Northern Cardinal - Curious Look
Bird Photography,  Nature

What Makes a Great Bird Photograph? 10 Tips That Will Make Your Images Stand Out

What makes a great bird photograph?  What makes some bird photographs better than others? 

In this blog, I’ll discuss 10 things that will help you get great bird photographs.  I’ve also included tips to incorporate each of these elements to help you improve your bird photography and create amazing bird photographs

10 Important Elements to Create Great Bird Photographs

Grasshopper Sparrow - Leading Lines, Rule of Thirds
Grasshopper Sparrow – Leading Lines, Rule of Thirds

Composition for Bird Photography

General photography composition rules like Leading Lines, Rule of Thirds, Golden Spiral still apply to bird photographs. 

But there are a few other considerations when composing bird photographs.  Don’t always put the bird in the middle of the frame.  Leaving space in front of the bird or toward where the bird is looking are also good compositional techniques for bird photographs.

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Putting the bird in the middle of the photograph does make sense in some photographs where you want symmetry.  Some good examples of compositions with symmetry are:

  • The bird is looking straight at you
  • The bird is flying straight at you with its wings extended
Willet with a Sunset Snack
Willet with a Sunset Snack

Light for Bird Photographs

Good light is very important for bird photography.  I like to photograph birds in the golden hour of the morning and evening.  Of the two, I prefer to photograph birds in the morning.  The birds appear to be more active and there is normally less people out at sunrise instead of sunset.

Later in the day when the sun is higher in the sky, the light will be more harsh and there will be more shadows on the bird.  You are also more likely to blow out (loose the detail) the highlights and whites.

I also like to photograph birds on bright overcast days.  There is generally enough light on these days and you can shoot later in the day without the harsh light.  The downside is that your sky backgrounds might not be very interesting.

Good light is also important for higher shutter speeds required for birds in flight photographs.

Juvenile Bluebird
Juvenile Bluebird


Sharp eyes in a bird photograph builds a connection between the viewer and the bird in the photograph.  The eyes and the head are the most important parts of the bird to get sharp in your photographs.

It’s best to get the eye as sharp as you can in camera.  Software like Topaz Labs Sharpen AI can help but if it’s too far out of focus the result from software over sharpening can look crunchy with artifacts from the sharpening process.

Here are some tips to get a sharper bird photography image:

  • Watch your shutter speed.  The higher your shutter speed the better chance you have for a sharp image
  • Use a tripod or practice stable hand holding techniques (stable stance, arms tucked into sides, left hand extended under the lens barrel)
  • If hand holding, use a lens / camera with image stabilization
  • For stationary birds, use a single focus point placed on the bird’s eye
Red-tailed Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk

A Clean Background

For great bird photographs, I like clean / non-distracting Backgrounds that will focus the attention on the bird.  The background doesn’t have to be completely blurred out but it should be blurred enough that it doesn’t distract from your subject.  In fact, a background that is not completely blurred out can add depth to the image.

A clean background can be accomplished in camera and further improved in post processing.

In Camera Tips for a Clean Background in Bird Photographs

  • Be aware of the Background.  Make sure you look at the background and not just the subject.  This can be done in both when composing and when viewing the images you have just taken.  Look for distracting elements in the background.
  • Change your Point of View.  You may be able to move a few steps to the left, right, front, or back to get a more pleasing background.  For shore birds or birds in the grassland, try getting down low.  The further the background is from your subject the blurrier it will be.
  • Aperture.  A wider aperture will give you a shallower depth of field and make your background blurrier.  This will also vary on your equipment.  Full frame cameras have a shallower depth of field than crop sensors, and likewise crop sensors will have a shallower depth of field than Micro Four Thirds cameras.
  • Patience.  Take some time and watch the bird.  They may work their way out to a limb with a better background or a background that is farther away from the bird.

Tips for Cleaning Up the Background in Post Processing

Difficult Exposure with a Dark Bird in the White Snow
Difficult Exposure with a Dark Bird in the White Snow

Proper Exposure

It’s best to get the exposure right in camera.  However if you shoot in RAW format, you can adjust the exposure quite a bit in post processing. 

Make sure you use the histogram in your camera to ensure that you don’t lose any data.  If your histogram is pushed all the way to the right, you are losing data in the whites.  Likewise, if the histogram is pushed to the left, you are losing data in the blacks. 

The lost data in the blacks or whites will have no detail in the photograph and cannot be recovered in post processing. 

Male Dickcissel Perching in the Flowers
Male Dickcissel Perching in the Flowers

The Perch

The perch that the bird is on can add to the composition of your bird photographs.  Perches with flowers or unusual branches can add an interesting effect to your bird images.  If you see a bird on such a perch, make sure you shoot wide enough to capture the perch in the image.  This will give you more choices as you crop your image.

Munching Red Cardinal
Munching Red Cardinal

The Pose

The bird’s pose can turn an ordinary photograph a great bird photograph.  Of course, you will want to incorporate some of the other elements in this blog (sharpness, background, etc.). 

But, a great pose  (tilted head, preening behavior, jumping to another branch) can make your bird photographs stand out.  Take your time photographing a bird, observing their behavior before moving on to the next subject.  This patience may reward you with an unusual pose.

White Pelican Protecting his FIsh
White Pelican Fish Stealing Behavior

The Story / Bird Behavior

Catching a bird in action can help to tell a story and make a truly great bird photograph.  Like the pose above, make sure you take time to observe a bird’s behavior prior to moving on to the next bird to photograph.  Here are some examples of bird behavior to look for to tell a story with your images.

  • Interaction with other birds (feeding their young, courtship activities, defending their territory)
  • Getting ready to take off or jump to another branch.  Watch for signs like defecating, hunching forward, or crouching down as signs that they are ready to take off.  Birds also like to take off into the wind so position yourself so you can get a front or side view of the take off sequence.
  • Hunting, feeding, or storing their food
  • Singing or calling
  • Bathing
  • Nest Building
Northern Harrier in a Cold, Snowy Environment
Northern Harrier in a Cold, Snowy Environment

The Bird’s Environment

Using a wider crop and showing some of the bird’s environment can help to tell a story.  Showing the snow surrounding the male Northern Harrier (Gray Ghost) in this photograph, shows the cold and difficult conditions of this bird’s environment.

Pied-billed Grebe in a Reflection of the Fall Colors
Pied-billed Grebe in a Reflection of the Fall Colors

Also, the background of the photo could be picturesque and add to the composition of the image such as a sunrise, falls colors, etc.  So you may want to shoot a wider and include more of the background in your photograph.

Wood Duck Reflection
Wood Duck Reflection

Water Reflection

A water reflection of a bird can also add interest and help to make a great bird photograph.  Look for reflections with wading birds (herons, egrets), waterfowl, and shore birds.  You will normally want to shoot in portrait mode to ensure you have enough room in the frame.

Written by Martin Belan

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