Bird Photography Tips for Beginners

0Comments

The colour and texture of birds’ plumage makes them fascinating subjects for photography, made all the more exciting by their fleeting and elusive nature. With a lot of patience and practice, and the help of these tips, you’ll soon be on your way to making memorable photographs of our feathered friends.

Roseate Spoonbills in Flight by Anne McKinnell

Equipment

To capture the best bird photography, the most important thing you’ll need is a lens with a very long focal length. How long, exactly? Generally, the longer the better for maximum magnification. But keep in mind that lenses get remarkably heavy – if you’re hiking up a mountain, it might not be practical to carry an extreme telephoto lens, which can weigh in at over ten pounds.

A 70-300mm zoom lens is one of my favourites because it is very versatile and some of them are fairly lightweight. But you’ll get a sharper image with a fixed focal length lens. I recommend trying out a 300mm or 400mm prime lens.

The extra weight of a long lens will increase the likelihood of hand shake blur, which will then be magnified by the distance between you and your subject. If you’re working with a heavy lens, a tripod or monopod will be a great benefit for taking the weight of the lens.

Great Blue Heron by Anne McKinnell

If you want the increased flexibility you’ll get by not using a tripod or monopod, be sure to use a very fast shutter speed to compensate for the hand shake blur.

Camera Settings

Exposure

When photographing birds, using shutter priority mode and a fast shutter speed will ensure you are ready for any action that might happen, even if the bird is standing still at the moment. You never know when it will take flight and you want to be ready when that happens.

Using a wide aperture like f/2.8 or f/4 will give you a shallow depth of field, which helps to isolate the bird from its background and direct attention to its shape and colour.

When you want to have total control over the shutter speed and aperture, use manual mode and set the ISO to auto. That way, the camera will decide which ISO is the best to balance the exposure.

If you have a colourful sky, one option to try is to expose for the sky and allow the bird or birds to become silhouettes.

Seagull In Flight at Sunset by Anne McKinnell

Focus

How you focus on your subjects will depend on which approach you’re taking, as well as what equipment you have. Some lenses and some camera bodies auto focus faster, and much more accurately than others, so some experimentation is needed to get a sense of how quickly your auto focus motor moves.

Birds are moving subjects, so if you do use auto focus, change it to the “continuous focus” mode (usually called AF-C or AI Servo) which tracks motion. However, you might find that you get better results by learning to focus manually.

There should be an AF/MF switch on your camera and/or lens. If you switch it to MF (manual focus), you can turn the focus ring on your lens to adjust it by hand. This is fairly easy when your subject is still, but it takes a lot of practice to be able to do this quickly enough to lock in on a moving subject.

Juvenile Bald Eagle flying by Anne McKinnell

One method is to set up a perch (such as a bird feeder), with your camera on a tripod, and pre-frame and pre-focus your shot where the bird will be. When it lands, you just have to hit the shutter. There will be no focusing delay, so you can get the exact moment you have been waiting for.

Getting the Shot

Timing and Location

Birds are very active in the spring – the ground softens, plants and seeds starting coming out, and bugs are everywhere. They finally get the feast they’ve been struggling to find all winter. Similarly, in autumn they are avidly gathering food before the frost sets in. Both of these seasons are the best for finding birds near the ground – and whatever the time of year, early mornings and sunny days will draw the most action.

American White Pelicans at the Salton Sea, California, by Anne McKinnell

You might get lucky walking along a forest path, making photos of birds as you see them, but because birds see us as predators they will usually flee at the sound of our footsteps.

Instead, you may have better luck by finding a location birds enjoy, hiding yourself, and waiting. This is where the patience comes in to play! The better you hide yourself, the safer they will feel coming near you. Tuck yourself in next to a tree or bush, or hide behind a blind to camouflage yourself, and try to stay as still and quiet as possible.

One of the best places to start photographing birds might be your own backyard. Keep your camera handy with the right lens and camera settings for bird photography so that when one lands in your yard, you’re ready.

Female Sooty Grouse by Anne McKinnell

You can also seek them out in their natural habitats such as local forests, waterways, and beaches. You can find exotic and interesting species by visiting zoos, bird sanctuaries, and humane societies, or you can take a trip to a nearby national park or nature preserve. Birds that live in areas with more frequent human visitors will likely be less skittish and camera-shy.

Composition

Take care not to neglect your background. It should be clean and simple. Too much clutter will distract attention from the subject itself. Use your perspective and point of view to remove unwanted background objects from the frame, and choose a large aperture to blur them out.

