Photographing birds can be challenging, but it’s not as hard as you think if you study and apply yourself.
Photo by Scott Bourne
1. Study birds
Learn everything that you can about birds. Any type of photography can be improved by studying your subjects, and this is especially true of bird photography. Since birds don’t necessarily pose whenever a photographer points a lens in their direction, you need to understand their behavior so that you can be ready when opportunities present themselves. Know your subject. The more you know about the way birds behave, the better your images of birds will be.
2. Find birds
Learn where to find birds in your area. Birds congregate where they see food, water, and cover. You can typically find them near lakes and rivers, but even smaller streams and ponds can be great birding spots. If you live near a park or a zoo or the seashore, these can be great places to start looking for birds.
Get started in your own backyard by planting some bird-friendly bushes and a feeder. You can also set up a portable blind in your yard so you can hide while you photograph birds.
Visit audobon.org to find out some of the best places to find birds near you. Also, check with local bird rescue centers that care for injured and orphaned birds of prey. It’s an excellent opportunity to get close to birds you don’t often see. Just call ahead and let them know what you’d like to do. Most places are accommodating if you agree to follow their rules. A thoughtful gesture would be to let them use some of your shots for promotional purposes.
Go to your local zoo. Many zoos exhibit birds in natural habitats that are ideal for backgrounds.
Here are some other places you can go in the US:
- Any national wildlife refuge
- The Alligator Farm, St. Augustine, Florida
- J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
One of my personal favorite bird watching places is the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico. It’s a great first stop when you’re looking for birds to photograph!
3. Position yourself for success
Once you find birds, you need to know how to position yourself for success. Start with paying attention to the direction of the wind and sun. If they’re coming from the same direction, the conditions are perfect for photographing birds in flight. Try and keep the sun at your back. Most published bird photos are lit through the sun or open shade.
Photograph birds in flight when the sun is low in the sky. If it’s too high, the bird’s underside will be in shadow. Remember that birds tend to perch, take off, and land into the wind – knowing the wind direction helps you predict the bird’s behavior.
4. Approach birds properly
Birds scare easily. Keep yourself low to the ground and don’t move too suddenly. Don’t walk around with your tripod extended and don’t chase birds. Find an area where they are plentiful, and they will come to you. It’s counterintuitive, but it works.
5. Set the light and composition
Sunrise and sunset are ideal times to underexpose the subject and create a striking contrast for a beautiful silhouette. Photograph birds in flight when the sun is low in the sky. If it’s too high, the bird’s underside will be in shadow. The direction of the light is essential – side light creates nasty shadows on the bird’s face.
Fill the frame with the bird but don’t crop too tightly. When shooting flocks of birds, you’ll get a better composition if you wait for them to separate so their wings don’t overlap. Try to photograph groups of birds in pairs or, if in greater number, look for groups of three, five, or seven, which are more pleasing compositionally. Make sure the bird’s wings are up or down – not pancake flat.
6. Set the background
Clean backgrounds make for better images of birds. Photograph birds on a clean, simple background so your subject will stand out better. Eliminate clutter by keying in on the bird. Eliminate background distractions by shooting wide open.
7. Set your camera
Know your gear. Learn about your camera’s features and settings before you’re out in the field.
Use a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second to capture birds in flight – with bald eagles and other raptors, consider 1/1600th of a second minimum if you want to freeze action wingtip-to-wingtip.
Remember that when photographing larger birds, you need more depth of field. Stop down one or two stops to make sure you get the entire bird in the plane of focus. The closer you are to the bird, the more this matters.
8. Stay patient
Have patience. Stick with an area and don’t give up. Eventually, birds will become used to your presence and will approach you. Focus on a bird’s eyes. Make sure there’s a catch light in the eye. Otherwise, it looks like taxidermy.
9. Photograph favorite birds
Photograph birds that you love. There’s no substitute for passion. If you like your avian subjects, you’ll take great care in capturing their lives. If you love birds and adore bird watching, then adding bird photography to your hobby will make the experience even more rewarding.
Photo by Scott Bourne10. Bring out the beauty of bird pictures
In Luminar 3, we have a convenient and powerful tool called Workspaces. It’s your easy way to access the most commonly used filters quickly. To make post-processing with this photo enhancer even more straightforward, I’ve created my own Workspace for editing bird pictures. It includes the following filters and tools:
- Develop filter – The best starting point for your post-processing. The Develop filter allows you to make necessary adjustments to tone and color in your RAW images, fix perspective, and proceed to the more creative part of editing.
- Erase tool – Removes unwanted objects from your bird pictures. You can get rid of small insects captured when zooming in on your bird or water splashes on a camera lens.
