How to Take Great Bird Photos

Birds are up there with my favourite photography subjects, especially the mischievous parrots that thrive in Australia.

The cockatoos were always willing subjects, provided I stayed behind the glass door, and gave them lots of seed.

By following a few tips, you can take great bird photos with inexpensive cameras.

Cockatoos on the verandah, Melbourne, Australia.
Cockatoos on the verandah, Melbourne, Australia. | Source

Choosing a camera for photographing birds

If you want to get photography gear to snap clear bird photos, keep the following points in mind when choosing a new camera.

Optical zoom - either a point and shoot with a good optical zoom capability, or a DSLR with a zoom lens, allows you to focus on distant birds that would fly away when you approach.

Image stabilization - either image stabilization in the camera or lens, or using a tripod or a solid surface on which you rest the camera reduces photo blur. Especially when photographing birds with fuzzy-edged feathers - you want the details to be crisp and clear.

Fast shutter speeds - this is more important when capturing birds in flight or fast movements. Slower shutter speeds can result in blurred photos.

Some bird species never seem to slow down - finches, hummingbirds, etc. need fast shutter speeds!

An owl in a cage, Tasmania, Australia.
An owl in a cage, Tasmania, Australia. | Source

You don't need a DSLR!

All the photos in this hub are taken with my Powershot S3 IS. It's been an absolutely solid workhorse, and I love it.

With a 12x optical zoom and great image stabilization, and being light enough for me to hold, it's perfect for most of my photography needs, from macro flower and insect photos, to distance shots, even if it's an older model.

I'm not a professional bird photographer by far, but I love snapping the birds I come across in every day life. I follow the tips below to get the most out of my old, mid-range, point and shoot camera.

Canon 70-300mm zoom lens.
Canon 70-300mm zoom lens. | Source

DSLR lenses for bird photography

If you have a DSLR, the table below details the best lenses for bird photography - fast, great optical zoom, and in the higher-end models, often image stabilization.

Note that you get more zoom power from a lens on a crop sensor DSLR.

Level / type
Recommended lenses
entry level lens
18-55mm (Canon or Nikon)
mid-level lens
75-300mm (Canon) or 70-300mm (Nikon)
high-level lens
100-400mm (Canon) or 80-400mm (Nikon)
pro-level lens
800mm f/5.6 (Sigma) or 500mm f/4 Series II (Canon)
teleconverter lens
1.4x and 2x (Canon)
Recommended DSLR lenses for bird photography.

Which camera brand do you swear by for bird photography?

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  • Higher level lenses normally have built in image stabilization.
  • Using a teleconverter with a good lens can increase the zoom ability substantially.

Buying tip: If you can, try out the lens and camera before you buy.

Some camera repair companies also offer higher level lenses and cameras for rental.

For more incredibly detailed information on bird photography gear, see Mike Atkinson's tutorial on bird photography equipment.

A tiny tawny frogmouth, sleeping in a cage, Tasmania wildlife park, Australia.
A tiny tawny frogmouth, sleeping in a cage, Tasmania wildlife park, Australia. | Source

Tips for shooting great bird photos

Follow the tips below to capture clear, lively photos of birds.

1. Get close to the birds

Easier said than done! Most birds are flighty, scared at anything larger than them approaching them - you may be a predator.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
While I stood very still, the male lyrebird scratched nearby. Extremely hard to capture in the forest with dark light. Melbourne, Australia.Magpie on a bird feeder on my verandah - it's meant to be a meat eater!A currawong asking for apple - he would quite happily eat from my hand, Tasmania, Australia. Skittish ducks on my bird feeder - I had no idea they ate seed! Taken from inside a glass door.Ducks in a park in Leipzig, Germany - these are used to humans.
While I stood very still, the male lyrebird scratched nearby. Extremely hard to capture in the forest with dark light. Melbourne, Australia.
While I stood very still, the male lyrebird scratched nearby. Extremely hard to capture in the forest with dark light. Melbourne, Australia. | Source
Magpie on a bird feeder on my verandah - it's meant to be a meat eater!
Magpie on a bird feeder on my verandah - it's meant to be a meat eater! | Source
A currawong asking for apple - he would quite happily eat from my hand, Tasmania, Australia.
A currawong asking for apple - he would quite happily eat from my hand, Tasmania, Australia. | Source
Skittish ducks on my bird feeder - I had no idea they ate seed! Taken from inside a glass door.
Skittish ducks on my bird feeder - I had no idea they ate seed! Taken from inside a glass door. | Source
Ducks in a park in Leipzig, Germany - these are used to humans.
Ducks in a park in Leipzig, Germany - these are used to humans. | Source

