Four Ways to Get Frame-Filling Shots in Bird Photography

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When all goes well, bird photography can be absolutely exhilarating. Yet birds are small and skittish creatures. Hence, a common problem faced by bird photographers, beginners and experts alike, is simply getting close enough to capture an image.

Even with longer lenses, attempts to photograph a bird often result in tiny specks in the final image, not to mention a very frustrated photographer.

heron with fish portrait - Four Ways to Get Frame-Filling Shots in Bird Photography

However, never fear, there are several simple techniques that you can use in order to capture frame-filling images of birds. Using these approaches, you should be able to radically increase your success when it comes to bird photography. You don’t have to own a huge lens to do it, either!

Also, before I begin, I’d also like to emphasize that the welfare of the subject should be your top priority. These techniques can often get you close enough to birds in a non-threatening, non-invasive way. But if a bird begins to show signs of agitation, such as moving away rapidly, calling, spreading its wings, etc., then give up.

If you are set on capturing the image, try coming back on a different day, with a different technique, one that is less likely to disturb your subject.

Without further ado, here four ways to help you get frame-filling images of birds.

1. The slow, low approach

This technique is simple, and is often suprisingly effective. It goes like this – move slow, and stay low.

spoonbill bird photography - Four Ways to Get Frame-Filling Shots in Bird Photography

I got close to this Roseate Spoonbill by moving slowly through the waters of the Florida coast.

As I said earlier, birds are quite skittish. But if you move slowly enough, oftentimes a bird will eventually accept you as a non-threatening aspect of the environment, rather than as a dangerous intruder.

You spot your subject across the lagoon. You (slowly!) take a few steps forward. Then stop and wait. Take a few more steps. Once you’ve gotten significantly closer, I suggest that you get on your knees (or even your elbows), and shuffle forwards.

oystercatcher bird portrait - Four Ways to Get Frame-Filling Shots in Bird Photography

I crouched low and moved across the beach towards this Oystercatcher, who wasn’t bothered at all.

Every so often, check on the bird; you can do this with the naked eye, or through your camera viewfinder. If it begins to move away from you, then that is a sign that you should slow down.

Go really slow!

I also recommend taking a couple of pictures with your camera every few feet. This will allow the bird to become acclimatized the sound of the shutter clicking, and will prevent it from flying away when you begin to photograph in earnest. Once you’re close enough, start shooting.

Now, I said that you should go “slow,” and when I say “slow,” I mean slow. Oftentimes it takes 10, 20, maybe even 30 minutes to get close enough to get usable images. The key here is to be patient; if you can do that, the rewards will be worth it.

White Morph Reddish Egret bird photography

A slow approach allowed me to get close to this White Morph Reddish Egret as it waded in a lagoon.

2. Position yourself and then wait

This is a favorite of mine, partially because it’s so non-invasive, and partially because it’s so successful.

The key fact to remember here is that many birds follow a general pattern of movement. Shorebirds, for instance, will usually forage while moving in a single direction. If you watch them for long enough, you’ll notice that they’ve shifted a good ways down the beach.

So, from a distance, observe the movement of the bird. Think about where it will be in five or 10 minutes. Then, simply place yourself in a position to photograph the bird when it gets to that spot.

tricolored heron bird photography

I took note of this Tricolored Heron’s movements, and sat in the water until it waded past.

Often, if you stay still enough, the bird won’t mind your presence in the slightest, and you’ll find that it may even stray too close. I’ve had tiny shorebirds get within the minimum focusing distance on my camera, at which point it becomes an amazing experience of a whole new type.

black-bellied plover bird photography

This Black-bellied Plover ventured so close that I couldn’t fit its body in the frame.

3. Using a blind

As hunters will know, a blind is a shelter that you sit inside, and will shield you from the eyes of animals. But blinds aren’t only good for hunting; they can be great for photography as well.

This one may seem out of reach. You might think that you don’t have access to blinds, nor can you afford to have one of your own. However, this often isn’t true.

For one thing, local parks may have blinds that you can use for free, or that you can rent. For another, it is often extremely easy to make a blind, one that you can use in your own backyard.

All that it requires is an old tent of some sort, or even a strong box. Cut a hole in the box or the tent, put it in your backyard, and voila, you have a fully-functioning blind. Let the birds have a few hours to get used to the blind, and they soon won’t even notice it.

I like to use this alongside my backyard feeders in winter. I put out some perches, and I am pretty much guaranteed that several birds will fly by and pose.

northern cardinal portrait - Four Ways to Get Frame-Filling Shots in Bird Photography

I took this image of a Northern Cardinal from a tent-turned-blind in my backyard.

4. Using a car

Your car can work as portable blinds, of sorts – oftentimes, birds hardly notice when cars are going by. Hence, you can approach birds on roadsides very closely without them taking flight. Then you can wind down the window, and begin your photography.

This often works best if you are in the passenger seat of the car while somebody else drives. This allows you to focus on the photography, while they focus on the driving. However, if you’re alone and on a public road, I suggest that you pull off and stop in a safe position (near the bird, of course!), before bringing out your camera.

