Bird Photography: 17 Expert Tips for Breathtaking Images

The post Bird Photography: 17 Expert Tips for Breathtaking Images appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Prathap DK.

Tips for stunning photos of birds

This article was updated in April 2024 with contributions from Prathap DK and Jaymes Dempsey.

Looking to capture stunning photos of birds? While bird photography comes with real challenges, it’s not as difficult as it might seem – and it’s not as expensive as it might seem, either!

I’ve been doing bird photography for over 15 years, and I can confidently say that to be a great bird photographer, you don’t have to have a top-notch camera, or an ultra-long (and ultra-expensive) bird photography lens, or even access to world-class birding locations. In truth, photographing birds is mostly about patience, with a healthy dose of luck and technique – as I explain in greater detail below.

That said, certain gear can make bird photography a lot easier, so I make sure to discuss it in depth. I also cover a variety of other essential subjects for stunning bird pictures, including:

  • The perfect bird photography lighting
  • Simple tips to improve your compositions
  • Plenty of bird photography examples
  • Much, much more!

So if you’re ready to become an expert, let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:

1. Pick good bird photography gear (but don’t obsess over it)

Bird photography tips

In my view, here’s what you need to get started with bird photography: an APS-C camera with interchangeable lens capabilities, plus a telephoto lens that reaches 300mm or more (not including the APS-C crop factor).

When I started as a bird photographer, I was in school, and I couldn’t afford those fancy 500mm and 600mm lenses used by the pros. Instead, I purchased a used DSLR for around $150 and a 70-300mm zoom lens, and I learned to make it work. I was able to capture frame-filling images of larger birds (swans, herons, geese, etc.) and even smaller songbirds and shorebirds. With the right approach – as well as lots of patience! – you can do the same.

That said, once you’ve become more serious and really want to increase your flexibility and hit rate as a bird photographer, you’ll want to upgrade to a more action-focused setup that also offers a bit more reach.

At that point, I do recommend considering a high-speed APS-C camera. It should have top-notch autofocusing capabilities and a minimum continuous shooting speed of 8 FPS. Cameras like Canon’s EOS R7 are designed for action-focused shooting, and they’re outstanding for dedicated bird photography. Not only are these cameras fast, but they’re very robust. They’re able to withstand challenging shooting conditions such as rain, mud, or sand (and as I’ve learned over the years, in bird photography, you’re going to get dirty!).

In terms of lenses, you’ll ideally want something that extends beyond 300mm. A zoom lens that reaches 400mm or a 400mm prime lens is a good starting point – I often use a 400mm prime lens for my own bird photography – but if you’re targeting smaller or more skittish birds, you’ll want to check out a 500mm or 600mm lens. Yes, they can be expensive, but some zooms reach these super-telephoto lengths without breaking the bank, and some of the latest super-telephoto zooms are impressively high-quality.

Note: Should you spring for a 500mm lens or longer, it’s also a good idea to invest in a sturdy tripod. It’ll help reduce camera shake – a common issue at high magnifications – and make your bird photography easier on your arms.

Of course, as I emphasized in the introduction, while gear can enhance your shooting capabilities, it’s not everything. If you have good technique and you persevere, it’s absolutely possible to produce amazing bird photos – even without the longest lenses or the fastest cameras.

2. Research your subjects

Bird photography tips

I can’t stress this enough: understanding the birds you wish to photograph can greatly boost the quality of your shots. The more you know about a particular species, the better prepared you’ll be to capture its unique behaviors and predict its actions on a moment-by-moment basis.

In a more simplistic sense, understanding basic facts about a target subject can help you determine where the bird might be, and (often more importantly!) when it might be there.

When I was a teenager, my family would take summer trips to the Cape May, New Jersey area. As most North American birders know, Cape May is a hotspot where you can find an explosion of species. But as I learned through experience, even a place like Cape May can be a relatively average location if you arrive at the wrong time. I wanted to photograph shorebirds, but while they often fill the beaches in spring and fall, you won’t find many in late June (much to my disappointment!).

