Northern Virginia Bird Photography Tips - Common Mistakes and Easy Solutions

There are plenty of sites that give you tips and tricks on how to photograph birds, especially if you are willing to spend thousands of dollars on super-telephoto lenses, high end DSLR camera and expensive tripods. I want to share some of the lessons I have learned in my back yard and give you examples of good and bad shots. I have always found it better to critique bad shots (and I have PLENTY) than it is to look at phenomenal photographs and wonder why yours just don't compare.

The first thing most photography sites don't tell you is how many shots it takes to get a great image. I am always left with the impression that these photographers run out, snap two or three shots and come back with portfolio-grade images that will be featured on National Geographic! Of course, the reality is that they will take thousands of pictures in order to have one or two that are of very high quality. Don't get caught in the belief that every shot they take is great.

Frustration

When I first started taking pictures of birds, I would walk through the trails in my neighborhood, spot movement in the tree and try to zoom in to get a picture of the bird. Inevitably, my zoom lens wasn't strong enough to focus at that distance and I would get a shot of a lot of the trees and a speck of the bird. This definitely became frustrating.

I decided to set specific goals and invite the birds to a more controlled environment, my back yard.

I think this shot would have been better if she had a seed in her mouth.  A bit of natural sunlight would have helped as well.
I think this shot would have been better if she had a seed in her mouth. A bit of natural sunlight would have helped as well. | Source

Set a Goal

I often look for situations of opportunity when photographing birds. I thought that if I was patient and lucky, a bird would land exactly where I wanted and I could capture him in a perfect picture.

It didn't work out as well as I had hoped, so I started to set specific goals and began to shift the odds in my favor. I set up a series of bird feeders in the trees around my back yard in the hopes of bringing them closer to my camera. That definitely worked.

Unfortunately, I did not do a good job in setting up the shots. I tried to take pictures of the birds on the feeders and was left with shots that looked artificial and contrived. I tried to capture them in the tree, but the background was often the bright blue sky and my settings caused the bird to be overexposed.

To compensate, I set up roosting spots near the feeders where the birds would land to evaluate the situation before hopping to the feeder to eat. I placed these roosting spots where the background was darker and the exposure would be easier to set.

The moral of this is to think about the shots you are hoping to capture and spend a lot of time in preparing them. The better you get, the easier this will become.

Goldfinches are great subjects for the vibrant colors rule.  The white seed sock, the suet feeder and the branch in the foreground really detract from the shot.  On the good side, the background is a nice, soft green which really complements him!
Goldfinches are great subjects for the vibrant colors rule. The white seed sock, the suet feeder and the branch in the foreground really detract from the shot. On the good side, the background is a nice, soft green which really complements him! | Source

Look For Vibrant Colors

I love to find the birds with the vibrant colors to photograph. We are fortunate in Northern Virginia to have bluebirds, blue jays, cardinals, goldfinches, titmouse, woodpeckers and nuthatches.

These colorful birds frequent our neighborhood and visit our feeders throughout the day.

The vibrant colors really make photographs "pop" with excitement, and are a great way for newer photographers to find quick and impressive results.

You will quickly find, though, that almost every bird is quite gorgeous in their own right. As you continue to improve your setup skills, you will want to find situations to highlight even the brown and white birds that you thought were drab. Upon close inspection, you will find that their feathers are intricately designed and textured with beautiful colors and shapes. Your challenge will be in setting up the right shots to capture that detail in a beautiful fashion.

While I love the colors of the goldfinch, this picture has an annoying branch blocking the view.  Look for obstructions before setting up the shot.  Also, the bird's eyes aren't quite in focus.
While I love the colors of the goldfinch, this picture has an annoying branch blocking the view. Look for obstructions before setting up the shot. Also, the bird's eyes aren't quite in focus. | Source

Close Up

There are three options for getting close up shots:

  1. Physically move closer. This is the easiest option, but requires patience. While you can move yourself closer to the target area, the birds may become skittish and not want to feed with you nearby. Patience will rule day if you are willing to wait very still for long. Eventually, their desire for food will overcome their nerves.
  2. Buy a longer lens. You can stay further away if you purchase a long lens. Of course, not everyone has a lot of extra money to pick up a 600mm lens. An alternative is to add a teleconverter to your existing lens.
  3. Use a wireless remote. This is another fun option. I set up my camera close to the feeding site and zoomed it in to the location where I wanted to take the pictures. When the bird is in place, I pushed the button halfway to focus, and then all the way to fire the shot. The biggest drawback to this is getting crystal clear focusing. Unless the bird is perfectly positioned, the camera may not be autofocusing on his eyes.

The colors of the bird do not "pop" because I violated the law of natural lighting.  The sun should be on my back and on his front.  The natural sunlight would have made his gorgeous golden yellow really shine!
The colors of the bird do not "pop" because I violated the law of natural lighting. The sun should be on my back and on his front. The natural sunlight would have made his gorgeous golden yellow really shine! | Source

Natural Lighting

Natural lighting is usually the best. The easiest thing to remember is "Sun on your Back." What that means is that if you have the sun on your back, then the sun will front-light the bird. That makes sense, right?

It is amazing how many times we don't think about that as we plan our shots. Take a look at the picture to the right. It isn't a great shot, but it was doomed before the shutter was even released because the yellows of the bird were muted due to the lack of direct sunlight.

Before you set up your feeders and the area for your camera, think about the time of day and the location of the sun. I have several areas in my yard depending on the location of the sun.

