In this article, 21 Tips for Bird Photography, I have penned down what matters most to me for photographing birds in the field. Nasim & Elizabeth already have great articles on the most common tips. So, the thoughts below are simply a way to gather the most useful tips I’ve found, as well as common mistakes a lot of bird photographers make at first.
Table of Contents
Understand Your Subject
I have put this as the first above all else. This is because, when it comes to bird photography, if we do not understand our subject’s temperament we will end up with no subject at all.
Of course, this holds true for any wildlife, but it means all the more when it comes to birds. Some birds are very cooperative and allow us to get really close, while some will take off at the slightest sign of any movement. Even more so, the same individuals behave differently with respect to different environments. Take an example of the Sarus crane below, which I photographed in the Bharatpur bird sanctuary. I was pretty close to the bird when I shot this photograph:
Inside the confines of the sanctuary, the cranes do not care much about humans. But, the same individuals fly off to nearby farmlands where they start to get very shy. This is because, in the sanctuary, no human tries to shoo them away. In the farms, farmers are always vigil of their crops guarding them from birds.
Some birds are seen only during certain hours of the day, like the Himalayan Monal. Monals feed on grassy patches during the early and late hours of the day. They would be nowhere to be seen during mid-day. This knowledge comes in handy when photographing such birds. Along the same lines, a lot of birds are migratory, sometimes traveling far and wide enough to traverse the earth. Other birds display vibrant colors during breeding but are not as colorful at other times of the year.
So, you should be aware of the time of year if you are planning a bird photography trip. I have seen quite a few photographers leave on a bird photography trip the moment they have their holidays approved – only to realize that the most interesting birding season has already passed in that location. Research beforehand and plan your trips to harness the maximum opportunity.
Don’t Fire on Sight
At one point in time, I kept doing this, and I am certain many of us do it: The moment we see a bird, we start firing in Continuous mode.
It is true that our anxiety to grab a photograph before the bird would probably take off is understandable. But a photograph is much beyond just the subject. It includes the story that is being told, the light that adds emotion, the background that adds to the aesthetics and many more. To understand all these, you need to relax for a few minutes, understand the scene and then press the shutter. Such a picture will almost always be better than the one you clicked the moment you saw the bird. There might be patches with good light and the ones with not so good light. A photograph of a bird in shadows with harsh sunlight all around will get it nowhere. Similarly, there might be patches with distracting background. Move around to see if you get a better angle or a less distracting background. It takes a few minutes to process it all, and if you end up taking a photograph before that, it would very likely qualify to get culled.
Mind Your Camera Settings
Every scene is distinct, even if one frame falls a few inches away from the previous one or a few minutes after. There is no single group of camera settings that would allow you to photograph all through the day without modification. (This issue is again one more reason for tip #2.)
For example, you might have set your camera to photograph a bright bird with a dark background, and the image looks good. But the same settings could be catastrophic for a dark bird a few feet away. Always remember your previous photo or the previous setting.
Take a look at the two pictures below. I initially had the camera on group-area autofocus. I focused on the bird’s right eye, which was less illuminated than its beak. The camera acquired focus on the high contrast forehead, leaving me with blurry eyes. Then, I shifted the focus to the left eye which was properly illuminated, giving me a shot with sharp eyes:
It’s not only focus settings that matter so much. Another critical one is exposure compensation, something we might end up forgetting most of the time. If we leave exposure compensation as it was for the previous photo, it is easy to over- or under-expose a set of photos. Sometimes we might be able to fix issues in post, but, as always, nothing beats getting it right in the camera.
I personally have developed a habit of looking into the settings display every once in a while to remind me of the settings that are currently in use, so that I change it when the scene changes. If you do not actively keep track of your current settings, especially vital settings like focus and exposure compensation, you are not going to remember to change them when the scene changes.
Use the Right Shutter Speed
The right shutter speed is crucial for birds. Perched birds can often be taken at 1/400, birds moving on a branch often need 1/800, while birds in flight might need something as fast as 1/2500.
However, one of the most frequent mistakes I’ve seen beginners make is using too fast a shutter speed. Often this happens because they needed something fast in one moment such as 1/1600, but then they forget to turn the shutter speed down for a perched bird.
