20 Essential Tips for Bird Photography

Marianne Stenger
14th June 2022

Capturing sharp and well-composed images of birds can be challenging. After all, they’re fast-moving, unpredictable, and even the faintest of sounds may startle them. 

With that said, photographing birds in their natural habitat can be extremely rewarding. Birds are the ideal photography subject for new wildlife photographers, because regardless of where in the world you find yourself, you’re always guaranteed to have at least a few different bird species around you. 

So what are the most important things you need to know before getting started with bird photography? We’ve lined up 20 essential tips for bird photography, from equipment and camera settings to composition, light and perspective.

1. Research your subject

Before you even pick up your camera, it’s a good idea to learn more about the bird species you have in your local area. The more you know about the birds you wish to photograph, the easier it will be to choose the right locations and times of day, as well as predict certain behaviour. 

A few important things you should know include where the birds nest, what they like to eat, and whether or not they are migratory. For example, robins can be spotted all year round in Britain, whereas the number of starlings almost doubles in winter and leads to the unique spectacle of starling murmurations. Swallows, on the other hand, only nest in Britain during the summer months and then head south during September and October. 

2. Invest in a telephoto lens

The most important piece of equipment to invest in when you’re first starting out, aside from a camera, is a telephoto lens. In order to photograph birds, you’ll need a focal length of at least 300mm, although this depends somewhat on the types of birds you’d like to photograph. For larger species such as ducks, geese and herons, you can often get a fair bit closer and would likely manage with 300mm. When photographing smaller birds, however, a longer focal length of 400mm or even 600mm will allow you to get in closer and capture more detail.

3. Use a tripod

Telephoto lenses are heavy and bulky, so hand holding one for a long period of time can get quite tiring. This is where a tripod can come in handy. The type of tripod you should invest in will depend on the camera and lens you’re using, as well as the type of photos you want to shoot. 

For example, birds are best photographed from eye level, so if you’re often crouching low to the ground such as when photographing puffins or lapwings, a camera bean bag would be useful. On the other hand, if you want to photograph birds in flight, a gimbal head tripod will give you more creative freedom.

4. Understand the light

The type of light you have available to you when photographing birds is also an important consideration. The golden hour, just after sunrise or before sunset, is ideal for bird photography, especially because many types of birds are more active around this time of day. 

But there are other considerations as well, such as the direction of the light, reflections, shadows and colour temperature, as all of these elements tend to change depending on the time of day and where you position yourself when shooting. 

5. Use a fast shutter speed

Shutter speed is one of the most important camera settings to get right when photographing birds. As a general rule, the faster your shutter speed, the easier it will be to freeze motion. However, the exact shutter speed you should use will vary depending on the lens you’re using, the lighting conditions and what your subject is doing. 

To experiment with different shutter speeds, you can either put your camera fully in manual mode, or use ‘Shutter Priority’ mode. This second option lets you select the desired shutter speed and ISO, but leaves it up to the camera to adjust the aperture for the correct exposure. For a more in-depth look at shutter speed and how it affects your photographs, check out our Beginner’s Guide to Shutter Speed

6. Understand how aperture influences your photos

Although there’s no right or wrong aperture to use for bird photography, it is important to understand how this camera setting will influence your photographs. 

A wide aperture (indicated by a lower f-stop number such as f/1.8) will result in only a small area of the image being in focus. This is great for isolating the bird from the background. In contrast, a narrow aperture (indicated by a higher f-stop number such as f/16) will result in much more of the image being sharply in focus. This is great if you want to photograph more than one bird at a time or include some of the bird’s natural habitat in your images. If you’d like to know more, check out our Beginner’s Guide to Depth of Field

7. Use continuous autofocus and burst mode

Since birds move so quickly, using the right focus mode is essential in order to freeze the fast action and capture sharp photos. When photographing birds in flight, ‘continuous focusing mode’ will ensure that the camera engages focus whenever the shutter button is half pressed. It will then automatically make adjustments as your subject moves. 

On Canon cameras, this setting is called ‘Al Servo’ whereas Nikon and other manufacturers call it ‘AF-C.’ Burst mode or continuous shooting mode is another camera setting that will make bird photography a good deal easier, as you’ll be able to capture a series of images in quick succession without missing any of the action.

8. Shoot in RAW

Shooting in RAW rather than JPEG is a great way to get more from your bird images in post processing and make the colours pop. Like JPEG, RAW is a file format. However, where JPEG files compress data to reduce the file size, RAW files hold all the data from your camera sensor. 

Although this does mean your images will take up a lot more space on your memory card and harddrive, it also means you’ll have more flexibility to make adjustments in post processing, such as white balance, shadow and highlight regions as well as contrast and colour.

9. Check the background

Photographing birds against a clean and simple background is the best way to make sure that they’ll stand out. Of course, it’s easy to get so carried away in the excitement of the moment that you forget about the background entirely. 

But, since even the best capture can be ruined by unattractive elements such as buildings or telephone poles, it’s worth thinking about the background before you even begin shooting. If there’s no way to position yourself to avoid these distracting elements entirely, you might still be able to minimise them by using a wider aperture to blur the background.

