An Introduction to Bird Photography

There are some very good articles on bird photography out there for you to read. This post aims to gather some of the concepts which I have found most useful and provide you with resources if you wish to dig deeper. This article assumes little to no experience with bird photography and birding in general. To start with, I will give some bird photography and identification tips.

Three ducks, one with a water droplet on its nose.
Canon EOS 80D, ISO-800, f/5.6, 1/500

Setting up your Camera

For bird photography it is typically recommended that you get a long lens. These can range from 400mm to 800mm with different lenses being used in different settings. Nikons seem popular because they tend to have a high crop factor. High crop factors tend to make a shorter lens seem more “zoomed in.” This being said, try to find a lens that makes sense for your budget and has flexibility for what you are interested in shooting (for more recommendations on this, check out some of the linked articles below).

After getting your camera set up, you are going to want to use either Aperture-Priority or Manual to optimize your shots. I am using a Canon 80D with a 100-400mm lens. Typically, I shoot in Manual and set my shutter speed to be between 1/800 and 1/1200, choose my aperture based on what effect I am going for (typically between 6.3 [tighter focus] and 8), and set my ISO based on lighting conditions. Aperture-Priority is recommended mostly because you can set how tightly you want the focus of the image to be on the bird and it will adjust shutter speed to compensate.

Note, you will need higher shutter speeds in order to freeze the action, but if your subject is not moving or if you want a little motion blur, often you can go lower.

Great horned owl
Canon EOS 80D, ISO-250, f/8, 1/200

Note, the above photo was shot with a somewhat shorter lens, but this great horned owl was in good light and still.

Finding and Approaching Birds

This section header is a bit misleading as often the best shots of birds are not the ones where you come to the bird, but rather where the bird comes to you. If you have the patience, setting up a bird blind and waiting with your camera pointed where you expect the bird to land can yield amazing results. This technique requires four things: time, patience, an understanding of bird behavior, and luck. If you are lacking in one of these categories, then there are some other things which you can try.

For finding where birds are in your area, try checking out bird hotspots on ebird. This will give you a good idea of where people are seeing things and what they are seeing. If you are interested in a particular species this might also give you an idea of where to look. Once you have chosen where you are headed, you can explore on hiking trails or in your car. Using your car has the advantage that often birds will allow you to get closer if you are still in your vehicle than if you are walking on foot.

When you do see a bird which you would like to photograph try to minimize fast movements and loud noises. If you look directly at a bird and walk up to it, then there is a higher chance that it will perceive you as a predator. Instead take shots at intervals as you approach your subject. This will allow the bird to get used to the sound of the camera shutter and give you something if it does decide to fly away. In addition, make sure to approach gradually and if you sense the bird is agitated allow it to settle, and maybe aim your camera where you expect it to fly too next.

Seagulls in the morning, scattered against a blue grey sky.
Canon EOS 80D, ISO-3200, f/6.3, 1/1250

These seagulls were shot early in the morning before the sunlight was very strong. A high ISO can cause spots on the image even if the action is frozen by a high shutter speed.

What Bird is This?

Bird behavior is your first clue as to what type of bird you are looking at. Many nature guides use a series of questions to guide you to a specific family of the subject. However, bird field guides tend to clump birds into sections which the reader is expected to figure out. If you have no exposure to these categories, you should try to get familiar with an identification guide before you go into the field. Field guides like Kaufman or Sibley are very beginner friendly with tips on getting started. My copy of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America even has diagrams of the parts of different bird sub species.

Having a physical or digital field guide will not only help you identify what you have seen, but also to know what birds visit your part of the world. Field guides typically have a description of the bird, a regional map telling you when and where a bird is normally seen, and an image of the bird. Guides like Peterson, Sibley, and National Geographic use detailed drawings of birds to aid identification. Guides like Audubon or Stokes use pictures for the same purpose. These typically have a few different plumages and an example of the female and male of each species. An exception to this rule is the Crossley ID Guide which uses a photo collage in order to bring together images of the same bird species at different depths, activities, and plumages; These ID guides help give you a better idea of what the bird might look like at different distances from you.

Finding the right guide for you may take some experimentation. Try looking up guides online first. Peterson, Audubon, and Sibley all have apps which you can use on your phone. You may even find that you like that format better than a physical book.

Seagull judging from on high.
Canon EOS 80D, ISO-320, f/9, 1/1000

More Resources

For more in-depth information on how to pick a camera and photograph birds, check out Nasim Mansurov’s article on How to Photograph Birds and the companion article by Elizabeth Gray on Bird Photography Tips and Tricks. I found these to both be quite thorough and informative. Note: their primary cameras are Nikons which is different than some of the observations that I have made while working with my Canon.