As a 15-year-old, I didn’t have much control over the timing of my family vacation, but if I had been an adult, and I had done my research, I would’ve known to avoid a mid-summer trip!

How can you deepen your understanding of your avian subjects? For starters, try reading bird-specific books and online articles. As you delve into these resources, pay close attention to your subjects’ daily routines, nesting habits, and favorite food sources.

Next, consider watching documentaries or online videos that feature your desired bird species. These can give you insights into their unique behaviors, as well as offer a glimpse into the natural habitats they prefer.

Beyond that, there’s a lot to be said about direct observation. If you regularly visit a particular area, consider spending time observing the birds without the pressure of photographing them. You’ll gain a more intimate understanding of their behaviors, which can result in more compelling, personal photos down the line.

It might seem like a lot of work, and yes, it is. But capturing great bird photos does take effort, and the better you know your subject, the more likely you are to get those unique moments that set your work apart.

3. Shoot when the light is right

Bird photography tips

You’ve probably heard of the “golden hour,” that magical time in the early morning or late afternoon when the light is soft and warm. Not only is this the best lighting for bird photography, but it also coincides with peak bird activity. Perfect timing, right?

Strong midday sunlight might seem appealing due to its convenience and intensity, but it can actually create harsh shadows that detract from your images. Instead, aim for those golden hours, which offer several advantages. It softens shadows on your bird subjects, enhances the glow in their plumage, and creates an appealing catchlight in their eyes.

The low position of the sun during these hours means light will come from the back, side, or front. Keep this in mind as different angles give different effects. Standard frontlight bird photography has the light coming over your shoulder, evenly illuminating your subject. Sidelighting and backlighting are less popular – they’re more artistic and less natural – but they can add dramatic effects to your photos.

Cloudy days are another option. The diffused midday sunlight eliminates harsh shadows, though it lacks the warmth of golden-hour light. Also, you might struggle to maintain a fast shutter speed, especially for capturing birds in flight. That’s not to say you can’t get good results on a cloudy day. It just requires a bit more planning and creativity.

For my own bird photography, if the weather forecast predicts a sunny day, I’ll try to get on location as the sun rises. Then I’ll shoot for a few hours until the light gets too harsh, and head back home or to my accommodations to wait out the high-angle sun. A few hours before sunset, I’ll head back out, then photograph until the light is essentially gone and I can no longer capture sharp photos.

But I treat cloudy days differently. I still like to get out early and then again in the afternoon – that’s when the birds tend to be most active – but I’ll often arrive a little later in the morning, stay a little longer, break for a short lunch, and then get back out to photograph some more before I call it a day.

4. Pick a fast shutter speed

Bird photography tips

Birds are hardly ever stationary. They flit, fly, and flutter – and if your shutter speed is too long, you’ll end up with blurry images. This is tough to overstate; in my experience, even birds that appear to move slowly are generally quite fast, and birds that appear to be moving fast are like lightning.

Now, you might be asking, “What counts as a fast shutter speed?” That depends on your subject and the speed at which it moves, but I typically set my shutter speed to at least 1/1000s for a bird in motion. And when I’m capturing smaller, faster birds, I like to work at 1/2000s (and even beyond). Like I said, birds are fast, and I don’t want to risk coming home with a card full of blurry files.

Using a fast shutter speed, however, isn’t as simple as setting your camera’s shutter speed dial to 1/2000s.

You see, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO all work together. A fast shutter speed lets less light in, so if you’re shooting at 1/2000s, you’ll need to compensate for the lack of light some other way. One option is to increase your ISO, but be careful: High ISO values can introduce digital noise, and this can make your images look grainy.

Another way to let more light in is by using a wider aperture. Now, a wider aperture means a shallower depth of field, which can throw parts of the bird out of focus. On the other hand, a wide aperture can also blur your background, focusing attention on the bird. It’s all about finding the balance that works best for your particular scene and your particular subject.

You might be thinking, “Sounds complex. How do I manage all of this?” Here’s a tip: Switch your camera to Aperture Priority mode. You set the aperture, and the camera will adjust the shutter speed to get the right exposure. It’s the perfect shooting mode for when the light is changing fast and you don’t have time to fiddle with your settings.

