds in flight, it’s tricky to keep a single, small focus point over a moving target, unless you’re an ace marksman! Instead it’s better to use a small group of focus points, or a single large point, depending on the brand of your camera. Doing this, you can place the group of focus points over the bird and pan with its movement, shooting as you go. Some cameras have a 3D tracking system, so it’s a great idea to read your user manual carefully!
Practical tip: Why not download the PDF of your camera manual to your smartphone or tablet? Then you can keep it with you to check settings if you need to.
Back button focus
Some photographers use back button focus very successfully for wildlife. With this technique you activate auto-focus using a button on the back of the camera, while the shutter button just takes care of metering and shutter release. I personally prefer to focus and shoot with the shutter button, but I can recommend this article by Martin Bailey, where he explains this, along with lots more about bird photography, very clearly.
Use a continuous shooting mode
As well as using C-AF, you’ll need to set your camera up so it fires continuously, instead of single shot. It’s incredibly difficult to capture that ‘decisive moment’ with birds, so being able to fire off several frames per second is crucial. I’m not necessarily promoting the ‘spray and pray’ mode of shooting, where you plant your finger on the shutter button and hope for the best though! It may be that you only take 3 or 4 shots in burst mode, but that could be all you need to capture that split second when the bird’s wings are in the perfect position. Some wing positions are more attractive than others, so this method gives you choices.
Select a high frame rate
A fast frame rate is helpful, but not absolutely critical. If your camera has a choice of shooting rates, pick the highest one you can, which will still allow you to use continuous auto-focus. Don’t be afraid to shoot lots of pictures, especially while you’re learning, and you can delete the bad ones later. Some cameras will shoot up to twenty frames a second, but if yours can only do four FPS, you can still achieve some great results.
Try Exposure Compensation for birds in flight
If you find yourself photographing a bird in flight against a bright sky, your camera’s metering will probably get confused. The combination of a small, dark subject against a light background will encourage the camera to darken the scene, often resulting in a black bird against a grey sky. In this situation, I would recommend using some positive Exposure Compensation. This tells your camera to expose the scene more brightly, resulting in a well exposed bird. How much you need will depend on the lighting conditions, so try one stop initially and adjust from there.
Panning with the birds
Another vital skill for photographing birds in flight is panning. This is where you move your camera in parallel with the bird, keeping it in the viewfinder. This is a difficult skill, and needs regular practice as birds move fast and unpredictably. A good way to get a feel for this is to practice tracking a larger, more predictable object. Cars or cyclists on a nearby road can be good, but make sure you’re standing in a safe place. Alternatively, find a spot near your local airport where you can practice panning with the aircraft. Birds will always be a greater challenge, but this is a good way to develop your skills.
Know your camera well!
This is the most important tip of all. Practice with your camera as often as you can and get to know where everything is, without looking for the buttons. Muscle memory is absolutely vital for any form of wildlife photography, as the birds won’t wait while you fumble with your settings!
Creative compositions for bird photography
Now we’ve got all the technical stuff out of the way, let’s have a think about some composition tips. Like most things in photography, composition is subjective, but here are a few tips to get you started.
Shoot wide open
In aperture mode, choose the largest aperture possible with your lens. This has two advantages – it blurs the background, removes distractions and allows as much light into your lens as possible too.
Capture a bird’s eye view of the world.
If you’re photographing a bird on the ground, try to get down to their level to capture a bird’s eye perspective. This has the added advantage of moving the bird farther from the background so it’s easier to blur out distractions.
Check your background scrupulously
There’s nothing more frustrating than catching that killer shot of a bird and realizing you have a distraction in the background. Perhaps some particularly contrasty twigs, or a piece of rubbish. If you’re setting up in one position to shoot (possibly in a hide) check your background really thoroughly before you settle in. Often you can remove a distraction completely by shifting just a step to the left or right, and that’s much simpler to do than removing it later in post-processing!
Equally, if you’re shooting at a very low level, check there aren’t any distractions in the foreground. Stray pieces of grass in front of your subject are incredibly irritating if you didn’t spot them before shooting.
