Birds are beautiful and amazing animals. They come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and colors and can be encountered almost anywhere. According to researches of the American Museum of National History about 18’000 different species can be found worldwide. Looking at my bird life list (a life list is a list of first time identified birds in the wild) I still have way to go it seems. Bird photography is something that attracts a wide range of photographers regardless of their skill level and or primary photography interest. I remember very well that my entire photography journey has started by taking pictures of gulls at the lake of Zurich. Ever since birds play a major role in may photography life – maybe because of that gull – but mainly because of my deep inner connection with birds.
Table of content
- Love and protect wildlife
- Equipment for bird photography
- Handheld vs Tripod
- Hide photography
- Bird taxonomy and bird behavior
- Camera settings
- Prepare your stuff beforehand
- How to best start with bird photography
- Moving birds
- Birds in flight
- Work with small birds
- Try different angles
- Work with backlight and silhouettes
- Let me know your thoughts
Love and protect wildlife
Birds and wildlife in general require our protection and should never be put in danger for the sake of an image. If you enter a forest be aware that you enter the home of the animals inhabiting it. They have been there before us and this must be respected. In case of mating season or when birds feed chicks (nest) photography should be either completely avoided or planned and executed very carefully. You should shoot only from a far distance and never close to a nest. Please be aware that certain species are protected by law and nest photography requires a permit. I am very strict about that. When I e.g. photograph feeding woodpeckers I wear full camouflage, restrict the time per hole to approx. 30mins and give multiple days between visiting the same hole again.
Equipment for bird photography
When talking about bird photography most people immediately think of crazy expensive equipment. Depending of what you would like to do this assumption is not totally wrong unfortunately. Focal length in combination with a fast lens is one of the key criterias in bird photography. Auto focus precision and speed as well as high ISO quality (noise) play a major role too.
Most of the pictures below have been taken with a 500mm f/4 lens. This doesn’t mean that such images only can be taken with a super tele lens. It’s just the setup I use for bird photography. Anything between 200mm and 500mm will likely do the job as well. I have chosen the 500mm f/4 over the 600mm f/4 as I still can shoot the 500mm handheld. The 600er would be too heavy. The 400mm f/2.8 is too expensive. The 300mm f/2.8 is a hell of a lens and works great with a two times teleconverter. That’s a combo coming for a more reasonable price as the 400, 500 and 600er lenses. The „cheaper“ 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is also an awesome glass but it doesn’t work that well with teleconverters. If focal length doesn’t matter to much, this lens is a no-brainer. There are other lenses available such as the Nikon 200–500mm f/5.6 that people seem to like. Since I don’t know it so I can’t comment. There is also the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 (Nikon) and the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 (Canon) but I don’t know that much about those either. I hear that the Nikon one is very slow in AF performance but I haven’t tested it myself. There are of course also cheaper options such as the 18-200 and the 18-300 lenses. Those will work as well but quality wise likely will lag behind.
I am using the following gear:
- Nikon D750
- Nikon 500mm f/4
- Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8
- Nikon 50mm f/1.8
- Gitzo Tripod
- Wimberley gimbal head
- Ghillie suit
There is no general advice I could give on equipment as every photographer may have different requirements depending on the target species, the location where pictures are taken and the expectations towards quality. Let me elaborate a bit on that quickly.
What does target species have to do with equipment
Target species defines the bird species you would like to photograph. If someone loves to photograph waterfowl such as geese, swans, ducks or gulls one may will be getting close to the animal without disturbing it. Those birds are relatively tame and used to human encounters. Focal lengths of 50mm to 100mm may be already perfect for such situations. It’s a different story if someone likes to take pictures of shy birds of prey. Here focal lengths of 300-800mm will be required.