Pet birds are excellent practice subjects as they are used to being around humans.

Or you can visit a zoo - great for getting photos of the larger birds of prey, although photographing through cage wires presents another set of problems!

You can also photograph the tamer birds at the local parks or lakes.

You can make wild birds become used to your presence in a number of ways.

  • Buy or build a bird feeder (if council regulations allow).

    The seed I put into my balcony bird feeders attracted cockatoos, magpies, ducks, king parrots, finches, rosellas, lorikeets, budgerigars, and more.
  • Spend time with them, making non-threatening movements.

    If everyone chased away ducks or caught them for food, they wouldn't hang around park visitors. They have learned that humans are 'safe'.
  • Use a hide - hiding inside a bird watching box, shooting through house windows or even from your car is a great way to capture shots of birds that are easily scared.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Capturing a female galah in a portrait orientation, with great background blur. This shot was taken through a wire fly-screen.A close up of a cockatoo, ruffled against a cold wind. The frame is filled with the bird's face, focused on the eyes.A bedraggled old currawong in the rain - it looked at me so intently that it was easy to focus on its eyes.
Capturing a female galah in a portrait orientation, with great background blur. This shot was taken through a wire fly-screen.
Capturing a female galah in a portrait orientation, with great background blur. This shot was taken through a wire fly-screen. | Source
A close up of a cockatoo, ruffled against a cold wind. The frame is filled with the bird's face, focused on the eyes.
A close up of a cockatoo, ruffled against a cold wind. The frame is filled with the bird's face, focused on the eyes. | Source
A bedraggled old currawong in the rain - it looked at me so intently that it was easy to focus on its eyes.
A bedraggled old currawong in the rain - it looked at me so intently that it was easy to focus on its eyes. | Source

2. Focus on the bird's eyes

Personalities are reflected in the eyes, or at least that is what we can see in photos. A clear focus on the eyes of birds often results in much better photos.

Tip: Position the camera at the bird's eye level (if you can).

3. Fill the frame

You want to fill the photo frame with the bird. If you have great stalking skills, you may not need a focus lens, but for us clumsier, louder folk, a good zoom is ideal.

Tall birds often look better in portrait photos, smaller birds in photos with a landscape orientation.

4. Blur the background behind the birds

Reducing the clutter in the background makes your bird stand out.

Try to get closer to the bird than the distance that the background is from your subject. This will give you better background blur, even with a point and shoot camera.

You do need to maintain a strong focus on the bird or the camera may focus on the background - difficult when the bird keeps moving! Use a tripod, monopod or beanbag to minimize camera shake, and auto-focus to follow the bird's movements.

5. Take photos of birds doing things

Arguing, preening, eating, squawking, flying, or swimming - movement adds life to photos, more so with birds because we are used to seeing them in motion.

If you learn to read the birds movements, you can predict what they will do next.

  • When their feathers stand up a little, they are likely about to shake and perhaps preen.
  • Tightening of feathers indicates the birds will probably take flight, or they feel threatened.

An autofocus mode on your camera can help you maintain focus even though the bird if moving.

6. Take heaps of photos

Play with the modes and settings of your camera to learn which ones work best. You can always delete the out-of-focus shots later. Plus practice makes perfect!

