8 Tips For Photographing Birds

8 Tips For Photographing Birds

In this post, Steve Berardi from PhotoNaturalist discusses eight tips for photographing birds.


Photographing birds can be really frustrating. They never seem to sit still for even just a second, and if you get too close, they’ll just fly away.

It may also seem like you always need a longer lens.

But, luckily, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of getting a good bird photo:

1. Photograph them in direct sunlight

Photographing birds in direct sunlight helps for two reasons: it gets you a faster shutter speed and it creates even lighting on the bird. The faster shutter will help you freeze the action of the bird (since they don’t sit still for long), and the even lighting will help you avoid getting those harsh shadows that hide detail in the bird’s feathers.

2. Wait patiently for them to fly to you

Birds will almost always fly away if you get too close to them, so instead wait for them to come to you. If you wait patiently long enough, then birds will often land just a few feet away from you, once they realize you’re not a threat (and if you stand somewhat still).


3. Use your car as a blind

One way to mask your movement from a bird is to use a blind, and your car can be perfect for that. When you’re on your way to a trailhead, keep your camera close by just in case you see a bird. Then, just roll down the window and take a few shots. Birds will rarely fly away from a car (unless of course you’re about to hit them!).

4. Enable continuous shooting and take lots of shots

Since birds like to move around so much, it’s helpful to take a lot of shots to ensure you photograph the bird when they’re standing still in a nice pose. Make sure you enable continuous shooting on your camera, so you can rapidly shoot photos.


5. Focus on their eyes

The viewer of your photograph will first look at the eyes of the bird, so it’s important to get the eyes tack sharp. To help you do this, set your camera’s autofocus point to the center spot.

6. Avoid sudden movements

Birds are very sensitive to your movement, so to avoid scaring them away, don’t make any sudden movements. Even slow and steady movements will often scare them away too, so again, the best thing to do is wait for them to fly to you.

7. Set your lens to autofocus on farther objects

Most longer lenses have a switch that controls the distance that the autofocus will search at (near or far). So, with birds, since you’re photographing something far away, make sure this switch is set to focus on far objects. This will speed up your lens’ autofocus and prevent it from “searching” for something to focus on, which could cost you the shot.


8. Always be ready for a shot

Sometimes the most perfect bird photo opportunities happen at the most random moments, so it’s important to always be ready for a wildlife shot. When you’re hiking on a trail, always keep your telephoto lens on your camera, and have everything set up for a wildlife shot (exposure, aperture, ISO). That way, if a bird just happens to land on a branch right in front of you, you’ll be ready 🙂

About the Author: Steve Berardi is a nature photographer and software developer, who can usually be found hiking in the beautiful mountains of Southern California. You can read more of his articles on nature photography at the PhotoNaturalist.

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Some Older Comments

  • Lucas June 14, 2013 12:29 am

    I read some great articles here on this site, really useful for any kind of photographer; thanks for sharing your experiences! I'm just a beginner (I only started photographing 2,5 years ago); you'll find some of my 'birdshots' on my flickrpage:

    Greetz from Belgium!

  • hythum January 17, 2013 02:04 am

    usefull tips http://www.flickr.com/photos/80289585@N06/8382954919/in/pool-birds_of_oman/

  • Nikhil Rawal July 8, 2012 10:25 pm

    Great article and very useful tips. I also practice most of these. Also add a small tip for my friends who use P&S that they should use the viewfinder to shoot / focus and not their monitor as the handshake is more when viewing and focussing thru the monitor. Here are some bird pics shot by me :

  • Hapatography June 28, 2012 04:34 am

    Customize settings on your camera ;) On mine, "Set 1" contains the various settingsfor capturing birds such as ISO 400; faster shutter speed; narrower aperture; spot focus and burst mode. Then while I sit in my car to photograph a beach landscape or something and the birds show up (when they notice the Fritos or macadamia nuts I scattered) I can switch from slow to fast queekly!

  • Zack Jones June 25, 2012 10:05 am

    Great tips, Steve! The car as a blind technique does work well. I was able to get a good shot of a Cattle Egret using that technique.

  • Slowolf June 23, 2012 07:06 pm

    TomK, I feel your pain. I sat along aYosemite creek loaded with flowering vines. A clock of finches worked downstream at high speed.. No photos. Heard buzzing and looked for bees but was surprised by a handful of shy bummers. Got 2 shots from 20 ft when a male stopped mid air staring me down at 8 ft. Raised my camera and he remained frozen! Pushed the button to take exposure #37. All I could do was smile as I am now 20 yrs later. You predigital photogs know why.