If you’re lucky enough to have a long telephoto lens, you may be able to zoom right in to capture intimate, frame filling portraits. If you don’t you’ll need to employ some of the stealth tactics I mentioned earlier or go for the next tip….
Capture the bird’s habitat too
While frame filling shots can be beautiful, it’s also important to tell more about the bird’s story. Part of this is the habitat they live in. This could be a wading bird on marshland, or a garden bird perched among the foliage. Both can make excellent pictures and don’t require such a long lens either.
If the opportunity arises, don’t be afraid to try something different. This could be a close up of a duck’s vividly colored plumage at the local park, or the outline of a bird silhouetted against a colorful sunset. Go ahead and think outside the box!
Don’t bullseye your subject
Photos are often more satisfying when the main subject is off-center, creating a more dynamic image. If you place the bird to one side (perhaps on one of the thirds) remember to have it looking into, or flying into, the picture, so it has somewhere to go. For loads of handy composition tips, why not take a look at my article about the subject here.
Allow space for cropping
Birds are naturally unpredictable creatures – it’s often difficult to know where they will turn next. If you’re photographing an active bird (as opposed to one perching on a branch), don’t be afraid to leave a little extra space around the edge of the frame. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve framed up a shot and cut off the edge of a wing or tail as the bird has stretched or changed direction in flight! You can easily crop out any unwanted space in post-processing later.
Gear recommendations for bird photography
It’s often said it’s the photographer that makes the photo, not the camera. While this is true for most photographic genres, for bird photography you will need certain items of gear. I’m afraid to say a smartphone camera probably won’t cut it, but you don’t necessarily need to take out a second mortgage to buy loads of gear!
Let’s take a look at what you might need….
Choosing a camera for bird photography
Any reasonably modern DSLR or mirrorless body will be capable of taking photos of birds. Yes, for some species (hummingbirds, for instance), a top of the line professional model, with super-fast auto-focus and a really high frame rate is helpful. However, most of us don’t have the budget for that, and it’s not often too critical!
Camera features needed for bird photography
The main features you need in a camera for bird photography are the ability to focus continuously and track a moving subject. All modern models can do this, although you may need to read your user manual to locate the settings if you’ve not tried this before.
Fast frame rate
A fast continuous shooting frame rate is helpful too. My current camera will shoot 20 frames per second (FPS), which is wonderful, but I still got excellent results when I had an older model offering only 5FPS. Remember, an very fast frame rate also means you’ll have loads of photos at the end of a shoot, and you’ll still end up deleting all but a handful of keepers!
Full frame isn’t necessarily best
It’s worth noting that a full-frame camera isn’t necessary for bird photography. You’re actually better off with a crop-sensor camera as you benefit from a longer effective focal length, and therefore more reach. For instance, my Panasonic 100-400mm lens acts like an 200-800mm focal length when attached to my micro four thirds camera body. That’s a huge zoom range, in a form factor I can happily shoot handheld all day. Many’s the time I’ve noticed folks with Canon or Nikon 800mm lenses the size of a small car looking at it jealously!
Suggested cameras for bird photography
These are some of the best cameras on the market today for bird photography. In some cases they’re not the most expensive models available, but they have the necessary tools for fast, accurate shooting. If these are beyond your budget, there’s still plenty you can do with a cheaper or older model!
Bird photography lenses
One of my biggest frustrations is finding that the longest lens you have is never quite long enough for bird photography. Birds are naturally wary of humans, so the more zoom range you have at your disposal, the closer you can get to the birds without disturbing them. Remember though, that the longer the lens, the bigger and heavier it tends to be.
That said, there are forms of bird photography you can do with pretty well any focal length lens, so let’s take a look at the options.
