It's hard not to appreciate birds and bird photography. Those birds with colors that make an artist's palette envious and attitude that belies their stature. They delight birders, viewers and photographers every day. They also represent an exhilarating challenge to new and veteran wildlife photographers who seek to capture and share their beauty.
Learning bird photography is relatively easy. Learning how to photograph images of birds that convey their personality, behaviors and traits can be readily accomplished with tenacious patience in the field and honing your skills. Mr. Osprey was captured using a 150-500mm with an ISO of 250, f/7.1 and 1/640 sec.A Little Attitude, A Big Osprey – ©Sheen's Nature Photography
We'll start out with some 1) bird photography basics followed by 2) actions you can do in the field to create better photographic opportunities and 3) a few tips on honing your skills.
Bird Photography Basics: Mental Checklist
- Focus on the eye. It's been written over and over again in photography articles. The reason is that the eyes of an animal or human pull the viewer in to the moment, the emotion. They sparkle. They catch light. They capture our attention.
- Use a telephoto lens to zoom in on the eye and the detail of the bird. The feathers, the bill, their talons are fascinating. The ring around their eye has texture and color. A 70-300mm lens can work in areas where the birds are used to humans. This lighter weight lens offers a bit more mobility in moving as the bird changes positions. For those that can hand-hold a 500mm or are comfortable working with a tripod, in most cases of bird photography you can never have too much lens.
- Shoot in Aperture Priority and watch your speed in the viewfinder. For example, if you are shooting with a 300mm lens at an aperture set at f/9 but you notice that the shutter speed is going to be 1/50 due to the lighting, there is a likelihood that the image will be very soft or even blurred. A good gage to follow is that your shutter speed is equal to the focal distance. 300mm = 1/300 sec. 500mm = 1/500 sec. You can increase your shutter speed by moving to a better lit area, increasing your ISO, or by opening up your aperture (i.e going from f/9 to f/7.1) or using a speed light to freeze action.
- Set your camera to continuous high speed shooting so you can capture multiple images in a quick burst.
Creating Opportunities for Better Bird Photography
Practice. Practice. Practice. Another cliche sounds quite boring. Quite the opposite if you consider your playground is outside with cheerful colors and delightful songs. What does practice really mean? Doing the same the over and over expecting different results? Absolutely not!
- Practice in this case is – going to an area where birds are accessible, used to people and show behaviors consistently over the course of a brief amount time. The barn owl in this image was a well cared rescued owl who was very social. He actively participates in public seminars and conservation education programs. The ability to stand fairly close with a 70-300mm lens, using settings of ISO 400, f/9 at 1/100 sec provided time to try multiple angles without upsetting the owl.
Heart-shaped Face – ©Sheen's Nature Photography
- Get even with your subject. Most people see birds on the ground, hopping around, or up in the tree with branches obstructing some of the view. Other common sites are birds on telephone wires and on posts up high. Typically this type of image would not capture a viewers attention. However, if a bird is on the ground, and you're on the ground getting a straight-on view, that creates a different, more interesting perspective. Cormorants were sitting on a boat dock drying their wings. A heavily populated area, they were a bit curious as I was laying on the concrete ten feet away snapping many images as they changed positions. The outcome was multiple images with emphasis on their prehistoric features and aqua eyes. Settings and lens used: ISO 250, f/8, 1/250 sec, Nikon 70-300mm.
Prehistoric Features: Cormorant – ©Sheen's Nature Photography
- “Birds on a Stick” are not necessarily boring. Capturing birds singing, preening, cocking their head, in flight can create breathtaking images. There are some birds that their sheer beauty creates an eye-catching image by just looking at the camera or standing on a single branch enjoying the morning sun. Birds on a stick represent terrific skill refinement practice opportunities too. The red-winged blackbird was a perfect poser as he perched in several locations within lens reach. Using an aperture of f/7.1 in the morning sunlight with ISO set at 320, the shutter speed kicked up to 1/1000 sec using my Sigma 150-500mm lens and tripod.
Red-Winged Blackbird poses for his visitors – ©Sheen's Nature Photography
Honing Your Bird Photography Skills: A Few Tips
- Stand, focus and shoot. Move 2 steps right, focus and shoot. Move forward, move backward. It's easy to get caught up in your subject that you stand in the same place snapping away. This limits perspectives to choose from when you are back processing images after time in the field. When photographing birds, they move around a lot so we need to as well. By moving, you will automatically be rewarded with different angles and interest points to choose from.