What does the location where pictures are taken have to do with equipment
You may wonder on how the location may influence the necessary gear. You should consider two things. The first thing is the geographical location. In e.g. North America birds are much more used to people and way less spooky as birds in Europe. When photographing birds of prey in New York City I sometimes was able to get 5 meters close without distracting the bird. In my hometown in Switzerland though birds of prey will fly away if they see me from 200m distance. The second thing to consider is whether hides are used or not. In hide photography you can get extremely close to animals without distracting them, depending on the hide. This will have an impact on gear mainly when it comes down to focal length but also other factors. My experience is that everything between 200 and 400mm is great for hides. I am saying that as I always suffer with the 500mm. However this all depends on the hide again.
What does expectation towards quality have to do with equipment
Prime lenses usually deliver better quality than cheap plastic lenses. I am not saying that good pictures can’t be taken with cheap lenses. One of my all time favorite lens is the 50mm f/1.8 and that comes at a price below CHF 200.-. But when it comes down to larger focal lengths those fast prime lenses are just heavy to beat in terms of results. So comparing a 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 with a 300mm f/2.8 lens is not only unfair but also relatively clear in terms of who wins. Again, I am not saying that you can’t take high quality pictures with the 70-300mm.
Traveling with heavy gear
When talking about gear you always should consider how to travel with the same. Heavy gear can be a problem mainly with airplanes. I have put some thoughts on that on paper some time back.
Handheld vs Tripod
Handheld vs Tripod is another discussion that very much depends on the size and weight of the lens as well as the setting. I use a 500mm f/4 lens and do a lot of handheld shots if the conditions allow it. Light is mainly a criteria here due to high shutter speed required. However in many cases a tripod will provide better results as it supports stabilization. I recommend a gimpbal head for bird photography as it offers great flexibility and supports heavy lenses.
Hide photography is a great way for bird photographers getting close to their target species without disturbing it. Please make sure you do some research before choosing a hide. Some hide providers attract animals with food. That’s maybe not wrong but it all depends on the quality of the food used. Birds (and of course animals in general) should never be fed with unhealthy food such as sugar or salt. Also they should never be attracted to places where they potentially could get in danger such as roads or train rails. Besides commercial hides you can make use of camouflage tents. Even a car may work pretty well as a hide. I personally do prefer camouflage clothing and sometimes tents as it gives me the biggest flexibility.
Bird taxonomy and bird behavior
Maybe not in the beginning but definitely when becoming a more advanced bird photographer understanding bird behavior is one of the key elements in bird photography. Understanding when certain things may happen will help to take a shot you have in your head. Bird taxonomy helps to identify the individual species or support discussions with other photographers about birds when not knowing the names in a different language.
I am using Collins Bird Guide and highly recommend it to anyone interested in birds or bird photography.
I don’t want to go to much into detail here as there is tons of material out there explaining and discussing those settings – like the one from Nasim on shutterspeed and aperture and autofocus.
Shutterspeed, aperture and ISO
I always recommend shooting in manual mode as one has the control over all settings. However this might be tricky in the beginning and therefore shutterspeed or aperture priority can be helpful. I used them on and off in the beginning but soon realized that manual mode is the only way going forward for me.
- Shutterspeed is set manually, aperture is decided by the camera
- Good choice when shutter speed should not drop below a certain speed
- E.g. Shutterspeed priority with 1/2000 minimum shutter speed for fast moving birds
- Aperture priority: Aperture is set manually, shutterspeed is decided by the camera
- Good choice when f-stop should not drop below a certain stop
- E.g. minimum f-stop at f/7.2 for small birds ensuring enough depth of field
Besides those two functions most cameras offer auto ISO:
- Max ISO is set manually, camera may pushes ISO until max ISO is reached
- Good choice if light condition changes fast e.g. between clouds and sunlight
- E.g. Auto ISO with ISO 1600 max ISO when clouds come and go
Autofocus is a key element in bird photography and very much depends on the quality of your camera.
- AF-S: Focus is set on an object, if object moves, autofocus will not follow the object
- AF-C: Focus is set on an object, if object moves, autofocus follows (tries to follow) the object
- AF-A: Focus is set on an object, if object moves, camera decides if auto focus follows object or not
Along with autofocus comes the topic on available focus points. Depending on the camera brand and model sensors come with different amounts of sensor focus points. E.g. my D750 comes with 51 points whereas pro bodies such as the D5 come with 153 points (of which 55 are selectable). There are different sensor types whereas both cross sensor and dual cross sensor work most accurate.
