Tips and Techniques for Improving Bird and Wildlife Photography

Taking your wildlife photography to the next level

Spring is on the horizon and although wildlife photography can be a year-round activity, I’m excited for the warmer weather, blooming flora, and lots of critters being up and active. We’re gathering our cameras, lenses, and other photo gear and itching to get outdoors.

Photographers at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yet, no matter the season, I am always excited to grab a long lens and explore nature and hopefully come away with some bird and wildlife photos. As I’ve said before, I’m not a professional photographer by any means. However, I certainly put myself in the enthusiast category and I’ve been photographing wildlife for many years.

Gilded flicker at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife photography is more than just having a camera and pointing it at an animal. There are tips and techniques, both in terms of composition and gear that can help make wildlife photography easier and hopefully help you be more successful in capturing great photos of birds, critters, and other animals.

Elk at Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Below is a list of important tips and techniques for birding and wildlife photography that I’ve learned over the years and try to keep in mind whenever I’m out photographing birds and other animals. Keep in mind that this list of tips is by no means exhaustive but it does cover some important guidelines and suggestions for gear selection and shooting techniques as well as artistic and creative tips for improving your wildlife and bird photos.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Now, without further ado…

Photographers at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buy a telephoto lens

This first tip is, perhaps, a somewhat obvious one, especially if you’re already familiar with birding and wildlife photography but one key piece of photo gear for a good wildlife photography experience is a long, telephoto lens. There isn’t one particular focal length that works best for all situations; however, I’ve found that a solid starting point is a focal length of 400mm.

Wood storks at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Depending on your camera system, the options for a 400mm telephoto lens can vary quite a bit but be aware that supertelephoto lenses can often be expensive. You also have the option for a prime lens or a zoom.

Rocky mountain sheep in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In most cases a zoom lens is a great choice that gives you some versatility. A fantastic choice for a great wildlife-centric telephoto zoom is a 100-400mm-style zoom or a 150-600mm zoom. Several manufacturers make these types of lenses at both affordable and high-end price points. Some options may make optical comprises to some extent in order to make such a long-zoom lens reasonable lightweight and usable handheld so you’ll need to weigh what type of budget you’re comfortable with and what kind of image quality performance you’re looking for.

Inca doves at Edinburg Wetlands, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use a tripod or monopod

Since many full-frame format supertelephoto lenses are large and heavy, consider using a tripod or monopod or some form of support. Many of these lenses can hit in the 6, 7, or 8-pound range which can get very tiring to use handheld for any length of time. And birding and wildlife photography takes patience.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

Mourning dove at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tired arms and general soreness means less steady hand-holding resulting in missed shots, blurriness, or missed focus, and just generally less enthusiasm to keep shooting. A good monopod or tripod can help get you sharper shots and keep you shooting for longer.

Roseate spoonbill in flight at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use fast shutter speeds

Be aware of your shutter speed, and in particular, use a faster shutter speed for sharper photos especially for birds in flight. The traditional rule of thumb has been using a shutter speed of “1 / the focal length” (in terms of a 35mm full-frame camera). For example, if you’re using a 400mm lens on a full-frame camera, a good starting point is 1/400ths of a second in order to avoid blurring from camera shake. However, that means the longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed needs to be. For birds-in-flight, however, a good starting point here is at least 1/1000s, but I’d recommend shooting with even faster speeds, such as 1/2000th of a second. But 1/1000th of a second at the minimum for birds in flight is a good starting point.

Yellow warbler at Benson-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pay attention to background elements

With a telephoto lens, you are able to bring faraway subjects closer and one of the best creative benefits to such a lens is the ability to isolate your subject and create smooth, blurry backgrounds. The ability to remove distractions is one of the great benefits to a telephoto lens. Be mindful of objects in the background. When photographing perched birds in trees pay attention to leaves, tree branches, and other objects that are positioned behind your subject.

Great horned owl at Estero Llano Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get creative with your shooting angles

When photographing birds, you’ll likely find yourself pointing upward into the trees. While this can work and make for some interesting images, you’ll often end up photographing the underside of the animal which might not be the most attractive pose or position or you may have to contend with your subject being heavily backlit with a bright sky. 

Green jay at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If possible, try to position yourself at a different elevation or more at the same level as your subject. As you might expect, this is easier when photographing ground-based animals as you can more easily get down to a lower position and more at their level. For birds up in trees, this can be a difficult task depending on your location and surroundings. Getting level with birds is more easily accomplished when photographing near bird feeders or if you’re fortunate to find yourself in a location with elevated walkways or trails that put you more up into the trees. For shorebirds, water birds, or other ground birds, again, the key is to go low and close to eye level.

Related Article: Bird Photography Basics: On Camera Equipment and Shooting Techniques

Plain chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep the sun at your back

When possible, position yourself so that the sun is behind you and illuminating your subject. You don’t want to be photographing a bird or other animal with the sun behind it as it will likely be harshly backlit and underexposed. With the sun illuminating your subject you’re able to capture the beautiful colors and the sharp detail in fur or feathers of your subject.

Curved-billed thrasher at Whitewater Draw, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seek out good light

Consider the time of day when photographing birds in flight. Much like the golden hours rule for landscape photography, these are also ideal lighting conditions for photographing birds in flight. Light is softer, has a warming glow, and properly illuminates the bird. If the sun is too high in the sky, the underside of the bird will likely be in shadow.

Black-bellied whistling ducks at La Feria Nature Center, Texas

Research your shooting locations

Research your location before you go. You’ll be more comfortable and aware of your surroundings and you’ll have already scouted some good locations for wildlife and be prepped to set up shop and wait for photo opportunities.

Western scrub jay at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State and national parks, national wildlife refuges, and nature preserves are prime locations for birds and other wildlife and are conducive to photography. They often provide bird blinds and feeding stations which are ideal for observation and photography.

Birds sometimes land right where you want them © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be patient, be quiet and take your time

Last but definitely not least: be patient.

Related Article: The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Birds and wildlife are unpredictable and they won’t often land or appear right where you want them. But that’s part of the fun of this type of photo subject, the unpredictability of it all. However, wildlife photography takes patience. Traipsing through the woods will alert most animals to your presence and so you’ll want to get into a good spot and then wait, quietly. Eventually, the birds and animals will likely start to ignore you or become okay with your presence, so long as you’re calm and quiet. 

Ground squirrel at San Pedro House, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the same lines as being patient, it’s also important to be diligent and observe your subject once you’ve spotted it. Don’t just snap a single frame and call it a day. Watch for interesting behavior or certain poses that can bring the subject to life and show some of its personality.

Worth Pondering…

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.

—George Eastman