With another spring season of bird photography opportunities ahead, I’ll revisit what I consider to be the basics of bird photography. I wish someone had offered such a list to me when I bought my first SLR camera and zoom lens. I’ve created this list using my experience along with tips from professionals and others I gleaned by reading extensively. I hope this information will give you a good introduction or a helpful review of all the things you can do to improve your chances of getting quality bird photos this spring.
Not every tip listed below in short, concise form will be useful to every photographer but everyone will be able to glean some pointers. I hope the list also offers a bit of inspiration and enthusiasm throughout spring migration and beyond. Many of these methods become second nature with time like making sure the sun is behind you as you focus your lens on birds and holding your breath when you press the shutter button.
This list will help make you a better bird photographer and add a new level of enthusiasm with renewed production from your camera and lens.
I keep my camera within reach at all times. I never want to say: “I wish I had my camera!”
Quality photos require good light. For optimum lighting, make every effort to position youself between the sun and the bird with your shadow pointing at the subject.
The best time to photograph is when the sun is at a 30- to 60-degree angle above the ground—during morning 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.
Be aware of shadows on the bird you are photographing 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 obvious in photos it’s good to watch specifically for shadows and adjust your position to avoid them when possible.
If you try to approach a bird, keep a low profile, move slowly and don’t walk directly at the bird; move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever closer. If necessary slowly zig-zag from side to side as you move ever closer while keeping the sun at your back.
Don’t 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.
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 when 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.
When photographing birds, stabilize your camera and lens as best you can to reduce body shakes that can be transferred as you hold your camera. (Body shake includes your beating heart and natural internal movements.)
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, especially when photographing flying birds. Dealing with a tripod, frankly, takes much of the fun out of bird photography, at least for me. If you use a tripod, select one with thick strong lower legs and you should also use a shutter release cable—that’s no fun either.
Simple camera technique
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.
Preset your camera so you are ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice which happens fairly often when photographing birds. When I’m in position to photograph and have an extra moment I double-check the settings and adjust any if needed. During sunny days, I preset the ISO to 400, 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.
Personally, I find the 400 ISO setting to be the best under good sunlight conditions.During low light periods or 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 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 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 your camera model.
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.”
To better understand how to position a bird within your photo frame, consider 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.
Be aware of the background of your photo. Try to eliminate distracting twigs and grass from view which may simply be a matter of moving your camera to the right or left or taking a step right or left to get a clearer background that will be less distracting. However, in some cases a twig with budding leaves or other vegetation can add a natural element to a bird photograph.
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 is helpful in stopping any motion and creating sharp images. Adjust your ISO if necessary.
Mobile photo blind options
You can use your vehicle as a mobile blind. Birds tend to react to people but mostly ignore a parked vehicle.
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 any time you are photographing to keep your camera lens as stable as possible.
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.
As mentioned earlier, 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.
When you see a promising photo op be especially aware of any vehicles driving behind you and keep safety your first priority. You may need to drive by a bird, find a safe place to pull over, and 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 with respect to the direction of the sunlight. Keep safety a priority, as always.
Photo editing: Composition & design
When using photo editing software, alter the photo as little as possible. Simple cropping of an image can improve a photo by increasing the size of the bird within a photo frame or 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 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 by its location or name along with the year and month the photo was taken. An example of my naming system is: AZ, Catalina SP_2023_03.
Keep at least two copies of all your photos and preferably keep them in different locations to ensure you never lose any of your valuable photos due to a computer crash or damage by fire, flood, or theft. I keep my photos on my laptop for easy access and on external hard drives.
When photographing birds, there is always a definite luck factor. Good Luck!
I provide a variety of tips and techniques on an occasional basis usually mixed into narratives describing photo opportunities but here you have an easy to refer to reference list.
Following I offer additional posts for your photographing and reading pleasure:
- Tips and Techniques for Improving Bird and Wildlife Photography
- Bird Photography Basics: On Camera Equipment and Shooting Techniques
- The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions
- The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure
Have fun, get excited, display your favorite photos, and share your photos with others—it’s all part of the joy of photographing birds. Enjoy this spring season!
Photography is the beauty of life, captured.