How to Take Photos of Birds – The Complete Guide

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Would you like to take photos of birds?

It’s possible. You can take photos of birds with any camera, even a basic point-and-shoot camera.

We’ll begin with a equipment considerations and how they affect bird photography. Then will cover basic techniques, such as finding and approaching birds. Last, we’ll cover more advanced techniques that lead to better photos.

Throughout this article I’ve recommended resources that I hope you’ll find useful. I use them and encourage you to consider them. This article flows in a logical sequence of ideas.

First there are challenges to test your commitment.

Then you need a camera, so we’ll begin with considerations in selecting a camera. Other equipment might help, so that appears next.

Once you have a camera, you need to find birds.

And then, once you find birds — finally — you can take photos. To help, you’ll find both basic and advanced tips.

Bird Photography Is Difficult

Taking photos of birds is challenging. Here are three big obstacles that you have to overcome.

Challenge #1: Birds Hide

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Birds spend most of their time inside trees or under shrubs. They do this because it’s safer.

Fact: No bird wakes up planning to sit on an exposed branch posing for photos.

Really.

The bird is a Wilson’s Warbler, Male.

Since it’s bright yellow, it’s easier to find than brown birds that hide in shadows.

Challenge #2: Birds Move

birds-move

Birds are living creatures who spend their time working on bird chores, such as finding food, preening feathers, and finding food.

As a result, birds move. Constantly. When they move, they go out of focus or they leave the frame.

Then the photo is ruined, unless you know people who enjoy seeing blurry pictures of birds.

The bird is a female House Finch, leaving a Fig Tree.

Challenge #3: Birds Don’t Like People

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Contrary to popular cartoons, birds avoid people.

They do this because anything that’s large and moves could be a predator – yes, this includes you.

The bird is a Spotted Sandpiper. We know that obstacles exist to test our commitment.

So if you’re still interested in taking photos of birds, let’s continue.

And if you just want to see photos of birds, welcome.

Camera and Equipment Considerations

bird-camera-featureFirst you’ll need a camera. (You knew that, right?)

Any camera will do. The difference is: Some cameras do a better job than others.

There are three features that matter in bird photography. Here’s what to consider.

Telephoto Lens: Larger focal lengths put you closer to the subject.

Selecting a focal length depends upon two things: 1) The size of the bird that you want to photograph, and 2) How much you want to spend.

If you want to take photos of large birds, such as geese in parks, you can use any camera with any lens. If, however, you want to take photos of small birds, you will need a telephoto lens.

The Canada Goose was about 6 feet (2-m) away when I took its photo with a Canon SX-30 (a point and shoot camera) with a 136 mm lens. The Bushtit, which is about 4.5-in long (11-cm), was about 35 feet (10-m) away when I took its photo with a Canon 7D and a Canon 500 mm f/4 lens plus a 1.4X Extender.

I recommend buying as large a telephoto lens as possible because this will enable you to take photos of birds from farther away.

Frame Rate: Some cameras will take bursts of photos. A higher frame rate is better because it allows more photos in a sequence.

This is useful because you can blanket the bird with a sequence of photos, hoping to take one worth keeping. Since most birds are constantly moving (as you’ll see in the video below), it’s almost impossible to press the shutter fast enough to catch the best pose.

Camera Response: This is a measure of how quickly the camera focuses and makes adjustments when taking a photo.

Faster is better because sometimes a bird stays in place for only seconds. So a camera with a slow response will miss taking some photos. The bird will be gone before the camera can focus on it.

This happens even with my professional system. I’ve seen birds fly away during the seconds that it took my lens to focus on them.

Here are four cameras that offer an excellent combination of key features – large telephoto lenses, reasonable frame rates, and acceptable response – at reasonable prices.

If you want better performance than offered by these cameras, you’ll need to consider DSLRs.

Note: I used a Canon SX30 for some of the photos in this article because I wanted to show what can be done with a point-and-shoot camera. Otherwise, I used a Canon 7D.

Quick note:

A high frame rate will also help you take better photos of other fast moving critters, such as athletes, pets, and children. Although a challenge, these creatures are easier to photograph than birds because they seldom fly away.

My System

This is the system that I used to take most of the photos in this article.

And some were taken with the Canon SX-30, mentioned above.

cannon-lensThe rest of the photos were taken with a Canon 7D (a DSLR), using one of these lenses:

– Canon 100-400 mm lens, often set at 400 mm.

– Canon 500 mm f/4 lens (Most of the photos).

– Canon 600 mm f/4 Series II lens

Clothing and Gear

If you plan to spend a significant amount of time outside, you might consider the following outdoor clothes. Most likely you already own these things.

Sun Hat: A sun hat will shade your eyes so that you can see more effectively.

I recommend a hat with a wide brim to protect your face, neck, and ears from sun exposure.

Bird Friendly Shirt: Some birds are frightened by white (i.e., they fly away). So it’s a good idea to wear other colors, especially greens, browns, and blues.

I wear a green plaid shirt because then I look like a bird watcher / bird photographer.

