Bird Photography

Wherever you live, you can enjoy bird photography - whether it’s a small songbird on a perch or fantastic falcon flight shots. If you don't have a national geographic budget to spend on blinds and camouflage gear, there’s still plenty of field craft to get you closer to birds.

In this article, we'll discuss:

  1. The equipment you'll need to get started.
  2. How to master the basics, get a good head angle and catch light.
  3. How to take sharp well focused shots.
  4. How to improve your field craft skills and get closer to birds.
  5. How to photograph birds in flight.
  6. Backyard bird photography.
Tawny owl in the evening light during a bird photography session
House sparrow photographed in backyard

If you’re anything like me you may have received a not so subtle message from family that you’re out photographing birds all the time - why not have the birds come to you in your own backyard?

You'll find that every bird photograph you take is always different, whether it's a new bird, a new behaviour, or a new environment that you haven't photographed them in before.

It's easy to take a technically correct shot of a bird but
something else to turn it into a work of art. By reading and
acting on the advice below, you can do this!

Photographing birds is challenging because...

  • They're usually moving, rarely stay still and when they do it's never for long.
  • They're shy and difficult to approach.
  • If you're not close enough then the bird is too small in the picture.
  • Too close and they fly away!

So, where do you start?

Equipment that you'll need

To get started you'll just need a decent camera body and lens. We discuss this in detail on our equipment page. You can buy plenty of other equipment but this is all you really need to get started.

Master the Basics of Bird Photography

Firstly, know the basics of bird photography so that you know what you're aiming at whenever you're out photographing birds.

On this page we cover the two fundamentals of bird photograhy:

  1. Bringing the birds eyes to life with a catch-light.
  2. Getting the head angle right.

Smew showing the eye brought to life with a catchlight. The smew is the smallest sawbill duck - the bill has a serrated edge to help it catch and hold invertebrates and fish.

Smew (Mergellus albellus) showing the eye brought to life with a catchlight.
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Learn How To Take Sharp Well-Focused Shots

Next, learn how to take sharp well-focused shots. When you can take a photo of a bird with pin sharp focus on the eye, it goes a long way towards getting a shot that will impress. I can't emphasise this enough.

Cunning composition

There are a number of things that make this shot of a grey heron a well composed shot.

Canon 1D Mk II, Canon 400mm f/5.6 L, f/5.6, 1/400 sec, ISO-400

In an ideal world, the heron would have been looking to the right into the space but you can't have everything. To move the viewfinder to the left would have introduced a distracting branch in the water. Sometimes it's about compromise.

Field Craft

OK, so you know how to take the picture but where and when do you take it?

Good field craft skills will help you to get closer to wild birds. There are three ways to get close to birds ...

  1. Attract them.
  2. Stalk them.
  3. Hiding from them.

I use all three methods all of the time. If you don't know where to go to find them or don't know how they behave then you won't get a good shot.

Birds In Flight

Great Spotted Woodpecker in flight

Flock of Waxwings taken during the beautiful golden light at sunrise.

Exposure: 1/1250s at f/8, ISO 50, Focal Length: 500mm, Lens: Canon EF500mm f/4 IS USM, Camera: Canon EOS 1D mkII 

Many photography skills will need to come together at the same time, so take a look at our birds in flight section and you'll soon have some great images of them framed and hanging on your wall.

If you build it, backyard birds will come...

You don’t have to travel far to do bird photography. Sometimes nothing beats a nice cup of coffee whilst photographing birds in your backyard. Put out food for birds and attract them to you. Setup some natural perches with clean backgrounds. It's also very good practice for when you’re out photographing some of the more exotic birds further afield.

This blue tit is waiting for its turn to feed. The perch is put there with the food out of shot and nothing behind to appear in the background. 

Canon 1D Mk II, Canon 500mm f/4 IS L + Canon 1.4x extender, f/5.6, 1/500 sec, ISO-400  

Canon 1D Mk II, Canon 400mm f/5.6 L, f/5.6, 1/1250 sec, ISO-320, 1 stop under exposed

To see more woodpecker images check out photographing birds in your back yard.

For many birds the only way to get close enough is use a hide or blind. This kingfisher is an example.

Getting close

Canon 1D Mk II, Canon 500mm f/4 IS L, f/5.6, 1/200 sec, ISO-500

The longer you can sit in a blind the more you will see and be able to photograph. Blinds can be semi-permanent like a small wooden building. They can also be portable pop ups that can be setup in a few seconds. An overlooked mobile blind is your car. A bean bag on the window sill and you can point a lens out the window (not while driving I should add)!

I photographed these mute swans on a misty sunrise from my car window

Canon 1D Mk II, Canon 500mm f/4 IS L, f/8, 1/1000 sec, ISO-400

Bird Photography Ethics

 "Take Only Photographs ... Leave Only Footprints".

"Birds were flying from continent to continent long before we were. They reached the coldest place on Earth, Antarctica, long before we did. They can survive in the hottest of deserts. Some can remain on the wing for years at a time. They can girdle the globe.

Now, we have taken over the earth and the sea and the sky, but with skill and care and knowledge, we can ensure that there is still a place on Earth for birds in all their beauty and variety — if we want to… And surely, we should."

— David Attenborough

Related Articles

Did you enjoy this page about bird photography? Then check out the following related articles:

Lighting, Composition and Exposure
Discover how to make the best use of lighting, achieve perfect composition and expose your images correctly on this page of bird photography tips.

Photographing Birds in Flight is one of the most challenging parts of wildlife photography.  Here you will discover everything you need to know to take stunning flight shots of birds -  how to focus and expose correctly, what makes good composition, how birds behave in flight and the importance of wing positionn.

Field Craft - No matter how big a lens you have, you will always need to get closer! Discover exactly how to do this.

Photographing birds in your back yard- A great way to get some amazing shots of wild birds!

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