This article 20 Tips for Bird Photography is a compilation of what I consider the most important for photographing birds in nature. Elizabeth and Nasim already have excellent articles about the most important tips. These thoughts are a collection of the best tips that I have found and common mistakes that many bird photographers make.
Understanding Your Subject
This is why I consider this the most important. Because bird photography is all about understanding the temperament of our subjects.
This is true for all wildlife, but even more so for birds. Some birds will cooperate and let us get very close to them, while others will fly away at the first sign of movement. The differences in behavior of the same birds can be even more noticeable when they are exposed to different environments. Let’s take, for example, the Sarus crane that I photographed at the Bharatpur bird sanctuary. This photograph was taken from a distance of about 50 meters from the bird.
The cranes don’t care about people inside the sanctuary. However, they fly to nearby farms to become very shy. They are safe in the sanctuary and no one tries to chase them away. Farmers are constantly on guard for their crops, protecting them from the birds.
Some birds can only be seen at certain times of the day like the Himalayan Monal. Monals eat grassy patches in the morning and evening. Mid-day would be a time when they are not visible. This knowledge is very useful when photographing these birds. Many birds migrate, often traveling long distances to reach new places. Some birds are vibrantly colored during breeding, but not at other times.
If you plan to take a bird photography vacation, it is important that you know the best time of year. Many photographers have left on bird photography trips after getting their holiday approvals, only to find that the best birding season had passed. To maximize your opportunities, plan ahead and research the area before you go.
Do not fire on sight
This is what I did at one time. I believe many others do this: As soon as we see a bird, our Continuous mode fires.
True, it is understandable that we are anxious to get a photo before the bird takes off. A photograph is more than just the subject. It also includes the story being told, the lighting that creates emotion, and the background that enhances the aesthetics. You need to take a moment to understand everything, then relax and press the shutter. This picture will almost always be more beautiful than the one you took the instant you saw the bird. There may be areas with great light and others with poor light. Photographing a bird in darkness with bright sunlight around it will not work. You might also notice distracting backgrounds. You can move around to find a better angle and a less distracting background. It takes some time to process all of it, and if there is a photo that you take before then, it will likely be culled.
Be aware of your camera settings
Each scene is unique, even if it’s only a few inches from the next or a few seconds after. You can’t use one set of settings to capture all day without modifying the others. This is tip #2.
You might, for example, have taken a photograph of a bright bird against a dark background. The image is great. The same settings can be disastrous for a darker bird just a few feet away. Remember your previous photo and the setting.
Below are two examples. Initialy, the camera was set to group-area autofocus. I concentrated on the right eye of the bird, which was less bright than its beak. I was left with blurry eyes after the camera focused on the high contrast forehead. I then switched the focus to my left eye, which was properly lit, and got a shot with sharp eyes.
Not only are focus settings important, but so is exposure compensation. Exposure compensation is another important one, which we may forget most of the times. It is easy to under- or over-expose photos if exposure compensation is left the same as for the previous image. While we may be able to correct issues in post, it is not always possible to get the shot right in camera.
Personally, I have a habit of checking the settings display once in a while to remind myself of the current settings in use so that I can change them when the scene changes. You won’t remember to adjust your settings if you don’t keep track of them, particularly important settings such as exposure compensation and focus.
“Record shots” are rarely good photographs
Bird photography and bird watching are two very different things. However, bird watching is very different from bird photography.
A “record shot” in bird watching is simply a photograph of a rare bird. It serves as proof that you have ever seen it. This type of documentary shot is not likely to make it a great photograph, unless it conveys an important message or portrays the bird in all its details. I have many photos of rare mammals and birds that are still sleeping on my hard drives. None of these images will ever make it to an exhibiting platform.
Many times I’ve seen many photographers take photos of birds and then move on to the next location. These photographs will likely be just records, which won’t be of interest to most viewers. Spending more time with one bird will produce better photos than trying to capture every bird around you. If your goal is to take high-quality photos of birds rather than simply documenting what you saw, then you’ll need to work harder.
Do not ignore common subjects
Similar to the previous tip, we all love to return with amazing photographs of rare birds or animals. Great if we get such images. We tend to overlook common subjects that can make great photos.
Most viewers won’t be able to appreciate a common sparrow or a house sparrow, for obvious reasons. Remember that a photograph can be more than just the subject. It is more than just the subject. Things like lighting, behavior, composition, and composition all play a significant role. Below is a picture below of an Indian pond heron. This bird is very common in India. However, the frame and light were just too great to miss.
Practicing is the best way to master photography. Photography common birds is a great practice that will eventually help us tremendously when photographing rare birds.
Get closer to your subject
Part of bird photography is about getting the textual details. Most bird photographers will say that reaching is all you need in bird photography. There is a big difference between getting close to your subject or getting a similar frame with a long focal length.
In full frame terms, I don’t think that most photographers need more than 600mm reach. Other issues such as haze can affect colors and contrast to a significant extent. If a person is sitting near a bird that shoots at 300mm, they will likely get more textual details than one who sits closer at a composition shot at 750mm.
While it does depend on the gear, most people get better photos when they are as close to their subjects as possible. The quality of the bokeh helps in subject separation, and the closer you are to your subject, the better.
Be patient when approaching your subject
We now know that there is no substitute for being close to your subject. The next question would be how do we get closer? These are some tips that I use and they work most of the times.
- Indirectly, the likelihood of your subject flying off is proportional to how fast you approach it. The chances of you getting the shot are directly proportional to how slow you are.
- Birds seem to be comfortable within a certain circle. After a certain radius is crossed, they will become more cautious and cool. Each individual will have a different radius.
- Birds that become cautious will start to look around for opportunities to fly, and even worse, they will try to escape from you. It is likely that the bird will take a deep, slow breath before taking off. If you can see the bird stressed, it is likely that you are in its comfort zone. Do not move. It is possible that it will stop moving and cool down. Sometimes the bird may even fly close to you. Your chances of getting a head on shot increase if your subject is comfortable around you. You are also more likely for the bird to show its natural characteristics.
- Keep your head down. Crawl toward your subject if possible. Your subjects will be more scared of crawling than walking at their full height.
- Chances are that you will see the same bird again in the same perch if you spot it. If you see feces on a particular perch it is likely that the bird has a favorite.
Although it may sound cliché, an article about bird photography would be incomplete without it. Eye-level shots are the best way to capture bird images. Eye-level shots are unsurpassed in their ability to create a feeling and a connection. This is especially true if your lens is at the eye level of your subject. This is all you need.
The best bokeh is also possible when you are at eye level. If you are higher than the subject’s eye, the ground is most noticeable. This can often be distracting. It is less attractive if it is water as the reflections on the surface can make it distracting. The background is closer to the eyes, so it looks more interesting and less distracting.
Don’t Crop too Much
We have to admit it. It’s something that most of us do. Bird photography is almost a necessity. In reality, however, my photos are more beautiful when I don’t have to crop them to 30%, 50% or even almost 100%.
Modern cameras such as the Nikon D850 have 48MP. Other brands offer megapixels that are equally powerful, which allows us to crop quite a bit. It does help, to a degree. However, if your subject is small before cropping, you will end with a poor-quality image most often even though the image is acceptable.
It doesn’t matter how many megapixels your camera has, cropping a photo more than 50% can compromise its quality. I try to keep the crop limit at 50%. The cropped portion of most photos is usually around 20%. This allows me to adjust the lines and get the perspective I desire. It takes practice to reach that level, especially if you want to learn the behavior of your subject so that you can get close enough.
Crop factor is a reason that most birding photographers opt for crop bodies. The pixel pitch (no. The number of pixels per square inch (no. The number of pixels per sq. inch (inches) in a 24-MP crop body is higher than in a 24-MP full-frame camera. This means you can get more pixels on your subject at any focal length. While this is a great thing, it does not replace proper approach and the correct lens. I prefer to be closer to my subject with a full-frame camera, rather than further away with a crop sensor camera of the same composition.
Over-cropping is another problem. We are often forced to use higher ISOs when bird photography is concerned. This literally means that there is more noise. We magnify the noise by cropping too much of the image. In post-processing, we could employ noise reduction algorithms. Noise reduction can lead to loss of details. It is better to reduce it as much as possible.
Wait for the action
Sometimes a profile shot of a perched bird taken from close up can make a great picture. It can also make it boring because there isn’t any activity.
Another reason it is not a good idea to hop from bird to bird after taking their profile picture is that they are already tagged. A photograph that captures a courtship dance or hunting action, or even the fine art and preening of preening, is more interesting. Another reason to be knowledgeable about subject matter is that it’s a must. It is possible to anticipate an action. Birds may take a deep breath before taking off. Some birds preen by stretching their necks. Some raptors will poop prior to takeoff. A high chance that mating calls will be followed by a courtship ritual is present. There is always a possibility of two birds fighting if they are close together. The list goes on.
No matter what the outcome, be prepared and persistent until it happens. You may be left empty-handed or it could happen again. If it does, however, you will have one image that will make it all worthwhile.