This is why I recommend having a quick way to switch between perched birds and birds in flight. If you forget to do this, you risk having much more noise in your bird photographs than is necessary. Instead, by turning down your shutter speed when you don’t need it, you’ll ensure that you always use as much light as you can.
“Record Shots” Are Seldom Good Photographs
Bird watching is very different from bird photography. At the same time, if you are one, there’s a good chance you’re also the other.
In bird watching, a “record shot” is merely a picture of a rare bird, and it most of the time serves as a proof that you have seen such a bird. But this sort of documentary shot will seldom make it a good photograph unless it conveys a concrete message and/or portrays the bird with all its textual details. I personally have quite a few pictures of very rare birds and mammals that are sleeping in my hard drives. None of them will never make it to any exhibiting platform.
Many times, I have seen a lot of photographers spot a bird, take a few photographs and move to the next spot. Most of these photographs are likely to be just record shots which would not be interesting for most viewers. Instead, spending more time with one subject will yield better photographs than trying to click every bird that flies around you. So, if your purpose is to capture the highest quality bird photos rather than a plain documentary record of what you saw, you will need to put in some extra effort.
Don’t Ignore Common Subjects
Along the same lines as the previous tip – All of us love to come back with brilliant photographs of rare birds and animals. Great if we get such images. But, most of the time, we tend to ignore common subjects that make great photographs.
For obvious reasons, most viewers might not admire a common crow or a household sparrow. But do not forget that a photograph is much more than merely the subject! It goes beyond that – things like light, behavior, and composition are just as important if not more so. Below is a picture of a humble Indian pond heron, which is a very common bird in India, but the light and the frame were too good to miss.
On top of that, there is only one way to master photography: Practice! Photographing common birds is a great way to practice, which one day will help us out tremendously when we are photographing rare birds.
Get Close to Your Subject
Bird photography is, in part, about getting the textual details. This is where most photographers say, “Reach is almost everything in bird photography.” It is true to a certain extent. But there is a difference between you getting close to your subject and getting a similar frame using a large focal length.
Personally, I do not think most photographers would need anything more than a 600mm reach (in full frame terms). Beyond that, issues like haze come into play, which affect the overall contrast and colors to a noticeable extent. A person sitting closer to a bird shooting at 300mm is likely to get more textual details as compared to one getting a similar composition at 750mm.
It does depend upon the gear to a large extent, but most of the time we get much better pictures when we are at the closest possible to our subjects. Also, the closer we are to the subject, the better the quality of bokeh that aids in subject separation.
Approach Your Subject with Patience
Now that we know there is no substitute for getting close to your subject, the next question would be, how to get close? Below are a few pointers that I use, and it works out most of the time:
- The speed with which you approach your subject is indirectly proportional to the probability of it flying off. In other words, the slower you are, the greater are your chances of getting the shot.
- Most birds seem to have a circle of comfort. They will be cool until you cross a particular radius, after which they become very cautious. This circle will vary with every individual.
- Once a bird gets cautious, it will look around to take off – and, worse, it will turn away from you. If you see the bird take a deep breath, it often means it is going to take off. Once you see that the bird is stressed, you have probably entered its circle of comfort. Stop moving. There is a chance it will cool down and stay. Sometimes, the bird will even come close to you. If your subject gets comfortable with you around, your chances of getting a head-on shot maximize. The bird is also more likely to display its natural characters.
- Stay low. Crawl toward your subject if possible. Crawling freaks out your subjects way less than walking at full height.
- If you see a bird in a particular perch, chances are you might see it in the same perch again later. If you find feces on one particular perch, it means that’s a favorite.
Get to Eye Level
This could be a cliche, but an article on bird photography is incomplete without it. The best bird photographs are mostly eye-level shots. The feel and the connection that eye-level shots give is unmatched. Especially, if you get your lens to the eye level of your subject or a bit lower and get your subject to look into the lens. Then there is nothing more you can ask for.
Eye-level shots also throw out the best possible bokeh. When you are above the eye of the subject, you mostly get the ground which most often tends to be distracting. If it happens to be water it is even less desirable as the reflections from the surface make it way too distractive. Eye-level shots mean that the background is farther away by comparison, making it more likely to look interesting and less distracting.
Don’t Crop Too Much
Let’s admit it. Most of us do it. Cropping becomes almost inevitable with bird photography. But, in reality, the quality of my pictures increases exponentially when I do not have to crop my images to 30%, 50%, or almost 100%.
