Top Bird Photography Tips


Top Bird Photography Tips

Birds are probably the wildlife I spend most of my time photographing. With small songbirds, wetland birds and birds of prey you’re never short of photographic opportunity.

A snap shot of a bird is one thing but how do you get something a little extra? Let’s look at what we can do using some of the bird photography tips I’ve had success with over time.

Get the light right

This is a mute swan on a dull overcast day. Driving past the swans on a few different days made me confident they liked feeding here. If you find a good local snack bar you’re going to go back right?

I waited for a good morning forecast. When the forecast finally came I set the alarm so I could be there at sunrise. Using my car as a blind I was looking at the golden misty sunrise thinking that all this scene lacks is a bird flying in. Suddenly two silhouetted shapes appeared and I knew this was going to be the shot.

By finding a spot in dull weather then waiting for the light I created a nice image.

The magic moment

With digital cameras it is tempting to set the fast drive and try to machine gun your way to a decent photo. The trouble is this does not help with observing and picking your moment. The ‘moment’ could be when a flock of starlings makes an interesting shape. Or maybe moorhens having an argument.

You can predict some moments for instance a swan will follow preening by drying its wings. If you miss something don’t beat yourself up, you may get another chance.


Simplifying your images works well. Placing A bird against a simple soft background is the best way to do this. The further a background is the more out of focus it is.

Even if you have no intention of getting published in a magazine just imagine you’re submitting to an editor. Ask yourself “could my editor place text anywhere on my image without cluttering it?” If the answer is no think about adding some empty space. By having the bird looking into this space you’ll get a better composition.

Stick with a subject

The longer you quietly observe a bird the more it will start to disregard you as a threat. Then you are witnessing a treat as they start to behave naturally before your eyes. If you press the shutter and move on then sure you’ll get a shot. If you stay that little bit longer more interesting things may start to happen
Take these Gannets. To start with it may be just a single bird. Hang around for longer and you may see it lift its wings or grab nesting material. In this case another bird entered the scene. Then they were having a dispute. All these shots would have been missed if I’d just grabbed the first picture and walked away.

Bird Photography Tip #3 – Set the Background

The third of my bird photography tips is to consider background. Before you get caught up in the excitement of the moment and start snapping away have a look around the rest of the frame. Countless times I have gone home thinking I’ve got some great photos of birds demonstrating fantastic behavior. I’ve then uploaded them to my computer and discovered that there’s a branch right behind the bird looking like its growing right out of its head. AAAAGH!

I took the photograph below of a gray heron sitting looking up at his nest at a heronry close to where I live.

Gray Heron (Ardea cinerea) showing a cluttered background Exposure: 1/0000s at f/8.0, ISO 400, Focal Length: 280mm Lens: EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM with 1.4x extender, Camera: Canon EOS 40D

I didn’t like the branches around the heron, so by changing my position I was able to take the shot below which makes it stand out much more clearly. The shot is typical of the style that I like to shoot – birds either in their environment or showing their behavior.

Herons nest in groups at the top of the highest trees in nests constructed of branches and sticks.

Gray Heron (Ardea cinerea) showing an un-cluttered background

Gray Heron (Ardea cinerea) showing an un-cluttered background Exposure: 1/1250s at f/8.0, ISO 400, Focal Length: 280mm Lens: EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM with 1.4x extender, Camera: Canon EOS 40D

Even worse is to not realize that there are man made objects in the picture such as cars or traffic signs. It sounds obvious but in the heat of the moment its easy to miss it!

Try to avoid a tilted horizon or one that right through the center of the picture.

I do everything I can to make the background as good as possible but if the background is cluttered and there is nothing I can do about it I usually blur it by minimizing the depth of field. In the shot of the Little Owl below, the background was cluttered so I made sure that it was blurred by shooting at F2.8, keeping the depth of field small. If you’re not sure how to make depth of field work for you in wildlife photography then have a read of my depth of field explanation.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) taken with a wide open aperture in order to keep the depth of field low, resulting in a blurred, uncluttered background.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) taken with a wide open aperture in order to keep the depth of field low, resulting in a blurred, uncluttered background. Exposure: 1/1000s at f/2.8 -1/3 EV, ISO 400, Focal Length: 160mm Lens: EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, Camera: Canon EOS 40D

I love the way the little owl is looking down as if it has just spotted his prey.

Bird Photography Tip #4 – Get Down Low

Try to get on the same level as the bird. It usually means getting wet and dirty, but its worth it – just wear waterproofs!

This shot was taken from a standing position, looking down on the bird…

…it is much more dramatic and intimate when taken from the same level.

Bird Photography Tip #5 – Use Reflections

If the bird is near water and there is a reflection then try to get it in the photo. Apply all of the other composition tips and treat the bird and reflection as the subject.

Don’t make this mistake…

Bird Photography Tip #6 – Don’t Overlook Common Birds

Number 6 in our bird photography tips is not to overlook common birds. It is human nature to go after the rarer birds.

As wildlife photographers I’m sure we can see the beauty in all living things. Look at the colours of a blue tit or a mallard duck. If they were in fewer numbers people would travel from afar for a glimpse through binoculars.

Common subjects are easier to observe for a longer time. What happens the longer you can wait? Well the more likely you are to capture ‘the’ moment when something happens.

Moorhens are one such common species. Minutes from where I live there is a canal where they can nearly always be found. This accessibility makes it all too easy to walk past them and miss the photographic potential.

Recently after spending time some with some moorhens I was rewarded with a small dispute I managed to capture

Getting low ensured the surrounding water was softened and all attention is on the battling birds. Setting the camera to its fastest drive mode gives lots of images to choose from.

Mute swans spend a lot of time doing nothing but duck their head in the water to feed. As you can spend a lot of time with them though, there’s time to wait for them to do something special. A swan taking off is certainly special, it takes a powerful run up to lift something that heavy into flight.

Bird Photography Tip #6 – Know your Histogram and Blinking Highlights

My favourite tools for getting the right exposure are blinking highlights and the histogram.

It’s important not to blow out the highlights as these cannot be recovered. Typically this leads to loss of detail in white feathers. If detail in the shadows is lost then it can be more acceptable.

A very quick way to check is to view your shot on the LCD screen immediately after and check if there are any blinking highlights. If there are, and its in an important part of the picture such as the birds plumage, you will need to underexpose.

Alternatively check the histogram. Try to keep it as far to the right as possible without clipping the brightest values.

The other problem you will experience with exposure is when photographing a bird with a lot of white feathers such as a swan. If the bird fills a lot of the frame (1/3rd or more) then the camera will underexpose, making the feathers look gray. To resolve this you will need to overexpose the shot.

This is covered in great detail on our Adjusting Exposure page.

Finally, the best of the bird photography tips is simply to get out in the field and practice, practice, practice!

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