You could compensate with a flash, but getting the color tone correct can be tough and the flash usually scares the bird away.

I think this shot is much better.  The nuthatch is lit with natural sunlight and is striking against the muted background.
I think this shot is much better. The nuthatch is lit with natural sunlight and is striking against the muted background. | Source
The House Funch looks pretty good here, but I really like the background. The soft, green and blurry background serves as a wonderful backdrop and focuses the viewers' eyes on the bird.
The House Funch looks pretty good here, but I really like the background. The soft, green and blurry background serves as a wonderful backdrop and focuses the viewers' eyes on the bird. | Source

What about the Background

When you are setting up your shot, remember that there are two major elements of the photo. First is the subject - in this case the bird. Second is everything else. That's right! All of the space behind, around and beneath the bird will also be in the shot.

You typically want the subject to be the primary focus for the viewer and will want the background to fade away and not distract from the subject. Look at the various shots on the page ask yourself if the background pulls your eyes away.

For most of my shots, I like to have a blurred green background that is very soft compared to the striking colors and clarity of the bird in the foreground. There are always exceptions, but thinking about the background ahead of time may just turn a good photograph into a great photograph!

Artificial or Man-Made Items in the Picture

I think most of us prefer an all-natural shot. Seeing a bird in its natural environment brings the viewer into its domain. It adds serenity and peace to the emotions.

Conversely, including made made object like bird feeders will often times have the effect of feeling contrived or manipulated.

So, how do you attract birds for photography opportunities without including the feeders in the shot? Quite simply, you need to watch the birds' behavior. What you will find is that most birds will first land on branches or bushes nearby to assess the feeding situation. When they are comfortable, they will hop to the feeder to feed.

The key here is to take the photographs while the birds are preparing to dine. I watch their typical landing spots and set up the shots there. I also cheated a bit and wire-tied a few branches to my deck near the feeder. Sure enough, some of the birds started landing there and I was able to set up the shots where I wanted.

Should the seed sock be a part of this picture?  I think that better photographs will include the bird in their natural habitat and not on a feeder.  The background is distracting too.
Should the seed sock be a part of this picture? I think that better photographs will include the bird in their natural habitat and not on a feeder. The background is distracting too. | Source
Capturing birds in flight is tough!  These goldfinches were flapping their wings pretty fast to get to the food.  A fast shutter speed is critical!
Capturing birds in flight is tough! These goldfinches were flapping their wings pretty fast to get to the food. A fast shutter speed is critical! | Source

Photograph them in Action Shots

Speed is the name of the game here! Slow shutter speeds will result in very blurry and unusable photos.

If you are in aperture priority mode, take a look at the shutter speed. For the goldfinches that frequent my yard, I try to keep the speed at 1/1000 of a second or better. If you want the wing to show no movement at all, you need an even faster shutter speed.

I like having a little bit of blur in the wings. It shows movement and highlights this as an action shot.

If the combination of aperture and shutter speed won't result in a workable speed, then consider using a flash or adjusting the ISO and trying again.

Focus on the Eyes

It's all in the eyes. If the eyes of the bird are in focus, almost everything else can be forgiven. That is not an easy task, though.

Most of the time, you will have more luck using manual focus to get their face in the perfect focus. Autofocus will jump around if the bird is moving and may focus on their wing, or the branch or - well - anything other than the eyes!

Manually controlling this will give you a lot better chance of getting the focus just right.

Study the pictures on this page. I suspect you will agree that the best ones have the eyes crisp and sharp!

The colors look good, but the eyes are out of focus which ruins the shot.  And who really wants to see a picture of the bird's butt?
The colors look good, but the eyes are out of focus which ruins the shot. And who really wants to see a picture of the bird's butt? | Source

Conclusion

This article shows you the most common pitfalls that bird photographers run in to. There are solutions to most of these problems, and it is extremely valuable to study your shots, analyze their strengths and weaknesses, and make adjustments each and every time.

The most valuable lesson I can give is to take the time to set up the shot. You will have a lot more success drawing the birds in to the location you want, in direct sunlight, and with a background of your choosing.

Setting up the shots take time and practice, but you will be able to avoid the most common problems faced when shooting pictures of birds.

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Comments 2 comments

agvulpes profile image

agvulpes 2 years ago from Australia

G'day Ginnylee this is a terrific hub for learners and those wanting to get into Bird photography. I have been photographing birds for about 30 years (when I got my first SLR now DSLR) and I'm sure I fell into every trap and made every mistake you mentioned. Actually I still do :)

I also agree that birds in their natural habitat are better than artificial !

However I don't allow it to stop me if I see a good shot I grab it. lol

My fav pastime is walking along our river and snapping the flying birds.

One good shot in one thousand ? I say that's a fair assessment :)

Shared out :)


kenneth avery profile image

kenneth avery 2 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

Hi, Ginny,

I loved this hub. From top to bottom, excellent! Loved the lay-out, graphics, and overall presentation. I have loved birds most of my life. Never understood how men could actually kill something so beautiful just for sport.

When I can, I feed birds at my home with feeders, but with fibromyalgia, it is tough walking when you hurt all over.

I voted up and all the way. Thanks for sharing your amazing writing talent. I live in Hamilton, Ala., a Mayberryish-like town two hours west of Birmingham. I have my roots in rural Alabama, but I have more than one tooth. Just so you will not be nervous about knowing someone from the south.

I would consider it a great honor if you checked out a few of my hubs, and then became one of my followers. I am going to leave you some mail now and follow you.

Much success and happiness to you.

Peace.

K.

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