Tips for the Field

  • The better your camouflage, the more likely the birds will come near you. Cover your camera with a green or brown sweater to mask its strange appearance.
  • Wear neutral clothing and avoid bright colours.
  • Make sure to remove or cover all reflective objects on and around you, including your equipment, camera bag, cell phone, and any jewelry you might be wearing.
  • If you do find yourself needing to get closer to a bird, keep a low profile. Don’t approach them directly, but rather move toward them in a zig-zag pattern. Keep very quiet and avoid making quick movements and startling them.
  • Birds often choose favourite perches. Even if it flutters off before you can get your shot, if you wait silently for a few minutes, it may come back.
  • Birds are easily startled, so a beeping camera can frighten them away. Turn off any beeps your camera might make.
    The same goes for flash – turn it off or your bird will be startled by your first shot and quickly leave.

Do you have any other bird photography tips you’d like to add to this list? Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

  • keepntch

    I am a relative beginner in photography and am very glad to see that I have learned the correct tips for bird photography because that is what I have been doing since early May, photographing the ducks, heron and geese at the local park.
    Then I discovered a Robin’s nest in our yard within easy site of my camera and tripod. I have some wonderful pictures of the babies, feeding time and then leaving the nest. This is one of my “portraits of Mom and Babe”.

  • Great article. I find most of my bird shots are at 300mm. I find it easier to get close to birds in Australia compared to the UK.
    http://jason.bennee.com/blog/tag/bird/

  • Hugh J

    Love these guys strutting through the front yard.

    http://i101.photobucket.com/albums/m70/hugh_jardohn/Quail.jpg

  • Meg McMahon

    Can you provide tips for shooting a bird in flight against a bright sky? I don’t want the silhouette as the sky is a typical blue or pale gray/white day but want to pick up the bird in flight. The contrasting dark of the bird and bright light of the sky is so troublesome! Thanks

  • Great photography i love the way of your work, keep it continue & also thanks for sharing.
    wedding photography melbourne

  • Roopesh Pookandy

    I have a question about 70-300mm lens. I am planning to buy one for my Nikon D90. Should I go for the one with VR or without VR is going to be ok for bird photography?

  • Darlene Knott

    Excellent advice! Thanks!

  • Guest

    This photo was too easy to take so couldn’t be worth much, but I enjoyed capturing the bird hopping (with profile of cat looking on)……

  • Susan Wilkinson

    Try setting the metering mode of your camera to Spot or Center metering. Point the lens at the bird, not the sky, to get the correct metering.

  • Susan Wilkinson

    I do a lot of bird photography. I agree with your suggestions and would like to add one that was not mentioned…
    – I suggest using the center focus point only and spot metering. Making sure that the eye is sharp and is in focus is very important. The eyes are the window to the soul and they can make or break an otherwise fantastic image.

    Warmest Regards-
    Susan Wilkinson

  • Patrick Larson

    Get VR. It’s well worth it. But don’t use VR when using a tripod as you will end up with more blur.

  • I would like to add a few words about clothing… don’t wear any that may ‘move’, ie flutter in the wind etc… to be fair I wasn’t out to photograph birds when I came across a relatively rare flock of white spoonbills, however (as ever) I had my camera with me; let’s just say that a great opportunity was wasted because of a billowing maxi skirt!

  • Rye

    I Love it and the story behind it!

  • milkmedly

    If u had focused the cat a little bit, i think it would be cool point of view

  • john zamorano

    I took this shot a couple of Springs back. These Canadian geese are prevalent on Long Island so getting opportunities to shoot them (not with a gun) are easy to come by. I used my 70-300 lens, f/5.6, ISO 100. I didn’t have a tripod so I placed my camera on a picnic bench that overlooks the area where the birds were grazing and taking in some late morning sun.

  • shot this with a D7000 and 70×200 V2 f2.8 @ 1250. love photographing hummingbirds and trying to freeze their wings. They are just so much fun to watch hover. Sorry not sure how to attach my picture :(. wow this is jaked up, how about a preview of your post.

  • tmlakshmi

    amazing photography. great tips

  • tmlakshmi

    this is a cute little friend of mine. It stops after sipping on the trellis and entertains me

  • tmlakshmi

    I did it twice you see my comments below

  • tmlakshmi

    something wrong here . my attachment disappears

  • Becky Fleck

    I am a novice, but love photographing birds. Thank you for the great tips. Here are a few of my backyard feathered visitors. Hope to improve on these as I apply your suggestions.