- “Rinse and repeat.” Go back to the same place a few times. Review your work after each visit. When you go back to the same place a few times, your photography eyes will take over and take on a new perspective. You won't go after the titmouse sitting on a post. Instead, you'll capture the red-bellied woodpecker in the hazy, snowy conditions braving the winter elements. With comfort comes confidence and creativity in trying new approaches. Settings: ISO 250, f/8, 1/100 sec using Sigma 150-500 lens with a tripod.
Winter Birding Beauty, Red-bellied Woodpecker – ©Sheen's Nature Photography
- Remember to tweak your settings as you go. You don't need twenty five captures of the same bird using the exact same setting. Shift from f/9 to f/7 to f/11. Based on lighting, alternate between spot and matrix metering. Shift the focal distance, closer, farther away. This is the camera version of #1 “Move“.
- While you may not need twenty five images using the same settings, you do need to take many shots using multiple settings. Thank goodness for digital and the delete button. You can quickly drill down and determine your favorite images to process and to share.
Bird photography brings the sights of nature indoors to be enjoyed by you and others who appreciate birds. With a little study of their behaviors, a working knowledge of a few key camera settings and intentionally ‘moving you and the camera,' you'll be rewarded with multiple images to choose from.
Very well written Sheen! Gives us some things to work on/practice.
The one thing I noticed with birding is to be very very patient and find that “spot” that seems popular with the birds. Easier said than done though.
Thank you, glad you enjoyed! You are absolutely correct, patience is also a definite skill (and virtue 🙂 in photography. Have a fantastic weekend!
You got great photos with inexpensive lenses. Now I don’t have any more excuses 😉
Actually, I have gotten some decent results with my 70-300 Nikkor but always thought I needed a “great” lens to do any better. I guess I should practice more so I’ll make better use of that “great” lens if I ever get it and get some pretty good shots in the meantime.
Hi Patrick! You can get some great images with you 70-300. I take a lot of images at a time…if you haven’t yet posted any of your images to the shark tank, try it out. Or send me a pic – would love to see your work. Thanks for reading and have a great night!
wow , great shots with the 150-500 mm Sigma. i have the same lens but you have proven to me my lens is not the problem but maybe my settings or just me, the pics i have been taking of birds in the field are sometimes not sharp.
Hi Zhivaan – thank you! The Sigma can be soft at 500mm, I find that it’s sharp up to about 450 with the use of a tripod and gently resting my left hand on the lens. Would love to see a pic. Have a good one,
Nicely written Sheen and the images are superb.
I’m wanting to get into wildlife photography it’s all new to me at the moment on which lens or lenses i should buy, i have been looking at the Sigma 150-500mm and the Nikon 300mm F/4 to get me started and with being on a budget i can’t afford the high end lenses just yet.
What do you think of the both lenses i have mentioned are they ideal starting lenses.
Hi Martin! Thank you and I have enjoyed my Sigma 150-500, always use a tripod as I’m not steady with that weight. It’s a good value and produces solid images. I also have the 70-300 – both of these lenses were used in the images on this page. I too am on a budget 🙂 and I believe these are great lenses to get started with. Also note that Tamron just came out with a 150-600, and it may be available soon (if not already). They are hard to come by now but are in the same price range as the sigma. I met a photographer who had one for his Canon and he was using it for birds – they looked great.
Hope this helps! Have a great rest of the week!
Sheen, great article and photos! I especially like the barn owl shot. I had the opportunity to try some bird photography and I’d certainly appreciate your thoughts and any recommendations.
I just read your article on Facebook. It is very interesting for me. I just started with bird photography and need to practice a lot. I have a Nikkor 70-200 mm lens, but I feel this is too short. I can compensate by cropping the pic but at a certain level I loose too much quality. What lens do you recommend I should buy?
If you like I would love to send you one of my first attempts.
Hi Wilfried! I just saw this posting. The 70-200 with the 1.4 III teleconverter will give you a bit more distance which can work in areas where the birds are used to humans and come close. The Tamron 150-600 is a good option. Not as sharp as the nikon 79-200. Another consideration is the 80-400 as well. I don’t have that lens but have heard good feedback. Both are good price performers. If you have more financial flexibility the 300 2.8 prime with a teleconverter is a sweet combination. It is heavier so a tripod would be recommended. Let me know if you have additional questions.
I am glad I found your site, all I take are mostly Birds because I live almost on the beach, so most of my photos are in flight, I just did a photo book on the Osprey, everyone loved it, but I think I could make the photos sharper, some of them seem soft, can you give me any advice on this, my camera is a Canon SX50HS, thank you, Samantha
Hi Samantha! Thanks for your feedback. Would be more than glad to take a look at your photos. Let me know lens your using too. Have a great one!