The Two Hardest Things About Bird Photography

Eagle Photograph by Scott Bourne

Finding Patience and Waiting On The Birds

Bird photography is one of those pursuits where control freaks just don’t do well. If you are a bird photographer, from the start you have to accept one important fact:

It requires focus and devotion to an idea over which you have no control.

You never know how things will play out. My photography focuses on the beauty of things that are random. Avian subjects operate within their own free will, on their own time and according to millions of years of genetic imprinting. In short—the bird flies its own path, and it’s highly unlikely that we can influence that path.

If that hasn’t scared you off, read on.

Photographing birds requires FINDING birds. And finding birds requires patience.
If you’re really interested in bird photography I can give you the most important tip you will ever receive. It has to do with finding birds to photograph and it is also the hardest to trust. This tip requires tons of patience. Ready? Don’t chase the birds!

It’s a Zen thing but it’s absolutely one of the most important lessons I can teach any aspiring bird photographer. LET THE BIRDS COME TO YOU!

This tip is completely counter-intuitive. When I first heard this I was very skeptical. How can I find birds to photograph by waiting? It took me many years to truly learn this and I wish I hadn’t been so stubborn. It is very tempting to go looking for birds. When you want to find something to photograph it’s very tempting to go chasing the birds. Unfortunately, that is a bad move.

Because most birds are skittish, they tend to treat humans as something to be worried about. Because birds tend to leave any area we humans inhabit, we’re likely to have lots of bird butt photos. Why? Because we’re always chasing something that is moving away from us.

Believe it or not, by studying bird behavior and habitat ahead of time, you can anticipate where a bird will land, or perch or fly. Once you learn this skill, it becomes more natural to just wait for the bird to come to you. There are affirmative things you can do to help.

Look for repetitive behavior. Many things that birds do, they are likely to do again. If you’re not ready the first time, be ready the second or third time. By simply going to an area where there is proper habitat, setting up and waiting patiently, you will be where you need to be in advance and that way the bird comes to you. This sounds like it is crazy but it really works.

I have done in-depth experiments. By doing nothing more than going to a general area where I know there is good bird habitat, getting low to the ground, and being both patient and still, in less than one hour, dozens of birds have come to me.

If you wait on the birds I guarantee you that you will end up with more keepers than if you chase them. Chances are VERY good that I have spent more time photographing birds than anyone you know. Maybe more time than anyone period. I know that this lesson is absolutely true. Wait on the bird – don’t chase it. Honor the animal and wait for it. You will be rewarded as I have been.


When it comes to waiting on the bird, patience is the most rudimentary thing you have to learn. The good news is that patience is the most inexpensive thing to buy. The bad news is that it is the hardest to practice. When you’re a bird photographer you are not in charge. You are not in control. You do not set the scene. You don’t direct the model. You just get to be there. When one finds oneself in such a situation the only thing that makes sense is having patience.

What is patience? Patience is the state of endurance under difficult circumstances. Waiting for a tiny little bird to show up with a perfect background, in great light, its head at just the right angle, with its wings in just the right position, well that is the epitome of difficult circumstances.

We live in a drive-through kind of world where we expect instant gratification but the birds, they aren’t in any hurry. They come and go as they please. We can do some things to improve our odds of interacting with them, but in the end, it usually boils down to patience.

If you look at almost any of my bird photographs, you should know they come as a result of me being able to wait out the bird. All the gear and technique I talk about will help, but you can’t cheat time and I can’t either. Sometimes the best bird photographs come to the person who can simply last the longest in the field. I always try to make sure that’s me!

If I have piqued your interest, you should be asking “how can you learn patience?” First, accept that there are things in nature that you can’t control or change. Once you are pre-disposed to waiting for those things, patience comes easier.

Second, take 10 and breathe. Concentrate on your breathing while you are waiting on the bird. Breathe deeply and slowly. Sometimes I even count my breaths. This not only calms you down but makes you less threatening to the avian life that is watching you whether you realize it or not.

Third, recognize that to be impatient is normal. When you find yourself becoming antsy, take a moment to reflect on all the good things in your life. I find that when I am waiting for something good to happen, I can hasten it by thinking about all the good that already surrounds me. Of course I am not really making anything happen, it’s just that by concentrating on gratitude I don’t notice (so prevalently) the passing of time.

The fourth step to learning patience is practice. You might notice that you often hear the term “practice patience.” It’s because like playing the piano or learning any skill, it takes practice. Start small. If your usual window of “patience” to wait out a bird is an hour. Add five or ten minutes. Then each time you go out, add five or ten minutes more. Over time, your tolerance for waiting will increase.

Lastly, one of the big secrets for me is pre-visualization. I think of the great reward I will receive if I simply wait. I pre-visualize my final photograph. While for some people this may actually make things worse, for me it makes things better. If I can see in my mind’s eye, that picture I am working towards, it makes all the waiting worth it. This was the really big secret behind my most successful photograph, “Cranes in the Fire Mist.

If all of this discussion still leaves you wanting for patience, well I guess the passing of time is the only thing that will help.

This does get easier as you get older. Or to quote Elizabeth Taylor from the 1932 movie, “A Wreath of Roses:”


Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a bird to wait on.

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