5. Choose the right location for bird photography

Bird photography tips

Sometimes the biggest challenge isn’t taking the photo, but finding your subject. You can have all the skills in the world, but if there aren’t any birds around, you’re out of luck.

So where do you find the birds? Well, the world is filled with potential bird photography locations. But you’ll need to do a bit of detective work first. Look up bird habitats, migration patterns, and bird hotspots in your area. Find out where the birds are and when they are likely to be there. (This relates to the second tip in this article: research your subject!)

But keep in mind that not every bird-filled location is a good place for photography. You could find a spot teeming with birds, but if the background is cluttered, or the birds are too far away, it’s not going to work. I – and many other bird photographers – have learned this the hard way.

Local parks, wetlands, or nature reserves are usually good bets. The birds there are often more accustomed to humans, so you can get closer without scaring them away. But be prepared for days when the birds are just not cooperating. It happens!

What do you do then? Persistence is key. Keep going back. Learn the rhythms of the place, and the patterns of the birds. Your shots will get better each time.

If you’re still struggling, consider a bird photography workshop or tour. They can guide you to some of the best locations and help you with techniques to capture amazing bird photos.

5. Carefully choose your bird photography compositions

Bird photography tips

Let’s tackle one of the major hurdles in bird photography – getting the composition right. If you’re a beginner, you may find it challenging to create a compelling image structure. You see, bird photography is distinct. It doesn’t rely on complex composition as much as other genres, like landscape or architectural photography.

However, getting the composition right is paramount. Why? Because it helps to draw the viewer’s eye to the subject. It helps to create a stronger visual impact. It’s your way to guide those viewing your work to see what you want them to see, to feel what you want them to feel.

But how can you do this? How can you elevate the quality of your bird photos significantly by merely improving your composition skills?

The solution is a lot simpler than you might think. There are a few key techniques you can employ to change your bird photography game. Firstly, practice using the rule of thirds. This fundamental principle of photography is a guide for photographers to compose their shots. Here’s what you do: Imagine your frame divided into nine equal rectangles, three horizontally and three vertically. Now, position your bird along one of these lines or at an intersection. This will add balance to your photo and make it more engaging to the viewer.

Next, consider the rule of space. Think about the direction the bird is facing or moving. Allow space in the frame in that direction. This technique gives your bird room to ‘move’ and brings life to your picture. It’s a trick often used in wildlife photography, where the subject is often on the move.

On top of these, you might also want to try different framing techniques. Using natural elements, like grasses or flowers, to frame your bird can add an extra layer of interest to your shot. It gives context to the bird’s habitat and can help highlight the bird itself.

Yet remember that all this isn’t without challenges. As you focus on getting the perfect composition, you might miss a chance to click a spontaneous action or a unique behavior exhibited by the bird. But don’t be disheartened. With practice, you’ll become quicker in determining the best composition. You’ll be able to capture not only the spontaneous moments but also the well-composed shots. The overall aesthetic quality of your images will significantly improve, and that’s worth the effort.

6. Get down for an eye-level perspective

We see our world at five to six feet high, but birds see the world from a few inches to a few feet off the ground. To get a feeling of the bird’s world, get down on their level!

In other words, don’t be afraid to crouch, squat, crawl, or lie flat against the ground. Yes, you might get a bit muddy. However, it’s the key to professional-looking, low-perspective images like this:

Bird photography tips

Here are just a few of the benefits you get from low-perspective bird photography:

  • You’ll get true eye contact for more intimate photographs
  • You’ll get pleasing blur both in the foreground and background (note the blurred sand in the image above)
  • You’ll be low to the ground and therefore less threatening to your subject
  • You will transport the viewer into the bird’s world

Obviously, there are cases where you can’t get down low, and that’s okay – but where possible, drop to the ground. It can make all the difference.

When I do bird photography, if I’m photographing species on the ground, I almost always get on my stomach. I’m pretty sure the people around think that I’m crazy, but the technique works, and (for me, at least!) that’s more important.