Patience is a must, especially when photographing fast-moving subjects like birds.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A cockatoo, shaking off the rain, Melbourne, Australia.A cockatoo playing with one of the 'toys' I made to keep the amused (and stop them from ripping apart the verandah). Melbourne, Australia.Shaking out water from its wings, a duck in a lake, Leipzig, Germany.Cockatoos verses the seed bag - they won! Melbourne, Australia.Preening at the bird feeder, ducks in Melbourne, Australia.A seagull flying over the ferry, Rebun Island, Japan.Nest-building, a heron at the Leipzig zoo, Germany.A cockatoo drinking - the head moved to fast, even though the feathers and water drops are in focus! Melbourne, Australia.
A cockatoo, shaking off the rain, Melbourne, Australia.
A cockatoo, shaking off the rain, Melbourne, Australia. | Source
A cockatoo playing with one of the 'toys' I made to keep the amused (and stop them from ripping apart the verandah). Melbourne, Australia.
A cockatoo playing with one of the 'toys' I made to keep the amused (and stop them from ripping apart the verandah). Melbourne, Australia. | Source
Shaking out water from its wings, a duck in a lake, Leipzig, Germany.
Shaking out water from its wings, a duck in a lake, Leipzig, Germany. | Source
Cockatoos verses the seed bag - they won! Melbourne, Australia.
Cockatoos verses the seed bag - they won! Melbourne, Australia. | Source
Preening at the bird feeder, ducks in Melbourne, Australia.
Preening at the bird feeder, ducks in Melbourne, Australia. | Source
A seagull flying over the ferry, Rebun Island, Japan.
A seagull flying over the ferry, Rebun Island, Japan. | Source
Nest-building, a heron at the Leipzig zoo, Germany.
Nest-building, a heron at the Leipzig zoo, Germany. | Source
A cockatoo drinking - the head moved to fast, even though the feathers and water drops are in focus! Melbourne, Australia.
A cockatoo drinking - the head moved to fast, even though the feathers and water drops are in focus! Melbourne, Australia. | Source

7. Pick the season and location

Spring sees nest building, mating displays, the birth of baby birds and frenzied parents out collecting food. Flowers bloom, foliage is new and bright green. Parks and gardens are good places to find active birds.

Seagulls dancing on a beach, Western Australia.
Seagulls dancing on a beach, Western Australia. | Source

In summer, the mating is mostly over, feathers lose their sheen, baby birds loose their fluffy chick feathers - perhaps not the best look?

Birds are difficult to spot because the foliage is so dense. Lighting is harsh and shadows stark.

Sea birds may be better subjects during this season!

In autumn, birds are out collecting food for winter, trees change colour and loose their leaves. Flocks migrate south, or north if you are down under. If you are lucky enough to live near a lake on a migration path, I envy you - you can snap some incredible flock photos.

Without foliage in winter, you can get some great photos of small birds on bare branches or in the snow. It's a completely different feel to every other season, but there are fewer birds to spot - perhaps the zoo is your best bet?

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Sun gleams through the crest of the cockatoo.Golden hour, side/front-lit, ducks on a lake. Details are hidden in sleepy silhouettes.An overcast day means the highlights are less bright, and you can see more detail on the feathers.A silhouette against a grey sky of a crow in Wakanai, Japan.A Hitchcock moment - currawongs snapped with my fogged over lens, a mistake that worked!Towards dusk, a cockatoo waiting for the rest of his flock, Melbourne, Australia.With the light fading towards evening, detail in the gull's face is lost, especially around the eyes.Facing away from the sun, too much detail is lost on the cockatoo's beak and eye. Neck and back feathers are over-exposed.Bright highlights from mid-day sun, bring out the brilliant coloured feathers, but over-expose the flowers.
Sun gleams through the crest of the cockatoo.
Sun gleams through the crest of the cockatoo. | Source
Golden hour, side/front-lit, ducks on a lake. Details are hidden in sleepy silhouettes.
Golden hour, side/front-lit, ducks on a lake. Details are hidden in sleepy silhouettes. | Source
An overcast day means the highlights are less bright, and you can see more detail on the feathers.
An overcast day means the highlights are less bright, and you can see more detail on the feathers. | Source
A silhouette against a grey sky of a crow in Wakanai, Japan.
A silhouette against a grey sky of a crow in Wakanai, Japan. | Source
A Hitchcock moment - currawongs snapped with my fogged over lens, a mistake that worked!
A Hitchcock moment - currawongs snapped with my fogged over lens, a mistake that worked! | Source
Towards dusk, a cockatoo waiting for the rest of his flock, Melbourne, Australia.
Towards dusk, a cockatoo waiting for the rest of his flock, Melbourne, Australia. | Source
With the light fading towards evening, detail in the gull's face is lost, especially around the eyes.
With the light fading towards evening, detail in the gull's face is lost, especially around the eyes. | Source
Facing away from the sun, too much detail is lost on the cockatoo's beak and eye. Neck and back feathers are over-exposed.
Facing away from the sun, too much detail is lost on the cockatoo's beak and eye. Neck and back feathers are over-exposed. | Source
Bright highlights from mid-day sun, bring out the brilliant coloured feathers, but over-expose the flowers.
Bright highlights from mid-day sun, bring out the brilliant coloured feathers, but over-expose the flowers. | Source

