Ten Tips for Photographing Birds

Written by:

By Steve Russell

Birds are one of nature’s greatest achievements. From the tiny bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird at 5 centimeters (2 inches) long and 1.8 grams (0.063 ounces) in weight, to the ostrich, the world’s largest bird at 2.7 meters (9 feet) tall and weighing 156 kilograms (345 pounds), variety is the name of the game. Their plumage ranges from dull and subdued to spectacular and flamboyant. From the early morning song of the Northern Mockingbird to the plaintive call of the Common Loon to the squawk of a Great Blue Heron, their songs and calls are as varied as their sizes and plumage. It is the variety, the mystery and the beauty of birds that attracts many photographers to try their hand at photographing birds in the wild. Here are a few tips you may find helpful.

To start with, lenses in bird photography are like tee shots in golf; the longer the better. A 500mm or a 600mm would be ideal but they cost a lot of money. A 300mm will work better than a 200mm, etc. Birds are much smaller, comparatively, than we think. Aim your camera at a tree from 50 feet (15.25 meters or 16.67 yards) and notice how much of the tree is in the frame. Then imagine a passerine (perching bird) in the center of the frame. The bird won’t occupy very much of the frame. So, if all you have is an 18-55mm kit lens you’ll have to get really close to the birds to get a good shot.

So how do you get closer to birds? As with all nature photography patience is the byword. Still, by following a few “rules” and exercising great patience, that elusive Pine Warbler that you hear but rarely see can even be coaxed to land on your hand and take food. I know, I’ve done it before. If that’s possible, then getting close enough to photograph them is also possible. The easiest way to get close is with a blind. Birds will get used to the blind and if you’re inside and not easily seen, then you’re home free. If you haven’t spent much time photographing birds, try starting with your backyard and develop your skills. Put out bird feeders (more than one) and a bird bath to attract the birds. If you spend a lot of time outside they will become more comfortable with you nearby and allow you to get closer. Patience and getting close to birds is an important skill in bird photography that you will have to develop for yourself.

2010-06-01 14-56-25 Birds gathered at feed tray - IMG_8172
This is a photo by Lance (degilbo on Flickr) in his backyard. He has posted a lot of bird photos on his Flickr site that don’t show the feeders, but this is one of the bird attractions in his yard.

When you take the photo, try not to get so excited at the opportunity that you fail to get all of the bird in the frame. It’s far better to capture an image with some empty space around the bird and then crop the image in Photoshop than it is to inadvertently cut off the feet or tail. I’ve seen a number of really good shots ruined for that very reason. I’ve seen them in my own results like the photo below. I really like this image of the Little Green Heron with the dragonfly in its beak, but I got so excited that I cut off its tail. I still like the image but it’s flawed.

_MG_6180_030511_Little Green Heron

Or this endangered Florida Scrub Jay. I waited for well over an hour for one of the birds to get close to me and then I cut off his feet. It’s my fault but I was still really disappointed when I downloaded the image to my computer.

110122_SRP7D_MG_3532 Florida Scrub Jay2

Try to always capture the image without anything man made in the frame. Okay, if you really want an image of that elusive bird you’ve been chasing for weeks and you see it at your bird feeder, take the shot. You may not get another chance. However, if you want to enter the image in a contest, almost all nature photography contests say in the rules that the “Hand of Man” cannot be in the photo. For example, this image of the endangered Florida Scrub Jay could never be entered in a contest because of the banding on its legs.
110122_SRP7D_MG_3443 Florida Scrub Jay

I should add that people who really appreciate photos of birds can get pretty picky about this “Hand of Man” issue and I don’t always agree with them. Besides, what if you’re trying to show the relationship of the bird with humans like seagulls and Black Skimmers roosting on a marina dock? But if you’re entering a contest or trying to sell the image, your public gets to set the rules.

Focus on the eyes. Focus on the eyes. Focus on the eyes. Nothing ruins that special shot of a bird than the eyes not being tack sharp. If the eye is really sharp in your photo, you can get by with a number of other bird photography sins. If the eyes aren’t in focus, then all you have is a photo that shows you actually photographed the particular kind of bird.

It’s okay to be artistic with your shots. Every bird photo doesn’t have to be a documentary shot unless you want them to be. You can also be artistic with the photo manipulation and still have the documentary shot. This image of the Limpkin was captured of the entire bird and then cropped to a head shot. Notice that I focused on the eyes.
110402_SRP7D_-_MG_7619 Limpkin2

Another eye trick is the catch light. Just as in photographing people, an eye without a catch light is dull and uninteresting. With the catch light the image comes alive. When I took the shot of this Tri-Color Heron, the sky was overcast and the bird would have been in the shade had the sun been shining. I added the catch light in Photoshop.
110306_SRP7D_-_MG_6956 Tricolor Heron 1

If you’re taking photos of birds in flight, take them while the bird is coming toward you, not after it has passed and it’s going away from you. How can you tell? Look at the image below. The wing nearest you appears to be behind the other wing. That’s a clear indication that the bird was flying toward the camera. If the wing nearest the camera is ahead of the other wing, the bird had already passed the camera and is flying away. It is important to set your camera to AI Servo or continuous focus if you want to capture an image of a flying bird.
flight

Photograph the birds when they’re facing you. Don’t photograph their butt. Most people won’t find a birds butt attractive. Okay, many birds have great color and patterns on their back and that’s what you want to capture. If the tail is down and the head is turned where the bird is looking over its shoulder back at you, then you’ve accomplished your goal without photographing its butt.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/steve_russell/5508679291/

Photographing birds takes time and effort but the results can be very rewarding. These ten tips don’t come close to covering everything you might want or need to know to successfully capture the images you want but they’re enough to get you started. Go out and give it a try, especially if you’ve never photographed birds before.

I don’t usually do this, in fact I’ve never done it before, but I wanted to dedicate this article to Sandy, a co-worker of mine. If it’s possible, Sandy may love birds and photographing birds more than I do.

Photo Credits:

Birds Gathered at Feed Tray by Degilbo on Flickr by permission
Flight by
JohnB/UK on Flickr Commons
All other photos by Steve Russell on Flickr

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  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mully410/ Mully410

    Thank you for the tips. For birds in flight, I found that a shutter of 1/1000 sec or better works best. I use a Nikon D7000 and either my Nikkor 70-300 VR (f4.5-5.6) or my Nikkor 300mm F4 lens. I’m able to keep the ISO pretty high with this setup. I usually setup the auto ISO at 400ISO and set for 1/640 sec so the D7k will automatically bump the ISO up if the meter requires a shutter speed higher than 1/640 sec. I try to keep the aperture at f8 because that’s where my lenses are sharpest and I get a little more depth of field. Cloudy days make it tricky but I’d rather have a noisy sharp image over a no-noise blurry image.

  • http://www.alexisjaworskiphotography.com Portrait Photography

    This is a lovely post and alos love the pictures you used to illustrate. I use a D90 and I also use a 70-300… Patience is a virtue for this kind of photography!

  • http://photologs.net Fotogrāfs

    I make birds photo with Nikon D3, and for birds photography in flight, I found that a shutter of 1/1200 sec or higher works best.

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