Close Focus Bird Portraits

Just like when you are photographing humans, your focus is on your subject and the background is for framing it. Your goal is to make the bird stand out from the background.

When photographing birds, it’s usually a matter of trying to get close enough to get a quality photo—and that’s even with the aid of a lens that provides ample magnification. Too often we get documentary photos of a distant avian subject but once in a while we get lucky and encounter a trusting bird, sometimes even a bird that walks, swims, or flies closer.

Having photographed extensively in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida, I must say that wintering birds that get familiar with people walking by or photographing at birding hotspots are more common in these states with high human populations than anywhere else.

Roseate Spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From my experience, there is no question that Florida and Texas birds—some resident birds even more than wintering birds—lead the way in the trust department to the point where it’s possible to get especially close photos of some individuals. This is especially true at some of the well-visited birding hotspots like the Venice Audubon Rookery and the World Birding Centers in South Texas but it can happen anytime, anywhere.

And with many species taking advantage of wetlands and impoundments created to hold water in low-lying housing developments in many suburbs, the birds get very accustomed to people who generally are excited or uninterested in seeing them in their yards or near their property.

Great White Egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avian portraits

When I refer to the idea of close-up photos, I mean portraits of just the head, neck, and shoulders of the bird like your high school graduation photo so taking that kind of photo is usually going to be a larger bird to manage that level of close photos. The simple trick to taking advantage of such a trusting bird is to make the most of the opportunity.

Stay with it, don’t cause any level of alarm, and move slowly if you move. Focus on the bird’s eye and watch your background. In most cases, take some initial photos; then, if you have a chance to adjust it’s best to try to dial the aperture to f5 or a similar setting to reduce the area in focus. That technique will keep the bird in focus while blurring the background and it will increase the shutter speed to ensure the photos you take are sharper.

However, if your background is a uniform color, say a sky or water background, the aperture is less of a concern. The idea is to try to pop the bird apart from the background even beyond color differences. The bottom line is always “take what you can get and improve if possible.” In the moment it’s thrilling to be so close and to get optically closer yet with a telephoto or zoom lens zeroing in on the bird’s face, focusing on the eye.

Whistling Duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The key to sharing close photos of birds is that you need to have a photo of a bird with a sharp eye. That’s true if you are using a photo as is or if you are cropping the photo which is a secondary way to create a close-up of a bird’s face and neck, or face, neck, and shoulders—a portrait.

I must share that it’s especially fulfilling to take portrait photos like the images that illustrate this article. You feel close to the birds, in company with them as they permit you into their inner sanctum; and if you can just walk away without disturbing them or let them walk away as they wish, it’s especially gratifying.

The idea for this article came to mind after reviewing the photos of birds I had taken in various locations over our many years of RV travel. I noted the many large birds—the Wood Stork, Sandhill Cranes, Great White Egret, Great Blue Heron, Ibis, and a couple of others.

Wood stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For example, we were casually driving along Lake Okeechobee when I spied a pair of wood storks resting in the meadow near the lake. We quickly pulled off the road and suddenly sighted more storks on the edge of a pond closer to the large lake.

Quickly parking, I checked my camera settings and walked cautiously from the car for a closer view of the birds. I was immediately surprised by how close I was to the storks, so quickly zoomed down from my 400mm magnification to 200mm and took a couple of initial photos.

Then I quickly zoomed out to get a full-sized view and photos of the impressive Wood Stork as it waded a couple of steps in my direction. The grand bird was surrounded by sky blue water with barely a ripple on it which made for an especially pleasing background that was emphasized by the beautiful late afternoon light.

Wood Stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The chance opportunity to photograph the very trusting wood storks provided the best photos I’ve taken of the species to date of a bird on water or land.

Using a zoom lens was key to taking full-frame photos of the stork as well as being able to get portrait photos of the bird that show a lot of detail of the dinosaur-looking face of the big wading bird. Even I am impressed with the quality of sharp images produced during the few minutes I had in the stork’s company but you will find that the closer you are to a bird the better your lens seems to work. And if you are close, you don’t need to do any cropping to zero-in on the bird a bit more.

Before I sign off, I feel somewhat compelled to share with you that although the photos I selected to illustrate this feature are super-sharp on my big-screen laptop computer sometimes there seems to be a bit of a loss of image sharpness in the translation between my digital photos as viewed on my computer compared to when the same photos are published in a magazine publication.

