Secrets To Bird Photography

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I realized that while I often talk about my bird photography, I haven’t written many pieces about the basics of bird photography. If you have any interest in this genre, I think that this list of tips will help you save time, and improve your keeper ratio. That said, this is just a blog post and I can’t teach everything I know in one post. My sincere hope is that you will find this inspiring enough to try.

Green jay photo by Scott Bourne

Bird photography is extremely popular. It makes sense since bird watching is a favorite pass-time of tens of millions of people.

It can be challenging, but not as hard as you think if you study and apply yourself. What follows are some generic tips I’ve compiled over my career as an avian photographer and I hope you find them helpful.

STUDY BIRDS:

Learn everything that you can about birds. Any type of photography can be improved by studying your subjects, and this is especially true of bird photography. Since birds don’t necessarily pose whenever a photographer points a lens their direction, you need to understand their behavior so that you can be ready when opportunities present themselves. Know your subject. The more you understand the way birds behave, the better your images will be.

Hummingbird Photo by Scott Bourne

FIND BIRDS:

Learn where to find birds in your area. Birds congregate where there they find food, water and cover. You can typically find them near major bodies of water like lakes and rivers, but even smaller streams and ponds can be great birding spots. If you live near a park or a zoo or the seashore, these too can be great places to start looking for birds.

Get started in your own backyard by planting some bird friendly bushes and a feeder.
Setting up a portable “blind” in your yard so you can hide yourself while you photograph birds.

Visit audobon.org to find out some of the best places to find birds near you. Also, check with local bird rescue centers who care for injured or orphaned birds of prey. It’s a great opportunity to get close to birds you don’t often see. Just call ahead and let them know what you’d like to do. Most places are accommodating if you agree to follow their rules. A thoughtful gesture would be to let them use some of your shots for promotional purposes.

Eagle Photo by Scott Bourne
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Go to your local zoo. Many of them exhibit birds in natural habitats that are ideal for backgrounds.

Here are some other places you can go if you can get to the USA:

Any National Wildlife Refuge is a bird photographer’s dream.

The Alligator Farm, St. Augustine, FL

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache Photo by Scott Bourne

One of my personal favorite bird places is Bosque del Apache, National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico. It is a great first stop when you’re looking for birds to photograph!

WIND AND SUN:

Once you find the birds, you need to know how to position yourself for success. Start with the wind and the sun. Pay attention to the direction of the wind and sun. If they are coming from the same direction, the conditions are perfect for photographing birds in flight.

Try and keep the sun at your back. Most published bird photos are lit through the sun or open shade.

Mouse bird photo by Scott Bourne

Photograph birds in flight when the sun is low in the sky. If it’s too high, the bird’s underside will be in shadow.

Remember that birds tend to perch, take off and land into the wind – knowing the wind’s direction helps you predict the bird’s behavior.

APPROACHING BIRDS:

Birds scare easily. Keep yourself low to the ground and don’t move too suddenly. Don’t walk around with your tripod extended. Don’t chase birds. Find an area where they are plentiful and they will come to you. It’s counterintuitive, but it works.

LIGHT & COMPOSITION:

Sunrise and sunset are ideal times to underexpose the subject and create a striking contrast for a beautiful silhouette.

Photography birds in flight when the sun is low in the sky. If it’s too high, the bird’s underside will be in shadow.

Cardinal in flight photo by Scott Bourne

The direction of the light is important – side light creates nasty shadows on the bird’s face.

Fill the frame with the bird but don’t crop too tightly.

When shooting flocks of birds you’ll get better composition if you wait for them to separate so their wings don’t overlap. Try to photograph groups of birds in pairs or if in greater number, look for groups of three, five, seven which are more pleasing compositionally. Make sure the bird’s wings are up or down – not pancake flat.

BACKGROUND:

Clean backgrounds make for better bird photos.

After staying on sun angle and paying attention to wind direction, background is the next most important factor in deciding what, where and when to photograph.

Photograph birds on a clean simple background so your subject will stand out better.
Eliminate clutter by keying in on the bird.

Eliminate background distractions by shooting wide open.

Tri-colored heron photograph by Scott Bourne

GEAR:

Know your gear. Learn about your camera’s features and settings before you’re out in the field. One rookie mistake is to buy a new camera and then take the birding trip of a lifetime the next day. Practice with your camera a little before you count on it for a big shoot.

I have a list of all the gear I use on a regular basis posted here.

CAMERA SETTINGS:

Use a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second to capture birds in flight – with bald eagles or other raptors consider 1/1600th of a second a minimum if you want to freeze action wingtip-to-wingtip.

Remember that when photographing larger birds, you need more depth-of-field. Stop down one or two stops to make sure you get the entire bird in the plane of focus. The closer you are to the bird, the more this matters.

Use MANUAL mode when you can, especially with high-contrast birds like eagles. This will help avoid the problem that occurs when birds fly through different colored and differently-lit, backgrounds.

Don’t be afraid to use higher ISOs when you need to freeze movement. Even if your camera has problems with high ISO, you can find lots of software that reduces digital noise in photos. I use Skylum Luminar for that purpose.

Green Jay Photo by Scott Bourne
Green Jay Photograph by Scott Bourne

MISCELLANEOUS:

Have patience. Stick with an area and don’t give up. Eventually birds become used to your presence and will approach you.

Focus on the bird’s eye. Make sure there’s a catch light in the bird’s eye. Otherwise it looks like taxidermy.

FINAL TIP:

Photograph the birds that you love. There’s no substitution for passion. If you love your avian subjects, you’ll take great care in capturing their lives.

If you love birds and are already a birdwatcher, then adding bird photography to your hobby will make the entire experience even more rewarding.


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