- HSL filter – Selectively enhances particular colors and mutes others if needed. The HSL filter lets you bring out the appearance of a bird without affecting other areas of the photo.
- Remove Color Cast filter – This is a magic wand that automatically detects undesirable color casts and removes them by adjusting the hue.
- Details Enhancer filter – You’ll need this one in particular for making the details in your image sharp, bright, and vivid. Plus, this tool doesn’t produce any halos or artifacts.
- Accent AI Filter – This filter smartly analyzes the overall picture and adjusts those parts that need to be enhanced, so you’ll receive naturally beautiful images of birds in seconds.
This is a roundup of my personal recommendations and bird photography tips, but what I do isn’t limited to the techniques mentioned above. I just tried to describe the most essential ones. You can play around with Luminar 3 and build your own workflow.
11. Choose proper clothing & camo
In most cases, the best pictures of birds are taken relatively close to the bird itself. Getting close to birds, however, is quite tricky, as most are genetically programmed to avoid large, scary-looking creatures like humans. Dressing in modest clothing or camouflaging yourself can make a significant impact in terms of how successful you are at approaching birds. Below are some basic tips on clothing and camouflage options:
- Wear dark colors and a hat – This will help you blend in, but more importantly, a hat will keep the sun out of your eyes, which will significantly aid you in looking for birds high in trees.
- Use a hunting blind – A blind enables a photographer to shoot pictures of birds while concealed. This is the best choice for someone who finds a birding hotspot.
- Wear a Ghillie suit – Initially designed for the military but now used by hunters and photographers, a Ghillie suit is a full-body outfit wholly covered with natural-looking green material. It’s the ultimate camo, as a person in a Ghillie suit can literally pass for a small tree or shrub.
But note that Ghillie suits aren’t for everyone – to maximize their effectiveness and entirely blend into the environment, you must remain very still (potentially for long periods). Ghillie suits can also get very hot on late spring and summer days, and some outfits way as much as 7 pounds.
12. Take care of accessories
Tripod – A tripod is a three-legged stand used to support and stabilize cameras (primarily DSLRs) and spotting scopes/binoculars. Pictures of birds taken on a tripod tend to be sharper since handshake is taken out of the equation and angles are more controlled. With a tripod, the ability to focus on and freeze images improves substantially. Mobility (moving around from spot to spot) is obviously limited when using tripods, which are generally best used for stationary shoots at birding hotspots.
Bird watching binoculars – It can be challenging to locate and identify birds without a pair of binoculars. Binoculars are also commonly used to digiscope images.
Remote control – A remote allows the photographer to snap pictures by pressing a single button rather than pressing the shutter button on the camera. In bird photography, the remote control is used to take photos without the photographer having to approach the bird. For example, the photographer can set the camera up on a tripod at a birding hotspot, move up to 15 feet away, then press the button when the bird is in the desired position. While the remote control process takes time to get down (and can be frustrating to operate), remote controls are cheap and worth trying.
SD Card – This is the memory card used for digital cameras and even some smartphones. Your pictures of birds won’t save without one. Purchasing an SD card with a lot of memory (32GB or higher) is highly recommended, as success in bird photography usually requires taking lots and lots of pictures (with only a few of them actually worth saving). Bird photographers never want to be limited in terms of the number of images they can take. Plus, high-memory SD cards are cheaper on a per-gigabyte basis.
Harness (a camera holding vest) – A harness secures the camera around the photographer’s chest area, reducing physical strain and potential for damage. The harness also makes it easier to grab the camera and shoot at a moment’s notice – sometimes it takes a photographer too much time to reach down and secure the camera when held by a neck strap. Many harnesses also have pockets that can keep important items like extra lenses, binoculars, smartphones, and batteries.
Spotting scope – This is essentially a small telescope for viewing wildlife. A spotting scope is a substantial step beyond bird watching binoculars in terms of magnification power. They’re usually mounted to a tripod and used to see subjects clearly from far distances, such as a Bald Eagle in a tall tree on the other side of a river. Spotting scopes are not only used by photographers to detect distant birds but also as a handy digiscoping tool.
Digiscoping tools – Digiscoping with a spotting scope, telescope, or binoculars turns your camera (even your smartphone camera) into a powerful optical device with telephoto reach.
Chair – There’s nothing wrong with taking pictures while seated. In fact, shooting while seated is favored by some photographers, who feel it improves stability and visibility. A chair can also be used to sit while waiting for birds to visit a particular spot you hope to shoot at. Bird photography often requires remarkable patience, and sitting while waiting is preferable to standing. For maximum visibility, look for a chair that can swivel 360 degrees.
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