That said, the birds’ eyes in each of these photos are remarkably sharp; if they don’t look absolutely sharp, it’s because of a difference between my original digital image and the online image but hopefully that won’t be a factor in the photos illustrating this article.

Sandhill Crane © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then too, maybe it’s because over the years of photographing birds, I have developed a fine-tuned eye for photo sharpness and that’s an important point to keep in mind; be sure that you don’t over-enlarge a given photo. Share sharp, clear photos that don’t show a grainy background or body lines which is a sure sign of over-enlarging a photo.

I find taking photos of birds entertaining partly because of the many variables. From dealing with awkward lighting conditions to creating blurs and flight shots the photography opportunities are endless. And any time we get close enough to take a head and shoulders portrait of a bird, it’s a great breakthrough that we will likely remember forever especially when you have a quality photo to share and display as one of your favorites.

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although this niche is fun, it requires technical knowledge from every photographer. Go out and practice. Get familiar with your camera and play with the camera settings for bird photography.

Good luck as you search out photo opportunities and if you’re not in Florida or Arizona, stay warm!

Worth Pondering…

In my view you cannot claim to have seen something until you have photographed it.

—Emile Zola

The Complete List of Bird Photography Tips for RVers

It’s an exciting time of the year with new birds arriving at favorite local birding hotspots as well as in your yard and at your feeders. Are your bird photography skills amped? Are you planning an RV road trip to an exciting birding location?

It has been a while since I’ve posted an article on bird photography due in part to not taking a recent road trip to a bird-rich area. But with a variety of bird photography opportunities ahead, I’ll provide photo insights in a concise, fairly organized list of tips and techniques.

When I bought my first DSL camera eons ago, I certainly wish someone had offered this photography list to me; then, or at any time since then, it sure would have come in handy and made me a better photographer much quicker.

With that in mind, I want to share my best bird photography resource, a list I’ve created based on years of experience mixed with tips shared with me over the years by professional and hobbyist friends and other techniques gleaned by reading extensively in books, photography magazines, and online. I hope this information will give the reader a basic introduction or a helpful review of all the things you can do to improve your chances of getting more quality bird photos—now and for years to come.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not every tip listed below will be useful for every photographer but anyone will be able to glean some valuable pointers and I hope this collection of photo methods also offers a bit of inspiration and enthusiasm for you to search for your next photo opportunities on your next RV road trip. Many of these methods become second nature with time like making sure the sun is behind you as you focus your lens on birds; checking to see where your shadow is pointing periodically, and holding your breath when you press your camera’s shutter button.

This is the kind of article that offers such a variety and thorough collection of helpful tips that I encourage you to print it out and post a copy on your bulletin board, and fold another copy to make it easier to keep it in your camera backpack, glove compartment, or your back pocket; and share it with other bird photographers too. This list will truly help make you a better bird photographer and I hope it adds a new level of enthusiasm and enjoyment for you with renewed and improved production from your camera and lens.

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird photography tips

Keep your camera within reach at all times. I never want to say: “I wish I had my camera!”

Quality photos require good sunlight. For optimum lighting, I make every effort to position myself between the sun and the bird with my shadow pointing at my subject.

The best time to photograph during any given sunny day is when the sun is at a 30- to 60-degree angle above the ground starting an hour after sunrise and again during late afternoon until an hour before sunset. This practice will provide more direct lighting for bird photography while eliminating most shadows. Avoid photographing during midday when the sun is overhead or mostly overhead as that’s when the effect of shadowing on the bird and in the scene is greatest.

Be aware of shadows on the bird you are photographing which may be caused by the overhead angle of the sun or when you’re not in the best position concerning the direction of the sunlight. In the field, you often don’t notice a shadow but because shadows are more pronounced in photographs, it’s good to watch specifically for shadows and adjust your position to avoid them when possible.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check your own shadow periodically; try to keep your shadow pointing at the bird or birds you are photographing as this shows you are in the best position for optimum lighting and you are less apt to have shadows affecting the birds.

Keep in mind that when birding and especially when photographing birds, the welfare of the birds should be paramount. It’s always most rewarding if you can photograph birds without displacing them and you definitely want to avoid disturbing them if they are nesting, hunting, or feeding. Always live by the motto, “the birds’ welfare comes first.”

