10 Tips for Better Bird Photography

Perfect pelican photo

Pelican in Florida Keys. Shadow and highlight detail, focused eye

In the past few years, I’ve fallen in love with bird photography.  It was like a latent gene was activated at a certain age and I suddenly fell in love with watching and photographing birds. In the past several years I’ve learned a lot about how to take better bird photos on trips to the Klamath Lakes Basin, where thousands of migrant birds and hundreds of bald eagles hang out during the winter.  Each year the “Winter Wings” festival brings birding experts and bird photographers from far and wide.  I’ve been able to learn from some of the best.

Better bird photography takes practice

Catching a bird in flight, getting it in focus, and creating a better photograph with good composition, one that tells a story, is no accident. Like any good art, it takes practice. Insider tips can boost you to a level where you are happy with your bird photos. These tips will help you take better photos whether you are photographing birds on the feeder in your backyard or out on a wildlife refuge. Actually, I have more than 10 tips (at last count I had 25) for better bird photography. My first 10 will be about the basics of focus and exposure. The next 10 will be about better composition.

Best way to use these photo tips

Whenever I get new tips, it’s tempting to try to remember everything with each photo.  This usually leads me to forget all the tips. Instead, when I get a list of suggestions, I pick one tip and work on it.  Or I look for situations that fit a specific tip and practice taking several photos until I kinetically learn the technique, then I move on to the next.  In a short time, I have learned (I’m not saying I mastered) the techniques, and I can practice incorporating the ideas in my photos. Photography is a bit like yoga. Both are an evolving practice.

While taking photos of birds may sound like an old fogey’s hobby, it’s really exciting. Birds are one of my favorite subjects to photograph. It’s like hunting, except that you are shooting birds with your camera instead of a shotgun, and everyone gets to live another day. It is so incredibly satisfying to capture a moment of beauty or tell a story with a bird photo.  For me, getting that perfect shot is like finding a hidden treasure.

Basic tips for better bird photos

  1. Shoot in RAW format rather than JPEG.  The Raw setting on your camera gives you more latitude to edit the photos later.  This is especially important when you’ve caught the perfect action but maybe didn’t get the exposure quite right.
  2. Plan to get up early for sunrise and return just before sunset. Photographing birds in the morning or evening is good for two reason: 1) They gather together to hang out for the night so you can get large groups of birds together. 2) The lighting is magical and gives shape and mood to the birds and surrounding.

[Click on photos to see them larger]

FOCUS tips

If you have a DSLR that allows you to assign custom button functions, assigning a button on the back of the camera to start focus, and remove the focus from the shutter button.  Typically, the shutter button starts the light meter and the focus when you press it down half-way.  When you take the picture, the camera will usually change the focus.  With back button focus, you can press to start the autofocus, then release the button, recompose your photo and shoot.  Contact me if you have questions.

3.  Focus on the bird’s eyeThis is true for all animals (and people). If the birds eye is sharp and in focus, the viewer will forgive other parts of the bird that may be blurred.

Barred owl on tree branch

Eye in focus with catchlight. Photo appears sharp.

barred owl about to take flight

Focus is on owl’s shoulder, photo seems blurry

4.  If you want to blur the wings to show motion by shooting with a slower shutter speed (rather than stopping the action), it’s important that there is something in the photo that is sharp. While it can be a stylized photo where all is blurred, having a tree or mountain in focus will accentuate the movement of the bird’s wings.

red bird blurred wings Kauai, Hawaii

With the plants in focus, the blurred wings look intentional









5.  Underexpose white birds that are in direct sunlight. You want to see the feather detail even in the brightest highlights.  Be careful that the whites aren’t “blown out,” where the bird becomes a bright white blob.  Consider turning on the “blinkies” in your camera. (On my Canon, it is called “Highlight Alert.”) This is a setting that makes any overexposed highlight blink when you view the photo on your camera’s LCD, to let you know there is no detail in that spot of the photo.

White pelican preening

This white pelican is perfectly exposed. Its feathers are sharp and detailed.

White egret in sun

This egret is overexposed. With the highlights “blown out,” you can’t see details in the feathers. (The background isn’t great either).














6.  On the flip side, check that there is detail in the shadows. Contrast can be harsh on birds either because you are shooting when the sun is low or in a tree, or when the sky is bright. A bird’s wing could cast a shadow that cuts straight across part of its face.  If you can’t change your angle to get fewer shadows, be sure to brighten or add exposure so the shadows are lighter. If you have details in the shadows and in the highlights, that’s perfect. You can tweak the exposure when you edit the photo.

Hawk about to fly

Properly exposed, there is detail in the dark feathers of the hawk.


7.  Selectively expose the shot.  Get front light on the bird so it can be seen in the photo, and don’t worry about the exposure of the background. Or choose a silhouette where the bird is dark against an interesting background, the setting sun, or clouds in the sky. A silhouette of a bird that can be recognized by its shape—as with an eagle or crane, making an interesting photo. Consider the story you want to tell. Is it the bird itself, or is it the bird in a particular environment?

Malibu storks silhouette against sunset

8.  Try to get a catchlight in the eye of the bird. A catchlight is a highlight spot in an otherwise dark eye. It could come from the sun or from other lights. A catchlight adds dimension to the eye of the bird and draws the viewer’s attention to the most important (and hopefully in-focus) part of the bird.

9.  Worry less about the ISO and more about having a fast enough shutter speed to capture the birds in motion or keep the slightest movement of the birds from blurring

FINAL photography tip good for all types of photography—
egret stabbed frog

Wait long enough and you may be surprised by what you can capture.

10.  Take more photos than you need. This reminds me of the Michael Jackson song, “Don’t Stop ‘till You Get Enough.” Yes, that first shot might be very good… but what if the bird’s head was turned a different way? Or what if the bird were flying against blue sky, just past a mountain, so it stands out against its background?

Take continuous shots. Wait a moment and observe, the bird might be better posed, positioned or do some interesting action. Check out my article on the Decisive Moment.

Next time I will go into best composition practices, with a few tips on bird behavior to help you get the most dynamic shot possible.

See more bird photos on my Barb Gonzalez Photography page.


2 thoughts on “10 Tips for Better Bird Photography”

  1. Good set of tips and great photos, Barb. Do you use back button focus when shooting birds and other wildlife? Maybe that’s one of your future tips.
    Wish I was going to Nebraska with you for the cranes!

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