You can also use a car to approach closely, and once you have stopped, you can slowly open the door and approach from the safe side of the car.

heron portrait - Four Ways to Get Frame-Filling Shots in Bird Photography

5. Take an environmental portrait

Now you’ve gotten four techniques for ensuring that you can get close to birds. But sometimes, it’s best to put away that telephoto lens and take a step back. Do not try to fill the frame. Instead, compose with the environment in mind, aiming to capture not just the bird but the beauty of the surroundings.

This works especially well if the environment complements the bird and thus enhances the overall aesthetic. I like to search for this type of image in areas that are already photographically powerful, where the scenery can carry the image on its own, and the bird simply adds something extra.

Next time you get the opportunity, try it. You may even find that the resulting image is more pleasing than the one you would’ve captured with that long telephoto lens.

Swan Michigan misty lake - Four Ways to Get Frame-Filling Shots in Bird Photography

I used a 100mm lens to photograph these swans on a misty autumn morning.

Conclusion

If you are having trouble getting close enough to capture frame-filling portraits of birds, don’t worry. Using the techniques listed above – approaching slowly, lying in wait, using a blind, and using a car – you can capture excellent images, I guarantee it. So I urge you to get out and get photographing!

Little Blue Heron portrait - Four Ways to Get Frame-Filling Shots in Bird Photography

Have any tips of your own for getting close to birds? I’d love to hear them in the comments section below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Jaymes Dempsey is a macro photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. To see more of Jaymes's work and read about his time in the field check out his website and blog or follow him on Facebook.

  • Abhhey Bhisey

    I often use high shutter speed and burst mode to photograph birds. This helps in getting atleast a couple of good images.

  • That’s a good point! Plus, birds are usually moving faster than you think, and so a high shutter speed is imperative to getting a usable shot.

  • Nice one! I’m a big fan of headshots like these. What species is this?

  • It’s a condor.

  • Dick Zuilekom

    I set up my camera on a tripod, aimed at a feedingbag . Then I use the remote shutter control to take shots of whatever birds show up. With great results. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/79f3116b806f3905e7cc7e186fd57b45d708305a954ef8668ba641e25d6b6793.jpg

  • Linda Tillis

    I was so glad to hear you say use your car as a blind. Because of age related mobility issues, I mostly shoot from inside my van. Imagine my surprise when I got home and found I had captured this photo. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/694a7a612aace543b29c8a6fd4fc0390d98dccd66a37188bede3b1c1df55782c.jpg

  • Carolyn Spencer

    Never raise your hand with the palm toward the subject as they interpret this as a sign of aggression. Also don’t walk directly toward the subject but angle to one side as you gradually get closer.

  • PeterG

    Good article. Also, I approach at an angle, not directly towards a bird. Birds in public places, where there are many people, are often less shy. Some birds, especially small ones, may quickly react to a “TTL” pre-flash before the main flash/shutter. This can result in either interesting or ruined photos.

  • PeterG

    At first, I use slow-continuous shutter when shooting standing birds, since I can still capture a single image. When the bird shows restlessness and/or poops, I switch to high-speed continuous because he’s probably going to takeoff.

  • Vimal Veera

    Really a well written article! thanks 🙂

  • Thanks!

  • Thanks! And that’s a good point–I sometimes like to mosey back and forth a bit, too…

  • I hadn’t heard about the palm issue, thanks! I’ll have to remember that.

  • Yeah, cars can be really great! And that’s a stunning photo, really nice capture!

  • Thanks for the tip! As for the photo, I love the texture of the background, and how the colors match the earthen tones of the subject, really nice.

  • Ed Langmaid

    Beautiful image, Linda!

  • Ed Langmaid

    Birds are a challenge and the article was fantastic! I would add: practice, practice, practice. Back yard, zoo, city park, etc. Some times it is just being at the right place at the right time.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4175dba703f9a2a9d693d860bfa21913803607d3fa5371cdb6c640fb3bc165a0.jpg

  • dougt

    I fully agree. Never stare directly at a bird, place your camera in front of your face when you approach from an angle. I also watch the birds behaviour, when and what time do they come down for water, what type of food do they eat. Many birds often come down for water about every 2 hours (depending on your location). I arrive at a site about 30 minutes before the birds are likely to arrive, find a comfortable place to sit and wait. If the birds fly away when you arrive again they usually return and as you have been sitting quietly they probably will accept you.
    The bottom line to all this is “Know your birds behaviour.”
    Use Aperture priority if the birds are still and shutter priority if they are moving. Consider using “Back Button Focusing” however it will take a little bit of time getting used to it. Old habits die hard. I could never go back to the focus incorporated into the shutter button. Some people like burst firing, it does have some advantages but it does increase the risk of introducing vibration movement in the images particularly when using long telephoto lenses or tele-converters. The greater the magnification the harder it is to hold the camera still.

  • Hi Jaymes, thanks so much for the article, it was really helpful. As a birder and a photographer, I have more of a birding question for you. What is the bird in the second image? I just took some photos of them and I can’t quite get the right ID. I think it’s a Semipalmated Sandpiper? Thanks!

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