Make sure you know which of your sensors are cross and dual cross to work with those if possible (camera manuals usually provide this information).
Single point focus vs focus group area
I usually use single point focus however there are other focus settings available such as focus group area. I use those in rare cases. You’ll find examples below. In case you want to know more on those, check the above link from Nasim. You need to find out what works best for you by testing the different focus settings.
Prepare your stuff beforehand
Make sure you always go fully prepared when you go out seeking for birds. I’ve put a quick checklist together that might be helpful for you:
- Battery pack(s) fully charged: Sounds like a no-brainier but I have been out there with empty batteries trust me. If you plan to shoot in cold conditions make sure you bring multiple battery packs as they tend to die quicker in cold conditions.
- Lens and camera cleaned: You don’t want to shoot a once in a lifetime shot and then find out dust or fat on sensor / lens is destroying the result.
- Memory cards: Bring additional memory cards in case of overflow or damage.
- Camera settings: Before leaving the house preset your camera settings to your bird photography needs like AF in continuous mode, RAW / JPG fine (depending on your preferences). Additionally I recommend to quickly check the light and set shutterspeed, f-stop and ISO. This is specially advisable in case you use the camera also for other stuff like studio shots for example.
- Second body: If you have a second camera body you might want to take it in case your main body passes out.
- Shutter count: Something you should not worry about but worthy to check every now and then in case your are using DSLR bodies – the shutter will die after a certain amount of clicks – mine is at 100k exposures now, so I need to monitor that a bit.
- Bird identification book: Bring your book in case you see something new you need to identify.
- Water & snacks: Bird photography is often combined with sitting and waiting and hours can fly by. Make sure you bring water and maybe some snacks. Don’t leave trash behind.
- Charge your phone: If going to new places you can easily get lost – sounds silly but (almost) happened to me once. A phone might help.
- Flashlight: You may start early and or return late and woods can be quite dark. Bring a flashlight.
- Clothing: Wear waterproof shoes and warm waterproof clothing depending on the conditions. You can start freezing easily while waiting on animals.
How to best start with bird photography
As a rule of thumb one could say that larger birds are more easy to photograph than smaller birds and perching birds are definitely much easier to photograph than birds in flight. In addition to that some bird species are more shy and spooky than others.
A good advice is to start with large birds as they will be easier to focus on, specially when they are perching.
Large birds perching
The following picture portraying a brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) has been taken with a 500mm f/4 lens but since those birds are very well used to people it could easily have been captured with a 50mm f/1.8 or a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. Since the bird is large and perching without movement it is a great subject to play around with. The easy thing about large birds is to get them into focus but the tricky thing is to focus correctly.
That may sound a bit illogical but depending on the f-stop the depth of field might be quite shallow. If one would by accident would focus on one of the outer wings instead of the eye the result would be unpleasant. Other than that not much can go wrong with such a subject. If the bird is perching for a good while it would be a great idea to try out different angles, distances or playing with camera settings and see what is working and what isn’t.
Another good example to start with is the following one of a perching grey heron (Ardea cinerea). Grey herons are large birds and can easily be properly focused. The only tricky in this specific image is the buys for- and background. You may notice the different colors coming from all sorts of leaves and branches. I was shooting through autumn trees and the autofocus had to sit properly as the fore and or background easily could have distracted it. As you can see in the image caption I was shooting the 500mm handheld and for this a fast shutter speed is required. I mention that because perching birds can be captured with much slower shutter speeds than 1/2000s.
Midsize birds perching
Midsize birds are a bit trickier to photograph as one needs to get closer to them due to their smaller size. This either require longer focal lengths or birds used to people. A good start therefore are pigeons or gulls. The picture on the right shows a closeup of a domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica). Did you know that pigeons play an important role in many cults and religions. In Christianity the Holy Spirit is descending on Jesus in bodily form of a dove (Pigeon and Dove both refer to the many species of the Columbidae family). Thesedays pigeons unfortunately have been fallen into disrepute in many places and are often called as „rats of the skies“. Photographing and sharing pictures of those beautiful animals may help to ease the relation between humans and pigeons.
