Bird Photography Tips for Beginners

Bird Photography Tips for Beginners

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.

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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.