Nature,  Wildlife

15 Tips for Better Bird Photography

I’ve been photographing birds for many years and finally decided to accumulate my bird photography tips in a single blog post.  I’m sure I’ve missed a few so I’ll continue to update the blog post as I remember and discover new bird photography tips. 

If you have a bird photography tip, leave a comment to add to the collection of tips.

Bald Eagle Close Up In Flight

Bald Eagle, Canon 7d, Canon 500mm f/4

Be Ready at All Times

Birds aren’t the most cooperative subjects.  You often only have a few seconds to get the shot.  There are a few things you can do to ensure you are ready when the photo opportunity arises.

  • Keep your camera turned on.  This may drain your battery faster but it will help to quickly get the shot
  • Check your camera settings (aperture, ISO, etc.) and make sure they are set correctly for the conditions
  • Keep your lens cap off

Constantly Watch your Shutter Speed

I shoot in aperture priority mode to control the depth of field when I’m shooting. I watch the shutter speed in the LCD and change the aperture and ISO to ensure I get at least 1/1000th of a second.

Also your shutter speed will changed based on the darkness of your background.  If you are shooting with the sky in the background, your shutter speed will be faster.  However if there are trees or other dark subjects in the background, you will get slower shutter speeds.

This is important for birds in flight as birds fly from light to dark backgrounds.

Understand and Photograph Bird Behaviors

By knowing the behavior of the birds you are trying to photograph, you will have a better opportunity to photograph the birds in action. Bird and wildlife photographs are better when you show the animal’s behavior.  By watching the birds and reading about their behavior you will be better able to anticipate their actions.

Visit the Same Location Multiple Times

By visiting the same location multiple times, you will better understand the birds and their behavior.  You will get a better understanding of where the birds live, what they eat and how they behave.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird, Canon 5d Mark iii, Canon 500mm f/4 + 1.4x Teleconverter

Follow Birding Newsgroups, Facebook Groups and Websites

I follow multiple birding newsgroups, forums and Facebook groups for my area.  Birders frequently share information on the location of birds and the best time to spot birds.  This is especially helpful during bird migrations.  Check out ebird.org which has bird spotting information from around the world.

Watch Your Background

A clean background is important in creating a good bird photograph.  Sticks and other random items in the background can be distracting in a photo.  These items can be removed in post processing but this can be a time consuming task.  It’s much easier if you can reduce the distracting elements while taking the shot.

AI Servo or Continuous Focus for birds in flight

Use a continuous focus mode when photographing birds in flight.  This will help to keep focus on the bird while they are moving.  I like to spot focus on the birds eyes while they are stationary.

Use Continuous High Speed Mode

Choose a continuous high speed shutter mode when photographing birds.  This will cause you to sort through hundreds more photographs when you return home.  However, it is better than coming home without the shot.  Birds are not cooperative subjects and will frequently turn their heads or close their eyes while you are attempting to photograph them.

Munching Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal, Canon 5d Mark iii, Canon 500mm f/4

Try a Blind or Use a Car for Cover

Birds are more likely to come a closer distance when a human figure isn’t seen.  I’ve tried this out several times and birds will come much closer when I’m in a blind or some sort of cover. 

Some of my best Northern Cardinal photos were in my back yard using a camouflaged hunting blind for cover.  The birds quickly got used to the blind but won’t come close when I’m around.

Focus on the eyes

Make sure the birds eyes are in focus to create a more captivating photo. Bird photos without sharp eyes are the first ones that I delete when culling through my bird photographs. I also selectively sharpen the eyes in Photoshop to make sure they are sharp.

Equipment Tips

Tripods and Monopods

When shooting with a large lens, I use either a study tripod or a monopod with a gimbal Head.  A tripod or monopod is absolutely necessary for getting sharp photos when using a large telephoto lens.

I typically use a tripod if I will be mainly standing in a stationary position.  I use a monopod with the gimbal head if I’m going to be mainly walking or hiking.  The loss of stability using the monopod is made up for by the ability to quickly plant the monopod and snap a photo.

Make sure you check the weight rating of the monopod/tripod and add up the weight of your camera, lens, and all your accessories (gimbal head, teleconverters, etc.).

Green Heron on the Rocks

Green Heron, Olympus OM-D E-M1, Panasonic Lumix 100-300mm f/4 -f/5.6

Less Expensive vs. Expensive Lenses for Bird Photography

You don’t need expensive lenses for bird photography, but it does make it a lot easier.  I have photographed many birds using less expensive telephoto lenses (Canon 70-300 DO f/4.5 – 5.6, Panasonic 100-300mm f/4 – 5.6, and Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3).  But what I find is that I have a lot less keepers using these lenses than my Canon 500mm f/4 lens.

If you are an occasional bird photographer, these less expensive lenses should work for you.  Just make sure you take more photos of each subject as you will have less keepers.  These lenses also usually work better in brighter light.

Using Teleconverters

I frequently use a 1.4x and a 2.0x Canon teleconverter with both my Canon 500mm f/4 and Canon 300mm f/4.  You will see a loss of sharpness with the 1.4x and especially the 2.0x teleconverter.  However, that being said there are some shots you just won’t be able to get without the teleconverter.

I also use the Canon 300mm f/4 with both teleconverters when I travel and can’t bring the Canon 500mm f/4 lens along on the trip.

The teleconverter may also slow down the camera’s autofocus.  You may need to help the autofocus if it starts hunting by manually getting the subject close to focus.

Memory Cards

  • Buy faster SD or CF cards so your buffer doesn’t back up and slow down your frames per second while the camera buffer is being emptied.  I wouldn’t buy the fastest cards on the available as they will be expensive.  Buying last year’s fast card can save some money over the new expensive cards.

I find that 600X (90 MB/second) is normally fast enough for the frame rate of my Canon 5d Mark III in High Speed Continuous Mode.

  • Bring multiple, large CF and SD cards as you will be taking more photos with High Speed Continuous mode.  Once again, I wouldn’t necessarily by the biggest, fastest cards on the market due to the high price.  I normally buy 32 GB cards with speeds of 600X or 800X.

Written by Martin Belan

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