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Do you want to understand your camera and take great photos today?

Yes Please

I have a problem with bird photography in the way that an addict has a problem with drugs. That is to say, I’m hooked. This isn’t a new problem; my interest in birds is an affliction I’ve suffered since I was a kid. But don’t feel bad for me, my addiction is a healthy one, and I’m not about to give it up.

For the past 25 years I’ve pursued birds as an observer and naturalist, as a scientist, and as a photographer. In photography, all the facets of my obsession come together.

Here natural history, science, technology, and art converge, each as important as the others. Like any discipline, the more you understand about your subject, your tools, and the way they interact, the better your images will be.

For the beginner bird photographer, all of the different aspects can seem daunting. So here, I want to break the subject down to its fundamentals: a series of bird photography tips for the newbie.

And though this guide may be aimed at those new to photographing birds, I hope experienced photographers will also pick up something new. Let’s dive in.

setting up to photograph birds in water

Gear

Equipment can be one of the most fun, and most heartbreaking aspects of bird photography.

Long lenses are unquestionably cool. A hefty telephoto will allow you to make images that would be impossible with any other tool. But the price tag of high end glass will equal that of a reliable, used automobile.

[Note: ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here.Ed.]

Cameras

Camera bodies can vary in price and quality as much as the lenses. That said, the camera itself is arguably less important than the lens.

Big, pro-level DSLRs can rival the cost of the most expensive glass, but entry-level cameras from major manufacturers are much cheaper, yet can still create beautiful images.

photographing penguins on an ice floe

For bird photography, pick a camera that has a good frame rate (the number of photos possible in a second), and a good autofocus (the lens also impacts focus speed and accuracy).

A ‘crop sensor’, such as APS-C or 4/3rds, will also increase the apparent magnification of your telephoto, giving you more magnification for your money.

If you are planning to spend big bucks (and let’s face it, even entry-level bird photography systems can leave your wallet smoking), do your research. Read reviews, and consider renting equipment to try out before you purchase.

Lenses

Big, high-end glass made by companies like Nikon and Canon can exceed $10,000 (US). Frankly, the prices are INSANE. Thankfully, there are a slew of moderate priced options on the market.

3rd party glass from companies like Sigma and Tamron, or lenses for the 4/3rds systems of Panasonic and Olympus are far more affordable.

Quality glass is more important than length.

In other words, you are better off with a high quality 200mm or 300mm lens than with a poor quality 600mm. Imperfections in glass, and flaws in design get more pronounced at extreme telephotos.

  1. 70-200mm: Though on the wider side for bird and wildlife photography, pro-level 70-200 f2.8 lenses are equivalent in cost to mid-range 150-600s (see below). Most manufacturers make a 70-200 so there are many choices. A good 70-200 f2.8 can handle a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter without a substantial loss in quality.

    yellow and black bird sitting on branch

    Don’t overlook shorter focal lengths. This image was made with a 70-200 f/2.8 with a 1.4 teleconverter (280mm total).

  2. 150-600mm: This zoom range is a relatively new contribution to the telephoto zoom. And several different lenses, varying from USD $1,200 – $2,000, are now available. Manufacturers Sigma and Tamron dominate this focal length range.
  3. 100-400mm: Canon’s 100-400 and Nikon’s 80-400 are two very common lenses for bird photography. Relatively compact and light, they are great options. Though not inexpensive, their price tag is a far cry from the big telephoto primes.
  4. 300mm: There are several very good 300mm lenses available. Fixed length lenses, in general, are sharper than zooms and 300mm f4, and f2.8s are usually very sharp indeed. When used on a 4/3rd or APS-C sensor these can provide adequate magnification for bird photography.
  5. 400mm, 500mm, or 600mm: Fast telephotos at this range (usually f4) are extremely expensive, and extremely high quality. Canon and Nikon dominate this range, and if you can afford them, they are the go-to tool for shooting wildlife and birds. When used with teleconverters, the range and quality is unmatched.

penguin with photographers in background

Tripod

If you are using long lenses, a good tripod is extremely useful. Big lenses need support to create sharp images, and to make them comfortable to use. A poor tripod, with a cheap head, however, is more trouble than it is worth.

