A Complete Guide To Bird Photography

David Coultham

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Bird Photography is one of the most challenging genres of photography. This is particularly true if you are photographing birds in the wild. In this guide we will explore this fascinating genre, to help you get the best shots you can, whether you are photographing at home or out on location.

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Equipment Needed


A reasonably decent modern DSLR or Mirrorless camera is all that’s needed. In other words, you don’t need to rush out and buy any fancy new and expensive cameras. If you are in the market for new gear, then the world is your oyster as far as choice, but there are a couple of trade-offs to consider.

A crop-sensor camera is going to get you extra (virtual) reach when combined with a prime lens. What this means practically, is that a crop sensor camera is only going to capture a cropped portion of what the prime lens sees, giving you a virtual digital zoom. You get a full-pixel image of whatever your camera captures, but crop-sensor cameras tend to have sensors with poorer low-light capability, than their full-frame counterparts. You are still going to be able to get shots, they just won’t be the same quality as one taken on full-frame. Conversely:

Full-frame sensor cameras tend to have higher quality sensors than their crop-sensor counterparts, but you are going to have to buy a longer prime lens if you want the same reach. Longer lenses cost more, which is another trade to consider.

These are generalizations, but they are based on experience, noting that manufacturers tend to keep the best sensors and the best functionality for the best cameras, and that tends to be full-frame cameras.  A mirrorless camera can be a bonus in this genre, as you have no mirror flapping about and creating noise every time you take a shot.

To conclude, most modern cameras will do an acceptable job in the Bird Photography genre, as it’s more about the lens than it is the camera. But, if you are upgrading your kit, then consider mirrorless in either a full-frame or crop sensor format.


Because we are trying to capture small objects at a distance, then we need to be in the super-telephoto territory. This doesn’t mean though that we need to be in the super-fast glass range, because these lenses are significantly less portable than their slower counterparts, as well as being more costly.

There are benefits to having something more portable so that you can still work hand-held for long periods, and out in the field. The ideal glass for this genre is something in the 500 to 600mm territory. Also, bear in mind that most DSLRs can only auto-focus if the minimum aperture is below f8. Mirrorless cameras tend to be slightly better than this but still suffer just like their DSLR counterparts in lower light.

For this reason, while you don’t need fast glass, a lens in the f5.6 to 6 range at its max focal length is recommended.

Bird Photography

Portable Hide

If you are working in the field, some form of hide can be useful, such as a pop-up tent with a seat inside. This isn’t a necessity but can help tremendously so that you blend in more with the bird’s environment. Plus, it gives you somewhere to sit whilst you patiently wait around.


A tripod is not a necessity, but it can be useful. Particularly if you are going to be waiting around in a hide. A gimbal mount is also a useful accessory for the tripod, as you can balance your camera, and it gives freedom of movement.

Camera Settings

TIP #1 Image Format: Always shoot in RAW. Because we are shooting in variable light conditions, at some point high ISO noise will become an issue you need to deal with to recover a shot. RAW also gives you more pixels to play around with during post-processing, when your camera doesn’t quite get the exposure or contrast right. Shooting in RAW will therefore lead to a higher success rate of getting keeper shots.

TIP #2 Focussing: Use your camera’s Autofocus capability. This will give you one less thing to worry about, especially if your subjects are fast-moving and/or unpredictable.

TIP #3 AI Servo / Continuous Focussing: Because your subjects are moving around, using AI Servo Mode or Continuous Focussing will help keep your subject in focus. In this mode, your camera adjusts focus even whilst you have the shutter button or back button depressed.

TIP #4 Focus Points: Many people will tell you to use center point focus. However, I recommend an expanded center point focus if your focal points are tailorable on your model of camera. I find this helps with moving subjects, whether they are birds or any form of wildlife photography. It also helps with moving backgrounds; more on this in a moment.

TIP #5 Exposure: As well as an expanded center point focus, If your exposure setting is tailorable, then use the focal point to set the exposure. The reason for this is that you are often dealing with situations that have vast contrast differences between the subject and its surroundings. Setting the exposure based on the subject will ensure you have sufficient detail captured in the subject.

TIP #6 Aperture: Shoot with as wide an aperture as you can. This will help with the separation of the subject from its background, and keep the ISO down so that noise is minimized. However, always keep in mind what you are shooting. For example, if you have multiple subjects, you may need to adjust the aperture to increase the depth of field to ensure everything is sharp.

TIP #7 ISO: Shoot on Auto ISO. Some photographers balk at this, but I would rather capture a nice sharp image in low light with a little high ISO noise, than no shot at all. Plus, you can always take care of ISO noise during post-processing. That said, don’t just ignore ISO and let it run away for no reason; i.e. do try to keep ISO as low as possible; if necessary, revert to manual ISO settings. Basically on this, you want to have the Exposure Triangle in your mind at all times, to make sure you get the right balance.

A Complete Guide to Bird Photography

TIP #8 Shooting Mode: This one is very much down to personal choice, and most pro photographers these days will tell you to use aperture priority mode. I shoot in speed priority (TV Mode), mainly because I am located in a part of the world that isn’t blessed with California-style bright sunlight. The light conditions in Scotland are often poor, so letting the camera choose the speed based on an aperture setting is just not a realistic option. Whether you shoot in Speed (TV), Aperture (AV), or Manual (M) mode, you again need to consider the Exposure Triangle at all times.

