So you want to photograph some birds. Here are a few quick tips for photographing birds specifically.

FYI: This is a very image-heavy page.

I’ve been photographing birds for many years now. I’m not a photography genius. But I thought I’d share 5 easy tips that rapidly improved my bird photography in particular. These tips also work regardless of your equipment and are effective for wildlife photography in general. (For reference, I shoot on a Canon T3i with their 70-300mm f/4–5.6 IS/USM.)

1. Know your subject. What bird are you currently trying to get that perfect picture of? What does it like to do? Will it be roosting calmly on a mudflat for the next hour? Or will it be flitting nonstop from branch to branch in and out of sun and shade? Considering these elements ahead of time will help you to plan your location and camera settings. In short, if you know what the bird is likely to do, you can often plan your shot well ahead of time. (I won’t get into camera settings in this post, but there’s lots of information out there about light, aperture, shutter speed, etc.)

A simple example might be a flycatcher that is hunting actively. If you see an exposed branch that it keeps returning to (and you don’t need a flight shot), setting up your lighting and focus on that branch will allow you to capture the bird with multiple exposures in the few seconds it perches before it zips off after another insect.

I waited for a while for this kiss. It was worth it.
I waited for a while for these Atlantic Puffins to kiss. It was worth it.
I don't remember how long I waited for this Orange-breasted Sunbird to perch on this particular flower. He was working his way around the area, but the light was very harsh and this was the only blossom I could get decent light on.
I don’t remember how long I waited for this Orange-breasted Sunbird to perch on this particular flower. He was working his way around the area, but the light was very harsh and this was the only blossom I could get decent light on.
Good timing or bad timing?
Good timing or bad timing? I like it. =)

2. Plan your vantage. Whenever you’re photographing living things, one of the most common pieces of advice is to consider the view of your subject. In this case, that’s literally the “bird’s eye view.”

Often we have no real choice in the matter. We’re trying to get a record shot or any photo at all of an elusive bird. It’s way up in the canopy, far out to sea, or you’re looking down at it from high on a dyke trail.

Lots of nice colour in this Broad-winged Hawk from Costa Rica, but it's not exactly personal. He has that "are you looking at my butt" look.
Lots of nice colour in this Broad-winged Hawk from Costa Rica, but it’s not exactly personal. It seems to have an “Are you looking at my butt?” look.

Other times, we can take time to line up the shot, or plan ahead for where we want to be when a bird passes by. In such cases, it’s a good idea to imagine you were another one of the bird you’re photographing. So let’s imagine you’re a shorebird out on a mudflat. Would you be looking down at your buddy from a 30 degree angle? Probably not. You’re going to be on the mudflat too. So get down and dirty: lying in the mud will give you the eye-to-eye image that will feel most personal.

Sure it's a nice close-up of a Snow Bunting, but I was standing when I took it and it's just not as personal because of the downward angle I shot at.
Sure it’s a nice close-up of a Snow Bunting, but I was standing when I took it and it’s just not as personal because of the downward angle I shot at.
The light's not great in this one, since the Snow Bunting's in the shade and surrounded by sun. But I'm down low so we're eye-to-eye. It feels more personal to me than the image above.
The light’s not great in this one, since the Snow Bunting’s in the shade and surrounded by sun. But I’m down low so we’re eye-to-eye. Part of the reason I prefer this image to the one above is that feels more personal to me.
A Marbled Godwit almost at eye level. I was shooting from a long way off and stuck in a car (so I didn't flush it). The vantage is good, but I would have loved to be lower.
A Marbled Godwit almost at eye level. I was shooting from a long way off and stuck in a car (so I didn’t flush it). The vantage is good, but I would have loved to be lower.
A nice side-on image of this Steller's Jay, but he's above me. It's fine, but I prefer the next one where we're eye-to-eye.
A nice side-on image of this Steller’s Jay, but he’s above me. It’s fine, but I prefer the next one where we’re eye-to-eye.
Looking straight at this Steller's Jay.
Looking straight at this Steller’s Jay.
I like this bright image of a Killdeer in the grasses at Iona.
I like this bright image of a Killdeer in the grasses at Iona, but I’d like it more if I wasn’t looking slightly downward at the bird.
...but not as much as I like this Killdeer in the snow. Sure the snow's nice, but I mostly prefer it because we're eye-to-eye.
I prefer this Killdeer in the snow. Sure the snow’s nice, but I mostly prefer it because we’re eye-to-eye.
I love this African Scops-Owl photo. But he is just a little above me...
I love this African Scops-Owl photo. But he is just a little above me…
...unlike this juvenile African Wood-Owl who is straight across from me. I got a nice bonus here with the way the leaves in the foreground framed him for me.
…unlike this juvenile African Wood Owl who is straight across from me. Another nice feature is the way the leaves in the foreground frame him.

