Bird Photography: 10 Tips for Beautiful Images

by John Stapel

bird photography: 10 tips for beautiful images

Looking to capture stunning photos of birds? While bird photography can often seem daunting, it’s actually pretty easy – once you get the hang of it.

In this article, I’ll share everything you need to know for stunning bird pictures, including:

  • The best camera equipment for action-packed bird shots
  • The perfect bird photography lighting
  • Simple tips to improve your compositions
  • Plenty of bird photography examples
  • Much, much more!

So if you’re ready to become an expert, let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:

1. Don’t obsess about equipment

Talk to any beginner bird photographer, and they’ll likely mention equipment such as ultra-fast cameras and long lenses.

And it’s true: Cameras and lenses do make a difference. But they don’t matter anywhere near as much as you might think.

You see, bird photography isn’t just about getting close. It’s also about creating beautiful compositions, getting the light just right, learning to expose properly, learning to track fast-moving subjects, etc. So while a longer lens is helpful, especially if your subjects are skittish, you can still capture beautiful bird images with a shorter lens – either by mastering stalking strategies or by capturing environmental bird pictures.

In my view, here’s what you need to get started with bird photos: a decent APS-C camera body, plus a telephoto lens of 300mm. That’s more than sufficient to get truly great bird photographs.

Bald Eagle Flying Away With A Catch

And as I hinted at above, if you don’t have a longer telephoto lens, you can still take stunning photographs of birds like mallards, geese, gulls, and other approachable birds. Everything boils down to how you view the situation. “Is the glass half empty or half full?”

2. Think about bird photography lighting and composition

Green Heron Standing Tall

Light can make or break your bird photos – and so can composition. You need to pay careful attention to both these elements and do what you can to ensure they’re always working in your favor.

So what’s the best light for bird photography? Early morning and late afternoon light, also known as golden-hour lighting. Golden-hour lighting is soft, and as a bonus, the birds tend to be very active during these times.

Soft, golden-hour light has some wonderful characteristics. For instance, it:

  • prevents harsh shadows on the bird
  • enhances the glow in the bird’s plumage
  • creates a catchlight in the bird’s eye

As for bird photography composition:

A good composition helps you convey your message in the simplest possible way. Happily, composition is pretty easy, and following a few basic composition principles will make a huge difference. Here is my best advice:

  • Use the rule of thirds compositional technique to place the bird off-center
  • Use color contrast by aiming for a complementary background
  • Fill the frame with the bird
  • Use a clean background

Commit those compositional guidelines to memory, use them in your work, and you’ll be golden.

3. Get down for an eye-level perspective

We see our world at five to six feet high, but birds see the world from a few inches to a few feet off the ground. To get a feeling of the bird’s world, get down on their level!

In other words, don’t be afraid to crouch, squat, crawl, or lie flat against the ground. Yes, you might get a bit muddy. However, it’s the key to professional-looking, low-perspective images like this:

Goslings Crossing the Road

Here are just a few of the benefits you get from low-perspective bird photography:

  • You’ll get true eye contact for more intimate photographs
  • You’ll get pleasing blur both in the foreground and background (note the blurred sand in the image above)
  • You’ll be low to the ground and therefore less threatening to your subject
  • You will transport the viewer into the bird’s world

Obviously, there are cases where you can’t get down low, and that’s okay – but where possible, drop to the ground. It can make all the difference.

4. Keep the eye sharp and well lit

More than any other part of a bird’s body, the eye absolutely, one-hundred percent needs to look good.

What does this mean? For one, if there is no light in the eyes, birds look dull or lifeless. Whereas birds with a clear eyelight (called a catchlight) look much, much better.

Check out the photo below. Can you see the spot of white in the bird’s eye? That’s the catchlight, and you get it by positioning the sun (or another light source) at your back.

(Quick tip: For the best catchlights, simply point your shadow at the bird and make sure you have an eye-level perspective; the sun will do the rest of the work!)

Sparrow perching on a tree branch

You should also ensure that the bird’s eye is always, always, always in focus. If the eye is blurry but the body is sharp, then you’ve failed; if the body is blurry but the eye is sharp, you may still have a good shot.

5. Fill the frame

Want to get beautiful pictures of a bird? If you’re photographing a single individual, it’s often a good idea to fill the frame. Here are a few of the benefits:

  • It’s easy for the viewer to focus on the bird
  • It’s easy to achieve a pleasing blur or bokeh effect in the background
  • It’s easy to properly expose for the bird
  • It’s easy to compose in the field
Juvenile Blue Heron Close Up

Now, as I mentioned in my first tip, filling the frame isn’t always necessary – and sometimes, if you have a shorter lens, it’s not possible. But unless you’re envisioning a stunning environmental shot, I do recommend you at least try to fill the frame. Work on a low, slow approach (where you get low to the ground and inch forward), or even consider using a blind.

If your lens is sharp and you’re working with a high-megapixel camera, you can get away with a bit of cropping, but don’t rely on this too much; even the best images will start to break down if you try to turn a distant bird into a close-up masterpiece.