  • Mark June 23, 2012 08:50 am

    Great tips. Waiting for the birds to come at you is the best tip. Patience is required. I waited about 25 minutes for this Osprey to fly back to it's nest. The shot was worth the wait

  • eosDave June 23, 2012 08:09 am

    I prefer to use manual focusing and Live View (bumped up to max magnification) to take photos of wading birds with my 550d and 400mm f5.6L lens. Of course, the bird has to cooperate and not move around too much or too quickly while I am working. The 550d One Shot autofocus mode is useless. The AI Focus and AI Servo modes work pretty well but are not nearly as good as manual focusing. I usually shoot wide open in manual mode but stop down a bit when I'm using autofocus to make up a bit for the focusing errors. When I am using AF I select the focus point I need to get the framing I want if the target does not fall in the center. I very rarely us all 9 focus sensors. I like the fact that I can look at the detailed structure of the feathers and occasionally see my self-portrait reflected in the bird's eye when I go bit diving in the manually focused images.

    Another trick is to spread the legs on your tripod and get as low as you can relative to the bird (the same goes for photos of kids). Just because the tripod has all sorts of leg extensions does not mean you should use them so you can take photos while standing straight up. Don't worry about a bit of dirt and dampness when you are on the ground looking through the viewfinder, that is why you have a washing machine and shower at home. Photos from the bird's eye level are much more engaging than photos from above.

  • Judson June 23, 2012 07:48 am

    I got this shot from my blind (car) just as you describe. I was on the way to work and saw a couple of smaller birds trying to shoo away this one, who was guarding a catch. I reached behind my seat to grab my camera bag and fired off a few quick shots.


  • Ruud June 23, 2012 06:43 am

    Indeed a great article !
    And some great tips, thanks all.

    Missing; Learning by Observing !

    Of course we spend a lot of time photographing birds, but also take some time to observe. Put your camera away or go without a camera and take only your binoculars. Study carefully the behavior of birds, their habits and learn to know them...

    Good luck and enjoy.
    Kind regards, from the Netherlands,


  • Marco June 22, 2012 02:22 pm

    One other is to set up with the sun at your back but not directly behind. I prefer quartering behind when possible. Forty five degrees right or left and behind. You can get some great effects with back lighting through the wings, but without fill light the faces and underside are nearly full silhouette. For general birding you want the face lit up especially and not too harsh of a shadow on the underside. I generally set up on a spot where bald eagles fish and try to capture the moment when the eagle pulls a fish out of the water, so most of these tips are my standard operating procedure and are all good.

  • ronald June 22, 2012 09:36 am

    nightingals are the most rarest birds ever to be seen or caught on camera. there in the tip top trees and are camera shy. soon as they see a camera they take off

  • Laurette June 22, 2012 08:08 am

    To me the 3p's in bird photography is paramount. Patience- Perseverance and Practice

  • Badflea June 22, 2012 05:50 am

    Thanks for the great tips. Usually I prefer birds action photo, here one:


  • Mark Paley June 21, 2012 11:24 pm

    Great article. When birds are in the trees and behind twigs and branches I find it easier to focus manually. And I'll try to focus on their eyes.

  • Aristarkhos June 21, 2012 05:03 pm

    These are some useful tips for sure. The continuous shutter is a must, I think. :) I learned some of them while trying to get better pictures on my own. That long distance focus settings is a very useful tip. I will keep that in mind for the time when i own a dslr and telephoto. :) However, there are a few things I must highlight, based on my amateur experience.

    There has to be a minimum spec for the digital camera one uses. Either point and shoot (w/ long zoom) or DSLR or compact system cam. This is because I have a nikon P5100 with 3.5x optical zoom. It is slow to focus and the limited zoom does not help even if i wait for a bird to come close.

    Also, it is very difficult to get the light to play nice with you. especially when the bird is fidgety and you want that profile shot so bad that you want to use a freeze gun, if there ever was one.

    So basically, I would say - one must have a certain type of camera to be able to take reasonable shots. If not perfect but worthy enough for one's collection. For example, quick focusing, 10-24x zoom, iso range, metering and a speedy continuous shutter.