7. Practice your focusing skills whenever you can

Bird photography tips

Have you ever come home from a day of shooting, eager to review your images, only to find they’re not as sharp as you had hoped? One of the main culprits is likely to be focusing. When your subjects are small, nimble, and often quite a distance away, focusing becomes a genuine challenge.

It’s a common stumbling block. But, I assure you, improving your focusing skills isn’t as daunting as it might seem. It is an effective way to track and capture those fast-moving feathered friends, resulting in more detailed and compelling photographs. You’ll be amazed by the transformation a well-focused image can bring to your bird photography portfolio.

So, how do you improve your focusing skills? The first step is understanding your camera. Get to grips with the autofocus modes and settings. Every camera has its own quirks, and your job is to learn them. By doing so, you’ll be able to select the best settings for each shot intuitively.

Next, practice. And when I say practice, I don’t just mean going out and photographing birds. Instead, take some time to track other moving objects with your lens. This could be anything from cars driving by, to your dog running around in the yard. This practice will help improve your focus-tracking skills, preparing you for the fast-moving world of birds.

And lastly, don’t underestimate the power of back-button focus. It can seem a bit foreign at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a game-changer. By separating the focusing action from the shutter button, it allows you to have more control over what and when you focus.

Of course, improving your focusing skills is not without its challenges. It might seem like you’re not making progress or it’s not worth the time. I assure you, it is. The moment you look at your bird photos and see the crisp details of each feather, the time and effort spent mastering focus will be worth it.

8. Keep the eye sharp and well lit

Bird photography tips

More than any other part of a bird’s body, the eye absolutely, one-hundred percent needs to look good.

What does this mean? For one, if there is no light in the eyes, birds look dull or lifeless. Whereas birds with a clear eyelight (called a catchlight) look much, much better.

Check out the photo below. Can you see the spot of white in the bird’s eye? That’s the catchlight, and you get it by positioning the sun (or another light source) at your back.

(Quick tip: For the best catchlights, simply point your shadow at the bird and make sure you have an eye-level perspective; the sun will do the rest of the work!)

You should also ensure that the bird’s eye is always, always, always in focus. If the eye is blurry but the body is sharp, then you’ve failed; if the body is blurry but the eye is sharp, you may still have a good shot.

9. Learn how to stalk birds like a pro

Bird photography tips

Birds are skittish creatures. Make a sudden movement, or step too close, and off they go. So how do you get that close-up shot without scaring your subject away? You learn to stalk like a pro.

Moving slowly is crucial. It might seem like common sense, but in the excitement of spotting a bird, it’s easy to rush in. Resist the temptation.

Try to use the environment to your advantage. Trees, bushes, and even human-made structures can provide cover, allowing you to get closer without being noticed. But here’s the most important thing to remember. Respect the bird’s space.

It’s a fine line to walk. You want to get close enough for a good shot, but not so close that you cause the bird distress. Watch for signs that you’re intruding. If the bird looks agitated or is making warning calls, back off.

Your best bet might be to use a blind. You’ll need to set it up in a place where you know the bird will be, then just wait. It might take a few days for the bird to get used to your blind. But when it does, you’ll be rewarded with some truly stunning shots. And you won’t have disturbed the bird in the process. In my book, that’s a win-win!

By the way, while you can purchase blinds online, that’s not always necessary. I once set up a blind in my backyard using a cheap little tent, and it worked great!

10. Fill the frame

Bird photography tips

Want to get beautiful pictures of a bird? If you’re photographing a single individual, it’s often a good idea to fill the frame. Here are a few of the benefits:

  • It’s easy for the viewer to focus on the bird
  • It’s easy to achieve a pleasing blur or bokeh effect in the background
  • It’s easy to properly expose for the bird
  • It’s easy to compose in the field

Now, as I mentioned in my first tip, filling the frame isn’t always necessary – and sometimes, if you have a shorter lens, it’s not possible. But unless you’re envisioning a stunning environmental shot, I do recommend you at least try to fill the frame. Work on the low, slow approach I discussed above, or consider using a blind.