Make sure your tripod is sturdy, with a head that is smooth and locks down tight.

Check, double-check, and triple check, that the quick release tripod plate is bomb proof. The last you thing you want is to see thousands of dollars of camera gear detached accidentally and tumbling onto the concrete floor. (I’ve been there, it sucks. Make sure it doesn’t happen to you.)

If you are using a big, super-telephoto consider a gimbal head, which will make panning and movement of the lens much easier.

birds in flight over rocks and waves

Shooting handheld from the deck of a moving ship required a lot of takes to get a good composition and a sharp image. (1/1250th sec at f/8, ISO 200, 500mm)

Natural History

Now, I want you to forget about photo gear for a minute.

Equipment matters, certainly, but even more important is having a solid understanding of birds and bird behaviour.

It doesn’t matter if you have a lens as long as your leg if you don’t know how and where to find your quarry.

If you are new to bird photography, you’ll probably be content at first to shoot in your local area, or even the birds in your back garden. But regardless of where you plan to shoot, knowing a little about birds will help you pick the right piece of habitat, the times of day birds are most active, and when birds are likely to be displaying interesting behaviour.

flocks of birds on the ground and in the air

As you venture further afield, the more you know about birds, the easier your job will be. If there are particular species you want to photograph, you need to know where they occur and when.

If there are certain locations, you need to know when the birds occur there. Want to photograph a migration of Sandhill Cranes in Alaska? You’ll be very disappointed if you show up in October a month after the birds have winged south.

Anticipation

duck in water spreading its wings
Understanding the natural history and behaviour of birds leads to the gift of anticipation. Spend enough time watching and studying birds and you will start to predict things about them: when they are about to sing, call, or fly.

You’ll be able to predict what time of day a seabird is likely to return from a foraging run, when the first migrant songbirds of spring will arrive after a long winter, and when your local breeding birds will start building nests.

shallow focus shot of bird in grass

That information, and innumerable other tidbits of bird biology will help you find the best possible locations, times, and set-ups for successful photography.

Don’t ever underestimate the power of knowledge when applied to photography. There is a reason that some of the best wildlife photographers in the world are former research biologists.

Pick up a book, do some reading, and you can improve your bird photography from the comfort of your couch.

Enough said.

Technical Settings

The exposure settings you select on your camera vary by the type of image you are hoping to create, and by your shooting conditions.

It’s nearly impossible to guide you through each of those possible scenarios in an article like this, but it is important to know how each of the three tools of exposure will impact your final image.

‘High Key’ shots with a bright, white background, require setting your camera to overexpose the sky, to bring out detail in the bird. (1/640, f/8, ISO 400, 400mm)

Aperture or F-stop

The aperture opens and closes to control the amount of light allowed into the camera. It’s counterintuitive, but the smaller the number, the more light can contact your camera’s sensor.

The aperture impacts your final image in two ways. First, an open aperture will create a shallow depth of field. Second, most lenses are not appear their sharpest wide open.

Lenses tend to be sharpest approximately two stops closed from wide open. Thus, if you have an f/4 lens, your sharpest aperture is likely to be around f/11.

Shutter Speed

Even large, slow-flying birds require a fast shutter speed. (1/2500th, f/8, ISO 400, 400mm)

Most of the time in bird photography you will be working to create sharp images. Because long lenses are harder to hold steady than a wide angle, this can mean very fast shutter speeds indeed.

A general, but imperfect rule, is that your shutter speed needs to be as fast as your lens is long. Thus if you are shooting with a 500mm lens, you’ll want to use a shutter speed at least a 1/500th second.

Slower shutters will cause blur, either because the twitchy bird you are shooting moved, or you did. Sometimes blur can be a great artistic tool (see below), but it needs to be purposeful.

ISO

The ISO increases the apparent sensitivity of the camera’s sensor to light. I say ‘apparent’ because changing the ISO doesn’t actually impact the sensor itself, just how the camera’s algorithm interprets the data coming from the sensor.

All that techy stuff really doesn’t impact the photographer working in the field, and in practice, higher ISOs mean you can use faster shutter speeds and higher apertures.