Small birds perching
Small birds can be very hard to photograph depending on their species. The following picture shows a firecrest (Regulus ignicapilla). The little guy is only about 5.6g heavy but if those birds are around they are great for practicing shooting smalls birds. The reason is that gold- and firecrest have a very low escape distance and let one get very close. They are very fast little birds but when perching „easy“ to capture.
One advice here is to identify and study species with low escape distances as they tend to be less spooky than others.
Birds in motion might be a bit more difficult to photograph and therefore it is advisable to find some easy targets. One of those for sure are mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). They are very predictable when start moving and one can see them „running“ over the water for quite some time, just enough to take a picture in motion. The difficulty when taking a shot of a subject in motion is to have a good compromise of shutterspeed, f-stop and ISO. Shutterspeed very much depends on the size and speed of the bird. Large birds tend to move slower than small birds whereas this again varies by bird species. In the picture you can see that the mallard’s fingers are not frozen but some motion blur is visible. That clearly indicates a too low shutter speed. However looking at the settings you can see that the aperture is already wide open and ISO pushed quite a bit. To achieve a faster shutter speed I would have had to push ISO even more running the risk of getting to much noise.
Some practice will be required to understand the interaction between shutterspeed, aperture and ISO. Be patient in case your images don’t turn out as you’d wish in the first attempts.
Birds in flight
Birds in flight might be the most tricky thing in bird photography. It requires a lot of patience and practice, at least it did for me. My personal key to success is not only to photograph the animals but also to enjoy them. This motivates me to go out and practice but it also helps me to overcome shots I missed as at the same time I was there and witnessed something special happening in nature.
Capturing birds in flight can be quite difficult. It requires some practice and a lot of patience.
How to start with photographing birds in flight
As already said, the larger the bird the (usually) slower it is and therefore the better to capture in flight. Storks or herons are great species to start with but also ducks and mallards are relatively easy and fun to work with. The following image shows a white stork (Ciconia ciconia) in flight. The large animal is hardly to be missed and makes an excellent target for a flight shot. The difficulty here is to have the eye of the animal nicely in focus. I have used single focus point as I wanted to avoid catching one of the fingers by mistake ending up with an out of focus face. However since the head is quite isolated I would think that by grouping focus points I would have ended up with the same result. This particular picture has been taken against sunlight hence the slightly desaturated image. The second image shows a grey heron (Ardea cinerea) with fully open wings. The same as just said before applies here too. The challenge is not to accidentally focus on the wings but ending up with clear head and eye. I could have stopped down a bit e.g. to f/8 but I didn’t want to push ISO no more due to the mainly darker colors of the image. Noise behaves differently with different colors and can give quite bad results for colors in darkish tones. This depends on camera type and sensor so it’s a good advice to understand at what ISO level your gear starts becoming a potential issue.
Learn to become quick on easy targets
Bird photography requires a quick reaction and fast handling of the gear. Changing settings like shutterspeed or aperture is something you should be able to do without thinking. A good way to practice this is shooting overflying birds towards the sky. You may not end up with a great shot as there is no such thing as background, detail or composition but it will help you to operate your camera swiftly. I am not saying you can’t get amazing pictures by doing so. In the first picture we have three individual photographs (stitched together in post processing) of a carrion crow (Corvus corone). The difficulties here will be to find the right balance to not under or overexpose the image as well as get a clear shot. In such shooting conditions it may makes sense to use group area AF mode as there is literally nothing else that could distract the autofocus. In the second picture we have a red kite (Milvus milvus) with fully open wings showing its beautiful back. In both examples we have a relatively large area to focus on, whereas the head is pretty isolated, therefore offering perfect training conditions. The third picture shows a domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica) in flight with not fully open but rather closed wings. You can imagine that having the focus point set properly on the pigeon’s face is not that easy as all the wing movement may easily distract the autofocus. In such cases I only use single point AF to make sure I am the only one deciding on where the focus goes. Those moments are perfect examples to practice flight shots. Having said that you notice that many pictures I take are not for the sake of only creating a great image but also for practicing reasons.