8. Choose your lighting in bird photos

Many photographers swear by the golden hours, especially for bird photography. These are the hours just after dawn or around dusk, when the light is soft and golden. You can get great silhouette photos at sunset, against a colorful sky. Plus birds are most active during these times.

Keeping the sun behind you, lights your subjects and prevents sun flares in your photo. You may even be able to capture a slight sun glint in the bird's eye. On the other hand, lighting effects add ambiance, and provide interesting shadows, highlighted outlines and silhouettes.

Overcast days provide a more even light, which can be easier to work with when you use a less expensive camera.

Birds may not be very active in very hot, cold, windy or wet conditions - which are also not so great for photographers or their gear!

Avoid using flash - the birds are likely to be too far away for the flash to reach them, and they will be scared by the sudden bright light.

A distant pair

I captured a rare breeding pair of wedge-tailed eagles while on holidays in Tasmania, Victoria. They were a long way away, in the treetops, against a bright sky.

To show the details, I needed to heavily edit the photo.

I was rapt when an eco publication requested to use the resulting photo in a booklet!

9. Digital post processing bird photos

  • Change the temperature / white balance to get your colours perfect.
  • Sharpen details and then lightly smooth any introduced areas of noise.
  • Play with colour levels and saturation to bring colorful feathers to life.
  • Change the exposure to define details that were hidden by shadows or reduce the glare in over-exposed highlights.
  • Crop to zoom in and position the bird in the frame. A close crop can bring out non-obvious feather details.

A distant wedge-tailed eagle pair, heavily post-processed, Tasmania, Australia.
A distant wedge-tailed eagle pair, heavily post-processed, Tasmania, Australia. | Source

Useful camera settings for bird photography

ISO settings

A higher ISO will let you use a faster shutter speed, capturing motion more easily, but this does increase noise.

Start with a high ISO setting, and then decrease as far as you can. You will find that wing tips become blurry quickly when photographing fast moving birds, even at high ISO settings.

Looking straight at me, a cockatoo on my verandah, Melbourne, Australia.
Looking straight at me, a cockatoo on my verandah, Melbourne, Australia. | Source

Aperture Priority mode

The Aperture Priority mode (Av or A) gives you best flexibility and quality for bird photographs - you get some help from the camera - it selects an appropriate shutter speed to match your chosen aperture (f-stop).

  • An f-stop of around 8 can improve image sharpness, although a wider aperture (around f/5.6 or lower) will blur the background more.
  • Wide apertures (small f-stops) with long lenses can cause one part of the bird's face to be in focus, and the other blurry!

Tip: Also use the Aperture Priority mode to get the best blurred backgrounds in photos.

Auto-focus

Your camera may have one or two auto-focus modes - a single-shot mode (focusing when the shutter is half-pressed), and a continuous mode (AI servo or continuous AF mode). Because birds move a lot, the continuous mode is often better.