    One other tip would be more productivity based - disabling the preview after you take a shot. that saves some time. also don't spend time looking at every shot you take. you will miss a moment and won't even know it.

    For example, I used a Canon SX260 recently on a short trip and it gave me fair results and a chance to share my experiences with my son and friends. They were birds that we dont see in the city anymore and I would not have been able to take those shots if i had used the P5100. This long zoom did not help me get a pro shot but it did help me generate some interest amongst newbies and laypeople who are not actively into birding.

    Apologies for the long comment. I rarely ever do this. :)

  • Sachin Verma June 21, 2012 03:13 pm

    Nice shots and tips too, I will definitely try. :)

  • Tom K. June 21, 2012 12:53 am

    I spent a weekend photographing hummingbirds near a couple of feeders. I found autofocus almost useless and so resorted to manually focusing to a spot on the feeders, then firing off a few when a flurry of wings came around.


    After almost a thousand shutter clicks, I got a half dozen images that I was very pleased with.

  • Roy June 21, 2012 12:02 am

    I've found it very helpful to set my camera to *not* focus when the shutter is pressed ... basically shutter and focus are controlled separately.

    Some higher end bodies have a button labeled 'AF-ON' that you press with your right thumb to engage the auto focus. I also have my body set to 'continuous autofocus' as well so I can track movement better.

    This allows me to focus more accurately ... when I want it to focus. Before I made these changes, I lost so many shots due to the camera re-focusing when the shutter was pressed ... even if the bird was already perfectly focused.

    It's a fun hobby ... but terribly frustrating ... extreme patience and persistance is required.


  • EnergizedAV June 20, 2012 11:19 pm

    Beautiful images and great tips. Photographing birds is one of my activities of choice. It teaches patience and awareness.
    Thanks, Steve


  • MikeC366 June 20, 2012 10:39 pm

    Not really a bird person really. But I liked this one when it came out:



  • Melissa June 20, 2012 01:26 pm

    Great tips but a few things... My camera doesn't have a switch for the autofocus distance, maybe that's something on higher-end DSLRs? Also, I'm a stickler for rule of thirds and not centering my focal point, hence the tip for setting the auotfocus point in the center is not recommended, in my opinion.

  • raghavendra June 20, 2012 12:34 pm

    Good tips and great photographs.
    have to wait for the bird to fly is good.

  • Scottc June 20, 2012 09:19 am

    Great tips and the photos are there for the proof.

    Birds are a subject I love, but I need to work on photographing them. ....


  • Jeff E Jensen June 20, 2012 09:11 am

    Excellent tips. I agree with Jason that the tip on limiting the focus range is a good one. Just remember to switch it back :o)

    Here's some shots from last fall:


  • TheGoodDrV June 20, 2012 08:37 am

    Here's a few from the Milwaukee County Zoo. While not 'in the wild' some zoos have birds like this peacock that wander about and give you a good chance to get tight and practice up. Always nice to have a tame subject!



  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer June 20, 2012 03:29 am

    The tip to use the limited range feature on telephoto lenses is a good one and not something often talked about. Instead of having to focus on 5 feet to infinity, the lens disregards the first 15 feet (or so depending on lens) of the focal range speeding up the process of getting a focus lock.

    If just photographing birds on a perch, I would stake out a commonly used perch. Even when photographing birds in flight, which is what I mostly do, I still remain in the same spot facing the best light and background as I did for these swooping brown pelican shots in flight:


  • Steve June 20, 2012 03:16 am

    Some good tips.
    Patience, awareness, a long lens and be quick.


  • Erik Kerstenbeck June 20, 2012 03:02 am


    Great tips on shooting (not litterally) birds. These little buggers can be tricky and patience is the key. We were fortunate once when on a boat off San Diego to have a huge peilcan visit and rest on the bow, taking a breather and enjoying the attention of the photographer - we were able to get super close to capture all the wonderful colors and details of the plumage!


  • Greg Nelson June 20, 2012 02:36 am

    Being still and waiting for birds to come to you is important. Here's a shot of a baby Ringed Bill Gull:

    He landed right in front of me while I was shooting a landscape.

  • Mridula June 20, 2012 01:44 am

    I love to click birds. But I am guilty on one count, I would try to creep closer, will follow your advice now, wait for them patiently. Here is one of my posts, took it at KL Bird Park, Malaysia.