Photographing Birds: Tips for Capturing Our Fine Feathered Friends

Most people love birds, and there is an understandable draw to photographing them: They can be cute, inquisitive, comical even and, of course, often very colorful.

Photographing birds is also a great way to try your hand at wildlife photography because while not everyone has deer, bears or moose in their area, there are very few places in the world that don’t have birds. And with a little know-how you can learn to take photos that have the birds looking alive and engaging while in their natural habitat.

Here are photography tips and tricks for taking stunning images of birds!

Bright red male cardinal on a snow covered railing.

Tip #1: Look for birds right in the backyard.

While you may think you need a trip to some exotic locale to get great bird photos, there’s no better place to start photographing birds than right in your own back yard. In fact, the very inquisitive, brilliantly red northern cardinal, pictured above, was photographed while standing on my deck railing.

And, believe it or not, a photo you take in your own backyard may just be good enough even to be on a magazine cover — say the February 2014 issue of Ranger Rick Jr., a magazine published by the National Wildlife Federation. Not only is this a published photo, and a cover no less (well okay, back cover), I didn’t have to go on safari to get it.

Getting great shots of birds in your yard is very easy, all you need is a bird feeder.

Eastern phoebe perched on a branch

Tip #2: Set up your natural perches:

Sure you can get nice sharp pictures of some very beautiful bird right at the feeder, but if you want your bird photos to appear as though you captured them out in the middle of the forest, you’ll need to set up a few natural looking places for them to land, something like a small branch from a tree or an old log stood on end.

Birds like to perch on something before they jump right into the feast you’ve provided. By making that perch something natural looking, you’ll end up with a more natural looking photo. Every fall when I put out the feeders, I also attach a couple of branches and an old log to the sides of my deck.

Choose size appropriate branches. If you mostly have small song birds that visit your yard, you’ll want to use small branches for them to land on. And as you would expect, larger branches if you have larger birds. You don’t want a great big bird trying to stand on a spindly little twig, or a tiny chickadee perched on a branch the size of a telephone pole.

For this reason I have two different size branches set up for my birds to land on. As for the log, the log is great for photographing woodpeckers. And if it’s woodpeckers I’m after, I’ll spread some suet on the log in a position that will have the birds positioned nicely for me, while the suet is out of the view of the camera.

Tip #3: Go for short lens for “birds on a budget.”

Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret, you don’t need a great big, and expensive, super-telephoto lens to photograph birds either.

I mean have you seen the price of a 500mm lens lately? Canon’s latest offering, the EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM (now there’s a mouthful) retails for well over $10,000! I sure don’t have that kind of money laying around. There are cheaper ways to get your bird photos.

First, use a shorter lens. Since birds are not the main focus of my photography (pun totally intended), I can’t justify the price of super long lenses. This being the case, the majority of not just my birds, but my wildlife photographs in general, have been shot at 300mm or less. This next photo, showing a common loon shaking the water off of its wings, was taken through a Canon 300mm f/4L IS lens. While not cheap at around $950 – $1,000 for a good used copy, it’s 1/10th the cost of the 500.

Common loon with wings spread

And  to prove that you don’t always need a long lens to get great bird photos, I was able to knock this next shot off of my photographic bucket list with my Sigma 150mm Macro lens.

Loon chick riding on its parents back

Actually, while photographing this nice family moment, 150mm was some times too much. I often had to back paddle my kayak in order to keep the bow of the boat out of the photo. Of course getting shots like these with shorter focal length lenses takes patience, and no small amount of luck. Fortunately these loons were quite comfortable swimming very close to my friend and I, as we sat in our kayaks. I must stress here that we let the birds come to us, in no way did we chase or harass them just to get a photo.

Tip #4: But if you do need longer lenses, look at all your options…

The are however several options if you just have to have a longer lens, or at least think you do. Take a look at 3rd party manufacturers like Sigma or Tamron, both offer zoom lenses with focal length in the 300 – 500mm or longer range, which are considerably less expensive than those from the major camera companies.

One more option is rental. Can’t afford that Canon or Nikon 500mm lens? Rent it. You can rent just about any lens you can imagine for relatively reasonable rates.

Both the red-tail hawk and the snowy owl, pictured below, were photographed through a rented Sigma 120-400 zoom lens.

Red-tail hawk


Snowy owl in the sand dunes of Hampton Beach

Tip #5: Work with the right camera settings.

Camera settings can help you with getting the shot, and there’s tons of options depending on the image you’re trying to capture. Want to know more about what settings to use and when? Check out this post on camera settings for photographing birds.

Tip #6: Their eyes have it.

They say the eyes are the window to the soul — I say they’re the windows to your photograph. Don’t just point the camera at the bird and hope for the best, select one focus point, assuming your camera allows it, and place that point right on the eyes. Remember one simple thing: If you can only manage to get one single part of the bird in focus, it had better be the eyes.

Tip #7: Make them look alive!

Try to capture their expression, such as when I photographed that cardinal. When I made that photo I was sitting on my deck dressed head to toe in camo. The expression on his face as he’s trying to figure out what that lump with the big glass eye was, made the photo all the more engaging. Also, try to photograph the birds doing something they would naturally be doing, like this red-winged blackbird in full mating song.

Male red-winged blackbird in full song

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