But, high ISO also introduces digital noise. You have to balance noise level with the exposures you need to attain sharpness.

shallow focus shot of thin-beaked turquoise bird

Focus

Back Button Focus

If you are shooting with Canon or Nikon DSLRs, you can set your camera to focus not with the shutter button (the default), but using a button on the back of the camera. It’s called ‘back-button focus’ and it will change your life.

Check your camera’s manual, or look it up online, and make the change (every model is slightly different). Focus is then controlled with your thumb, leaving your shutter button to do what shutter buttons should do: take a picture.

Focus Modes

I recommend using AI Servo, or continuous focus for most bird photography.

In this setting, your camera will continued to focus on your subject as it, or you, move around. As long as the focus button is pressed, it will continue to hold focus.

This is THE method for flying and moving birds, and I use it for everything.

bird soaring over plain with blue background

Bird Photography Ethics

I want to take a moment to mention the ethics of bird photography. Here are a few general rules of the art:

  1. Your first priority it the well-being of the animals you photograph. If they move away from you, flush, or appear agitated, you are too close. Back off, and don’t approach so close again. (The best way to get close, is to be patient, sit quietly, and wait. If you are non-threatening, the birds will eventually draw close.)
  2. Don’t manipulate animal behaviour. Avoid flushing birds for flight shots, or using unnecessary call-backs. Again, the well-being of the animals is your top priority.
  3. Don’t interfere with others. If you are shooting around other photographers, be courteous, don’t block one another, and call out anyone showing harmful behaviour toward the birds. Around birders, be especially careful not to be aggressive or frighten the birds. It’s far more important to retain good relationships with others that appreciate nature and wildlife than to get an image.

bird sitting on coniferous branch

Field Techniques and Composition

As this post is geared toward the beginner, I’ll hold the discussion of using blinds, camouflage, and stalking techniques for a future article.

For many species, such methods are not necessary and at many popular birding and bird photography locations the birds are either so abundant, or so used to people that staying hidden is not a top priority.

There are many ways to portray birds in photographs, from close up portraits and images about behaviour, to showing birds in their habitat. One is not better than the others, but knowing what you want, what is possible, and what isn’t, is an important part of effectively capturing good images.

Here are the three main types of bird images, and some guidelines for making them:

The Clean Portrait

In some circles of photography, the clean bird portrait has become the standard for a ‘good’ photo of a bird. And indeed, a well-executed portrait can be a thing of beauty.

To capture a solid portrait, you’ll need a long lens with a fast aperture. This will sufficiently isolate your subject from its surroundings and narrow your depth of field.

Once you are set with equipment, here are a few additional things to keep in mind. (Please note these are guidelines, not rules. Put all these together, and your image will be good, but it isn’t the only way to make a good photo. Experiment, see what works, don’t follow these as a strict formula.)

  1. Lighting – Over the shoulder sunlight during the morning or evening hours is a lovely way to photograph birds. Front light is clean and sharp and limits dark shadows. Cloudy days can also be effective as the soft-light from above can make for lovely, if flat light.
  2. Focus Point – Focus on the eye. If there is a ‘rule’ in bird photography to follow in almost every circumstance, it’s this one. Make sure the eye is in focus.
  3. Depth of field – A very long lens will likely have a shallow depth of field, which is what you want. If you are using a mid-length lens, open up the aperture as wide as it will go to narrow your depth of field. This blurs the background and limits distractions.

    close-up of red-beaked bird
  4. Background – Ideally the background is a pleasing, blurred mosaic of neutral colour that allows your subject to stand out.
  5. Placement – Compose with some dead space on the edges, don’t get too close. Place the subject off-centre, providing it place to go, to look, or provide a sense of direction.

The Habitat Shot

penguins in habitat with sea in background

One of my favourite types of images are those that show wildlife within their surroundings. The portraits above may be lovely and clean, but they don’t tell much of a story. Animals in their environment tell us something about where the animals live, and what they do within it.

penguin in habitat with other animals in background

Think about these types of shots as landscapes, and compose them that way. Often your ‘subject’, the bird, is just one more element in the frame. You want the animal to be notable but it should not be front and centre.