Start working towards background
Background and mainly busy background is a difficult element in bird photography. However this can and will add a lot of spice to your image. Like in other areas of photography it’s also in bird photography not only about the subject but mainly about composition and story telling. Busy backgrounds in photography are usually not that much of a problem. However when doing fast action shots it can distract the autofocus and destroy your image. Therefore a good bit of practicing will help to overcome those hurdles. Try to start with an easy setting like this black-backed gull (Larus marinus) against the water. By the way, the black-backed gull is one of my favorite gulls. This setting requires you to be above the gull like standing on a cliff and looking down. The trick here is to first focus and follow the gull for some time before start taking pictures. This will help you to move the lens with the flow of the bird. Unlike towards the sky you have to be really careful on aperture. If you stop down to much, you may end up creating an image where the bird is not standing off the background but rather all (subject and background) is on one level. You already realize that such a scenario will result of a large depth of field. The higher and the closer the gull will fly to your lens the shallower the depth of field will be as DoF is not only dependent on aperture and focal length but also on distance between lens and object and object and background.
The picture on the right shows a great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) with fully open wings. The challenge here will be a combination of background (that is quite far away and therefore less of an issue) and the body position of the bird. It’s wings are stretched with very little surface to focus on and the birds head is almost in line with the much bigger body. If not carefully focused the head may get out of focus. Another good example to train how to focus.
Looking at the next example, an atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) you may think that this is quite an easy shot as puffins are not that fast when flying. In fact one could think they are not made for flying at all when observing them. However they can change directions quite quickly and almost like little rabbits fly zigzag lines. Those guys are a great „playground“ to shoot and they are fun to watch. I still remember the blast I had playing with these little guys.
Work with birds flying over water
Birds and mainly water birds often fly close over water level and go well along with reflection photography. When they do so their movements are quite predictable as they fly often straight lines. This gives you a great opportunity to get some cool flight shots and as an extra you may end up with a nice reflection. A key success for the reflection is the „quality“ of the water level. The less wind there is, the less nervous the water usually will be and the more perfect the reflection will turn out. Therefore lakes usually are better than rivers. The following picture shows a common tern (Sterna hirundo) in perfect reflection. Terns are extremely agile and swift birds and very difficult to catch in flight. However if they are flying over the water they are usually not moving their for quite some time. The image has been taken just before sunrise with zero wind. As you can see ISO had to be pushed quite a bit as shooting handheld required a minimum shutter speed. This is why I had to shoot wide open at f/4.
Another example is the one of a black skimmer (Rynchops niger). The bird is slightly larger than the tern and less agile but very similar when it comes to behavior. When drinking, both species are flying over the water with their beaks on water level. Another good opportunity to train your bird photography flight shot skills. This picture suffers a bit from the background but unfortunately there was not much I could do.
Work with busy background
Working with busy background can be fun and a headache at the same time. Looking at the first image of a white-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus) I remember how tricky it was to get a good shot. Those birds are almost as fast as common kingfishers (Alcedo atthis) and very unpredictable. The only good thing is that they usually fly pretty straight lines which helps focusing. But if you look at the background you can see that there is a rock formation covered in water. This makes it very difficult to focus on that little speedy bird. Having said that and looking at the picture, the bird is positioned a bit to much over the white water area. If the dipper would be a bit more to the right, the image would have turned out a bit better. You may also notice that a shutterspeed of 1/1600 is just too slow for such a target but I didn’t want to push ISO nor change the aperture. One advise that I can give here is not to shoot every frame (burst mode) possible but rather try to properly focus and only try to shoot one or two clear frames. In such situations I tend to have worse results when continuously shooting compared with proper focusing and then trying to get a clear shot. This however very much depends on camera and photographer as some people get very accurate results also in burst mode for such scenarios.