TIP #9 Speed: There is no hard and fast rule on what speed to use. It very much depends on your subject. If the bird you are shooting is static, then 1/60th of a second on a tripod will be just fine. Speeds of 1/2000s to 1/3200s will freeze the action for most birds. For some though, for example, Hummingbirds, you may need speeds up to 1/5000s. If you aren’t using a tripod, I don’t recommend shutter speeds below 1/500s as you need to counteract camera shake effects.

These are just guidelines, and in the field, I will frequently adjust my shutter speed if, for example, the lighting conditions are not good enough for higher-speed photography. Or, if I want to optimize the depth of field.

To freeze the action of this little chaffinch, I had to use 1/1600s f5.6 ISO 3200.

Bird Photography

Composition TIPS

TIP #1 Frame In With Low Aperture: You may have noticed that on all of my shots included in this article, the background is nicely blurred out. How did I achieve this? Well, the rule of thumb to use when using a long lens is that: The closer you can frame into the subject, with as low as possible aperture, then the less depth of field you will get in your shot.

TIP #2 The Eyes Have It: Always make sure the eyes of the bird are in focus. You can get away with other parts of the bird being slightly out of focus. But if the eyes aren’t in focus, you didn’t get the shot.

TIP #3 Shoot In Landscape: I typically shoot in landscape, even if I subsequently crop to a portrait composition. Why? Well, bird wings tend to spread out horizontally, and you should try to get the whole bird in the frame.

TIP #4 Frame Entire Subject: Always try to get the whole bird in the frame. The only exception is if you are trying to get detailed shots of the head and shoulders. For instance, as in my Sea Eagle shot earlier in this article.

TIP #5 Positioning: Avoid getting the birds head right in the center of the frame, it leads to a less interesting composition.

TIP #6 Lens Hood: Always use a Lens Hood on your lens. The reason is that they help cut out any nasty reflections from either direct sunlight, or reflected off of surfaces (such as water bodies).

TIP #7 Separation: If you are shooting multiple subjects, try to achieve separation between them.

A complete guide to bird photography

TIP #8 Strategy: Before taking any shots, start with a strategy for what you are trying to photograph and what you are trying to achieve with your shots. For example, in the following shot, I wanted to freeze the graceful motion of a grey heron in flight. I knew they tended to fly along the beach line towards the end of the day. Also, they tended to do this to avoid any people moving about. I set myself up along the beach, with the sun behind me, and waited. As it happened, I didn’t have to wait too long before I got this shot.

Grey Heron In Flight

The point I am making here is that you rarely get shots without a strategy of what you want to achieve.

For another example, take a look at this shot of a Siskin. My strategy in this shot was to capture the siskin in flight. But, I clearly couldn’t know the exact flight path of the bird to the feeding station. So, I needed to zoom out wide enough to increase my chances of success.

TIP #9 Reconnaissance: As part of your action plan of what you are trying to achieve, build into that you need to spend time studying the behavior of your subjects. It helps to know the animal and its behaviors, as well as its habits. If you are photographing at home, this includes understanding what the birds like to eat, as this helps you attract them to your garden in the first place. If you are in the wild it might include determining where they are nesting.

TIP #10 Multiple Shots: Be prepared to take multiple shots, because invariably only a percentage of images will be a tack-sharp capture in the camera. Or put another way, because you are photographing difficult, fast-moving objects, increasing the number of frames taken, increases your chances of success.

TIP #11 Background: Carefully consider the background of your subject. In general, you want the subject to pop out of the frame. Having an aesthetic-looking background helps this, as does the correct separation between you, the subject, and the background. In fact, with correct separation, even unlikely backgrounds like buildings and fences can be made to look pleasing if they blur into a pleasant bokeh.

TIP #12 Catchlights: My final general composition tip is to look for opportunities to capture catchlights in your subject’s eyes. Catchlight adds a sense of life and realism to your photographs, particularly for close-up shots.

Bird Photography

Dealing With Water

Reflected light from water is one of the biggest causes of shot failures, as it tends to result in blown-out highlights on your subject. Blown-out highlights can rarely be recovered during post-processing, as they are essentially either pure white patches or single-color patches with little detail.

Exposing on the animal goes a long way to dealing with this. But, you need to keep an eye on the histogram. I tend to have the histogram appear on the back screen of the camera after taking shots. If you have spikes at the right-hand side (Highlights), then Exposure Compensate by progressively lowering the exposure by 1/2 to 1 stop.

The other difficulty with water is that cameras sometimes struggle to maintain focus as they pick up the movement of water and try to focus on that. This is the reason I use expanded center point focus as it reduces the risk of this happening.

All this said, water is also an ideal opportunity to capture reflections, which can help to add mood to your bird photographs. So always look for these when you are trying to frame shots.

A complete guide to bird photography

Photo Post-Processing

I am a strong advocate of less is more when post-processing in bird photography, and indeed nature photography as a whole. There is nothing worse than over-sharpened, oversaturated, over-processed nature images. My typical steps through post-processing are:

1) I shoot in RAW, so as a matter of course, I need to set the correct contrast balance using the tone sliders for Black, White, Highlights & Shadows. At the same time, I will adjust the White Balance if needed. 

2) Inevitably you will get some shots with a blowout on the highlights. If this is relatively minor, you can sometimes recover it by using a selective mask to reduce the Whites and Highlights, and by increasing the Texture and Clarity. The Curlew picture above is a case in point, where I used this exact technique.

3) If the image has a higher ISO, I will selectively reduce Noise in the background. 

4) I Sharpen and then Crop the image. 

5) The only other step I may consider is adding a vignette if I feel the picture warrants it.

Bird Photography

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