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.
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!
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.
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
entry level lens
18-55mm (Canon or Nikon)
75-300mm (Canon) or 70-300mm (Nikon)
100-400mm (Canon) or 80-400mm (Nikon)
800mm f/5.6 (Sigma) or 500mm f/4 Series II (Canon)
1.4x and 2x (Canon)
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Useful camera settings for bird photography
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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