Ten Tips To Get Better Photos of Birds

I am not an expert in this field. This is a relatively new hobby that I have picked up as a way to spend some downtime during the winter. Over the course of the last few weeks though I have learned a few things that have made my photos better. I thought that I would share those tips here so that others don’t have to go through the trial and error that I did. Some of the tips are very simple, but others can help make a good photo a great photo.

  1. Get out your big glass – Most of the birds that you will photograph will be small. You need a big piece of glass to make that little bird big in the frame. The photo above was made with a 300mm lens with a 2x extender on it. I was also shooting with my Canon 7D Mark II which has a 1.6x crop factor to it. That means that I am basically shooting at 960mm. That helped me get this close to this sparrow.
  2. Focus on the eyes – If the eyes of the bird are not in focus, then you do not have a  picture. The same rules that apply with humans apply when making photos of birds or other wildlife. One way to help get the razor thin focus correct is to set up your situation. Set up your camera on a tripod with a point in mind that you know the bird will be. Prefocus on that spot to make sure that when the bird arrives you have your focus locked in.
  3. Be aware of your background – Another important factor of your photo is the background. Using a high f-stop to blur the background is a way to make sure that you do not have distractions in the background. You want a clean background so that the bird pops out from it. If the background has unusual lines in it they will still show up in the bokeh. You have to be aware of what your background will be so that you can make a clean image.
  4. Use a tripod – I mentioned it above, but a tripod is a must for photographing birds. It helps you stay still so that you can make a good exposure. Even at a high shutter speed you need to stay still while making the photo. A tripod makes sure that you stay still.
  5. Let the birds come to you – This is more of an advanced tip, but you have to let the birds come to you. You can set up a scenario in which they will come to you. At my backyard studio I have set up feeders and perches for the birds. This increases the likelihood that the birds will come to where I want them to. I can then make sure that I have a situation that will make a good photo. If you are out in the field you need to use your vehicle as a blind, or make yourself blend into your surroundings so that the birds come to you. It is easier said than done, but it is worth it in the end.
  6. Put the sun at your back – One way to make sure that you have the light that you need on the bird is to put the sun at your back. Your bird will be well lit, and you will have a consistent light source. Shooting into the sun creates problems. Unless you have a fill flash you will have either a bright background as I do in the photo above, or a dark bird. In a perfect world you will have a low diffused light on the bird. Having the light at your back also helps make sure that you have a little catchlight in the birds eye. That little catchlight can help make the bird look more alive.
  7. Don’t be afraid to crop – In my landscape work I do not like to crop. I like to think that I have made the photo at the scene. One thing that I have learned shooting sports and wildlife though is that you can’t always get to where you need to be. You have to crop to get in that little extra. You still have to fill the frame as much as you can, but a little cropping helps make the bird appear larger.
  8. Use a high shutter speed – When birds are in motion they are surprisingly fast. The wings are beating fast enough to blur in your photo. A shutter speed of 1/500th or even better 1/1000th is needed to stop the motion of the bird. For a hummingbird you will need to be at least at 1/1600th of a second. A crisp bird looks great. That being said you can also slow the shutter down at times to show the motion of the bird. To start off though crisp is the way to go.
  9. Take multiple shots – This should go without saying. Birds are a subject that seems to be constantly doing something new. Don’t be afraid to let the motor drive go. You will increase your keeper rate this way. I am not advocating spraying and praying, but when the moment happens let the shutter fly. This also means that you can make multiple photos from one scene. If you have the ability to zoom in and out make the close up shot, but then make some shots that give the sense of where you are.
  10. Patience! – This might be the best tip of them all. The birds can be fickle. You need to have patience to wait until the time is right. Just because you have everything set up perfectly does not mean that your subject will always come to you. You need to have the patience to be ready when they do.

Well that is ten quick tips for photographing birds. This is not the definitive list, but rather ten tips that I found helpful. If you have a tip that I have missed here leave it in the comments to help this list grow.

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About Pinola Photo

I am a sports and lifestyle photographer based in West Lafayette, IN home of Purdue University. I cover sports for Big Ten teams as well as other colleges. You can follow me on twitter @pinolaphoto. You can also view my website at www.davewegielphoto.net

2 responses »

  1. Sweet light in the background. It really warms up this image.

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