Birds loved me before I loved them; they always seem to flock to me and pose for pictures, and over the years taking pictures of birds has grown into my favorite pastime. I’ve used budget equipment and learned through trial and error as I improved my skills to get where I am now. I have formed a comprehensive list of bird photography tips I apply to produce beautiful bird images, but the ultimate tip for excellent pictures of birds is patience.
CHOOSING THE PERFECT CAMERA GEAR FOR BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY
Bird photography is one of the few styles of photography where equipment matters; without the correct equipment, great bird photos are next to impossible.
BEST LENS FOR TAKING PICTURES OF BIRDS
A telephoto lens is anything more than a 200mm lens, and some wildlife photographers recommend this size lens for bird photography. In my experience, 200 mm is an awfully small focal length for birds; anything less than 600mm isn’t ideal for bird photography, even at close range.
Name brand lenses at that focal length can approach $10,000, so I highly recommend the Sigma and Tamron lenses for the same quality under $1,000. Before I upgraded to the Sigma 150-600 mm contemporary lens, I used a 300 mm lens for years. It may be more difficult to capture close-ups of birds, but it does a decent job for those on a budget.
BEST AFFORDABLE CAMERAS FOR WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY
Many “best cameras for wildlife photography” list recommend the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, but that price tag is just insane. There are far more affordable cameras on the market for hobbyists who love taking pictures of birds. When purchasing a new camera for bird photography, all you need is a fast autofocus, a continuous mode of at least 6 frames per second (fps), and a 9 point autofocus grid.
FIND A QUALITY SD CARD
Not all memory cards are made equal, and a quality SD card with a fast read/write speed allows you to burst for longer periods of time. I truly noticed the difference when I upgraded from 70 MB/s to 170 MB/s. B&H Photo has a wonderful explanation on how to understand your SD card; in short, the higher the MB/s number, the faster the card will be.
HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH BIRDS
I use the same custom settings for bird photography as I do for other types of wildlife, which I explained with greater detail in my guide to wildlife photography. For this post, I will further explain the camera settings important in bird photography.
SHOOT IN BURST MODE:
Continuous or burst mode allows you to press and hold the shutter button while the camera takes several pictures in quick succession; a crucial feature for capturing fast movement.
FAST SHUTTER SPEED
In order to reduce the need for a higher ISO, I recommend using the slowest shutter speed possible for the bird you are capturing. For birds sitting on a branch or slow-flying birds such as birds of prey who soar, you can use the ideal slowest shutter speed for your lens, which is 1/focal length; 1/600 for a 600 mm lens, or 1/300 mm for a 300 mm lens. You will need at least a shutter speed of 1/2000 to capture sharp images of birds in flight, regardless of the focal length.
9 FOCUS POINTS
As the bird moves, the 9 point back button allows you to continuously focus on a small area. Using more focus points increases the risk of the camera focusing on branches or other surrounding areas, using a single point of focus is too small and may cause you to focus on the wrong part of the bird. This brings me to my next point…
FOCUS ON THE EYES
The most important element is to ensure the eyes are in focus, which is why the single point autofocus is too small because it is more challenging to focus on a small area with a single point of focus. It is acceptable to have some part of the bird out of focus or have motion blur as long as the eyes are in focus.
Less is more in when taking pictures of birds; emphasize the subject by framing the bird where there are minimal distractions in the background. A clean background places more focus on the bird and makes for a more impactful image.
Different metering settings tell the camera where to look to determine how to set the exposure. Other types of metering evaluate more of the scene and can cause shadows on the bird, especially when birds are perched in a tree. Spot metering exposes for a small point in the center of the camera which ensures the subject is always adequately exposed. This may cause an overexposed or underexposed background, but that’s ok because it will help create a cleaner background and enhance the visibility of your subject.
A wide aperture (lower f-stop number) blurs the background and allows for more light to reach the sensor, so this is another way to minimize the need to increase the ISO.
SHOOT WITH AUTO ISO
Birds are quick little creatures and you don’t have time to fuss with manual settings; use auto ISO to compensate for exposure differences when you adjust the shutter speed, which is the only setting you should try to control while taking pictures of birds.
DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE COMPOSITION
I’ll get into editing techniques later in this post, but don’t worry about trying to frame the perfect shot. Just concentrate on focus and exposure so you can create the perfect composition during post-processing.
TIPS FOR FINDING BIRDS
- Birds are most active in the morning and evening
- Search for birding hotspots in your area; birding hotspots are known locations where birds tend to gather and increase the likelihood of spotting birds.
- Backyard Birds: Improve your skills by practicing on common birds such as doves, sparrows, and cardinals. Allow yourself to try new settings and learn about common behaviors on birds you’ll see again so you are prepared for less common birds.
- Approach the birds slowly and quietly; inch your way forward by taking a step and shoot so the bird gets used to you and the sound of the camera.
- Go on a guided bird walk with the National Audubon Society or other organization in your area
- Be patient and wait around for a bit if the birds fly off when you first approach, they usually come back if you stand still.
- Listen for chirping
POST-PROCESSING AND CROPPING BIRD IMAGES
Birds are fast-moving subjects and you won’t have the time to think about composition when capturing images of birds. Forget about the myth that photographers don’t edit their photos and consider these minor adjustments in Lightroom to enhance the output of your bird pictures.
To sharpen the edges and improve the details of the image, increase contrast and clarity in Lightroom’s Basic panel in the develop module. For more sharpening options scroll down to the detail panel and tweak the sharpening slider; the default in the sharpening tool is to sharpen everything, but you can hit the alt/option key on your keyboard while moving the masking slider to the right to be more selective in the parts that sharpen. The parts of the image in white while using the masking tool are the parts of the images selected for sharpening.
Increasing the luminance in the noise reduction panel artificially reduces digital noise, but also softens the edges. When you increase the luminance you will also want to increase the detail and contrast sliders to bring back the details reduced by increasing the luminance slider.
Contrary to popular belief, cropping does not remove details or reduce the quality of the photo; cropping only affects the size of prints you can create. For example, I cropped this picture by at least 50% and I can still print a high-quality 24×16 inch print, so don’t be afraid to crop and create the composition you want. If I hadn’t cropped this picture, I could print up to a 48×32 inch, but that size is unnecessary for most uses and the photo composition wouldn’t look as good. If you plan to print small prints for the home or share them on social media, cropping won’t be an issue.