Photographing Birds in the UK: an interview with David Biggs

Marianne Stenger
1st November 2020

Photographing birds is a great way to dip your toe into the world of wildlife photography. Unlike most other types of wildlife, birds can be found anywhere; whether you live miles away from the nearest town or in a bustling city centre. 

To provide a bit of an insight into what goes into the making of those pristine bird images you see displayed in magazines and on social media, we spoke to wildlife photographer David Biggs. 

He recently took a yearlong sabbatical to focus on his photography, and one of the results from this was his beautiful UK Wildlife photo book, which won the Bob Books Book of the month competition in March. Here are his insights on photographing birds in the UK, as well as some of our own top tips for bird photography.

Images © David Biggs

First of all, could you tell us a bit about how you got into wildlife photography? 

I didn't pick up a camera with the intention of becoming a wildlife photographer. I went to night school to study portrait photography and then started photographing weddings for friends. This was in 1996 when everyone was still shooting on film and either self-processing or relying on photo labs. 

I had a young family and we would often take trips to the Zoo. I'd shoot some film, run prints and then hang them around the house. Friends started asking me for photographs of specific animals for their children, which was quite pleasing for me as I would see my work exhibited in their lounges. 

I was lucky enough to win the 2011 British Wildlife Awards, Urban section with an image entitled Champagne Starlings. It was published around the world and I'm really proud of it as I seem to have an affinity with starling murmurations. This set me off on my wildlife journey, although it took me another six years to realise that this was the direction I wanted to take my photography in.

Images © David Biggs

What do you most love about photographing wildlife in the UK? 

I quit my Job in April 2019 to spend a year travelling to many of the fantastic locations around the UK. This provided me with the opportunity to photograph spectacular wildlife events that I'd previously only seen on TV or heard about from other photographers. 

I'm passionate about the opportunities that are available within the UK and I'm bewildered why people always see the need to jet off around the world for an adventure when we have so many events that happen right here. I love the fact that for the majority of time when you’re out on location, you’re on your own waiting for your chosen subject to make an appearance.

Do you have any favourite locations for wildlife photography within the UK? 

I live in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, and one of my favourite locations is a nature reserve called Venus Pool. Although Covid-19 has now closed the hides, the most fun I've had was spending the day watching five male great spotted woodpeckers chasing one another’s tails. 

I've found most of my locations by word of mouth or online. My creative process has changed in the year that I've spent off, mainly due to the Covid-19 restrictions that are now in place. Luckily, I've gained permissions from local landowners and now have access to other areas of the Shropshire Countryside and the River Severn. 

I tend to target specific animals that are known to be in an area, and I use camera traps to track their movements with the intention of setting up a hide. I'm currently tracking otters and hope to get some images once I've confirmed their presence. You need loads of patience, of course, but sometimes you can be lucky and get the shot that you want within minutes of setting up.

Images © David Biggs

What sort of equipment would you recommend for bird photography? 

I'm a Canon user and I tailor the equipment that I carry to the animal I want to capture. For birds in flight, I mainly use a 400mm prime lens with a X1.4 convertor attached. I will also always shoot in RAW format. I'd urge people who are just starting out to get a wild bird feeder and then sit and watch what comes to feed. You might be surprised by what you see. 

It’s also a good idea to get to know what’s on your local patch. For instance, if you take a walk around your street, I guarantee that you will come across a sparrow hawk chasing birds. Finally, if you haven’t already done so, take a course in photography to get to know your camera and lenses.

Could you tell us a little about your first wildlife photo book? 

My intention with the Wildlife Photobook was to provide me with a record of some of the images that I'd taken whilst out on location, and also to promote my work to people who appreciate wildlife. The best part about putting the book together was selecting which images to include and which ones to leave out. It also rekindled memories of how I shot the images.

I always think early spring and winter are the best times of the year to photograph wildlife. Spring because many of the adults are out feeding their young, so there is more opportunity to see them. Winter because there is less cover and less food for the larger mammals, so again, there’s more chance for them to be seen.

I've got a few projects on the go at the moment; Otters, Shropshire Barn Owls, and Hares. I'm also incorporating drone photography into my work, which means I have to study for my PFCO and learn how to take images with a drone.

Images © David Biggs

5 essential tips for photographing birds

Looking to improve your own bird photography? Here are five tips that will help you get crisp, dynamic photographs of the birdlife in your local area. 

1. Invest in a telephoto lens 

Birds are notoriously skittish, so without a telephoto lens, it will be difficult to capture the type of sharp closeup shots you want. With this in mind, you will need to invest in a telephoto lens that can reach at least 300 to 400mm, as this will allow you to photograph the bird from a distance. 

When it comes to telephoto lenses, you can opt for a prime telephoto lens or a zoom telephoto lens. Since both prime lenses and zoom lenses have their pros and cons, you’ll need to do some research to decide which type of lens will best suit your budget and requirements. It’s also a good idea to purchase a sturdy tripod, as it will be easier to get razor sharp images in different types of light when the camera is kept perfectly still. 

2. Use faster shutter speeds

Getting sharp photos of birds will require faster shutter speeds, particularly if you want to photograph them in flight. Exactly how fast your shutter speed should be will depend on a number of factors, including the amount of light available, the focal length of your lens, whether you are hand-holding the camera or using a tripod, and how fast the bird is moving. If you’d like to get a better understanding of shutter speed and how it will affect your photos, check out our beginner’s guide to shutter speed. 

3. Focus on the eyes 

Whether you’re photographing people or birds, it’s always important to focus on the eyes. This is because our attention is naturally drawn to a person or animal’s eyes. If the eyes are not in focus, the viewer won’t feel connected to your subject, and the whole image may seem slightly off. Of course, with bird photography, you’ll usually only have the option of focusing on one eye at a time, which actually makes it easier. If the bird is moving quickly, you may need to use a slightly wider depth of field (higher f-stop number) as this will increase your chances of keeping the eye in focus.

4. Think about the composition 

Filling the frame is a great way to make the bird the sole focus of your photograph and also minimise a cluttered or distracting background. There are also times when including the surroundings will add to the photo, especially if you’re shooting in the bird’s natural habitat. The most important rule however, is that the bird should always be the main focus of the photograph. When composing your images, try to consider everything from the foreground and background to the position of the bird’s head as well as compositional techniques such as the rule of thirds, leading lines, and negative space. 

5. Do some research

At times you may get lucky and spot a bird you want to photograph without too much planning. But doing some research on your subject will equip you with the knowledge you need to be in the right place at the right time. 

Start by finding out what kind of birdlife you can expect to see in your local area or the area you plan to travel to. Once you know what type of birds you’d like to photograph, you can learn more about their behaviour and habits. What time of day are you most likely to see particular birds? Is there any behaviour the bird might exhibit that gives away their next move? For instance, before taking flight, some birds might ruffle their feathers or bob their head, and knowing this gives you time to prepare your camera and increases your chances of getting the shot you want.

David Biggs is British wildlife photographer based in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. You can see more of his work by visiting his website or following him on Facebook or Instagram @lumiervintage. For tips and advice on improving your wildlife photography as well as turning your best images into a photo book, check out our Ultimate Guide to Wildlife Photography.