- Equipment Essentials
- Understanding Behavior and Habitat
- Research and Location
- Listen to bird sounds
- Owl Photography Tips
- Patience Observation and Approach
- Reduce your profile
- Zig-zag approach
- Don’t chase birds
- Waterfowl Photography Tips
- Bird feeders technique
- Make a noise
- Use background and environment
- Lighting Considerations and Birds Activity
- Camera Settings
- Focus Mode
- Exposure Compensation
- Shoot into your shadow
- Single vs multiple exposures
- Focus points
- General Shooting Tips
- Specific Bird Species and Seasons
- Processing bird photography ideas
Someone once said “I do not feed birds because they need me, I feed the birds because I need them”, if this resonates with you, maybe like other photographers you have chosen this hobby so you can spend time in nature and enjoy the company of these wonderful birds. In any event, you have chosen a great hobby, but learning a new hobby takes time, there is a steep learning curve when learning new techniques and tricks. In this article, we are going to shorten this learning curve by showing you a number of tips and techniques gathered from many bird photographers with years of experience in this bird photography guide.
Now, let us talk about choosing the equipment. At first, we need a lens of at least 300 mm. The longer the lens the better your chances of taking more portrait-style photos. Prime lenses that stay the fixed focal length are usually sharper than zoom lenses and also more expensive.
As for the camera, we don’t need fancy action cameras here. When you are shopping for camera body, there are two primary things you are looking for:
- Good autofocus system. We need something that can pick up on a bird, especially one that’s hopping and moving around and that can focus on it quite quickly.
- Multiple photos per second. This allows us to capture more unique movements in a fraction of a second and then choose a better shot.
Spend more on the lens than your camera body. Getting a sharp lens that lets in lots of light is more important than most of the attributes of the camera. 70-75% of your budget should be for the lens and the rest for the camera. A high-quality lens with a “so-so” camera will bring you to better results than the opposite.
Understanding Behavior and Habitat
The important thing to note is that we are not out there trying to beat other photographers, we are out there to have a good time enjoying nature and take some beautiful photos. Hence, we need to learn more about the subject we are shooting rather than how to shoot them. Both things are important, but you will spend more time learning birds' behavior and habitat to get better images.
The first thing we need to do while going on a bird photoshoot is to find the birds. Something that people often forget is that birds need water to drink and bathe as much as they need food, so looking for water sources is a great place to start: streams, beaches, lakes, and rivers are great habitats for birds. Parks can often be a good place to go photograph birds because they are used to seeing people as such they are less skittish and it is easy to get close to those birds.
Research and Location
There are a lot of Facebook groups dedicated to bird photography where you can find valuable information on bird locations such as the Bird Society group where they host field trips out for beginners to help them find and identify birds.
Joining a local photo club is also a great way to meet other birders and other bird photographers, and sometimes they will organize field trips to help people go out and find and photograph their first birds.
A great resource to find birds is E-bird, which is the website ebird.org, it’s run by Cornell University. It is a citizen science project with lots of data from professionals and amateurs who log their bird recordings. Click on the explore tab and then click on the explore hotspots, zoom in on the map of your part of the world, and look for the orange and red markers – these indicate places where there have been lots of bird sightings. These are great places for you to start bird photography.
Have you always wanted to photograph a certain species like a beautiful Red Northern Cardinal? Or maybe you are looking for a pigeon photoshoot? On this website, you can even search by species and find out where these species have been seen!
Listen to bird sounds
Another good way to find birds is to become familiar with their songs and calls. When you are walking around, listen for the various calls and songs and as you get more experience, you will be able to identify which species these belong to.
Owl Photography Tips
Eventually, learning bird behavior will help you find many more birds. For example, crows like to mob and harass owls that are in their territory. So if you are walking around the region, you see a lot of crows coming down to one particular region, they’ve actually been after an owl – that might be where you can find an owl.
Other birds like ospreys like to poop before leaving their perch. So if you see an osprey eating a fish on top of a telephone pole and he poops, get ready for that flight shot, he is about to take off.
Another type of bird behavior is that large birds like airplanes need to take off and land into the wind. You can use a combination of these bird photography tips to get a perfect shot. For example, if you saw crows mobbing an owl, then you need to position yourself upwind from the owl knowing that the crows would eventually drive it from its perch, and when it took off it took off into the wind in your direction and you were able to get a perfect photo.
Patience Observation and Approach
Another important thing to take bird photos is how to get close to birds, this can often be very tricky.
As for clothing, you do not need to wear a camo, you can use every drab color of your environment with greens and browns, the colors that blend with the environment. The thing not to wear is bright orange, green, and blue neon colors that totally stand out in the environment, just wear drab colors.
Reduce your profile
There are certain techniques that help you get closer to a bird. Crouching down or reducing the size of your profile while you slowly creep toward the birds is a great technique to use.
