Bird Photography Tips

You can take pictures of birds to help identify the birds, in which case quality really doesn't matter, or you can try and get good pictures.

getting the most pixels on a bird

To get the best quality picture of a bird, you need to get the most pixels on the bird, in other words, get the biggest image of the bird on your camera's sensor.

Get Close

Get close to the bird. Use a blind, sit beside a bird feeder. Sit quietly and wait for the birds to get closer. You can open a window and insert a piece of foam with a hole cut for your camera. Often if you stay in your car the birds will not get as scared as if you get out, though sometimes you see more outside your car.

Get a sharp lens

Get a good lens to get the best resolution. I have a 300mm lens, but recommend 400. You could get a top grade lens and a less expensive camera if your funds are limited. I found going from a regular Canon lens to an L model of the same focal length greatly increased the sharpness of the far away birds. The serious and affluent birders use 500mm and longer lenses with teleconverters to make them effectively 1.4 or twice as long. These lenses are very expensive.

It is common to blow up a picture a lot to get the bird picture. If you use one quarter of the frames width and one quarter of the height you are using one sixteenth of the frame of your camera, so if you have sixteen megapixels your are using one megapixel!

Take pictures of big birds

Take pictures of big birds. Go to Florida and take pictures of pelicans. I don't do this - I go for the small birds near by.


About half on my shots are out of focus or blurry. With a long lens you really need the sharpness that auto focus provides. SLR cameras use "phase" focus which can be much faster than the "contrast" focus that less fancy cameras have. You often only have five seconds to get a shot of the bird, and if it takes you camera six seconds you won't get many pictures. I use single point focus, because many times I am taking the picture through a hole in the foliage and cameras tend to focus on the nearest object, so I don't want the outer focus points active and looking at the nearest foliage. Often times the camera will focus on leaves or branches behind or in front of the bird, and you can't always see that in the viewfinder. It is frustrating to have a perfectly focused leaf in front of a blurry bird!

Learning to focus quickly and accurately takes practice!

Most cameras like sharp edges to focus on. Birds are covered with feathers which are often camouflaged and are hard to focus on. The bird image is often smaller than the focus point in the camera.

Shutter Speed

Birds are moving all the time, and a fast shutter speed will freeze the motion. The rule of thumb is one over focal length, so 1/400 would be recommended for a 400 mm lens. *BUT* if you are cropping your picture you may have an effective 1600mm focal length, requiring a 1/1600 shutter speed. This can be hard to do if the weather is gray and you need to get lots of light in to your camera!

Many lenses have image stabilization which helps override the effects of shaking the camera, and helps you get sharp pictures with a slower shutter speed.

So in cloudy weather or early mornings or evenings there is a trade off between getting enough light and getting a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the bird.

ISO and ƒ Stops

When it is bright you don't have to think too much about these. When it is dark you need to boost the ISO to get the picture, and live with the noise. Telephoto lenses don't have much depth of field when the aperture is wide open. With a 400mm ƒ/5.6 lens the depth of field is 6 inches at 35 feet. That means that if you take a picture of a robin facing you 35 feet away its head and tail would not be in focus at the same time! Making the aperture smaller, ƒ/8.0, gives you an eight inch depth of field. Having more depth of field helps when you can't get your focus quite right.


It is nice to take the picture on the same level as the bird, not looking up at it's bottom or down on it. Sometimes you can get on a steep bank and look straight across into the trees.

If you take pictures of ducks you will usually get a picture of them swimming away from you, a picture of their rear end, unless you have your camera ready before they see you.

Finding Birds

The more you look, the more you see.

The local birders have bird walks just about every weekend in the spring and fall, and several times a week in May, which is bird season. They will always have some people who are aces at spotting birds. The best time is when it is beginning to get warm enough for the birds to come back, but before the leaves are out, as birds like to hide behind the leaves on the trees. As you learn about birds you will learn which are in the tops of trees, which are in the middle, and which stay close to the ground. I find it easier to get left right bearings on a bird song than up down by sound. As a photographer you want to get close to the birds, and the birds are shy of the crowds in a bird walk, so once you learn where birds are you may want to go back by yourself and plan to spend some time waiting for the birds to come close.