It is true that modern cameras like the Nikon D850 give us 48MP, and other brands are just as strong in the megapixel war, allowing us to crop quite a lot. To a certain extent, it does help. But if your subject is a tiny dot before cropping, you will end up with a low-quality image most of the time even if the image is acceptably sharp.
I have found that, regardless of what megapixel camera you use, if you crop a picture more than 50% you are compromising heavily on its quality. I generally make sure not to get over the 50% crop mark. Most of the time, the cropped portion is about 20% or less, where I have to straighten the lines or get a perspective that I want. But it takes some practice to get to that point, especially in terms of learning your subject’s behavior so you can approach close enough.
The reason why most photographers go for crop bodies when it comes to birding is, in part, the crop factor. The pixel pitch (no. of pixels per sq. inch) is higher in a 24 MP crop body than a 24 MP full-frame camera, meaning you can get more total pixels on your subject at a given focal length. This is certainly a good thing sometimes, but it is no substitute for approaching your subject properly and using the right lens. I would much rather be close to my subject on a full-frame camera than farther away on a crop-sensor camera with the same composition.
Lastly, there is one more issue with over-cropping. Most of the time with bird photography, we are forced to shoot at higher ISOs. It literally means more noise. By cropping the image too much, we are magnifying the noise. We could use noise reduction algorithms in post-processing. But noise reduction has its own problems, like loss of details, so it is best to keep at a minimum.
Wait for the Action
A close-up profile shot of a perched bird with all the textual details can sometimes make a good picture. But in many cases it makes it boring, as there is no activity going on.
This is another reason why it is not a good idea hopping from one bird to another after bagging their profile picture. Capturing a courtship dance, a hunting action, a flapping of wings or at least the fine art of preening makes a photograph all the more interesting. This is one more reason why subject knowledge becomes a must. You can actually anticipate an action. Some birds take a gulp of air before takeoff. Some birds stretch out their neck before preening. Some raptors poop before takeoff. Mating calls have a great chance of being followed by a courtship ritual. If you see two birds in close proximity there is a chance of a fight. And so on.
Whatever the action may be, anticipate it and be persistent until it happens. There is a chance that it might not, and you may have to walk away empty handed. But if it does, you will end up with one picture that will make the whole thing worthwhile.
A photograph that surprises people will pull in a lot of attention. By comparison, a stereotypical photograph does not attract that much attention.
If I have seen a typical composition quite a few times before, no matter how appealing it is, it would not invoke much interest in me. Most of us are aware of rules like the rule of thirds, the golden triangle, and so on. Sure, they help some of us in making composition easy. But it has to be understood that they are merely guidelines, at most. Many of us follow those rules too strictly. Instead, getting out of the herd mentality will improve the individuality of your photos, which, in turn, leads to originality. A piece of work that involves originality – in composition or otherwise – is one that will have the widest reach.
Gear Does Matter
At first look, this title must sound contradictory. Most of us would have heard a thousand times – “It is always the person standing behind the camera that matters.” I don’t mean to say that buying the most expensive gear out there will straight away yield you the best pictures. But pro gear does make certain things a lot easier.
If gear really did not matter, no professional photographer would invest in something like a Nikon D850 or an 800mm f/5.6 lens. By gear, I also don’t mean just camera and lens. Take a look at the picture of the grey headed woodpecker below. First, the D750 did acquire AF in extremely low light. Secondly, even at ISO 3200, the D750 gave me a pretty usable picture. But on top of that, the Manfrotto 055 tripod with a Benro gimbal head and a cheap wired shutter release allowed me to get the shot at a shutter speed of 1/25 second.
Investing in gear is not about owning the latest and greatest or guaranteeing successful photos. It is simply about improving your chances of capturing difficult shots that would be almost impossible with more basic equipment.
Use Auto ISO
With birds, we are always in a rush. More often than not, we end up missing optimal settings in the camera. There is seldom enough time to check everything. That is one reason most wildlife photographers use Auto ISO, either in Av (aperture priority) or M (manual) mode.