Sturdy Shoes: Hiking boots or sturdy walking shoes will provide support, especially if you walk in wilderness areas

Other Items to Consider

Here are two more things that help with bird photography.

Tripod: A tripod will keep your camera steady, which leads to sharper photos.

If you’re buying a tripod for a point-and-shoot camera, I recommend considering one that is small and lightweight.

If you have a DSLR and a large lens, you will need a sturdy tripod to support the weight.

Binoculars: Binoculars help you find and identify birds that are far away. They’re also useful because you can look through a tangle of branches, one visual slice at a time, by changing the focus.

Mental Tools

blue-heronI’ve found that these help significantly when taking photos of birds.

Patience
Nature follows its own schedule. So it’s best to let nature do what it wants.

This means being patient.

Certainly there are things that we can do to increase our chances of finding birds, which appear below. And yet, in order to enjoy bird photography, we need to be patient.

Sometimes I’ve waited hours for a bird to appear or do something interesting.

Other times, a bird appeared as soon as I arrived and then perched on a perfect spot in a perfect pose.

Notice, for example, that the Great Blue Heron is standing on a turtle.

Serenity
By this I mean, letting yourself become part of nature.

If you stay quiet and still, nature will come to you.

I can report that I’ve had Red-winged Blackbirds walk under my tripod while I waited. I’ve had birds fly past so close they had to change course to avoid hitting me. I’ve had birds land on branches less than an arm’s reach away.

And then there are other benefits. You’ll collect priceless memories of having seen or heard something incredible.

I’ve seen two Common Ravens rub their bills together. I’ve seen a Green Heron take its first (maybe second) flight. I’ve heard a bird fly.

Basic Tips for Finding Birds

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Finding birds requires paying attention with all of your senses. This includes noticing:

Movement: The easiest way to find birds is to see them in flight, paying attention to where they land. Also watch for activity in trees and shrubs.

Color: Look for uncommon colors, such as yellow or red inside a tree.

Shape: Look for bird silhouettes among branches and leaves.

Songs: Listen for bird calls and songs. If possible, learn to recognize the sounds made by common birds in your area. Some Audubon chapters offer classes on birds sounds.

Sounds: Listen for rustling leaves (Sparrows and Towhees forage in leaf litter), hammering (Woodpeckers excavate holes for nests or seek bugs), and uncommon silence (Hawks scare everybody).

Patterns: Some birds have routines. For example, a Black Phoebe (shown in the photo) will favor a few branches. It will perch on one, swoop down to catch a bug, and then fly (generally) back to the first branch or one of its other favorites. A brief observation will reveal its pattern. Then you can wait near one these branches for it to return. Or if you visit the same place many times, you can begin by looking for this bird on its favorite branches.

Advanced Bird Finding Tips

Black-throated-Gray-Warbler

Another way to find birds is to learn their habits. Since birds need to eat, look for birds near the food that they like.

Birds also need water to drink and bathe. Wait by a shallow stream or puddle for birds to arrive. Learn about the habits of birds by consulting bird field guides for the birds in your area.

The photo shows a Black-throated Gray Warbler, about to enter a stream.

Tips Before You Leave Home

These basic tips will help avoid a surprise (i.e., disappointment) when you return home.

Bring a fully Charged (or fresh) Battery: It’s also a good idea to bring an extra battery.

Bring an empty memory card: Ideally, download the photos from your last outing. Then format the card. And, if possible, bring an extra card or two or three.

Clean the lens: Pros check and clean the lens on their camera every time before they take photos.

Thus, check your camera before you leave.

Set your camera: Most likely your camera will have the settings that you used the last time that you took photos. It might also have other settings because someone else used your camera. Or it’s possible that the settings changed during transit – such as, when you put it inside a camera bag.

Make sure these settings are appropriate for the type of photos that you plan to take. This is described in the next paragraph.

Recommended Camera Settings

I recommend the following settings.

High ISO: Use as high an ISO as reasonable for your camera.

Take a few photos to test different ISO settings, looking for the onset of noise.

I use ISO = 500 for most bright light bird photography. And I use ISO as high as 1,000 for photographing flying birds.

Aperture Priority: First set the camera for Aperture Priority and then choose the largest aperture (most open) setting for the lens.

This will give you the fasted shutter speed possible for your lens, which helps capture moving birds at large focal lengths.

I use f/5.6 for most bird photography. Sometimes when the light is bright and the bird is sitting still, I’ll use f/6.3.

Maximum Frame Rate: If your camera has this feature, use the highest rate available.

I use 8 frames/ sec.

How to Take Photos – Basic Tips

If possible, apply the following techniques when taking photos of birds.

Put the Sun Behind You

Birds appear more colorful when photographed in full, direct light. So stand with the sun behind you.

Take a Photo First

As soon as you find a bird, stop and take a photo.

Then advance slowly, taking more photos with every step (or two).

Birds have outstanding vision and they react (as in fly away) when they notice movement. So that first photo may be the only one you’ll be able to take.

Ideally, you want to advance so slowly that the bird does not perceive your movement. Imagine that you want to lose a race with a glacier.

Here’s an example of these two points in the sequence below.