6. Tell a story

Storytelling in bird photography should not be confused with storytelling in books and movies. Storytelling is a way to express the time of the day, mood, place, or activity of the bird in a single photograph, and it’s mostly about including a bit of environment in the scene (along with a frame-filling bird, of course!).

For instance, you can include some grasses next to the bird, you can photograph the bird catching a fish, you can capture two birds interacting, and so on. If you decide to shoot a wider image (i.e., a shot with a non-frame-filling bird), then storytelling becomes especially critical; your story has to hold the viewer’s attention, because a small-in-the-frame bird won’t be enough.

Great Egret in Misty Morning

Here are a few additional tips you can use to enhance the story:

  • Indicate the weather conditions by including snow, rain, or mist
  • Capture silhouettes during sunrise and sunset
  • Show season by including flowers in bloom, autumn colors, or snow
  • Include reflections for a surreal result

7. Capture the action

Generally speaking, an action photo trumps a perching photo. If you can capture a bird in flight, a bird fighting, or a bird catching a fish, the viewer is bound to be impressed – so I recommend you look for action whenever possible.

Of course, capturing birds in action involves more effort and patience compared to capturing perched birds. However, with a little practice and perseverance, you can become a highly capable action bird photographer.

Here are a few tips for shooting birds in action:

  • Photograph early in the morning or late in the afternoon when birds are very active
  • Wait for the bird to move, then use burst mode to take several photographs at once
  • Track the bird until focus is locked before pressing the shutter (make sure you’re using continuous focus!)
  • Learn to anticipate the action either by observing or reading about birds
Juvenile Blue Heron with a Fish

Pro tip: When birds are hungry, it’s easy to photograph them in action; they’ll often ignore you in their single-minded quest for food, though take care not to disturb them and maintain a considerable distance.

By the way, action photos of birds don’t need to depict aggressive and/or impossibly fast movement. You can simply photograph birds behaving in interesting ways, as I did for this Cattle Egret image:

Juvenile Great Egret Behavior

8. Capture birds in flight

Birds in flight are probably the most sought-after subjects in all of bird photography – and they’re also the most difficult. It’s not easy to take flight photographs that will wow your viewers!

Your success largely depends on the bird, as well as the technique that you employ. Smaller birds are generally very erratic in their flight and quite small in the frame, which makes them difficult to track. Larger birds are slightly less swift and are not as difficult to track – so if you want to be successful with flight photography, start with larger, slower-moving birds.

Belted Kingfisher in Flight

And make sure you get out and practice constantly, because sharp bird in flight photos require perfect technique. Here are some simple tips to capture magnificent flight photographs:

  • Learn about the bird’s flight patterns
  • Know the bird’s landing and take-off patterns
  • If there is more than one bird, when one flies, the rest will likely follow suit
  • Track the bird for a few moments and let the camera achieve focus before pressing the shutter
  • Use Aperture Priority so you do not have to worry much about changing light conditions

9. The background makes the picture

In bird photography, the subject matters – but the background matters, too. Bird photos look gorgeous when the background is clean and complements the bird. When the background is messy or distracting, however, the shot generally fails, even if the bird itself looks great.

Take a look at the image below. Do you see the smooth, beautiful – but not distracting! – background? Do you see how it complements the bird, and even makes it pop off the screen?

Seagull the Eagle

Bottom line: It’s very important to keep an eye on the background while taking pictures of a bird. Here are a few simple tips you can follow:

  • Avoid taking bird photographs when the background is too distracting
  • Avoid taking bird photographs when the background is plain and boring
  • If you don’t like the background, wait for the bird to change position or adjust your angle until you get an interesting background
  • Choose maximum aperture values to throw the background slightly, or completely, out of focus

10. Practice with common birds

As I’ve repeatedly emphasized throughout this article, practice is an essential part of bird photography. Practice makes perfect, after all – and while it’s not hard to create beautiful bird photos, certain types of images, such as birds in flight, take some real skill.

That’s why I urge you to practice photographing larger, slower, common birds. I personally learned most of my birding techniques with seagulls, mallards, geese, and herons. You can do the same.

Of course, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and photograph the occasional songbird or shorebird. But if you don’t capture beautiful images, don’t get too worked up; instead, focus on mastering your techniques and learning the right bird photography settings. Pretty soon, you’ll be photographing the tougher birds like a pro!

How to photograph birds: final words

Barn Swallow Taking Off

Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re well on your way to capturing beautiful bird photography. Focus your time and energy on learning all the core principles outlined above. Prove to yourself that you have the passion to go out and photograph birds every day (or as often as you can).

Remember that proper techniques will always outperform equipment. Make every attempt to create amazing photographs of the common birds. And enjoy yourself! That is the secret to success.

  • GENERAL

  • GEAR

    • Review of the Nikon D500 for Wildlife and Bird Photography

  • SETTINGS

  • COMPOSITION

  • ADVANCED GUIDES

  • POST-PROCESSING

  • INSPIRATION

Bird Photography: 10 Tips for Beautiful Images