Bird photography is a challenging but rewarding activity. It requires skill, patience, and quality camera gear to capture stunning images of birds in their natural habitats.
Modern digital cameras with advanced autofocus systems, fast shutter speeds, and high ISO capabilities are built for the challenge. Add some skills and knowledge, and you’ll be all set to reap the rewards of photographing birds.
In this article, we will discuss some bird photography tips that will help you get the most out of the experience. We’ll cover topics such as cameras and lenses, camera settings, composition, and post-production techniques. In addition, you’ll get valuable information on where to find birds and how to approach them.
Cameras, Lenses and Accessories for Bird Photography
To capture the best shots of birds, you need to have the right equipment. Invest in quality cameras and lenses that deliver the best image quality. Let’s look at what you’re going to need.
The Camera Body for Bird Photographers
Major camera manufacturers like Canon, Nikon, and Sony offer a wide variety of options for shooting birds.
Generally, a higher price indicates a camera body capable of higher-quality images. Cameras with larger and technologically advanced sensors drive up the price. Good autofocus accuracy and fast focus acquisition, critical features for capturing tack-sharp images of wild birds, will also increase the price.
Look for a full-frame camera with a shutter speed of at least 1/2000 sec, a minimum burst mode of 6 frames per second, and a buffer capable of handling large bursts. Most digital cameras, both DSLR and mirrorless, can deliver that.
An entry-level camera doesn’t keep you out of the bird photography game, even though you may miss a great image now and then. But you can hone your skills and learn about birds with a basic digital camera.
And if you’re on a beginner’s budget, you might consider a used or refurbished camera. You may find better value in a used high-end DSLR than a new mid-level camera.
What Lenses Are Best for Photographing Birds?
The qualifier for that question is how much money you’re willing to invest in a lens. Long lenses cost $5,000 and up; fast prime lenses in the super-telephoto range are even more.
The Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS is one of the sharpest tele-zoom lenses available, priced in the $1,500 – $2,000 range. A more affordable option is Sony’s FE 70-300mm which comes in at under $1,000.
Understand how crop factor impacts focal length. In brief, a 200 mm lens on an APS-C sensor (crop factor of 1.5x), results in the equivalent field of view of a 300 mm lens.
You might want to consider teleconverters to increase magnification, creating an even longer lens. A 300 mm lens with a 2x teleconverter gives you an equivalent focal length of 600 mm; however, you’ll encounter a loss of lens speed and a decrease in sharpness.
Again, buying used or refurbished telephoto lenses is an option. In addition, renting a high-quality prime lens for a special shoot may be a solution.
Use a Tripod or Monopod for Stability
Tripods and monopods provide stability to the camera, reducing camera shake and allowing you to take sharp images with a telephoto lens.
Tripods are more stable than monopods, but they can be bulky and difficult to carry around. Monopods are lighter and more portable, making them ideal for bird photographers who need to move around quickly.
Both tripods and monopods offer great stability for your camera; which one you choose depends on your needs and preferences.
In addition, you might want to look into a gimbal head, which balances the camera so that it moves with a minimum of effort.
Camera Settings for Photographing Birds
Exposure settings depend on the image you hope to capture and the shooting conditions. A guide for all the possible scenarios is impossible in a post like this; however, it’s important to understand the exposure triangle and be able to select the settings that help you take great photos in whatever conditions you encounter.
A fast shutter speed for bird photography is essential, especially for birds in flight. I’ve read several recommendations of a 1/500 sec minimum. I would double that minimum. To capture stunning photos of flying birds, I prefer 1/2000 sec or even faster shutter speeds.
A slower shutter speed leads to blur. Either the camera shook, or the bird moved at the critical moment.
Shutter speed is an important ally in bird photography. Birds are fast and erratic, but many great bird photos capture them flying, hovering, launching, or landing.
For stationary birds, perched or nesting, you may do fine with a shutter speed of 1/500 sec and possibly slower.
To meet the challenges of bird photography, you need to understand the basics of aperture and how it affects your photos.
Many photographers set their cameras to Aperture Priority mode. Set the aperture wide open or its lowest f-number. Select a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000 sec and Auto-ISO. If there’s too much light, the shutter speed increases, and in low lighting conditions, Auto-ISO increases the light-capturing ability of the camera to maintain the minimum shutter speed.
Aperture Priority gives the photographer greater control over the depth of field. If you’re close to the bird and shooting wide open, the depth of field is shallow, and you might not get the entire bird in focus. The solution is to stop down the aperture and avoid soft focus on the subject.
Also, a shallow depth of field creates bokeh, a blurred background that makes the bird stand out against those soft tones.
We detailed above about selecting Auto ISO setting for shooting in Aperture Priority mode. For bird pictures, keep Auto ISO on all the time. For birds or wildlife photography, some of us shoot in Shutter Priority mode. In low light and with the aperture wide open, I still want to maintain a fast shutter speed. Auto ISO allows that to happen.
The caveat here is to find out your camera’s upper ISO limit. That is when noise in the image becomes unacceptable and stays under that limit.
Manual mode is difficult to handle in the fast pace of bird photography. Experiment with Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority to discover what works best for you.
Metering and Autofocus Modes
To capture a bird in motion: use matrix metering mode, sometimes called evaluative metering mode. In this mode, the camera’s algorithms evaluate the entire scene to set the correct exposure value. Set the autofocus mode to continuous, AI-Servo for Canon, AF-C for Nikon and Sony. In this mode, the camera continues to focus as the subject moves.