Birds in Flight

This is perhaps the most rewarding and frustrating aspect of bird photography, and an entire article could be written about shooting birds in flight. Here, however, I’ll just break it down into two main types of flight shots: sharp and intentional blur.

Sharp Flight Shots

1/4000th sec, f/5.0, ISO 400, 280mm

To attain sharpness in flight shot, you have to use a very fast shutter speed.

Even relatively slow-flying birds like cranes and large waterfowl are still moving surprisingly quickly. Set your camera to Shutter Priority and choose a speed of around 1/2000th of a second.

Adjust your ISO setting as necessary to get to those speeds. Set your focus to single-point, AI Servo, meaning your camera will only pull focus from the point you have selected and then work to hold focus as the bird moves.

Use the high-speed shutter setting so you don’t need to take your finger off the shutter release to make multiple images.

flock of birds in flight

1/1250th sec, f/5.6, ISO 400, 500mm

The best places to practice this technique are areas where there are many birds flying in a predictable pattern.

Waterfowl moving from one nearby lake to another, or geese and cranes coming and going from their night time roosting grounds are good places. Direct your attention on where birds are coming from and pay attention.

silhouette of bird in flight

1/800th sec, f/10, ISO400, 700mm

If you are using a very long lens, a gimbal head on a tripod is very useful, otherwise you will need to hand hold.

As a bird approaches, grab focus anywhere on it, and then adjust to hold focus on the bird’s head. Just as in the portraits noted earlier, the eye needs to be in focus in the final image. Follow the bird’s flight and shoot bursts of images when the composition comes together.

Birds flying in silhouette against a bright sunrise, not only make a beautiful image, but can also make shooting flying birds easier.

Cameras focus very well in high contrast situations, and a dark bird against a bright backdrop is perfect. Expose for the background, and let the bird fade to black.

As the bird passes and begins flying away, put the camera down and start looking for your next subject. Birds flying away are inherently less interesting than one coming toward you.

Intentional Flight Blurs

four birds in flight with motion blur

This blur required a 1/5th second, f/5.6, ISO 400, 700mm.

Some of my favorite images of birds I have ever created are intentional blurs. These are more artistic than sharp photos, and provide a chance to experiment.

Here, we will apply most of the same guidelines I noted above, but lengthen our shutter speed. I’ve made successful blurs anywhere from 1/2 second to 1/100th second.

The most important part to an intentional blur is to keep the camera in motion as you trigger the shutter. When done right, the bird should stay in the same location in the frame while the background and wings blur. It provides a sense of motion and can create a very pleasing result..sometimes.

There is a lot of trial and error and many images will fail. That’s fine, just keep experimenting, adjusting shutter speed, and your own motion.

red-headed bird in flight with motion blur

1/100th sec, f/4, ISO 400, 500mm

You can reverse this technique and hold the camera steady while the bird flies through with a very long shutter speed. Give it a try and see what you get.

Shooting birds in flight is not a time to conserve pixels. This is when you raise the camera to your eye and blast away. ‘Spray and Pray’ as they say. There are a lot of throw-away images in any flight series, but with luck, a few will come out the way you hope. Just get used to pressing the delete key when you get home.

shallow focus shot of yellow-beaked bird

Conclusion

As I wrote this article, it occurred to me that just about every section could make up an entire article.

So much of bird photography is up to split-second decisions by the photographer in the field that trying to create a usable formula is an impossible task.

So let these be my final words of advice to you: The fastest way to get better is go out and make photos. Start with the basics I’ve presented here, then learn what works for you and what doesn’t by experimenting. Learn about birds, understand their ecology and life history, and apply what you’ve learned to your photography. Spend time outside pursuing good images, explore, watch, photograph, and above all be patient.

Nothing is free, and in good bird and wildlife photography, patience is the currency.

Now go make some photos.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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David Shaw

is a professional writer, photographer, and wilderness guide based in Fairbanks, Alaska. His images and writing on photography, natural history, and science have appeared in hundreds of articles in more than 50 publications around the globe. He is currently accepting sign ups for a five-day aurora and landscape workshop in September 2018. Find out more about this autumn aurora workshop, photography, and read Dave's science and nature blog.