How to Get Great Bird Photos the Right Way
Great photos of birds come with some effort. Most birds will not stay still for you to get a photo. So, with practice and planning, you can get that great shot. You will find it takes more than photography skills to get the photo you want.
Before you take your first photo of any bird, let’s start with some rules of etiquette. Yes, etiquette! Birds (and any other wildlife) work to protect their family and their territory. They hunt for food to feed their young and they work hard to build shelters. They make calls to communicate with other birds for mating, finding food, warning of danger, and other reasons. Some animals need all the energy they have stored and do not need to be moving unnecessarily.
Birds need their energy to complete all their tasks each day. So, if you disturb them and they fly away, that is time they are losing to be looking for food, building their shelters, or caring for their young.
Here are some “Do Not” behaviors for us to follow:
Here are some “Do” behaviors for us to follow
How to get the shot (Technical, Lighting, Time, Camera)
Strictly speaking on the camera settings, my priority is a fast shutter speed while minimizing ISO. Shutter speed can range from about 1/125 to 1/4000 when I am photographing birds. When possible, I use a tripod or monopod.
If a bird is in flight, I strive for at least 1/1000 shutter speed but want faster.
For birds perched and not moving, I will go as low as 1/125 shutter speeds.
If the bird is hopping around on the ground, I like to start at about 1/500 sec.
To get these shutter speeds there are several options. All these are acceptable methods. Some may work better than others but use what works best for you. I will start with my preferences and why I use them
This is my preferred method (Note: this setting is not available on all cameras):
I set the ISO to automatic because the birds will move into different lighting conditions, and I use aperture priority and adjust my aperture to try to get a lower ISO
Use Shutter Priority and set the shutter speed according to the amount of movement by the bird. With ISO on auto, pay attention to ISO and Aperture settings that the camera is automatically set. Watch the exposure meter to ensure it is not over or under-exposed.
If you can it is preferred to be slightly under-exposed than over-exposed.
Use full manual mode. However, there are several options to help.
As stated above, if your camera has a setting to limit the shutter speed range you can increase the minimum to 1/125 or any faster shutter speed you want to use.
You can set the ISO to automatic while only adjusting the Aperture and Shutter Speed.
I seldom use this method with birds because they will frequently move from a shadow to a lighted area very quickly and back again. Making these adjustments when in manual can be challenging if you are not well practiced at making those adjustments.
Use the automatic setting with the running icon.
Use this method if you are not comfortable with using any of the other recommendations. The running icon attempts to use higher shutter speeds
No flash, but lighting is still important. If the bird is deep in the woods, it may be darker and difficult to get a well-exposed photo at an acceptable shutter speed or aperture that you are wanting to use. Try to find locations where the sun will be lighting the face of the bird.
I found birds to be more active during morning and evening hours and their colors are best just after the golden hour in the morning or just before the golden hour in the evening. This is probably the best light and golden hour is awesome as well.
The direction of the sun is important and while you cannot control the sun, you can control where you are positioned. Try to be in a position with the sun at your back and shining on the front side of the bird.
Time and persistence are key to getting a good shot, a better, shot, and “the shot”. If you get “the shot” on the first outing it will be pure luck. Professional photographers spend hours and days on location to get “the shot”.
You don’t have to spend hours and days, but on the same note don’t expect to get “the shot” on your first outing. I will spend an hour or more waiting for a bird or animal to arrive in a location and I will return several times but still may not get “the shot”
By spending time, you will learn the habits of the bird you want to photograph. You will see that they like to go to a certain tree or area of a water source. You will learn if the bird perches for a long time, or only for a few seconds before they move on.
Once you start learning the habits of the bird you can then work on where to position yourself to get the best light on the bird.
Finally, which camera should I use?
It depends on what you want to do with the photo. Do you want to only share them on social media? Do you want to print them or enlarge them?
Any camera will do, but this is one time where a DLSR or Mirrorless camera will shine. To capture a bird in the wild (not at your backyard bird feeder) I find using a smartphone much harder to get a close photo of a bird.
Some smartphones have better cameras than others but may have limitations when zooming in to get a closer photo.