  • Higbe33

    I try to use the sweet spot of my lens which is f8/f9, but will give a try to larger aperture. Very nice article and envy you driving around the country taking photos.

  • Daniel Buckenmyer

    Nice article Anne. I like that you travel around in an RV, that has been my dream for years. One thing I noted in the article is that you state that sunny days are best. I have found that birds are especially attuned to the weather, and that they usually go on a feeding frenzy just before a storm. I usually scatter bird feed on the ground before a storm to enhance the activities, and most of the time I have a large variety of birds scavenging for food at these times. Give it a try.

  • Amit Garg

    My first capture as a beginner photographer..

  • Dave_TX

    “Wear neutral clothing and avoid bright colours.” Deer hunters work hard to avoid wearing clothes that reflect in the UV range. I wonder if birders who are trying to camouflage themselves would do well to emulate them. What appears to be neutral and dull to humans may glow to a bird.

  • Kerry Stevens

    one of my favorite birds is the Pelican , there is a Lagoon near our town where I love to visit I took this photo with my Canon 100D . i find if you stand really still they don’t seem to mind you being near them. I love watching them clean themselves, stretch and fly;

  • Danielle

    I took this one in the winter. Birds with a point and shoot are difficult. But I love this one!

  • Danielle

    I took this with my Canon point and shoot last winter. It’s one of my favorite pnotos

  • Danielle

    Love this photo! Taken with my point and shoot last winter

  • Brent

    From another article here on high ISO settings, I set my ISO at 800 to help capture wings in flight without blur. I have my shutter speed at 1/1,000th and get good results with my 300mm. I will try switching to auto ISO and setting the Fstop to see how that goes.

  • I found out the hard way that what you wear also matters: avoid anything likely to flutter if there is a sudden breeze or gust of wind…

  • These are some great tips! Also, get perspectives that people wouldn’t always see. The image below was taken near water level with the sun backlighting the swan. Canon 5D, f2.8, ISO 100, 165mm with 70-200mm zoom lens.

  • Guest

    These are some great tips! Also, get perspectives that people wouldn’t always see. The image below was taken at water level with the sun backlighting the swan. Canon 5D, f2.8, ISO 100, 165mm with 70-200mm zoom lens.

  • Great tips. I’m just starting to learn how to shoot birds, so this was very helpful.

    I was driving home from work one day and noticed movement in my neighbor’s yard. I grabbed my camera and hurried over, hoping this guy would still be there. I spent about an hour watching him eat. Turkey Vultures are very common in my area.

    https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/sPjOG9OV9_i6F3m8lvxycrypbUTSkSnphEslsgCfv_Y?feat=directlink

  • Great tips. I’m just starting to learn how to shoot birds, so this was very helpful.

    I was driving home from work one day and noticed movement in my neighbor’s yard. I grabbed my camera and hurried over, hoping this guy would still be there. I spent about an hour watching him eat. Turkey Vultures are very common in my area.

  • Mine, too. :/

  • Below is a male Ruddy Duck I found at a Boston Zoo! Canon
    5D, 200mm, f3.5, ISO 1250, 1/200 sec. As the article mentioned, the zoo can be
    a great place to find birds that are acclimated to people.
    Check out my Facebook Page at https://www.facebook.com/PaulNederhoedPhotography

  • Wendy

    This was taken from above the swan, looking down over dark water. The water was so dark blue I changed the pic to a B&W for a bit more impact.

  • Ashan Musthakeem

    true

  • Carl du Toit

    New to this. Have a Nikon D3200 just bought a Tamron 150-600 lens. Any tips on this combination.

  • Denise Flay

    I loved this article. I have only been taking photos for 6 months and self taught. My favourite are birds and pleased I have learnt pretty much what this article is about.

  • Bernardo

    I had to wake up very early to get this one while he was having his breakfast… This bird flies away to take his duties over the rest of the day. It was taken in the Cente Region of Brazil.

  • I am the very mid level in photography. But i didn’t get any tips like that in my entry level. I learn a lot from this article.Keep sharing with us more.

  • I am the very mid level in photography. But i didn’t get any tips like that in my entry level. I learn a lot from this article.Keep sharing with us more.

  • Mike Engelman
  • Mike Engelman

    use 2 to 3 stops exposure compensation against a bright sky. The sky will be blown out but your bird should look good.

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!


DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Email:
 
 
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed