Taking pictures of birds is the best way to get introduced to wildlife photography. Since you can find majestic birds pretty much everywhere, you’ll never run out of beautiful subjects to shoot.
However, just because they're easily accessible doesn’t mean that photographing these winged creatures is a breeze. Learning to shoot around their fast movements, unpredictable patterns, and reclusive behavior can teach you to be both quick and patient.
If you want to take on the challenge of photographing these animals in flight, here are a few simple tips to help you get your project off the ground.
01. Learn about the birds in your area
Before you take out your camera, it would help a lot if you learn about your intended subject first. This is especially true when it comes to wild animals—including birds. Since you can’t tell them what to do, you have to study their behavior in order to get the shot you want.
To start, do some research on the common birds in your area. The most efficient way to do this is by visiting websites such as Avibase, which show you a comprehensive list of birds in any region on the planet.
You can also join a local bird club if your neighborhood has one. Experienced bird watchers can teach you a lot about how to identify local birds, where to find them, and, most importantly, how to approach them. Since they know your area better, they can help you get started with bird photography much quicker.
02. Choose the right camera
If you want to take decent avian photos, you’ll have to invest in a good camera. Pick one that is capable of shooting at 1/1000th of a second at six frames a second or more. Anything slower than that and you might miss a lot of potentially photographic moments.
Thankfully, most affordable entry-level DSLRs can now take photos relatively fast. They may not be as efficient as professional-level cameras, but they’re good enough to get you started.
Furthermore, if your camera has a cropped sensor smaller than that of more professional options, any full-frame lens you put on it will have a 1.5x magnification. For instance, if you install a 50mm on a beginner camera, it will be equivalent to a 75mm, which makes everything look closer.
Many photographers prefer these crop sensor cameras when shooting wildlife because they don’t need to buy expensive telephoto lenses to get the magnification they need.
Mirrorless cameras are also an excellent option for bird photography. Unlike DSLRs that make loud noises when shooting, mirrorless cameras can take photos silently. Without the annoying clicks, you're less likely to startle birds and scare them away.
Unfortunately, although this type of camera is relatively cheaper than DSLRs, the selection of lenses remains limited and expensive. Nevertheless, a mirrorless camera would still be the best choice if you have the budget.
03. Snap on a telephoto lens
To take photos of birds, a lens that can shoot from afar is ideal. Unfortunately, most kit lenses that come with entry-level cameras can only go up to 50mm. To get close enough to your subject, you can invest in a telephoto lens.
Telephoto lenses vary in focal lengths, but you can choose one between 300mm to 600mm (the longer the focal length, the better the magnification). They can be prime lenses, which have fixed focal lengths, or zoom lenses which have adjustable focal lengths.
Telephotos can be expensive, but you can always buy used ones online for cheap. The most affordable options are zoom lenses such as 70-300mm lenses that sell for less than 300 dollars. You can also purchase manual focus lenses from old film cameras for less than 100 dollars. However, the downside is that you’d have to focus the lens yourself. As shooting flying birds requires speed, lenses that come with quick autofocus capabilities increase your chances for success.
04. Select the right settings
Since birds move swiftly, you might have to set your camera to Shutter Speed Priority and choose 1/1000th of a second or higher. Using a high shutter speed allows you to freeze fast movements, especially when birds are in flight.
When your camera is on Shutter Speed Priority, it automatically selects the aperture for you. Choosing an aperture between f/1.8 to f/4.5 will create background blur that will make birds easy for your viewer to distinguish from their surroundings.
Additionally, you can set your shutter speed between 1/1000th to 1/4000th until the aperture returns to at least f/4.5.
You’ll also want to switch on your camera’s spot metering when shooting birds. Doing so lets you choose the exact “spot” which you want to be correctly exposed.
For instance, if you aim your camera on a bird, it will read the light hitting the flying animal and not the sky around it. As a result, your photo will have a more balanced exposure.
As for ISO, try to keep the values between 100 to 800. 100 is perfect for producing noiseless photos, but it’s not as sensitive in low-lit situations. On the other hand, 800 makes your sensor more sensitive to light, but consequently creates a good amount of noise.
Depending on the available light, it’s best to choose the appropriate value that creates a balanced exposure while minimizing the noise produced.
05. Use continuous focusing
When you’re taking photos of extremely fast subjects such as birds, you’ll need equally responsive focusing. Since it’s incredibly hard to get ultra-sharp photos if you focus your lens manually, use autofocus to make things easier.
There are many different focus modes to choose from. However, continuous focusing is the best option for shooting birds.
It not only locks on to your subject faster, but it also predicts where the subject might go. Once you activate continuous focus, all you have to do is press the shutter halfway, and your lens will automatically keep its focus on your subject.
06. Photograph birds in your neighborhood
Before you go out into the wilderness, warm up by taking photos of birds in your immediate vicinity first. Why? Because urban-dwelling species of birds are more used to being around people, making them less camera-shy.
Birds in the forest are elusive, so you need to learn how to approach them properly. Shooting birds in your neighborhood will train you to be more comfortable to shoot in the wild.
Alternatively, you can go to your local zoo and start by photographing birds there. It's a great place to find not just domestic species, but also birds from all around the globe. The more experience you have shooting different types of birds, the better you'll be prepared to take photos of them in the wild.
07. Stay stealthy
Just like any other wild animal, birds have a heightened sense of awareness. They probably know you’re lurking around even before you see them. Fortunately, there are a few tactics you can try to minimize your chances of scaring them away.
First, wear something that doesn’t attract attention. You can wear camouflaged hunting clothing or keep it simple with a muted, neutral-colored shirt and pants. Remember that bright colors aren’t just distracting, but birds can also misinterpret them as a sign of danger. Steer clear of brining along any gear that could alert them.
You should also approach birds carefully because they tend to fly away once startled. Stroll in a zigzag pattern, don't make any sudden movements, and don’t look them straight in the eye. They may be animals, but they know from instinct that hunters stare before they attack. If you think they’re sensing you, stop moving for a moment. Let them get used to your presence before you proceed.
Once you find a suitable spot, slowly raise your camera and snap a photo or two. If they seem to be comfortable with the sound of your shutter clicking, then they’re okay with you being around them.
08. Look for a good location
When you’re ready to photograph birds in the wild, the next step is to head to a suitable location where birds are known to flock. Local wildlife parks are an excellent place to start, but you’re guaranteed to encounter birds in almost any secluded area you can find.
The primary criterion for a good location is that it has to be scenic. Having a beautiful background elevates the quality of your bird photos significantly.
Look for an elevated area where you can set up your equipment. If you’re on higher ground, you’ll more or less be on the same level as the birds flying past you. Taking photos of feathered creatures from below produces decent results. However, your photos will look significantly better when you make it look like you’re flying along with them in your pictures.
It also helps if you include as much of the environment as possible. For example, photograph them perched on a branch or while hunting. Doing so not only adds context to your image, but it also tells a story that your viewers will appreciate.
People don’t realize how addictive bird photography can be until they try it. With about ten thousand species of birds around the world, finding and photographing new birds can quickly become an obsession. So on your next walk outside, don't forget to take your camera and start snapping. Who knows—there could be a few birds already in your backyard waiting for you.