Manual mode with Auto ISO is very useful, because you can set your aperture (usually wide open) and shutter speed (whatever guarantees you a sharp shot) while the camera automatically picks the ISO to compensate. The main problem occurs in bright conditions: Your ISO could go so low that it hits the base value, and needs to go lower, but it can’t. And your photos will easily be overexposed if you aren’t paying attention, or you fire a burst of shots across changing light conditions.
For that reason, Aperture Priority mode with Auto ISO is also useful. You set the maximum ISO value which your camera will use, and then you manually set the “ISO Sensitivity” value that the camera will not go below. You might think you are locked out of changing the camera’s shutter speed in this mode, but that’s not true: You can indirectly change shutter speed very easily by adjusting your ISO sensitivity. For example, by raising ISO sensitivity from base ISO up to ISO 800 or 1600, the camera will use a faster shutter speed rather than shooting at a lower ISO. (Even if you do keep your ISO sensitivity at the base value, this still prevents overexposure simply by using a faster shutter speed if your ISO dips to the base value.)
Every camera has a maximum acceptable ISO. For example, with my D7000, I seldom push the ISO beyond 1000. With my D750, I push it to 3200. So the basic idea is to set the maximum ISO as the one you feel is acceptable, and then put it to auto ISO. The “minimum shutter speed” value is the one you need to be careful with, since the camera will stay at that value most of the time. (If you have minimum shutter speed set to 1/250 second, the only way the camera will set a faster shutter speed is if it is otherwise overexposing your photo at your chosen ISO sensitivity.) To be on the safe side, pick something quick. 1/250 is about the slowest I will do, and I usually pick 1/500 or even faster depending upon the subject.
If your camera has U1 and U2 modes, or similar custom settings, you can save presets both for low light (Manual mode with Auto ISO) and daylight (Aperture Priority mode with Auto ISO) to save time.
Use a Remote/WiFi or a Bird Hide
Some of the best pictures you see in prints and social media are seldom hand-held random ones where the photographer was chasing birds. Instead, many of them are from a strategically set bird hide. Others are a remote-triggered shot where the camera was mounted close to a possible perch.
Personally, for remote photo triggering, I use my camera’s built-in WiFi and connect to Nikon’s app. The app allows for focusing and taking the picture from much farther away.
I personally love photographing wildlife with wide angle and macro lenses. It sure is a difficult task and demands a lot of failures, including many times returning empty-handed. But the rewards are unique photographs. One major problem with getting close to the subject I encounter is, even if the bird allows us close, the minimum focusing distance of the lens doesn’t. So be sure to use a lens with a close enough focusing distance if you follow this method.
Use Full-Frame Cameras
This again would contradict common belief. In fact, reach is one of the primary reasons why camera makers like Nikon have pro bodies like the D500.
I have used cropped bodies for a long time since the days of D40. I have used the D7000, D7100 and the D7200 extensively and even used the D500 to a good extent. But, in all honesty, I have never felt as satisfied as I am now with the D750. Many would think reach (mostly attributed to crop factor) is a primary factor in bird photography. In my opinion, the more important thing is AF accuracy and the camera’s low-light performance, assuming both bodies have the same lens mounted.
I am even willing to compromise on other factors like a smaller buffer or the lack of 10 FPS to get the highest quality RAW files, and, to me, a camera with large photosites meets that description.
This is not to say crop-sensor cameras are bad for wildlife photography at all. But simply, don’t be swayed into buying the D500 or another expensive crop-sensor camera if you already have a full frame option. Instead, it is better to invest your effort into learning bird behavior and improving your camera technique (autofocus and exposure settings). That goes a lot farther than a 1.5x crop – and the loss of high ISO image quality it brings – toward improving your photos.
Spot Meter High-Contrast Scenes
I have mentioned this in a few of my previous articles: Spot metering can be a great option for tricky lighting conditions.
Most of the time, we use Matrix/Evaluative metering, which is the default option in cameras today. It works well for balancing most lighting conditions and getting a good exposure overall.
Sometimes, though, spot is the way to go, especially in high-contrast scenes. If you spot meter directly on your subject, you can be sure that the subject will be exposed properly, regardless of how the remaining image looks. This is great when your subject is ,such brighter than the background. For example, take a look at the little egret picture below:
The bird was properly lit and perched on a mangrove. The background was a lot darker than the subject. I spot metered for the whites in the bird, ignoring the background, which was obviously underexposed. It helped me make it a high-contrast, low-key image.
