Bird Photography: 6 tips for beautiful images

Looking to capture stunning photos of birds? While bird photography can often seem daunting, it’s actually pretty easy – once you get the hang of it.

1. Don’t obsess about equipment

Talk to any beginner bird photographer, and they’ll likely mention equipment such as ultra-fast cameras and long lenses.

And it’s true: Cameras and lenses do make a difference. But they don’t matter anywhere near as much as you might think.

You see, bird photography isn’t just about getting close. It’s also about creating beautiful compositions, getting the light just right, learning to expose properly, learning to track fast-moving subjects, etc. So while a longer lens is helpful, especially if your subjects are skittish, you can still capture beautiful bird images with a shorter lens – either by mastering stalking strategies or by capturing environmental bird pictures.

2. Think about bird photography lighting and composition

Light can make or break your bird photos – and so can composition. You need to pay careful attention to both these elements and do what you can to ensure they’re always working in your favor.

So what’s the best light for bird photography? Early morning and late afternoon light, also known as golden-hour lighting. Golden-hour lighting is soft, and as a bonus, the birds tend to be very active during these times.

Soft, golden-hour light has some wonderful characteristics. For instance, it:

  • prevents harsh shadows on the bird
  • enhances the glow in the bird’s plumage
  • creates a catchlight in the bird’s eyes

3. Get down for an eye-level perspective

We see our world at five to six feet high, but birds see the world from a few inches to a few feet off the ground. To get a feeling of the bird’s world, get down on their level!

In other words, don’t be afraid to crouch, squat, crawl, or lie flat against the ground. Yes, you might get a bit muddy. However, it’s the key to professional-looking, low-perspective images. 

Here are just a few of the benefits you get from low-perspective bird photography:

  • You’ll get true eye contact for more intimate photographs
  • You’ll get pleasing blur both in the foreground and background (note the blurred sand in the image above)
  • You’ll be low to the ground and therefore less threatening to your subject
  • You will transport the viewer into the bird’s world

Obviously, there are cases where you can’t get down low, and that’s okay – but where possible, drop to the ground. It can make all the difference.

4. Fill the frame

Want to get beautiful pictures of a bird? If you’re photographing a single individual, it’s often a good idea to fill the frame. Here are a few of the benefits:

  • It’s easy for the viewer to focus on the bird
  • It’s easy to achieve a pleasing blur or bokeh effect in the background
  • It’s easy to properly expose for the bird
  • It’s easy to compose in the field

Now, as I mentioned in my first tip, filling the frame isn’t always necessary – and sometimes, if you have a shorter lens, it’s not possible. But unless you’re envisioning a stunning environmental shot, I do recommend you at least try to fill the frame. Work on a low, slow approach (where you get low to the ground and inch forward), or even consider using a blind.

If your lens is sharp and you’re working with a high-megapixel camera, you can get away with a bit of cropping, but don’t rely on this too much; even the best images will start to break down if you try to turn a distant bird into a close-up masterpiece.

5. Tell a story

Storytelling in bird photography should not be confused with storytelling in books and movies. Storytelling is a way to express the time of the day, mood, place, or activity of the bird in a single photograph, and it’s mostly about including a bit of environment in the scene (along with a frame-filling bird, of course!).

For instance, you can include some grasses next to the bird, you can photograph the bird catching a fish, you can capture two birds interacting, and so on. If you decide to shoot a wider image (i.e., a shot with a non-frame-filling bird), then storytelling becomes especially critical; your story has to hold the viewer’s attention, because a small-in-the-frame bird won’t be enough.

6. Capture the action

Generally speaking, an action photo trumps a perching photo. If you can capture a bird in flight, a bird fighting, or a bird catching a fish, the viewer is bound to be impressed – so I recommend you look for action whenever possible.

Of course, capturing birds in action involves more effort and patience compared to capturing perched birds. However, with a little practice and perseverance, you can become a highly capable action bird photographer.

Here are a few tips for shooting birds in action:

  • Photograph early in the morning or late in the afternoon when birds are very active
  • Wait for the bird to move, then use burst mode to take several photographs at once
  • Track the bird until focus is locked before pressing the shutter (make sure you’re using continuous focus!)
  • Learn to anticipate the action either by observing or reading about birds

Pro tip: When birds are hungry, it’s easy to photograph them in action; they’ll often ignore you in their single-minded quest for food, though take care not to disturb them and maintain a considerable distance.


Photos: Patricia Rickman