Bird Photography

February 12, 2021  •  2 Comments

Bird photography can be one of the most satisfying and most frustrating experiences for a new photographer.   I will share with you my thoughts as an amateur photographer that has been learning and trying very hard to get the perfect shot of several birds.

Downy WoodpeckerDowny WoodpeckerDowny Woodpecker

There are several ways to approach a common question of how I get my photos.

1. The dreaded gear question

To start, use what you have.  I encourage you to use what you have until you become limited in what can be done.  Do you have a point and shoot with a long zoom - go for it you will get good shots as well and don't have to get caught up in some of the discussion below.  But stick around, I have some good tips for those cameras as well.  I mean, yea, I have one of those too and I do use it.

The first item on the gear list would be the lens:

You don't have to have the giant zoom for wildlife and in this case for birds.  A large zoom is useful, but not necessary.  So, let's assume you have a basic DLSR with the kit lens that came in the box.  That lens is typically something like 18 to 35mm.  If you are a member of a club, then see who else has the same camera with compatible lenses and ask to borrow a lens.  Or better yet, go on a club trip and share a lens.  I am a Canon user, so a word of caution that Canon full-frame cameras use EF lenses, and the crop sensor Canons can use EF-S and EF.   DO NOT use an EF-S on a Canon full-frame camera.

The next item would be a tripod

Use a tripod or mono-pod to photograph birds when you are out to get the sharpest photos possible.  I will talk about settings below to help in getting sharp photos, but this just as important as the settings.  Especially if you are using any kind of zoom, a tripod will remove camera-shake that will cause motion blur.  It may be subtle in some of the photos, but it will be evident in the feedback asking how you get such sharp photos.

Here is a photo, that I wish I had my camera on a tripod.  I like the photo of the eagle, but it is not as sharp as I would have liked it to be.

Immature Eagle on the IceImmature Eagle on the IceImmature Eagle on the Ice

2. I almost dread the what are your settings.

You may wonder why I would dread this question.  I dread it because I don't want someone to take my settings and use them in the field only to find that the settings do not work for them.  Instead, take what I suggest here as a guide and come up with your own settings.  Each time I go out, I set my camera settings before I take the first photo, but seldom stay on those settings.

Understanding the exposure triangle of Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO is critical here.   Before you choose any setting learn how much and how fast a bird moves.  Capturing a photo of a bird in flight vs sitting on a branch calls for very different settings.  Don't put artificial limits on the settings.  I have heard many times to avoid high ISOs due to noise.  I heard it so many times I limited my shots and probably missed some good opportunities.  I don't want a super high ISO, but I would much have a sharp photo with noise than a blurry photo without noise.

That said, here is how I start when I go on a photoshoot to look for birds:  I put my camera in manual with Auto ISO.  Then I set my aperture to a fairly forgiving setting of F8 to F11.  Then I dial shutter speed to 1/1000 as the slowest that I want to go.   If my ISO is getting too high (64K for my camera) I will open the aperture to 5.6 to let more light in so the ISO will automatically come down.  But I am okay if my ISO has to be high to get the shot.  If you are concerned it is easy enough to change the shutter speed and aperture to get the ISO you want.  I just take multiple shots to get many photos with different ISOs and can choose the best when I get home.

So, walking out the door, I am set on manual with auto ISO, shutter speed set to 1/1000, and aperture probably at f8.0.  I will take a few test shots at those settings and will likely move my shutter to 1/2000 if it is a very bright day.

3. How to be in the right place at the right time

I could talk for a long time on this topic but will try to be as brief as possible.   The most basic philosophy I have is it takes persistence of going back to the same place many times until that right opportunity presents itself to you.  If you go once and get an epic shot, well good for you.  That would be total luck and that is okay, but don't count on it.  Even if I get the best photo on my first visit does not mean I ever give up getting that next photo that "wows" the viewer.

Even if you are in the right place at the right time does not mean you are going to get that epic photo.  You need to also need to understand the animal (bird in this event) and how it moves around.  Knowing that a bird is skittish and will leave at the slightest noise is critical.  For those times, you need to have the lens cap off and the camera ready to use.

If you are after a specific bird or animal learn their behavior.  There is plenty of Youtube videos that will give you some advice to learn animal behavior.  Ask your local birding clubs, naturalists, park rangers, etc because they will know when and where to find them.

In closing, here is one more photo from my recent trip a location with many birds and known for bald eagles.  Again, no tripod for the photo, so not as sharp.  I was also on a shutter speed of 1/400 which I did not notice until I got home and started looking at them.  I would have wanted 1/2000 or faster for these birds in flight.

Bald Eagles in FlightBald Eagles in FlightBald Eagles in Flight



@Terri, Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. I have a non-bird blog series that will be starting this Thursday on how to do firework photography. I am starting early because it will be a 4-part series so at one a week it will finish the week before 4th of July.
Terri Williams(non-registered)
Got a lot of information on bird photography. Thanks, Adam for sharing the nice resources...........
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I am glad you found my blog.  I am a photographer with a passion for awesome shots.  I go to great lengths to capture many of my photos.  I will re-visit a location over and over knowing there is a spectacular photo just waiting to be had if I am there at the right time.   I also enjoy finding how to do some abstract projects (check out my time-lapse post) and will be writing about them.

Send me a note via my contact page for some projects you would like to see me try and write about.  I am not afraid to try almost any project.  Doing the obscure forces me to do things that I don't do with the typical photo shoot and helps me learn even more.