On the other extreme, take a look at the Imperial eagle picture below. It was perched against a grey, overcast sky without any details. I exposed for the shadows in the bird, making the sky blow out and resulting in a high-key image:
Yes, spot metering makes it more likely that the background blows out or goes dark. But in general, I embrace the extreme shadows and highlights provided the subject itself does not have any clipped details. It makes the photos look more dramatic, which in turn carries the emotion of the light. It simply leads to better photos in many cases.
Being a Minimalist Pays
A problem today with large parts of the world is that there seems to be too much choice. Too many cameras, too many photographers, and too many photographs.
I am certain that no one can come out with 1000 outstanding pictures from a 10 day trip. I personally am happy if I get one usable photograph in one field day. And over the course of a trip, I’d much rather take a dozen great photos than a hundred solid ones.
Choice is a spoiler. It is one reason why I am not too keen on getting into the 10 FPS zone. Selecting the best out of hundred is like finding a needle in a haystack. Also, if I cannot produce one good picture out of 10, I am certainly not going to produce one good picture out of 100.
So, the bottom line should always be quality over quantity. A bad picture is as good as not having the picture. Conserving your time, energy, and patience to plan for a few good pictures is way more productive than running around without focus.
Chimp, But Don’t Chimp Too Much
If you have not heard of chimping, it simply means reviewing your photos while you’re out in the field, but it has a negative reputation. If you chimp too much, you can miss an amazing scene in front of you.
I admit it, I am a chimp. But it all boils down to how much we chimp. Taking a look at the shot to check the exposure, focus and composition is all fine, and it can help you avoid making an error in your camera settings. But if you’re in the habit of reviewing every photo after you just took it, that is too much. Chimping after the scene is gone borders on pointless, while chimping during the height of the action is simply a bad idea. There is a bit of an art to finding which times are safe to chimp and will give you useful information for the next photo – but if you aren’t sure, keep your peeping to a minimum.
Have Enough Negative Space
It is true that most of us seek to fill as many pixels as possible with our subject. The bigger the subject in the frame, the more it will grab attention.
But negative space is also useful; it helps pull the observer’s eye into the picture. Sometimes, it attracts more attention than simply filling your frame with the subject from corner to corner.
On top of that, if you leave a bit of extra space around your subject, you can improve your chances of getting the shot even if your subject is moving erratically. Take a look at the gray heron picture below. In this case, I was close to the subject, my settings were good, and everything was ok with the picture, except the leg at the bottom is cut out:
This one issue makes the picture unusable even though everything else is how I want.
Another reason to avoid a corner-to-corner subject has to do with lens. Even a lot of pro-grade lenses have some loss of sharpness in the extreme corners. Semi-pro lenses suffer even more. Add that to autofocus accuracy concerns – the tracking system working best with more central AF points – and it can be a recipe for imperfect sharpness if you place your subject too far off-center.
Of course, it’s always a balance. You don’t want to crop your photo too much. Again, 20% is about where I’d try to stay. But if you do feel that your subject is filling too much of the frame, I recommend pulling back to give yourself as much flexibility as possible and improve your odds of getting the shot.
Enjoy Photography and Be Ethical
Last but not the least, enjoy what you are doing. You might shoot a photo that gets a million likes on social media or even wins a competition – but if you do not enjoy it in the first place, it is almost as good as nothing. Quick thrills are fun but they do not sustain a hobby in the long run.
There are times where I have had a rare subject but I ended up with horrible light. Those times, I just kept my camera aside, admired the scene, and walked away. As always with nature photography, in spite of all the planning, nothing is fully in our control. If we get the shots we seek, perfect! But we have no reason to be disappointed or come back home depressed because we did not get what we sought.
Lastly, respect your subject. The beautiful birds did not ask us to click a picture of them in the first place. So during the process, it is only fair to come back with photographs putting least stress on our subjects. Approach and part from them as unobtrusively as possible, so they would ignore you immaterial of you bagging the shot or not.
I hope you enjoyed this article! I’ve put down most of the tips that I follow and help me take better photographs of birds in the field. I intentionally avoided a few important topics like lens choice, as there are already endless debates and articles about them if you wish to partake. If you feel I have missed out on any important tips or have questions on how some of these suggestions work, please let me know in the comments section below.