The thing to do is to observe the bird's behavior. If the bird is not paying attention to you, you can continue to advance very slowly. Once the bird sees you, you need to stop and wait to see whether or not the bird resumes its normal behavior. If it resumes, you can continue a little bit further, if it keeps staring at you, you’ve probably reached the limit of how close you can get without disturbing the bird, at that point you need to stop moving. In this case, you can stop and take photos in case you can observe something interesting behavior to continue to advance until you eventually flush the bird or scare the bird away – this is not good birding ethics.
Another tech that not many people know about is the zig-zag technique. Rather than try to approach a bird in a direct line always facing it while getting close, the trick is to make a zigzag pattern never actually going directly in line with the bird. That way, you always appear to the bird to be walking sideways to it, but you slowly make your way forward. This is great where there is no cover, like an owl or an egret in the middle of a field or the middle of a pond where there is no way to hide from the bird.
Don’t chase birds
Another mistake people make is chasing the bird. If you are walking along a beach and see birds on the beach, people will go down to the water’s edge and then follow the birds and just move them along the beach. All you are doing at this point is taking photos of the behinds of the birds, which does not make interesting photos and you are just scaring the birds along.
The trick here is to go to where the birds are going. Stop for a moment and observe in which direction they are going, sandpipers on a beach for example will usually feed going in a certain direction. Once you note that direction, circle back to 100 yards down the beach to where the birds are going, lay down low, and wait. Quite often the birds will continue to come to you, work their way around you, and keep going down the beach - that is when you are going to get your photo.
Waterfowl Photography Tips
Another way of using “where the birds are going” tech is to look at diving birds. Diving birds will often dive and pop back up a little bit further in the direction in which they were facing when they dove. When the birds are down underwater it is a good time to crawl up to the beach where you think they are going to pop up, and if you are lucky when they come back up they will come back up with food - that is a great time to get an action shot with some food in its mouth which makes for great environmental photos.
Bird feeders technique
Another way to get close to birds is to use bird feeders. But one mistake people make is they take photos of the bird on the bird feeder, which does not make a particularly attractive photo as it looks scened. The trick is to go out to find a nice perch or a nice branch and place this right next to your bird feeder a foot or two away. What will happen is birds will often come in, land on a perch then hop to the feeder, then after picking up the food they get back to the perch and take off again. So that, you point your camera onto the perch, not the feeder in advance, and that way, you will get a perfect photo with a bird having the food.
Make a noise
Another tech is called “Pishing&Fishing” which stands for making a sound attractive to curious birds to fly by and see what is making that sound. Besides that, you can also produce a squeaking sound by putting a finger to your lips and inhaling to make it squeaking sound and you might mimic some bird sound with it and attract the birds of a current species. This sound makes owls curious and might make them fly in your direction.
Use background and environment
You do not always have to get closer to the birds. Look for the opportunity to put the environment in the photo.
Lighting Considerations and Birds Activity
One very important thing to note when looking for birds is that birds are the most active early in the day and late in the day. You won’t see bird activity in the middle of the day that much. The morning is the best time to go out birding starting at dawn and going on for the next few hours. The second best time is to go in the evening, a couple of hours before sunset.
The light itself corresponds with the birds' activity, as we have no harsh lights or shadows that blend the bird details. The light at sunset or in the morning is soft and allows you to capture more details while the lighting is good enough still.
You can also photograph birds during the daytime if there is cloudy weather because clouds will act like a natural diffuser for the light making it less harsh.
If you are new to bird photography you might be intimidated by shooting in manual. Shooting in one of the automatic modes is perfectly fine. You can start up by shooting in shutter priority mode, which will be “Tv” on most cameras, which makes you pick the shutter speed and the camera picks the rest of the settings for good exposure in auto. Start with something like 1/500 of a second, which is enough shutter speed to freeze the motion of the birds in flight or moving around and avoid motion blur in photography.
Another option is to shoot in manual but with auto ISO. You pick the aperture and shutter speed you want but let the camera control ISO. For that, set your aperture at F/8, shutter speed at 1/500 s, and ISO to AUTO.
Your camera also has a setting on what mode to use for evaluating the scene and the brightness, for that we have “evaluative metering”, it focuses a bit more on what’s in the center of the frame but looks at the whole picture to figure out how bright or dark to make the photo.
An important setting is your focus mode. Most cameras have a one-shot or a continuous focus mode. In one shot the focus point focuses on one spot and then freezes on that spot, and as you continue to take photos that focal plane does not change with the bird. If the bird is moving around, you need the focus point to move around. To do so, you need to put it in continuous focus. On Canon cameras it would be “AI servo”, and on Nikon and Sony that would be the “AFC” mode.
When you are using these automatic modes, they don’t always work perfectly. You need to understand something called exposure compensation. Most cameras have a setting where you can adjust from the automatic modes to make the photo a little bit brighter and a little bit darker, and you need to experience how this works on your specific camera. On Canon cameras, there is a little symbol with a little button that allows you to change exposure compensation or you can access it through the quick menu. To understand how the exposure compensation works you need to understand how your camera meter works. The camera is trying to get the scene to be in a medium gray exposure.