Some DSLR cameras allow you to choose from multiple autofocus points, instead of the usual central focus - better for when the bird's head is in the upper right or left of the frame.

Be careful when using autofocus - if there is a moving background just behind the bird, such as water ripples, it is easy to 'miss' and focus on the water, not the bird.

Continuous shooting

Taking continuous shots, instead of just one photo, is useful when trying to capture flocks of birds or sudden movements. Your camera may have a continuous or burst mode.

Seagulls, just after takeoff, Fukuoka, Japan.
Seagulls, just after takeoff, Fukuoka, Japan. | Source

Lastly, break these tips!

Of course, you can get great photos of birds when you break all of the good photography rules too!

  • Birds in the distance can add ambience to a scenic or sunset photo.
  • Included scenery such as trees and plants or flowers can add ambience to a photo and put the bird in context.
  • Head on shots, with the head centered in the frame can look amazing, but are very difficult to capture.
  • A bird's reflection in water looks lovely, even though it breaks the 'fill-the-frame' rule.
  • A less tight crop around flying birds gives them room for 'movement' - more natural than filling the frame.
  • You can even take great photos with a point & shoot or camera phone through a bird-spotting scope (digiscoping).

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Comments 9 comments

TechTrendy 4 years ago

A fellow photog! The powershot is a great camera to begin with but I have always loved the Canon Rebel series ever since buying my first one back in 2000. I just recently bought the Canon Rebel T4i and still trying to figure out all its features but I'm in love with it already.

You have some great shots here by the way! Your aperture shots bring your subjects into the foreground perfectly. You totally get my vote on this hub!


nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany Author

Thanks heaps! I love the idea of using an orange on the bird feeder, as you have done. When I was in Australia, I was surrounded by bullying cockatoos, most of the smaller birds stayed away. I really miss the bird life - my recent dwellings are apartments in dense city areas with few birds and no gardens.


sradie profile image

sradie 4 years ago from Palm Coast FL

Nice article for people starting up with birding. I think it will be beneficial for many folks. Bird photography is a great way to spend time outside doing something really interesting. I have been doing it for about a year now and really enjoy it. Another tip; take a birding trip with an experienced photographer and watch and learn what they do. You can adopt a lot of things you can learn from them to your own photography. Get some birding books and learn to identify different birds, it helps make the experience much more interesting and fun.


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

Wow how talented are you?

Very!!!!

I have only developed an interest in photography and this gem is going to be a great inspiration so I save in with my favourite hubs.

Enjoy your day.

Eddy.


nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany Author

TechTrendy - A fellow Canon fan! The Powershot is the perfect weight and balance for me, and the image stabilisation is fantastic. I haven't had a look at the Rebel series - how do they compare weight wise?


nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany Author

sradie - Thank you! Bird watching (and photographing) is relaxing, and often very amusing. Definitely, taking a trip with an experienced birder and learning about the birds will help you get better photos!

Eddy - Thanks so much! I'm happy that this has been inspiring!


cclitgirl profile image

cclitgirl 3 years ago from Western NC

Lovely, lovely images! Great tips, too - I love how you encourage just taking a lot of photos and that you don't need a DSLR (though I have one and it's my first love, lol). Will link up to this in a hub I'm publishing. :)


nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 3 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany Author

cclitgirl - I have just upgraded to a gorgeous DSLR, and now that it's spring, I might actually find some birds to photograph! It was a long and cold winter!


Just_Rodney profile image

Just_Rodney 3 years ago from Johannesberg South Africa, The Gold Mine City

Love your photographs of birds. My first bird photographs was for a proficency badge, when I was a wolf cub way back in 1957-8. Johannesburg's major city park, namely, Joubert Park, there were several dog watering stations.

The pidgons used these as the as there private bathing areas as well, I managed to capture, a photo two of them just starting to take flight, as one was incoming. This was with a standard brownie box.

I have since taken a quite a few bird portraits with more sophisticated cameras.

In my hub on a ringneck comes to roost, are a couple of family snaps of my first parrot.

Loved your hub.

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