10 Tips for Photographing Birds

Photograph by Paul Bannick

10 Tips for Photographing Birds

A professional photographer, and past Audubon Magazine Photo Awards winner, offers advice for capturing stunning bird shots.

By Paul Bannick
Published: 01/16/2014
0 0 1 901 5139 National Audubon Society 42 12 6028 14.0 0 0 0 1 901 5139 National Audubon Society 42 12 6028 14.0 0

I love to photograph birds. The variety of shapes, sizes, and colors--and what this diversity reveals about species' adaptations to diverse habitats--makes them fascinating subjects. Yet their lively, often secretive natures make them challenging to shoot. Here are a few pointers to consider when you set out to photograph these endlessly interesting animals.


Identify your subject and isolate it

Birds are often found in the most cluttered of settings: Branches or grasses intersect at various angles and distract from the central subject, or other birds distract the eye. That said, elements of habitat and even the entire landscape are often part of the message and artistry of the image, and you want to include them to some degree. The trick is to decide what is absolutely necessary for the most beautiful or compelling image. Use your f-stop, your angle of shooting, or your proximity to the subject to eliminate all but the essential elements of your desired photo.


Make an original photo

Lots of people take inspiring images, and it's natural to want to try to replicate them. Unfortunately, that wastes lots of time and is rarely productive, as the power of an image comes partly from its originality--a redo of a great image rarely evokes that same awe. Aim for different angles, new subjects, and unusual behaviors to create photos that are entirely new.


Anticipate behavior

Birds move. They fly, scamper, swim, mate, fight, and dive, sometimes constantly, sometimes all at the same time. I usually see my best shots in my head first, watching behavior and anticipating what the bird will do next. If I know how my subject will move, I can select shutter speeds, f-stops, and ISO that maximize the potential quality of that image. In order to be successful, I spend a lot of time learning about my subjects, watching them closely and reading up on them, so that I know how they might behave under different circumstances.


Let the birds come to you

It is tempting to chase birds, since most are timid and move away from us. This often results in photos of birds turning or leaning away or, even worse, with their backs to the camera as they flee. By studying behavior and habitat ahead of time, you can anticipate where a bird will land, walk, or fly, and set yourself there in advance so that the bird comes to you, resulting in a much more compelling and intimate photograph.

Arrive early and stay late

Get out early and stay until the last light fades and your photos will be much better. The magical light just after sunrise and just before sunset is when color looks its best, shadows are farther from subjects, and birds are most active. These are the times to maximize your shooting.

Select your background

We tend to naturally take photos from a vantage that is comfortable for us, whether it be standing up or leaning over with the legs of our tripod fully extended. We tend to position ourselves with the sun at our backs, and assume that the bird has a "given background." As a result, we often miss the best shots. By changing the angle you shoot from, you can change the background dramatically. A cluttered tangle of branches might be replaced by brooding dark-blue storm clouds if the photographer drops to the ground and shoots up at the bird; a warm blanket of gold can become the setting by rising up to shoot down at the subject with yellow winter grass as a backdrop.

Test exposure regularly

Light conditions change regularly. It may be a gradual shift as the sun moves across the sky, or the more abrupt change when clouds alternatively obscure and expose the sun's rays. Consider the change in exposure that might be required if your subject moves from a light background to a dark background, especially when shooting in Aperture Priority Mode.

Know the required shutter speed

It's heartbreaking when blurry wings or heads mar an otherwise perfect photograph. To avoid this, learn which shutter speed you need to capture different behaviors in crisp detail. Which speed freezes which species in flight? Which is needed for birds that are walking or standing still? As you anticipate what behavior is about to unfold, you can be sure that your camera is set to shoot at a high enough speed to capture the desired behavior, tack-sharp!

Shoot in Aperture-Priority or Manual mode

Although a friend of mine jokes that "P" mode stands for "Pro Mode," it is really the Program Mode, where the camera makes the decisions for you. I almost always shoot in either Aperture-Priority Mode or Manual Mode, which allow you to make the decisions of shutter speed and depth of field, and gain control of your photographs.

I use Aperture-Priority mode when the subject is either still or moving across backgrounds of similar tonal values, or if I'm unlikely to get close enough to use more than the minimum depth of field. With Aperture-Priority, at any given ISO, I choose the aperture (to determine depth of field) and the exposure compensation, and the camera gives me the fastest shutter speed at those settings.

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Paul Bannick

More of Paul’s work can be found at paulbannick.com and on Facebook at Paul Bannick Nature and Bird Photography.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


Useful tips. One way to mask

Useful tips. One way to mask your movement from a bird is to use a blind, and your car can be perfect for that. When you’re on your way to a trailhead, keep your camera close by just in case you see a bird. Then, just roll down the window and take a few shots. Birds will rarely fly away from a car (unless of course you’re about to hit them!).

You have share really

You have share really fantastic photographs .I like it . Bird feeders are the easiest way to attract birds but if you’re going to put out a feeder make sure you use quality feed, and that you feed consistently, otherwise the birds will get sick or grow to rely on the feed and perhaps not find sufficient nourishment if you stop feeding. Tray feeders located near a water source and good perches will keep you shooting all day.

Look for interactions between

Look for interactions between birds, between bird and its prey/food, and for that matter between birds and human agents/artifacts. Poses are nice but behaviors are better. I would rather show interesting behavior in a less than perfect background than a bird just perching/standing there in an ideal background. YVMV.

Outstanding article.

Outstanding article. Especially the part about the modes and the advice about "letting the birds come to you." No substitute for having your camera ready!

Outstanding article.

Outstanding article. Especially the part about the modes and the advice about "letting the birds come to you." No substitute for having your camera ready!

I love the Adubon society.

I love the Adubon society. I've been a member for years and although I haven't been able to give an exorbitant amount of money, I do try to keep my dues up. This year however, I haven't been able to so far, but I promise I will next month. So please be patient with me. My husband holds the money now and I don't always have any access.

Is there any time you would

Is there any time you would shoot in shutter priority for birds in flight?

You might want to re-read

You might want to re-read that part of the article. The point i made is that folks should NOT shoot in Program Mode. I did start with a joke which perhaps made it a bit confusing.

Noticed a subject of

Noticed a subject of "baiting" wasn't approached. Would love your take on it since I am utterly opposed to bait animals in wildlife work yet it is flagrantly done with may birders.

What type lens and camera do

What type lens and camera do you use most?

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