Stop believing in stereotypes
Surprised people will attract a lot of attention to a photograph. A stereotypical photograph, on the other hand, does not draw as much attention.
It doesn’t matter how attractive a composition might be to me if I’ve seen it before. We are all familiar with rules such as the rule of thirds and the golden triangle. They are helpful for some people, but they can also make composition more difficult. It is important to understand that these guidelines are not meant to replace your own experience. These rules are too strict for many of us. To improve your photos’ individuality, you should get out of the “herd mentality”. This will lead to originality. The most widely-recognized piece of work is the one that has originality, whether in composition or not.
Gear is important
This title sounds contradictory at first glance. This is a statement that most of us have heard many times: “It is always who stands behind the camera that matters.” However, I do not mean to imply that the best gear will automatically produce the best images. Pro gear makes certain things easier.
If gear didn’t matter, professional photographers wouldn’t invest in a Nikon D850 or 800mm f/5.6 lenses. Gear does not only refer to the camera and lens. Below is a picture of a grey-headed woodpecker. The D750 was able to acquire AF even in very low light. The D750 also gave me a very usable image even at ISO 3200. The Manfrotto tripod 055 with Benro gimbal heads and a wired shutter release enabled me to capture the shot at 1/25 seconds.
It is not about buying the most advanced equipment or guaranteeing success with your photos. You can capture difficult shots with less expensive equipment, but it will increase your chances of getting them.
Use Auto ISO
Birds are constantly in a hurry. We often miss the best settings on our cameras. It is difficult to review everything in a timely manner. This is why most wildlife photographers use Auto ISO in either Av (aperture priority), or M (manual mode).
Auto ISO with manual mode is extremely useful because you can adjust your aperture (usually wide open), and shutter speed (whatever ensures sharp shots) while the camera picks up the ISO to compensate. Bright conditions are where the problem is: The ISO can drop to the base value and need to be lower. If you don’t pay attention or shoot a lot of photos in changing lighting conditions, your photos can easily become overexposed.
Aperture Priority mode and Auto ISO are also very useful. The maximum ISO value you want your camera to use is set, then the ISO Sensitivity value the camera cannot go below is manually set. Although you might feel that this mode is locked out, it’s possible to change the shutter speed by setting your ISO sensitivity. The camera will choose to use a faster shutter speed if you increase your ISO sensitivity, from the base ISO 800 to ISO 1600. You can still avoid overexposure by keeping your ISO sensitivity the same as the base value but using a faster shutter speed in case your ISO drops to the base value.
Each camera has an ISO maximum. With my D7000, for example, I rarely push the ISO above 1000. My D750 pushes it to 3200. The basic idea is to set maximum ISO to the value you find acceptable and then to auto ISO. You should be cautious with the “minimum shutter speed” setting as the camera will abide by that value for most of the time. If you set the minimum shutter speed to 1/250 seconds, your camera will only set a faster shutter speed if your ISO sensitivity is higher than it already is. Pick something fast to be safe. 1/250 is the slowest I’ll do. I tend to pick 1/500, or even faster depending on the subject.
To save time, save presets for U1 and U2 modes or other custom settings on your camera.
Use a remote/WiFi or bird hide
Prints and social media have some of the most beautiful photos. They are rarely hand-held shots taken while chasing birds. Many of these photos are taken from strategically placed bird hides. Some others are remote-triggered shots where the camera is mounted near a perch.
Remote photo triggers are something I do personally. I connect to Nikon’s app and use the camera’s WiFi built-in. You can focus and take the photo from faraway locations with the app.
Personally, I love taking macro and wide angle photos of wildlife. It is not an easy task. There are many failures and often empty handed. The rewards are amazing photographs. The problem I have with photographing close to my subject is that even though the bird may allow us to get close, the minimum distance of the lens will not. If you use this method, make sure your lens has a sufficient focusing distance.
Use Full-Frame Cameras
This would again contradict popular belief. Reach is actually one of the main reasons Nikon has pro bodies such as the D500.
Since the days of D40, I have been using cropped bodies for a while. I have used the D7000 and D7100 extensively, and I even used the D500 quite a bit. In all truth, the D750 has made me feel as happy as ever. Many people would argue that reach, which is mostly due to crop factor, is the most important factor in bird photography. I believe that AF accuracy and low-light performance are more important than the body’s lens mount.
To get the best quality RAW files, I’m willing to sacrifice other factors, such as a smaller buffer, or a lack of 10 FPS. A camera with large photosites is what I consider a good compromise.