At the same time, there are always hyper-wary birds that will react to any outside activity and birds are constantly on the move so don’t over-react if a bird flies from a perch while photographing; often they just move to the next perch.

Wood stork © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Try not to get too close to birds; allow them to behave naturally. When you stop short of making birds fly, they may move closer in your direction. Give birds sufficient time to adjust to seeing you.

If you try to approach a bird, keep a low profile, move slowly, and don’t walk directly toward the bird; move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever closer. If necessary, walk slowly in a long zig-zagging fashion as you move closer while keeping the sun at your back.

Anticipate the next move of the birds you are photographing and be prepared to react to that fast action.

Focus on one eye of the bird to be sure your focal point is centered on the bird. If the bird’s eye is not in focus, your photograph will suffer overall.

Hold your breath any time you press the shutter button to help eliminate body motion.

Lightly squeeze your finger down on the shutter release button to reduce any jerky motion on the camera as you take photos.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When photographing birds, stabilize your camera and lens as best you can to reduce body shake that can be transferred as you hold your camera. Body shake includes your beating heart, other natural internal movements, and breathing.

To brace your camera, lean your lens against a tree, post, window frame, or another stable option. When photographing in the open, you can brace your elbows against your chest or sides to provide more stability as you handhold your camera and lens (rather than holding your elbows out to the sides).

Some birders use a tripod to help stabilize their camera and lens but for many of us using a tripod is cumbersome at best especially when photographing flying birds. Dealing with a tripod, frankly, takes much of the fun out of bird photography. If you use a tripod, select one with thick strong lower legs to make sure the tripod is as stable as possible. When you use a tripod, you should also use a shutter release cable and that’s no fun either.

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Simple camera tech

Please don’t use the automatic setting on your camera. Instead, it’s best to set the Mode Dial to Av (aperture priority) then set your aperture (f-stop) and the camera will automatically provide the associated shutter speed as determined by the amount of available light. Watch how your shutter speed changes as you change the aperture setting in case you wish to use a faster shutter speed.

Preset your camera so you are ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice which happens fairly often when photographing birds. During sunny days, I preset the ISO to 400, and use an aperture of f8, and the resulting shutter speed will usually be between 1/1200 to 1/2000—fast enough to stop most motion. Then, when I’m in a position to photograph and have an extra moment, I double-check the settings and adjust any if needed. I also adjust settings if a change in the sunlight level or weather indicates a need for change.

Blue-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I find the 400 ISO setting to be the best under good sunlight conditions. I tend not to photograph birds during low light periods but if the sun goes behind a cloud I increase the ISO to 800 if the shutter speed is reduced significantly by the shaded sunlight. I find that any setting above ISO 800 tends to produce grainy photos. Using an ISO of 200 or 100 provides better quality images but these settings tend to limit your shutter speed and/or aperture a bit so ISO 400 seems to be the best bet for me for bird photography with the sun at my back.

I keep my camera’s Al-Servo set so I can take a continuous series of photos. Using this setting, it’s possible to take a single photo but you can also take two or three at a time if you hold the shutter button down a moment longer. And when a bird is especially active such as when it’s flying or displaying, you can hold the shutter release button down for the camera to take a continuous series of images at a rate of three to 10 photos or more per second depending on the camera model you use.

Using the Al-Servo setting, I tend to take two photos at a time which provides a second image that usually shows a wing position change during flight or provides two images as a bird turns its head.

Mourning dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Composing your photos

Try not to center a bird in the middle of the photo; leave a little more space in front of the bird for it to look into, walk into, swim into, or fly into. It tends to create a more pleasing composition.

To better understand how to position a bird within your photo frame, I suggest taking a quick look at the rule of thirds which artists often use when composing their artwork. Photographers also use this technique for photo framing and design although it’s just a guide to be aware of when composing photos. Ultimately, do what looks best to you.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using a zoom lens can be helpful when positioning a bird in the photo frame, zooming in and out to include more or less background. But you can also reframe a photo and thereby reposition the bird in the frame by cropping it using photo editing software. By simply cropping extraneous sky, water, or plants surrounding the bird you can position the bird off-center, up or down as you wish by cropping the original photo and you will enlarge the bird’s size in the photo in the process.

