What Makes a Good Bird Photo?

Advice for capturing stunning bird photos

A good bird photo records a moment of time shared between photographer and bird. It can be pretty quick, pretty simple, but it may be complex depending on the photo opportunity.

Wood storks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Consider why we find certain bird photos attractive. In essence, it’s all “in the eye of the beholder,” and there’s no perfect photo, but many come close.

Any good bird photograph will have a combination of elements that make it good.

Interesting Subject

Ladder-backed woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Any bird can be interesting, but an interesting subject can be improved by any number of additional elements especially if you can record action, behavior, or activity. Larger birds may be easier to fill a photo frame with, colorful birds can catch your attention, and smaller birds can provide a unique quality to any photo.


Great Kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photos that show action are among the most impressive images. What action? Spreading wings, stretching, interacting with another bird, flying, landing, swimming, hunting, preening, feeding, nest building.


White ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sharpness of a photo is the result of using a fast shutter speed which can illustrate details of wing and tail feathers, eyes and bills, legs, and feet—even when a bird’s in flight, swimming, diving, displaying. A fast shutter speed requires ample lighting, and adds to the level of detail needed to emphasize any good bird photo.


Anhingua © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lighting is everything in photography—where the light comes from, how it illuminates your subject, how it creates shadows. Good light should illuminate a bird’s head and intensify colors. When your shadow points at your subject, you’re in just the right position to utilize sunlight at its best.


Great white egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Good light from the right direction creates and reveals beautiful, cryptic, and even iridescent colors in birds, along with contrast and clarity. The background and setting are also integral to a good photo.


Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A bird’s surroundings, whether it’s scenery, landscape, or environment, can improve a photo by including water, trees, mountains, and more. Often, it comes down to the branch, vegetation, water, sky, or perch where a bird is positioned. Sometimes a photo can be improved by taking a step or two to one side to reposition a distracting element in the background out of the photo frame, or to the side of the photo.

Depth of Field

Green Heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A bird image can be composed using a wide depth of field to show its position in its habitat—or you can use a narrow depth of field to blur the background and emphasize the bird the bird itself. Both options are good, but you do need more light or a reduced shutter speed to get a wider depth of field.


Black-vented oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Timings may be relative to the moment you take a photo, or related to the time of day you choose to be in the field. It can also be a matter of crossing paths with a given bird—how often does luck enter into timing, even to the point of intercepting the flight path of a flying bird? Sometimes, timing is everything.


Whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Consider the position of the bird or birds within your photo frame. Give the bird space to look into, fly into, or swim into. Even if you center the bird in a photo, you can still alter the position of the bird when you crop a photo during the editing process.


Black skimmer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is always an element of luck when you take a given photo. Just finding a bird to photograph can be lucky on any given day. Timing and luck enter into a lot of good photos.

Be Prepared

Willet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Assess the scene in advance if possible; adjust your settings with consideration for the conditions you see in mind. Similarly, pre-focus your lens, even when using auto-focus, so there is no lag time in focusing when the action starts. Be Ready for Action!

Be Versatile

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Try something new and develop your own style in the process. Taking one good photo can inspire you into a lifetime of bird photography and encourage you to go birding with your camera more often.

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Photography is the beauty of life, captured.

—Tara Chisholm