10. Aim for an eye-level perspective

When photographing birds, you’ll want to position yourself in such a way that you’re able to photograph the bird at its eye level. Although it may not be possible every time, photographing birds from an eye-level perspective will create a stronger connection between your subject and audience than photographing the same scene from below or above.

Another important consideration is that the bird’s eye should always be your main point of focus. This is because our natural instinct is to try to make eye contact, so if the bird’s eye isn’t sharply in focus, the whole image can appear unfocused.

11. Look for the action

Photographs that show birds engaged in some type of activity will always be more interesting than those that simply show them perched on a branch or other surface. The better you know your subject, the better you’ll be able to predict their behaviour and capture them in action. Activities that can be exciting to photograph include birds interacting, performing courtship rituals, fishing, foraging, building nests, feeding their offspring or taking flight. In general, birds are more active in the early morning, although this does vary from one species to another.  

12. Dress appropriately

Because birds are so easily startled, it’s best to try to blend into your surroundings as much as possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to dress in full camouflage, but it’s a good idea to choose neutral, earth-tones rather than bright colours that will stand out in nature. You’ll also want to make sure your clothes are comfortable, breathable, and allow for full range of motion so you can easily squat or crouch low to the ground as needed. If you’re heading out to shoot in cold or wet weather, having a good base, middle and outer layer is essential for staying warm and dry.

13. Let them come to you

Although heading out into nature to photograph birds in their natural habitat is undoubtedly exciting, a birding perch in your own garden or even balcony will allow you to get in a lot more practice and sharpen your skills faster. 

Setting up your own perch for birding perch also lets you control the background and affords you more time to think about the direction of the light and where you would like to position yourself and your tripod. You can choose to keep it simple with a store bought bird feeder or bird table, or get creative with a setup that incorporates branches and vegetation.

14. Shoot silhouettes

If you’re photographing birds during the golden hour, it can also be fun to try your hand at capturing some bird silhouettes. Although ordinarily you would want the light coming from behind you, when shooting silhouettes, you’ll actually want to shoot against the light, as this technique is what creates the dark outline of your subject. 

When capturing silhouettes, you’ll want to slightly underexpose the image to ensure that the blacks in the image are as dark as possible and stand out against the background. The background is also very important with silhouettes, as you want to avoid any clutter or objects that aren’t easily distinguishable.

15. Practice your composition

Once you’ve mastered your camera settings, it’s time to start thinking about composition. Simple things like including more of a bird’s natural habitat or taking care not to clip a bird’s wings in an image can make a big difference. 

Aside from this, there are many different compositional techniques you can experiment with, including the rule of thirds, filling the frame and using contrast or shadows to create more aesthetically pleasing images. If you’d like to know more, check out these ten compositional techniques that will greatly improve your photographs. 

16. Play with motion blur

Although generally speaking you’ll want your bird images to be as sharp as possible, if you want to get creative with your bird photography, you can also play with intentional motion blur to give your images a more artistic quality. 

There are two ways to create motion blur, although in both cases, you’ll use a much slower shutter speed. The first option is to hold the camera steady as the bird flies by, while the second option is to move your camera while you trigger the shutter. Give these techniques a go at a few different shutter speeds to find the effect you like most.

17. Develop your post processing skills

Since you’ll most likely be shooting in RAW, a large portion of your time will also be spent editing all the images from your bird photography shoots. Start by investing in some photo editing software, whether it’s Photoshop, Lightroom or something else. 

Your next step will be learning how to use your software of choice to make basic adjustments such as cropping photos where necessary, removing noise and sharpening the image, as well as adjusting things like colour temperature, tint, exposure, white balance, contrast, shadows, highlights, vibrance and saturation. 

Keep in mind, though, that there is such a thing as ‘overprocessing.’ Try to resist the urge to add too much saturation or over sharpen an image to the point where it no longer looks realistic.

18. Learn from other bird photographers

One of the best ways to improve your bird photography, outside of getting out and practising with your camera,  is to study the work of other bird photographers. Pay attention to things like lighting and composition. Ask yourself what you like about an image, but also what you might have done differently. 

Keep in mind that it’s worth following not just the work of famous or well-established bird photographers, but also smaller local bird photographers who are photographing the types of birds you’re most likely to encounter in your area.

19. Practice often

Photography involves a lot of trial and error, so don’t get discouraged if it seems like your bird photographs aren’t up to scratch when you first start out. The more you practice, the easier it will become to adjust your camera settings according to the situation and nail each shot.  One thing that can help is to set aside a few hours each week for practice. You could also pick one new technique to work on each month, whether it’s capturing fast action, motion blur or a new compositional technique.  

20. Respect and protect nature

Photography can play an important role in conservation and protecting local wildlife habitats for birds and other wildlife. Even if you don’t consider yourself an environmentalist, as a wildlife or bird photographer, it’s important to show respect for the birds you are photographing as well as the habitats they need in order to survive. 

This means taking care not to disturb birds that are nesting by using a telephoto lens, not destroying or altering their environment in any way, avoiding the use of flash, and knowing which rules or laws may apply to each specific location.

Want to know more about bird photography or branch out further into other types of wildlife photography? Don’t miss our Ultimate Guide to Wildlife Photography. You can also check out our interview with British wildlife photographer Daniel Hauck.