Keep aware of the background as you are composing photos. Try to eliminate distracting twigs and grass from view which may simply be a matter of moving your camera to the right or left, up or down, or taking a step left or right to get a clearer background that is less distracting. However, in some cases, a twig with budding leaves or other vegetation can add a natural element to bird photographs.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Getting a more uniform background can be accomplished with some success by reducing the area in focus (depth of field) to throw the background out of focus. This blurred background effect helps to emphasize your subject and is accomplished by setting your aperture to a narrow f4 or f5. That aperture should keep your bird in focus while blurring the background although this technique works best if there is ample space between the bird and the background elements.

Using a narrow f4 or f5 aperture also provides a faster corresponding shutter speed which helps stop any motion and create sharp images.

Plants and other natural elements are often a welcome background for bird photos. When that’s the case, you may wish to increase the area in focus around the bird by dialing the aperture to f11 or f14 as long as you have plenty of shutter speed to work with—say above 1/400 for a motionless bird and 1/1000 or faster for birds in flight.

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While watching the area behind the bird for any distracting elements or unnatural colors watch for distracting shadows on the bird or around it as you get into position. Reposition as needed to avoid shadows and other distracting elements.

When photographing birds positioned on the ground as they swim in water or wade along a shoreline try photographing from your knees, in a sitting position, or even a prone position to get closer to the birds’ eye level. Try photographing from a bird’s eye view at times.

Golden-fronted woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile photo blind options

I like to use my vehicle (both car and motorhome) as a comfortable mobile blind. Birds tend to react to people but mostly ignore a parked vehicle. I have a few birding hotspots where I can park next to flowering trees, a wetland shoreline, or prominent perches where birds create fine photo opportunities.

Your vehicle provides the option to reposition a few feet forward or backward when needed or to drive onward to look for the next photo opportunity.

Turn off your vehicle’s engine any time you are photographing to minimize vibrations so you can keep your camera and lens as stable as possible.

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Also, stabilize your lens by holding it on the top of a slightly raised window or against the side or top of the window frame to reduce body shake that may be transferred as you hold your camera.

Hold your breath any time you press the shutter button to reduce any bodily vibrations and press the shutter button lightly to avoid a jerking motion.

Stay inside your vehicle and reduce any motions to make birds less wary. While birds often accept a parked vehicle, that changes if you open a door or get outside. (If you do need to step outside to photograph, don’t slam the door.)

Using your vehicle, explore a more expansive area occasionally to monitor where the birds are and where they aren’t. Take advantage of photo opportunities you encounter along the way and at the same time plan for future photo opportunities concerning the time of day the sun will best illuminate a promising area.

If you see a promising photo op as you are driving be especially aware of any vehicles driving behind you and keep safety your priority. You may need to drive by a bird, find a safe place to pull over then return to the bird’s location to try for a photo op. Pull safely off the side of the road in the best possible position to photograph your subject concerning the direction of the sunlight, but always keep vehicle safety a priority.

Vermillion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photo editing: composition, design, and filing

When using photo editing software, I alter the photo as little as possible; but simple cropping of an image can improve a photo immensely and it can increase the size of the bird(s) within a photo frame by cutting out extraneous parts of the background effectively zooming in on the bird.

Try to keep up with your photo review and editing process which is usually best performed as soon as possible after each photo session. Keep your photo files orderly, organized, and easy to access.

Use a uniform naming system—perhaps one that identifies a bird in a photograph along with the location (state followed by location) and year and month it was taken. An example of my naming system is AZ, Catalina SP_cactus wren­­_2022_11.

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I keep three copies of all my photos in different locations to ensure I never lose any of my valuable photos due to damage by fire, flood, or theft. I keep my photo files on an external hard drive with my computer that travels with me in my motorhome, on a second external drive located in my home, and in the cloud.

Enjoy sharing your bird photographs. Attach a photo or two to your emails, and texts, and by all means share them on social media applications. Bird photos are interesting and inspiring; they may open a line of conversation or lead to learning more about the species. You may even be surprised (and gratified) when people start introducing you as a photographer.

Photographing birds is usually not easy and in addition to all the other things that contribute to getting quality photos of birds, there is always a definite Luck factor—Good Luck!

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I have posted a variety of tips and techniques in previous articles:

But in this article you have an easy to refer to reference list—the best I can offer to anyone interested in photographing birds—whether you are a beginner or a seasoned pro.

Have a lot of fun, get excited, display your favorite photos, and share your photos with others— it’s all part of the joy of photographing birds!

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman