Do you commit mistakes in your bird photography? I bet you do. We all make mistakes, whether we’re beginners or advanced shooters. I’ve made mistakes, myself. As a matter of fact, I’ve made many.
Now, in a way, making mistakes can be good. If you make mistakes while photographing birds, you learn from them, and you’ll become a better photographer as a result. What you don’t necessarily have to do is to re-invent the wheel. Instead of learning about these common mistakes the hard way, why not learn from other’s mistakes?
Below, I share 10 common bird photography mistakes and their solutions – and if you read the list carefully, and you apply the recommended solutions, you’ll see immediate results in your images!
1. Exposing for the shadows
One of the most common mistakes in bird photography is getting the exposure wrong. This can ruin a photo faster than anything else, especially if your highlights are overexposed and lose all their detail.
Cameras don’t see the world like we do; they can’t capture the range of light and dark that our eyes can handle. So when you’re out there taking photos, you have to ask a key question: do you preserve the detail in the light areas or the dark ones?
More often than not, you’ll want to keep the details in those light areas, because they’re what draws the eye.
In short, always expose for the highlights, even if that means losing details in the shadows. (Fortunately, you can often bring back the shadow detail in post-processing!)
And if you’re ever in doubt, you can always try bracketing, where you deliberately capture several photos at different exposures and choose the best one when you’re back at home.
2. Shooting in bad light
Think of photography as painting, but instead of brushes and paints, you’re using light. It’s surprising to me how many photographers (and not just bird photographers!) spend more time discussing gear than understanding light, because this is such a big mistake.
You could have the best camera in the world, but if the lighting is off, your bird photos won’t shine. Take, for example, this silhouette of an Indian peafowl:
With the right light, it can look stunning, but in this relatively poor light, it’s a forgettable shot.
Fortunately, I was able to capture this shot, by paying careful attention to the sky and the lighting:
The lesson? Light is everything. Start seeing the light, literally, and your bird photos will improve in leaps and bounds.
3. Forgetting about the composition
You might hear that composition in bird photography isn’t as critical as it is in other types of photography, but don’t be fooled. Composition still matters, even if it’s less of a focus than nailing the exposure and other key settings.
But because composition is so downplayed, many bird photographers overlook simple composition techniques that can dramatically improve their shots. You don’t need to know a lot – just basics like the rule of thirds and the rule of space.
Ever seen a bird photo with the subject smack in the middle? It’s pretty common, and it’s the compositional approach I used for this shot:
It’s an okay image, but it feels kind of static.
Fortunately, if you shift that bird off-center by applying the rule of thirds, suddenly you have a photo that’ll grab the viewer’s attention:
So the next time you’re out with your camera, play around with composition. Try placing the bird off-center or experiment with zooming in and out to achieve different effects. It’s simpler than you think, and the results can be striking.
4. Missing focus
It’s no secret that many bird photos end up blurry. Birds rarely sit still, and yes, that makes sharp focus a challenge, but that’s not an excuse for accepting less.
Now, poor focusing stems from a few different mistakes. First, make sure you’re not relying too much on your camera’s LCD when taking (or evaluating) photos; a file may look fine on the screen but will turn out to be slightly out of focus when viewed large. The trick is to zoom in on your LCD monitor to check the focus more closely.
Often, your camera will focus on the bird’s body, but what’s really needed is a sharp eye – so you’ll need to adjust the focus from the bird’s body to its eye to achieve that crisp, sharp image.
Take a look at this next image. It looks reasonably sharp, right?
Well, here’s what happens when you zoom in on the eye:
There’s some serious blur! However, if I were to have focused more carefully on the eye, here’s what I would’ve captured:
5. Choosing the wrong shooting angle
Most of us take bird photos from our eye level, but have you ever thought about photographing from your subject’s perspective?
Surprisingly, a majority of bird photographers overlook this and stick to a standing point of view. Sure, it’s more comfortable, but such an approach doesn’t do justice to the bird’s world.
Instead, changing your perspective by getting down on the bird’s level can dramatically enhance the impact of your photos. Your images will be far more intimate, and you’ll offer the viewer a window into the bird’s own little world. Plus, if you photograph from down low, the background will generally turn out better!
I’ve photographed this green heron from too high, resulting in a slight overhead angle:
But then, when I got down lower, I was able to nab this image:
Much more magical, am I right?
6. Photographing the wrong head angle
The direction in which a bird is looking can significantly affect how engaging the photo turns out.
You see, if a bird looks away, it can lead the viewer’s gaze out of the photo, creating a sense of disconnect. This type of image – where the bird looks away – is common, but it misses an opportunity to captivate the viewer.
Patience is key here. Wait for moments when the bird is keeping its head at least parallel to the camera sensor. Even better, shoot when the bird is actively engaging with its environment, like when it’s hunting or on alert.
This great egret is looking away and to the left, which makes for a rather boring and disconnected photo:
But when the egret starts to hunt for prey, that’s when the photos get interesting:
Bottom line: Capturing the right head angle can add dynamism and interest to your photo, making the viewer feel connected to the moment.
7. Capturing a bad background
Many photographers focus so intently on the bird that they neglect the background, and this oversight can be a big mistake.
Because the background isn’t just filler. Instead, it sets the stage for your subject, contributing to the mood and overall impact of the image.
Consider this next photo, which shows Indian darters in action. The energy is great, but the background is a little too well-defined. It draws the eye and doesn’t emphasize the birds.
But if I were to instead prioritize the background and the birds, I could capture a bird photo like this one:
Pay careful attention to the change in background in the image above. Instead of relatively defined green and brown vegetation, you can only see a wash of green, which keeps the focus on the action!
By prioritizing the background as much as the bird, you elevate your bird photography from good to great. A well-chosen background can transform a shot, making the bird (or birds!) truly stand out.
8. Bad post-processing
Some bird photographers don’t like to do much post-processing, and that’s completely okay. Others, however, like to push their processing a little too far, resulting in unpleasant, gritty photos that detract from the subject and the scene.
The key is to always be restrained. Common errors include excessive sharpening and/or excessive noise reduction, which can leave your photos looking unnatural – either too smooth, resembling a wax figure, or overly crisp, like a toy.
Instead, limit yourself. Adjust details and colors just enough to highlight the bird’s beauty without losing its natural appearance. Noise reduction is useful, but I’d recommend primarily reducing noise in the background. And sharpening is helpful, too, but it can help to target the bird (especially the face) and to only push the effect just enough to bring out the feather details while maintaining the bird’s lifelike texture.
Here, I’ve oversharpened this parakeet image, resulting in unpleasant halos:
And this version features far too much noise reduction, making the parakeet look like a wax figure:
If you apply just the right amount of post-processing, you can get a result like this:
9. Photographing in the wrong place
Location is crucial in bird photography. The wrong environment can compromise your shot, regardless of your skills and equipment. And the types of locations that are best for bird photography are not always best for birding (and vice versa).
The ideal spot has a combination of abundant birdlife, suitable lighting, ample feeding grounds, and an appealing background. Here, the lighting was relatively poor, the bird was facing in the wrong direction, and the perch was far from ideal:
But by shooting in a location with a better background and softer lighting, here’s what I captured:
Remember, choosing the right environment is as important as any technique in your photography arsenal!
10. Having the wrong expectations
There’s a misconception that professional bird photographers simply show up, snap incredible photos with ease, and leave. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The reality is that the best bird photographers invest considerable time and effort into each photo, often visiting the same location repeatedly, from dawn until dusk, until they get the image they want.
Bird photography requires patience, perseverance, and a deep respect for nature. It’s a craft where dedication and commitment pay off, and where success is earned, not given!
This next image is decent, but the sun isn’t anywhere near as full as I’d have liked:
Fortunately, by persevering, I was able to capture this much more engaging shot:
Bird photography mistakes: final words
Bird photography is absolutely fascinating! Birds make us forget about the world around us, and they attract our attention – as bird watchers, and as bird photographers.
But you have to get over this. You have to see beyond the bird. If you want great images, you have to pay close attention to everything in the frame: the bird, the background, the placement, the light, exposure, etc.
It’s easy to be a bird photographer. It’s not that easy to be a good bird photographer.
These 10 bird photography mistakes should give you a fair idea of what to avoid – and what makes a good bird photograph. Understand them. Avoid them. Your bird photographs are bound to improve.
Now over to you:
Do you make any of these mistakes? Do you know any common bird photography mistakes that I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- 10 Common Bird Photography Mistakes and Their Solutions
- Review of the Nikon D500 for Wildlife and Bird Photography
- ADVANCED GUIDES