If your lens is sharp and you’re working with a high-megapixel camera, you can get away with a bit of cropping, but don’t rely on this too much; even the best images will start to break down if you try to turn a distant bird into a close-up masterpiece.

11. Tell a story

Bird photography tips

Storytelling in bird photography should not be confused with storytelling in books and movies. Storytelling is a way to express the time of the day, mood, place, or activity of the bird in a single photograph, and it’s mostly about including a bit of environment in the scene (along with a frame-filling bird, of course!).

For instance, you can include some grasses next to the bird, you can photograph the bird catching a fish, you can capture two birds interacting, and so on. If you decide to shoot a wider image (i.e., a shot with a non-frame-filling bird), then storytelling becomes especially critical; your story has to hold the viewer’s attention because a small-in-the-frame bird won’t be enough.

Here are a few additional tips you can use to enhance the story:

  • Indicate the weather conditions by including snow, rain, or mist
  • Capture silhouettes during sunrise and sunset
  • Show season by including flowers in bloom, autumn colors, or snow
  • Include reflections for a surreal result

12. Capture the action

Bird photography tips

Generally speaking, an action photo trumps a perching photo. If you can capture a bird in flight, a bird fighting, or a bird catching a fish, the viewer is bound to be impressed – so I recommend you look for action whenever possible.

Of course, capturing birds in action involves more effort and patience compared to capturing perched birds. However, with a little practice and perseverance, you can become a highly capable action bird photographer.

Here are a few tips for shooting birds in action:

  • Photograph early in the morning or late in the afternoon when birds are very active
  • Wait for the bird to move, then use burst mode to take several photographs at once
  • Track the bird until the focus is locked before pressing the shutter (make sure you’re using continuous focus!)
  • Learn to anticipate the action either by observing or reading about birds

Pro tip: When birds are hungry, it’s easy to photograph them in action; they’ll often ignore you in their single-minded quest for food, though take care not to disturb them and maintain a considerable distance.

By the way, action photos of birds don’t need to depict aggressive and/or impossibly fast movement. You can simply photograph birds behaving in interesting ways!

13. Capture birds in flight

Bird photography tips

Birds in flight are probably the most sought-after subjects in all of bird photography – and they’re also the most difficult. It’s not easy to take flight photographs that will wow your viewers!

Your success largely depends on the bird, as well as the technique that you employ. Smaller birds are generally very erratic in their flight and quite small in the frame, which makes them difficult to track. Larger birds are slightly less swift and are not as difficult to track – so if you want to be successful with flight photography, start with larger, slower-moving birds.

And make sure you get out and practice constantly because sharp bird in flight photos require perfect technique. Here are some simple tips to capture magnificent flight photographs:

  • Learn about the bird’s flight patterns
  • Know the bird’s landing and take-off patterns
  • If there is more than one bird, when one flies, the rest will likely follow suit
  • Track the bird for a few moments and let the camera achieve focus before pressing the shutter
  • Use Aperture Priority so you do not have to worry much about changing light conditions

14. The background makes the picture

Bird photography tips

In bird photography, the subject matters – but the background matters, too. Bird photos look gorgeous when the background is clean and complements the bird. When the background is messy or distracting, however, the shot generally fails, even if the bird itself looks great.

In my experience, this is often tough for beginners to understand. They think that a great bird makes a great photo, when in reality, the entire frame matters, and that includes the background.

Bottom line: It’s very important to keep an eye on the background while taking pictures of a bird. Here are a few simple tips you can follow:

  • Avoid taking bird photographs when the background is too distracting
  • Avoid taking bird photographs when the background is plain and boring
  • If you don’t like the background, wait for the bird to change position or adjust your angle until you get an interesting background
  • Choose maximum aperture values to throw the background slightly, or completely, out of focus

It can also be helpful to start each bird photography session by thinking about the background. That way, you don’t get into position until you know that you can capture a good, clean backdrop that’ll highlight the bird.

One more tip: Post-processing can help with this – you can clean up small distractions behind the bird – but it’s not good to rely on it too heavily. Lots of processing will start to become noticeable. Plus, if you always think to yourself, “No big deal, I can always use Photoshop,” it’ll prevent you from learning how to get great backgrounds in camera (which is a skill that definitely comes in handy!).