However, in certain situations, spot metering may be your best option. For example, if you’re shooting a stationary bird and you want the expose the image just for the bird. A good option for autofocus mode in this instance is a single area AF-S for Canon, Nikon, and Sony.
Plan Ahead to Take Photos of Birds
To capture the beauty of nature and bird behavior, it’s important to plan ahead. Be prepared for any situation. This means researching bird species, their habitats, and the climate and weather conditions in which they live.
Here are some tips to ensure that you have a successful bird photography session.
Learn About Bird Habitat
The various species of birds have different habitats and climates that they prefer. Therefore, it is important to research the bird species you are interested in photographing before heading out into the field. Knowing what kind of environment birds prefer can help you find the perfect spot for your photography session. Additionally, understanding how climate affects bird behavior can help you capture more interesting shots of birds in their natural habitat.
The National Audubon Society is an excellent resource for information about birds, their habitat, feeding and nesting behavior, and recordings of their calls. In addition, you can find local Audubon chapters that organize activities such as photo workshops and field trips.
The Best Times to Photograph Birds
Birds tend to be most active in the early morning and late afternoon. This is a bonus for bird photography since you’re operating in the Golden Hour, the best light of the day. The soft light at these times of day eliminates harsh shadows, enhances the bird’s plumage with a golden glow, and brings out the catchlight in the bird’s eye.
Composing Bird Photos
Good composition conveys your story in the most simple terms. Basic composition principles go a long way in creating compelling bird images.
- Apply the rule of thirds by placing the bird slightly off-center.
- Try to get a clean, uncluttered background to highlight the bird.
- Make use of color contrast with a complementary background.
- Fill the frame with elements relevant to the subject.
- Take portraits concentrating on the bird’s head.
Tell a Story
Express a certain mood, time of day, or location to advance the narrative. Photograph birds in flight, catching a fish or interacting with other birds. Tell the viewer something about their life.
A bird in flight is a popular subject and also among the most challenging. Small birds are erratic and more difficult to fill the frame. Large birds are slower and easier to track. Study the bird’s patterns, track briefly to achieve focus before you press the shutter button, and shoot in burst mode to capture a series of images.
When birds are foraging for food, they may ignore a photographer. So you may be able to move closer. Be prepared to act quickly. Birds are skilled at grabbing a fish or other food and making a quick getaway.
It’s during mating season that birds display some of their most compelling activity. They’re building nests, competing for space, and displaying their most beautiful plumage to attract a mate.
Shoot at Eye Level
To establish a more intimate feeling, get down to bird level. You may drop to a knee or lie on the ground. You may also use your camera’s live view mode if it’s too difficult to get your eye on the viewfinder.
You’ll get better eye contact and take the viewer into the bird’s world with a low angle. In addition, a bird is less likely to feel threatened if you’re low to the ground.
Practice on Slow Birds
Practice is a necessary part of photography. And some types of images, like capturing birds in flight with a telephoto lens, take genuine skill. Small movements of a telephoto lens result in large changes in the viewfinder.
Taking pictures of more common birds and waterfowl, like ducks, geese, and swans, is good practice. These birds are easy to find, even in some city parks or in your backyard. And they’re more accepting of human presence, so you can get closer.
Hone your skills by working on composition, finding the right camera settings for light conditions, and mastering bird photography techniques.
Locating Birds in Your Area
To find birding opportunities near you, a number of field guides are very useful. These guides help you identify birds and provide information on behavior, such as what they eat, nesting locations, and migration routes.
The Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America explains important identification details along with nesting behavior and habitat.
The Cornell Lab hosts an online field guide called All About Birds that includes a Bird ID page.
In addition, a walk around the neighborhood may yield good results. You might want to set up bird feeders to attract local avian species.
There’s an App for That
Several phone apps help you identify a bird by description or its song. The Merlin Bird ID and Picture Bird are free and available for Android and iOS. Audubon also has an app to identify birds by size, color, wing shape, habitat, and other factors. Check the App Store on your phone for these and other possibilities.
Tips for Post Processing Images of Birds
At the end of shooting, your photos may be less than perfect. This is where post-processing comes to the rescue. Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom, as well as other photo editing platforms, can help turn a good shot into a great bird photo or possibly salvage some that aren’t very good.
You have an advantage if you shoot in raw, a much larger file with more information that can be manipulated. In Lightroom, you can pull details out of the shadows, bring down bright highlights, adjust color temperature, and reduce noise.
In addition, you can crop a photo to increase the size of the bird or reposition it within the frame. Birds are very active, and capturing perfect composition in the field is difficult.
Another feature of Lightroom is the Enhance function, which requires raw files. This doubles the width and height of an image, employing artificial intelligence to improve image quality without pixelating. It effectively turns a 300 mm lens into a 600 mm super telephoto and gives you greater flexibility in cropping.
Both Lightroom and Photoshop have features to reduce motion blur, enhance color, and reduce lens anomalies such as chromatic aberration. Proper use of post processing yields better image quality, and you can come away with beautiful pictures.
Final Words on Bird Photography
If you apply the tips and techniques detailed above, you’re on your way to capturing great bird photos. Photograph birds daily or as often as your schedule allows. Discover your own style and master your camera’s settings.
Don’t obsess about camera gear. With a well-developed eye for composition and good photographic technique, you can outperform your equipment. Look for inspiration in books, magazines, and online. You’ll find hundreds of sources for excellent bird images.
Do check out our comprehensive guide on wildlife photography for more tips, ideas, and inspiration.
If you have any comments, questions, or experiences to share, feel free to leave them in the space below.