Why do some photos leave our jaws on the floor, while others are not even worth looking at? In bird photography, this is doubly true. I estimate that well over 90% of the bird photos that appear on my memory card are bad. It’s like gold mining. For every ton of rock, there are a few grains of precious metal. What are some of the common mistakes that lead to more bad photos than good ones? I’ll go through five of the big ones today.
Table of Contents
1. Unwanted Blur
This is probably the most common issue every bird photographer faces when capturing these usually small and devilishly fast creatures.
Lack of sharpness generally has three causes: incorrect focus, motion blur, and atmospheric distortion.
In terms of focus, that is always a combination of the photographer’s skill (practice makes perfect) and the camera’s capabilities. Even though modern mirrorless cameras can find the subject’s eye automatically and do a lot of the work for you, practice is still key. There is no one single autofocus mode that always works best – and I would bet on a seasoned photographer with an old camera over a newbie with a Nikon Z9 or Sony a1 any day.
Dealing with motion blur is easier. Just think about what you’re photographing. As a general rule, the smaller the bird, the faster the shutter speed. My baseline for birds in flight is to use 1/1000 second, and usually I go faster. But if the bird is perched and staying completely still, you may be able to get as slow as 1/15 second, so long as you’re using a tripod. To know what shutter speed to use, the answer again is to practice. (When in doubt, go for a faster speed than you expect, because you can handle noise in post-processing more easily than dealing with blurriness.)
Finally, are you sure you focused correctly and used a fast shutter speed, but your photos still aren’t sharp? Don’t go blaming your equipment just yet. Instead, take a look at the thermometer. If it’s hot outside, the air shimmers, making it almost impossible to capture a sharp photo. What’s the solution? Take photos early in the morning and late in the afternoon, when atmospheric distortion is usually less. Also, use shorter lenses, like a 400mm instead of an 800mm, and get closer to your subject – thereby reducing the atmosphere between you and the bird.
2. Wrong Posture and Wing Positions
When you photograph your family or a model in a studio, posing is one of the most important things. Why would it be any different with birds? Birds may not be able to smile or frown like a person does (although if your parrot can produce a wide grin from ear to ear, please capture it for me). But they do have different postures, gestures, body language, and wing positions.
Every bird, or at least every group of birds, has a typical posture and flying style. If you have a bird atlas with drawn illustrations, focus on this aspect in its images. Experts in the field can capture typical poses very accurately. An excellent example is Birds of Europe with illustrations by Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterström. Try to capture the characteristic poses in your bird photographs.
Capturing the right wing position is another challenge. Not every wing position is aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes the wings cover the head, and sometimes they’re at such an angle to the camera that they’re barely visible. Other times, the position is just awkward, making even the healthiest bird look like it is in distress. This is where the camera’s burst mode comes in handy, allowing you to choose the variant that suits your taste.
However, even the 20 FPS on my Nikon Z9 is not a universal remedy. I often encounter difficulties when photographing hummingbirds in flight. Sometimes the frequency of their wing flaps coincides with the frequency of my frame rate. The result is a series of photos with almost identical (often incorrect) wing positions! If you are noticing this, you may want to change the frame rate slightly – say from 20 FPS to 15 FPS. Normally, however, the simple remedy is a combination of the delete key and patience.
3. Bad Backgrounds
Most novice bird photographers get too carried away with their feathered subjects and forget about the rest of the frame. What’s around and behind the bird is actually so important that it can make the difference between a great shot and a “deleteable” waste. Always perceive the photo as a whole. Keep in mind that when using a telephoto lens, even a slight change in your shooting position can dramatically affect the quality of the background. Sometimes shifting just a few inches can do the trick.
Do you want a nice, “clean” photo? By that, I mean a totally blurred background that makes the bird pop. This is definitely a classic look. You’ll increase this effect if: you’re closer to the bird, you’re using a longer lens, you’re using a wider aperture, and the background is far away behind the bird. That last factor is really overlooked – even a cheaper telephoto lens like Canon’s 600mm f/11 can give wildly blurred backgrounds as long as the background is far away.
However, contrary to popular belief, the background doesn’t have to be uniform! In fact, a totally blurred background can become quite boring over time if that’s all you ever shoot. Interesting effects can be achieved with light patches, color gradients, or the surrounding landscape, especially when using shorter lenses. If the goal of bird photography is to tell the story of your subject, the background can often play an important role.
4. Poor Perch
You might think I’m going overboard here. Is this article about birds or about sticks?! Well, it’s about everything. Just like the previous point where I focused on the background.
A few weeks ago, I came across an extremely tolerant hawk on the island of Corsica. It wasn’t afraid of me at all, so I was able to get within five meters of it. The background was distant, and the whole scene was illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun. Simply breathtaking! But in the end, I didn’t take a picture. Why not? Mainly because the hawk was perched on ugly power lines. (Well, okay, also because I left my telephoto lens at home in Prague, but that’s another story.)
I will often point my lens at the ideal perch and then wait and hope for the bird to land on it – sometimes without luck for several hours. It’s like a street photographer who stands in front of an interesting wall waiting for someone to walk by. Maybe no one will. But that’s better than taking a picture on an unappealing perch. If you happen to be shooting near a manmade bird feeder, you may have more control over the direction and perch that the bird lands on – if so, make use of it!
5. Excessive Distance to the Bird
Even in bird photography, Capa’s well-worn saying holds true: if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. Of course, it’s not always necessary for the bird to fill the entire frame. But when it doesn’t, we need to give the viewer something else to contemplate – some other eye-catching element that justifies the millions of pixels in which the bird isn’t present. Placing the bird in the context of the surrounding landscape is one option, and another is “hiding” it in the frame if it is well-camouflaged.
Let’s get back to those compositions where the bird fills the frame. During my workshops, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. Most novice photographers tend to shoot from too far away, even when there’s no objective reason to do so. The human brain and eye have an extraordinary ability to filter out the irrelevant. It’s like when you see a loved one in a crowd. Everyone around them seems to cease to exist. But the other people haven’t disappeared; you’ve just stopped noticing them.
In bird photography, that manifests as a tiny bird in your frame, which didn’t bother you when shooting, but now needs tons of cropping in post-production. That’s why I go back to what I said earlier: When composing your shot, look at the entire frame and consider what belongs in the photo and what’s unnecessary.
After you’ve taken the obligatory “first photo” when you notice a bird, start to approach closer if it allows you to do so. The bonus for a few extra feet of crawling through dust and mud is a better-composed photo. And that’s worth it, don’t you think?
What about you, what is your keeper rate as a bird photographer? Do any of these mistakes play an outsized role in your “bad” photos? Let me know your feedback in the comments below!