The next image shows a common buzzard (Buteo buteo) flying in front of trees with lots of leaves. The reason why you can’t see those no more is the wide option lens at full speed. I should have stopped down here at least 1 stop but somehow was not prepared for the take off. Before taking off the buzzard was perching on a branch and I didn’t manage to switch settings fast enough. If birds are approaching you frontal it is key to have continuous autofocus switched on.
Another good example is the picture of the osprey (Pandion haliaetus). When ospreys are divebombing it can be quite tricky to properly focus as large water drops may distract the autofocus. This shot was only possible as I was shooting in burst mode and continuous autofocus. I would never have been able to focus on the eye through the wings by refocusing. Having said that you can see that using or not using burst mode successfully can be very much situation dependent.
Work with small birds
Small birds can be difficult to photograph so it comes without saying that it will likely be even more difficult if they are in flight. The little guy on the left shows a great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor). These birds are very agile and extremely fast but they have a special hunting technique. Similar to what common kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) do, shrikes also hover while observing the ground for prey. This is when you can pretty easy focus on those birds. When they start attacking, you can follow with your lens the direction of the divebombing bird to get some great shots. Continous autofocus will support you by not loosing the animals. It requires some practice, both in respect of camera handling and understanding bird behavior, to properly follow small and fast birds. This „pre-“ focus technique can be adapted to many other flight shot moments by focusing a bird and following it with the lens.
A good exercise is to observe birds without the camera and trying to understand when, why, how and where they move.
Try different angles
Trying different angles is a great way to portrait birds of which you already have a lot of shots and you are looking for new challenges. In my case, I have been doing a lot of woodpecker shots and wanted to try out something new. I found a tree with a great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) hole that had just the right distance between ground and hole to practice on fly out shots. For this I had to be extremely patient as I had to go there in full camo early morning while the birds still were sleeping and position myself in a way that they didn’t spot me. That of course was only one part of the challenge. The other part was managing to get a good shot. Looking at the settings you can see that I had to push ISO up to 4000 and the shutter speed was just about good enough for the wing movement – slight motion blur at the fingers but this kind of adds a nice dynamic to the image. The difficult thing is to catch the „right“ moment. This requires some practice mainly in regards of observing the animal behavior.
Work with backlight and silhouettes
Backlight is a powerful element in photography and I have been putting some thoughts to it some time ago. When it comes down to bird photography backlight is an ideal area to play around with as well. The following picture shows a great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) perching on top of a broken tree with nice backlight supporting a wonderful bokeh (this is why I was shooting wide open at f/4). The difficult thing about backlight is finding a good exposure balance – not to white out the background too much and not to have the subject to dark.
Along with backlight comes silhouette photography. Looking at the left picture you maybe need a second or two in order to identify the bird. It shows the silhouette of an eurasian nuthatch (Sitta europaea). It has been taken quite late in the evening with very little light available. If you compare the two images you may notice that the colors of the nuthatch background is much darker. That is not only because of the light but also because of the quality of the background. The background of the great spotted woodpecker has much lighter colors and is more busy.
A nice background will support your backlight photography images. Leaves and bushes are great as they don’t block the light but give a smooth and soft tone to it. Also they support the quality of the bokeh.
Let me know your thoughts
I hope this article was helpful for you. There is so much more I would like to share about bird photography (and I will) but for now I guess this is enough material to digest. Please always keep in mind that bird photography is not an easy subject at all and it requires quite a bit of patience to achieve the shots one has in his mind. Many times I come home without any good shots but I always come home with good memories. So here is my second last advice: If you now go out and take pictures you might not come back with the perfect shot but if you don’t go out to take pictures you for sure will end up with no shot at all – as simple as that. My last advice is the following: don’t only look at bird photography from a photography point of view but also from a view of getting closer to nature.
If there is anything you are looking for, please let me know and I try to find examples to discuss. Feel free to use the Q&A form to submit questions.
Love an protect wildlife
Animals are awesome and need our protection. Don’t hurt, kill or eat animals. It’s wrong.