Crop-sensor cameras can be used for wildlife photography, but this is not to suggest they are unsuitable. Don’t let this stop you from purchasing a crop-sensor camera, such as the D500, or any other expensive model if your current full frame camera is available. It is better to spend your time learning about bird behavior and improving your camera technique (autofocus, exposure settings, etc.). This will help you improve your photos, even if it means a 1.5x crop.
Spot Meter High-Contrast Scenes
This is something I mentioned in several of my articles. Spot metering can work well for difficult lighting conditions.
We use Matrix/Evaluative Metering most of the time. It is the default option on cameras today. It is great for balancing all lighting conditions and for getting a good exposure overall.
Spot is sometimes the best option, especially when you are dealing with high-contrast scenes. Spot metering directly on the subject of your photograph will ensure that it is properly exposed, regardless how the rest of the image looks. This works well if your subject is brighter than the background. Take a look at this picture of an egret below.
The bird was well lit and perched in a mangrove. The background was darker than the subject. The background was clearly underexposed and I only spot-metered for whites. This helped me to make the image high-contrast and low-key.
The Imperial Eagle picture below is a more extreme example. It was perched against a gray, overcast sky with no details. I exposed the bird’s shadows, making the sky explode and creating a high-key image.
Spot metering increases the likelihood that the background will blow out or go dark. However, I generally accept extreme shadows and highlights as long as the subject does not have any cut details. This makes photos appear more dramatic and carries the emotion of light. In many cases, it leads to better photos.
Minimalists are rewarded
There seems to be too many options. This is a problem in large parts of the globe today. Too many cameras, too few photographers, and too many photos.
It is impossible to get 1000 amazing photos from a 10-day trip. For me, one useful photograph is enough. Over the course of a trip I would rather have a dozen good photos than a hundred.
Choice is a spoiler. This is why I don’t like the idea of getting into the 10 FPS zone. It is difficult to pick the best from a hundred. If I can’t produce one great picture out 10 I am not going to produce one out of 100.
Quality over quantity should be the main focus. A bad photo is better than no picture. It is better to spend your time, energy and patience planning for good shots than running around aimless.
Chimp, but don’t chimp too much
Chimping is a practice that involves reviewing your photos while out in the field. However, this has a bad reputation. You can miss a stunning scene if you chimp excessively.
It’s true, I’m a chimp. It all comes down to how much we chimp. It is fine to take a look at the photo and check for exposure, focus, and composition. This can help you avoid making a mistake in your camera settings. If you are in the habit to look at every photo you take after it was taken, this is not a good idea. While chiming in the middle of action is a good idea, it is a waste to continue chimping after the scene has ended. It takes some skill to determine when it is safe to chimp. This information will help you to take the next photo. However, if you aren’t sure, you can keep your peeping to an absolute minimum.
Don’t forget the negative space
Most of us want to fill every inch with our subject. The more attention a subject gets, the larger it will be in the frame.
Negative space can be useful, as it draws the eye into the image. It can attract more attention than just filling the frame with the subject corner to corner.
You can also increase your chances of getting the shot if you allow a little more space around your subject even if they are moving in erratic ways. Below is the gray heron photo. This time, I was very close to the subject. My settings were perfect and everything went well. The only problem was that the leg at bottom was cut.
This issue renders the picture inaccessible, even though all other aspects are exactly as I want.
Lens is another reason to avoid corner-to-corner subjects. Even the most professional-grade lenses can lose some sharpness at the corners. Semi-pro lenses suffer even more. You also have to consider autofocus accuracy issues – the tracking systems works best with more centrally located AF points. This can lead to imperfect sharpness if your subject is too far from center.
It’s important to maintain a balance. It’s not a good idea to crop too many photos. 20 percent is the ideal size. If you feel your subject is taking up too much space in the frame, I suggest pulling back to allow for as much flexibility and increase your chances of getting the shot.
Take photos and be ethical
Enjoy what you’re doing. It is possible to take a photo that goes viral on social media, or wins a contest. But if you don’t enjoy it, it is almost worthless.
Sometimes I’ve had rare subjects, but ended up with terrible light. These times I simply left my camera at home, took a moment to admire the scene and then walked away. Nature photography is not always easy. Perfect if we get the shots that we want! We don’t have to be disappointed or feel depressed that we didn’t get the shots we wanted.
Respect your subject. We were not asked by the beautiful birds to take a photo of them. It is fair to return with photos that are as relaxed and stress-free as possible during the entire process. You should approach them gently and let them go, regardless of whether you get the shot.
This article was enjoyed by me! These are the tips I use to take better photos of birds in the field. Some important topics, such as lens choice, I deliberately avoided. There are many articles and debates about them. Please let me know if you have any questions or if I missed any important tips.