15. Practice with common birds

Bird photography tips

As I’ve repeatedly emphasized throughout this article, practice is an essential part of bird photography. Practice makes perfect, after all – and while it’s not hard to create beautiful bird photos, certain types of images, such as birds in flight, take some real skill.

That’s why I urge you to practice photographing larger, slower, common birds. I personally learned most of my bird photography techniques with seagulls, mallards, geese, and herons. You can do the same.

Of course, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and photograph the occasional songbird or shorebird. But if you don’t capture beautiful images, don’t get too worked up; instead, focus on mastering your techniques and learning the right bird photography settings. Pretty soon, you’ll be photographing the tougher birds like a pro!

16. Capture some environmental bird photos

Bird photography tips

Most bird photographers strive to capture close-up portraits. It’s what I was interested in creating when I first started shooting birds, and it’s something I still love to do today.

But I’ve also found that capturing wider shots, where the bird is smaller in the frame and surrounded by its environment, can be a rewarding challenge. Not only do these environmental bird photos add variety to your portfolio, but they can help convey a different side of your subject.

Take for example a heron poised on the edge of a marsh, ready to strike. Capturing a close-up of its intense gaze is certainly stunning. But what about including the reflections of the marsh in your frame? That puts the heron in context, telling a more complete story of its life and interactions.

To create captivating environmental bird photos, you’ll need to shift your compositional approach slightly. Consider the bird as just one part of a larger tableau. Look for interesting elements in the bird’s habitat that can complement your subject and add depth to your photo.

You’ll also want to adjust your camera settings to ensure that both the bird and its environment are in focus. When I’m photographing bird close-ups with a super-telephoto lens, I’ll often set my aperture to around f/6.3. But when I’m doing more environmental bird photography, I’ll use a much shorter lens (often a 70-200mm lens, or even a 24-70mm zoom), and I’ll set the aperture to around f/8 or so to ensure that the entire scene is rendered with plenty of detail.

I’ll admit that a bird within its environment might not always offer the instant wow factor that a close-up shot does. But these wider images tend to offer a whole lot more detail, which rewards repeated viewing!

17. Look at other amazing bird photography

Bird photography tips

Every student needs to learn from the masters. Fortunately, there are plenty of outstanding bird photographers in the world, and studying their shots is a fantastic way to dramatically improve your own work.

Starting out in bird photography, you may find it difficult to visualize the ideal composition, or maybe you struggle with finding the right lighting. This is where reviewing others’ work can be so beneficial. It offers invaluable lessons in composition and lighting, and it can even help refine your style.

So spend time following established bird photographers on social media platforms. Instagram, for instance, is filled with talented bird photographers who regularly share their work. Take time to study their photos. Ask yourself, what makes their photos stand out? How do they frame their subjects? What sort of lighting are they using?

Next, consider joining online bird photography communities. Sites like Flickr or photography-focused Facebook groups are brimming with images and discussions. Not only can you gain inspiration from the images posted, but you can also participate in constructive discussions and critiques.

Finally, don’t overlook the power of a deep dive into award-winning bird photographs. They are, after all, award-winning for a reason! Study the photos, learn from them, and try to implement some of the techniques into your own work.

Remember, while it’s great to be inspired by others, don’t forget to develop your own style. As you progress and learn, you’ll start to see patterns in what you like and don’t like. This is the beginning of developing your unique style. So go ahead, experiment, deviate, and create.

How to photograph birds: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re well on your way to capturing beautiful bird photography. Focus your time and energy on learning all the core principles outlined above. Prove to yourself that you have the passion to go out and photograph birds every day (or as often as you can).

Remember that proper techniques will always outperform equipment. Make every attempt to create amazing photographs of the common birds. And enjoy yourself! It’s the best-kept secret to success.

Now over to you:

Which of these tips for top-notch bird photos do you plan to use first? Do you have any additional tips we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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The post Bird Photography: 17 Expert Tips for Breathtaking Images appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Prathap DK.