Notice the Bird

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Can you see the bird?

This was my first photo using a Canon SX30 (point-and-shoot) camera.

Move Closer

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Now it’s possible to tell that this is an American Kestrel.

Last Photo

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The bird flew away when I took another step.

Let’s Improve the Photo

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Here’s a possible cropping for this photo.

Final Photo

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The point is: You can do this.

All of these photos were taken with a point-and-shoot camera while walking through the Fullerton Arboretum.

No tripod. No expensive equipment. Just an ordinary camera.

Yet Another Example

These photos were taken at a local park, while walking with a Canon SX30.

Two things help here. The Ring-billed Gull is a larger bird and it’s somewhat accustomed to people.

Hey! There’s a Bird.

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First take a photo. Because any photo is better than no photo!

Move Closer

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Take a few steps. Then crouch down to be at the bird’s level.

Take the Photo

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Notice how easy this is? And notice how much better the photo looks when you are at the bird’s level.

Now the Bird Has Something to Say

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Sometimes the bird helps you. Say, “Thank you.”

Last Photo

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You know it’s over when the bird leaves.

Advanced Tips

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The Eye Must Be in Focus! Birds blink. They doze. Thus it’s useful to blanket the bird with a sequence of photos.

Tip: Focus on the eye

focus-the-eye
Always put your camera’s focus on the bird’s eye. We make eye contact with other living things. So the eye is the most important part of the photo.

Consider this: You’re not taking photos of birds. You’re taking photos of eyes.

Leave Space in Front of the Bird

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Compose to leave space in front of the bird. This creates a sense of freedom or movement. The bird is a Mallard chick.

Avoid Clutter in the Background

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Adjust where you stand so that the bird appears on a clear background. Notice the difference in the two photos. I simply took a few steps to the side to avoid having a branch appear behind the bird’s head.

Take Photos of Groups

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If you’re unable to move close enough to take a photo of one bird, take a photo of a group. Here’s a group of American Avocets taking a nap.

Stand with the Wind at Your Back

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Large birds generally take off into the wind. So stand with the wind AND the sun at your back. Then wait for a bird to take off. Since it’s flying into the wind, it will move slower, giving you more time to focus.

Use Exposure Compensation

exposure-compensationIf possible, take a test photo of the place where you expect to find a bird. Then check this photo in the LCD screen on your camera. Does it look like what you want?

Next check the histogram for the photo. See the examples below for a guide on making adjustments. Then adjust the exposure compensation as needed for optimum exposure.

Note: The control for exposure compensation will have a +/- symbol on your camera.

Adjusting Exposure Compensation

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If the edges of the histogram appear inside the range, the exposure is okay. Ideally, the histogram should pinch out at each side as shown in the top photo.

If the historgram is pushed to one side, adjust the exposure compensation to move it into the center of the range.

If this is impossible, then set the right end (with the light tones) so that it touches the right edge. While this may lose some data for the dark tones (on the left side), the light tones contain more data and are visually more important.

Focus on Something Large

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It can be difficult to focus on a small bird.

Instead, focus on something large, such as the tree where the bird has perched. Then move the camera to compose, putting the final focus on the bird.

Make It a Project

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Sometimes you can give yourself an assignment.

For example, this juvenile Green Heron was appearing on the same branch in the Fullerton Arboretum over about a week. So, I came on four days to take photos of this bird and its two siblings.

There are many types of projects that you can set up. You can, for example:

1) Go out to photography a bird that appears predictably in a known place.

2) Record the progress of birds raising young, finding mates, and gathering food.

3) Explore for birds in a new area.

In total, you’ll capture a story, such as the one I showed in my article about these Green Herons.

Use Depth of Field, Part 1

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Depth of field measures the distance over which a subject is in focus.

If you are using a telephoto lens with a large focal length (e.g., more than 400 mm), the depth of field may be a fraction of an inch.

Notice that the bird’s face and toes are in focus, while the rest of the bird is not.

The next photo shows how to fix this.

The bird is a California Towhee after taking a bath.

Use Depth of Field, Part 2

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Place the main elements of a subject in the zone that’s in focus. Notice how a side view puts most of the bird’s body in focus.

Anticipate Movement

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Watch for repeated activity. Here, American Crows were flying to a mound in the river. So, taking this photo was a matter of waiting for a crow to arrive.

Use Reflections

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Add size to a bird by including its reflection.

In addition, this will cause you to leave a enough space below the bird to include its legs. The White-faced Ibis in this photo has long legs and thus would appear unnatural if the bottom of the frame were placed much closer to the bird.

Respect Nature

When you go out to take photos, you are going into someone else’s home. Please take only photos because then you can return to take more photos. Similarly, leave only gentle footprints so that others can enjoy the same beauty that you saw.

Main Ideas to Remember

1. Stand with the sun at your back.
2. Focus on the eye.
3. Use as fast a shutter speed as possible.
4. Take many (as in lots) of photos.
5. Become part of nature.

Thanks everyone! Please send the link to anyone who might enjoy this article. Also your comments are more than welcome. Chat with you soon!