Super-telephoto lenses – 400mm plus
If you want to photograph birds in flight or at great distance, I’m afraid you will need to invest in a long lens. Super-telephoto lenses with a large maximum aperture can cost the same as a small car, so such investment is not for the fainthearted. However, if you’re going to be shooting in good light there are cheaper alternatives which will work well too. For instance, the Canon 400mm f2.8 costs just under $10,000 and weighs almost 4kg. However, when I was shooting with Canon gear, I used their 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 zoom lens. That’s a more manageable 1.6kg and costs less than $2000.
Buy secondhand and you can save even more money. Alternatively, if you’re going on a big wildlife adventure, or perhaps just want to try a really long lens, consider hiring one. This will cost much less than buying and could stop you making an expensive mistake.
Here are our lens recommendations
If you’re after a long lens these are some of the best, and reasonably affordable, lenses out there today.
Tamron 150-600mm f5-6.3 G2 lens (available in Canon, Nikon and Sony mounts)
Moderate telephoto lenses – 100-300mm
If your budget won’t stretch to the big guns, why not go for a mid-range telephoto zoom instead? These are much cheaper, and can be used for shooting in lots of other situations too. With some good field craft and less skittish birds, you’ll still be able to get some great shots. There’s no reason why you have to zoom right in on birds – often a photo showing them in their habitat can be just as satisfying.
Wide to standard lenses – 18-100mm
If you use a lens like this to photograph birds in flight they’ll appear as a tiny dot on your sensor, so you’ll need to be a little more creative. Shooting at your local park, for instance, the ducks and geese will be used to humans and much more likely to come close. When they’re feeling really bold a wide angle lens can be all you need!
I rarely use a tripod, as I know I can handhold my longest lens without tiring. However, if you know you’re going to be in one spot for the day and need assistance supporting a heavy lens, a tripod can be helpful.
Go for the sturdiest one you can, but also ensure it’s light enough that you’ll be willing to carry it to your destination. This may cost more, but it’s better to buy one really good tripod, rather than purchasing several increasingly expensive ones over a period of time! If you’re going to be shooting birds in flight from a tripod a gimbal head is a must. This means the tripod takes the weight, but it allows you to move the camera smoothly to track the birds.
Practical tip: If you choose to shoot handheld with a long lens, make sure you support your gear well. Your right hand will be on the camera grip, while the left should be cupped beneath the lens, with your fingers on the zoom ring. Stand with a steady posture and breath steadily for maximum stability.
Subtle clothes are a must when photographing birds, so you don’t scare them off. Full special forces camouflage isn’t necessary, but dark colors are better than bright ones. Check your clothes don’t rustle when you move either!
Whether you need a hide will depend on where you are shooting. Many nature reserves will have permanent hides for you to sit in. If you’re going to be out in the wild though, a small portable hide can be useful. It makes you less visible and means you can fidget without scaring the birds. Make sure your chosen hide is big enough to give you a little wriggle room and you’ll need an opening (usually with a panel of mesh to cover the gaps) through which you can poke your lens.
Alternatives to hide
Don’t overlook other ways of hiding in plain sight. A friend of mine recently used the cat flap in his back door to shoot through when a kestrel landed in the garden with its prey! A more practical alternative is to shoot from your car. Birds don’t recognize that cars contain humans and will often go about their business quite happily close by. Wildlife photographer Russell Savory has an old car he has converted into a mobile hide, with perspex panels replacing the sunroof and windows for easy removal.
Don’t forget some food – for you and the birds!
If you’re going on a long shoot, you’ll need to make sure you have sufficient food and drink for yourself. There’s nothing worse than staking out a bird with a grumbling tummy! Some edible bribery for the birds can be useful too. For ducks and geese at the park grain can tempt them closer and mealworms are a great favorite of garden birds. Don’t take bread to feed the birds though as it has very little nutritional value for them.
Over to you…
All that remains now is for you to go out and put all of this information into practice! Don’t worry if you come back with many, many failures. No matter how much experience you have, the keeper rate will always be relatively low with bird photography. This is especially true when shooting birds in flight. However, the more you practice the better you will get and I’m sure you’ll soon be taking some stunning bird photographs of your own. Why not share some of them with us here – pop a picture or two in the comments below so we can see how you’re getting on!
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