Bird photography is one of the most fascinating genres of the craft. It requires a bit of stealth and a lot of patience, but the result is always worth the effort—an intimate look at some of Earth’s most beautiful creatures. Plus, the search for the perfect photo almost always leads to a memorable outdoor adventure!
If you’re interested in bird photography but aren’t sure where to start, this article is for you. We’ll go over what equipment you’ll need, what camera settings to use, and how to approach birds. We’ll also share plenty of bird photos that will inspire you to get out and shoot your own.
Bird Photography Ideas
Before we get into the details of how to photograph birds, let’s take a look at some gorgeous examples of what you can capture.
These common types of shots make the animal the focus of the photo and eliminate any distractions.
Birds in Their Habitat
You can also showcase birds in their natural environment, capturing some of the nature around the creature.
Birds in Flight
Make time stop and capture a majestic bird mid-flight—it’s not easy, but the result is worth it.
Black and White Bird Photography
Forget about color and let the eye focus instead on the creature’s pose, unique features, and textures.
Macro Bird Photography
Zoom in as much as you can and showcase one of the bird’s features in incredible detail with macro photography.
There are two main challenges when it comes to bird photography. You need to be able to
- Get close-up photos without actually being very close to the animal, and
- Capture sharp images even when the bird is moving quickly or is mid-flight.
Proper photography equipment can help address both of these challenges.
Look for a professional DSLR with a frame rate of at least 8-10 frames per second. Most of the time, you’ll be shooting in burst mode, and the frame rate determines how many photos you’ll be able to capture in one second. Since birds move very quickly, this will increase your chances of getting at least one good photo.
You also want your camera to have great autofocus capabilities. It needs to focus quickly and accurately and maintain focus on a moving subject.
A telephoto lens acts like a magnifying glass and allows you to photograph subjects that are far away. This is crucial for bird photography, since you’ll often want to capture them flying in the sky or get close-up shots without scaring them away.
Telephoto lenses come in a wide range of lengths, starting at 60mm and going up to 800. Anything longer than 500mm tends to be very expensive (often in the five-figure range), so unless you make a living from bird photography, a 200 or 300mm lens will probably be more than sufficient. To save even more money, see if you can find a used lens.
Telephoto lenses are quite large and uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time, so you’ll want a sturdy tripod to keep everything in place. A tripod will also help stabilize your camera as you’re shooting and make sure your photos turn out as sharp as possible.
How to Photograph Birds
Much of your success when photographing a bird depends on the bird itself—where it sits, how it moves, and how it behaves in your presence. That’s why it’s important to take care of the few things you do have control over and always be ready to take the perfect shot.
There are three important camera settings that will affect your photo’s exposure, sharpness, and depth of field.
Aperture is the size of the lens opening through which light enters. When the opening is wide, more light enters and you get a shallow depth of field (this is how photographers achieve the blurry background or foreground effect).
Shutter speed measures how long the camera shutter stays open and, therefore, how much light gets in. When you use a longer shutter speed, more light enters the camera, but you also capture more motion, which can result in blurrier photos.
ISO is the camera’s sensitivity to light. In low light situations, a higher ISO value will help increase exposure, but it will often result in grainier photos.
Capturing the perfect photo requires a delicate balance of all three of these settings. For bird photography in particular, one of the most important settings is shutter speed—a higher shutter speed will let you capture a sharp image of a quickly moving eagle or sparrow.
If your camera has this option, try shooting in aperture priority mode with auto ISO. This will allow you to manually set your aperture and therefore control how much light comes through the lens and how blurry your background will be. At the same time, set the minimum shutter speed to at least 1/500 of a second. Set the maximum ISO value to something that won’t make the photo look grainy. The camera will automatically consider the light conditions you’re working with and try to keep the highest shutter speed and the lowest ISO without going over the limits you’ve set.
You can also use shutter speed to get a bit creative with your photos. If you’re shooting a bird in flight and want to add a bit of blur to its wings to indicate motion, use a slower shutter speed.
If you’re shooting a portrait of a sitting bird, use a shallow depth of field to keep the animal in focus, while blurring the background and foreground (the telephoto lens will help with that as well, so you don’t need to rely solely on lowering the aperture value).
If you’re shooting a bird mid-flight or wish to capture some of its natural habitat, use a higher aperture value to keep more of the image in focus. Be sure to enable continuous focus mode, too, so that the camera can stay focused on the bird while you’re tracking it.
Regardless of what kind of photo you’re aiming for, always keep the bird’s head and eyes in focus. Other parts of the body can be blurry, but without the head and eyes, the photo will lose its life-like quality.
For the best lighting conditions, shoot early in the morning or late in the afternoon. This is when the light is soft and won’t cause any harsh shadows. Stand with the sun behind you to get the most even, natural light on your subject.
You’ll rarely get a chance to choose your background and carefully plan your composition. To make sure you still get an even background that doesn’t distract from the bird, use a shallow depth of field.
Don’t worry too much about your composition and how much of the frame the bird fills. More often than not, you’ll end up cropping the photo when editing to get the framing just right.
Bird Photography Tips
Now that we’ve covered the technical aspects of bird photography, let’s go over a few tips on how to actually find, approach, and photograph birds out in nature.
Where to Photograph Birds
Start with those native to your area—sparrows, crows, pigeons, and other common species. They make great practice subjects because they’re likely used to being around people and won’t be easily scared away by the camera.
When you’re ready for more of a challenge, head to your local trails, parks, and conservation areas. You can even Google “birding near me,” and you’ll likely find a few hotspots identified by other photographers and birdwatchers. Don’t be surprised if you run into other enthusiasts on your outing, especially on Bird Day—the national holiday dedicated to celebrating these spectacular creatures.
Get to Know the Birds
Spend some time studying the species in your area and learning about their habits and behaviors. Being able to identify certain cues and anticipate their actions will be incredibly helpful when you’re attempting to photograph it.
Approach Them With Caution
When you see a specific animal you’d like to photograph, don’t try to get as close as possible right away—chances are, it will get scared and fly off. Instead, move very slowly and let it know that you’re not a threat.
Instead of walking straight toward the bird, walk in a zig-zag. Keep your eyes away from the bird, too—the key is to avoid looking and acting like a predator.
Start clicking your camera’s shutter button when you first start to approach the bird. This will help it get accustomed to the sound. When the time comes to start taking photos, the sound (hopefully) won’t surprise the bird and scare it away.
Most importantly, take your time to establish trust. Watch for behavioral cues, and if necessary, stop and wait for as long as it takes. For example, if the bird is staring at you, it’s likely scared and about to fly off.
Don’t make any extra noise or sudden movements. It may feel like you’re spending a lot of time barely moving, but if you can convince the bird that you’re not a threat, the end result will be well worth it.
Try Staying in the Car
Depending on where you’re photographing birds, you may have an opportunity to shoot from your car. Most species are used to seeing cars and aren’t afraid of them. As long as you have a long telephoto lens, you can take some great photos while staying comfortable and well hidden.
Start Photographing Birds
Photographing birds is a fun and creative way to get some fresh air while discovering the fascinating creatures we share our planet with. Take a class to learn more about taking the perfect photo, grab your camera and telephoto lens, and get outside to start shooting!
Start Snapping Today
Photographing the Beauty of Birds