In another example situation, you might be standing on a raised trail and a raptor is zooming toward you. I find the best vantage again to be when you’re eye-to-eye: the bird is passing you at eye (and camera) level and you can photograph it looking straight toward the horizon. Again, your photo can feel more personal because it ostensibly puts someone who’s looking at your photo in the head of another bird looking back at your bird subject.

This photo isn't super crisp, but this juvenile Bald Eagle flew by right at eye level. Rarely do you get the opportunity for a horizontal shot like this.
This photo isn’t super crisp, but this juvenile Bald Eagle flew by right at eye level. Rarely do you get the opportunity for a horizontal shot like this.
Of course, you don't always need to photograph with a bird's eye view. I like that you can see how this Broad-winged Hawk is holding it's prey with one talon in front of the other (for least air resistance), but that the snake continues to do its best to escape.
Of course, you don’t always need to photograph with a bird’s eye view. I like that you can see how this Broad-winged Hawk is holding it’s prey with one talon in front of the other (for less air resistance), but that the snake continues to do its best to escape.

3. Compose your image. People often talk about a photographer’s “eye” (or interior designer’s, architect’s, etc.). What they’re essentially referring to is the mental image that the photographer conjures while planning their shot. The good news is that you don’t have to be born with “the eye.” Practice, planning, and a few guidelines will get you well on your way.

Lapland Longspur photographed while I was on the ground. The lighting isn't great in this one, but it feels very personal because we're eye-to-eye horizontally. I also partly planned the scene, hoping he'd wander onto that brown tuft, surrounded by a sea of subalpine greens.
Lapland Longspur photographed while I was on the ground. The lighting isn’t great in this one, but it feels very personal because we’re eye-to-eye horizontally. I also partly planned the scene, hoping he’d wander onto that brown tuft, surrounded by a sea of subalpine greens.

The “rule of thirds” is also a nice intuitive aid. Basically, you image dividing your scene into 3 horizontal and 3 vertical bands (using two lines in each direction to do so). Since bird photography often features relatively simple scenes–there aren’t a bunch of people, cars, buildings, etc. in the same photo–you’ll rarely need to imagine a full 3-by-3 grid. Instead, if there’s a nice shoreline in the background, or a rich mossy texture, or a gnarly branch that you want to feature, imagine placing that element in opposition to the bird and thinking in thirds.

In other words, you might place a shorebird (perhaps on a small rock along the shore) in the right third of the photo, while you place a larger rock (maybe covered in moss and mussels and catching the evening light nicely) in the left third of the image. This leaves some separation in the middle for some ocean surf and some comfortable space between your scene’s primary elements.

I really liked the volcanic rock in this photo, so I gave the Hawaiian Coot 1/3 and the rock 2/3.
I really liked the volcanic rock in this photo, so I gave the Hawaiian Coot 1/3 and the rock 2/3.
This is maybe my favourite photo and I think part of the reason is that the Atlantic Puffin (on Skellig Michael in Ireland) is framed in the corner third, while the open ocean and another rocky island take up the other 2/3.
This may be my favourite photo and I think part of the reason is that the Atlantic Puffin (on Skellig Michael in Ireland) is framed in the corner third, while the open ocean and distant rocky island take up the other 2/3.
Barred Owl in Kingston ON: this time the bird's in the right 1/3 of the photo.
Barred Owl in Kingston ON: this time the bird’s in the right 1/3 of the photo.

4. Aim for the eye. When you’re photographing a bird, it’s easy to want to let your camera auto-focus on your subject, especially if it’s moving around. Don’t. Your camera isn’t as smart as you (unless you have a very very expensive one). For example, it doesn’t know that if the bird’s eye is out of focus, the whole photo might as well be blurry. Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. Seriously though, regardless of how beautiful the bird’s crest, primaries, or tail feathers are, if you’re photographing the whole bird and the eye is out of focus, you’ll lose the impression of sharpness all around. To illustrate this point, just imagine photos you’ve seen with a really long zoom and virtually no depth of field (background and foreground are out of focus). You can have literally every part of the bird except for the eye out of focus and it still looks great!

This photo has about an inch of focus depth. The backs of the birds are out of focus and the very tip of the bird on the right is just getting fuzzy. But their eyes (and most of their bills) are sharp, so the photo looks good.
This photo has about an inch of focus depth. The birds’ backs are out of focus and the very tip of the bill of the bird on the right is just getting fuzzy. But their eyes (and most of their bills) are sharp, so the photo looks good.
Even with a long zoom, this profile-portrait keeps almost all of the bird in focus (but definitely the eye) and blurs all of the background.
Even with a long zoom, this profile/portrait keeps almost all of the bird in focus (but definitely the eye) and blurs all of the background.

Here’s a non-bird example to better illustrate my point. In the first Green Iguana photo below, you can see lots of the reptile with the side-on view. But do you see how the sharpest point is an inch or so in front of the iguana’s eye (about half way to the tip of its nose)? It doesn’t look bad, but it feels just a little off.

Green Iguana in Costa Rica with focal point just ahead of the eye (eye is less crisp).
Green Iguana in Costa Rica with focal point just ahead of the eye (eye is less crisp).

In this second photo, you can see less of the iguana overall, since it’s head-on. But, because the eye is the sharpest focal point, the photo looks great! Obviously, these are a little easier to photograph than birds…

Green Iguana, take 2: focal point exactly at the eye, makes it look sharper even though almost the whole photo is out of focus.
Green Iguana, take 2: focal point exactly at the eye, making it look sharper even though almost the entire photo is out of focus.

5. The bird comes first. If you’re not thinking of the wellbeing of the bird and you’re prioritizing that perfect photo, you’re not a great photographer; you’re kinda mean. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here. We’ve all seen photographers creeping up on exhausted owls until they flush, or even baiting birds to come closer. You don’t want to be one of these people. First of all, these efforts don’t necessarily result in excellent photos. And second, I’m sure we can agree that the photograph is not more important that the bird’s overall safety and wellbeing.

All of the photos below were taken from enough distance that the owls appeared comfortable. In fact, none of the birds are even looking at me. (The Great Gray in the last image is looking at a photographer who was creeping closer.)

Keeping a respectful distance will also allow you to spend more time with the bird and learn more about it. And isn’t that really what we’re all out there for?

Northern Hawl Owl at Sax-Zim Bog in MN
Northern Hawk Owl at Sax-Zim Bog in MN
Long-eared Owl in Delta BC
Long-eared Owl in Delta BC
Great Gray Owl at Sax-Zim Bog in MN
Great Gray Owl at Sax-Zim Bog in MN

Clearly, I’ve left lots out. If there’s interest, I’ll do another post about photography that focuses more on elements like depth-of-field, lighting, equipment, etc. But my hope is that the info above works for any wildlife photographer, regardless of equipment or skill level.

Please feel free to post comments with questions, criticisms, and/or suggestions below!

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