If the scene looks very white it will darken and do the opposite if the scene looks very bright. It causes some challenges:
- If you have a dark bird against a bright background, the bright background will make the camera try to darken the exposure, but your dark bird will get even darker and you will lose all the detail in your bird.
- The same happens to a white bird against a dark background. The camera will try to lighten the background in exposure but if your bird is already bright, it will make it even brighter and blow out the highlights and ruin the exposure.
You need to learn how to use exposure compensation to make up for these challenges. Here are a few examples:
If you shoot into the bright sun you are shooting the shady part of the bird, also the camera will try to lower the exposure because you are shooting into a bright environment, and as a result, your bird will come out way too dark. The same happens with a bright bird against a dark background, the camera will try to lighten the exposure because the scene is so dark, but if you already have a bright bird in the scene it will blow out the bird highlights, making it overly white and you will lose all the information in the bird.
Shoot into your shadow
Now, using exposure compensation to correct for these scenarios is one of many things you can do. One of the best techniques to use is to put the sun behind you and shoot into your shadow. That way you are shooting the sunny side of the bird, the bird and the sky are not similar exposures.
Single vs multiple exposures
Another setting is to change your camera out of the single exposure mode and put it into multiple exposures. That is rather than your camera taking one photo when you take a photo, set it to make multiple exposures when you keep the shutter down. That way, when you see a bird, keep firing exposures and you’ll get interesting poses and improve the odds that you get a really sharp photo.
Another thing to get right is how many focus points to use. Most cameras have a single focus point in the middle of the frame or you can select a large number of points. In general, when the birds are static, just not moving around a lot, you want to use a single point focused on the bird. If the birds are flying, it is too hard to keep that single point on the bird, you want to pick multiple focus points. Make sure that if you have a single focus point to have it on the bird's head and eyes in the focus. We can afford to have wing feathers and tails out of focus but if we have the head out of focus this will produce a worse image.
General Shooting Tips
- As we mentioned earlier, shoot with the sun behind you to not remove a shadow in the post after.
- The second tip is to take bird photos at eye level which makes for a much more intimate and prettier photo. Sometimes you need to lay down on the ground to match the bird's height while drinking water from a river, or move up on the mountain to get the same height with the bird chilling on a branch of a tall tree.
- Be mindful of the background the same as the subject. Taking different angles around the bird will make the background change from something blending to something that makes your bird pop out.
- Capture interesting behavior. As you get close enough just sit and wait watching the behavior of your bird. See if you can capture the bird preening, cleaning its feathers, feeding, and interacting with other birds - try to capture that!
Specific Bird Species and Seasons
While getting experience in shooting birds you will meet a lot of species. There are going to be big birds, small birds, ocean birds, birds of prey, flying birds, slow birds, and so on.
An integral part of taking bird photos is getting to identify the birds. The most important thing here is to learn about plumages. Birds do not have the same plumage all year round. Most bird species have new fresh feathers every breeding season, which means by the end of the winter those fresh feathers have been worn and look totally different to the eye. That means that birds look different in breeding season than they do in winter.
Getting a good bird book is a great way to identify these various plumages. So if you are looking at a bird book and it only has one photo for species it is probably not comprehensive enough to help you identify birds. Birds have different sexes, and different plumages, and the juveniles look different. So a comprehensive bird book may have as many as five reference photos per species: one for a male and female in breeding plumage, one for the male and female in winter plumage, and one for what the juvenile looks like.
Some species like gulls take up to three and four years to reach their adult plumage and actually look different every year while achieving that.
As one book to advise, take a look at Sibley Birds book which shows a lot of different plumages and lots of interesting information about each species. They also have a great app with bird calls that can help you identify the different calls of different birds including mnemonics.
Processing bird photography ideas
As you get back home after your bird photoshoot with birds it is time to process your images and fine-tune them.
- Shoot in raw this is much easier for retaining details and photo information during the editing as it is a lossless encoding.
- Use Adobe Lightroom for cropping and composition adjustment or use a specific animals photo editor to make your life easier in no time.
- Do not crop your image too much, make sure you include environmental proportions to your subject.
- Use the rule of thirds to make your subject stand out in the frame. When you use a crop tool in LR, it shows intersections corresponding to the rule where you want to place your subject.
- Do not be heavy-handed with adjustment sliders whether it is for color correction or any curves in the settings. Slight adjustments are better to keep the natural look of an original image. Do adjustments selectively rather than applying a preset or a setting for a whole image. Look for what actually needs these adjustments, for that LR has local gradience tools.
Before we end our bird photography tutorial, it is important to avoid one general mistake in posting images. After doing all of the fine-tuning it is essential to know that when posting these images on Facebook or Instagram, if the photo is too large they will compress it into worse quality. To prevent that in LR, go to File - Export - Image Sizing - Resize to Fit: Long Ege + 2048.