Top 10 Tips: Bird Photography for Beginners

Photographing wildlife as a profession is possibly one of the most difficult genres to break into and make a career from. Many wildlife photographers will supplement their income with additional contracts ranging from travel commissions to weddings and everything in between. It isn’t a job for those who like to have a reliable income and long term plans, and it takes a heavy toll on your social life too… but if I haven’t dissuaded you yet then read on and discover my Top 10 Tips of Bird Photography for Beginners.

Birds are often difficult to photograph in comparison to other animal groups because so much of the time you simply can’t follow them; you may have just a fleeting few seconds with your subject before it flutters up and away beyond the canopy and across the valley. You will need patience to photograph birds, but combine that with a little luck and a lot of research and you’ll be on your way to capturing the winning shot!

Two Blue Tailed Bee Eaters (Merops philippinus) sitting on a perimeter fence at Udawalawe National Park in Southern Sri Lanka.


Here are the Top 10 Tips of Bird Photography for Beginngers


#1 Become One with your Equipment

It is crucial that you are well-practised and accustomed to all of the gear you’re using. You may have just a few precious moments with your subject before it disappears again into the nest hole or soars away over the horizon and you can’t afford to miss the shot just because you were too busy adjusting your settings or levelling your tripod. The only way to ‘become one’ with your equipment is to practise, every spare moment you can afford to.

Don’t wait for your subject to arrive to start practising; begin shooting long before they arrive and make sure you know how much to adjust your iso to compensate for light-loss or gain or to what extent you need to change your aperture to capture that beautifully bokeh’d background with subject still in focus.

The same applies to items like your fill flash or tripod. Know how they work intimately, and make sure you’re accustomed to shooting in a range of environments and light levels; know how to adjust switch between portrait and landscape orientation without removing your eye from the viewfinder or which knob you need to turn to adjust the pitch of your tripod head.

These need to be intuitive adjustments not conscious thought-processes, you need to be able to adjust your settings or your equipment in a split second; meaning you’ll never miss the shot.


#2 The Right Gear for the Shoot

Preparing your equipment the night before an early start is essential; charging batteries, checking memory cards, etc, but you should also think specifically about the species you’re intending on shooting and minimise the kit you are carrying to just the bare essentials. This is a great way to reduce the weight you’re carrying, meaning the whole trip will be a little more comfortable and you’ll be less inclined to start shooting something different. It makes you focus and really apply yourself to getting the shot that you are truly after.

If you’re shooting your subjects at a distance, such as Black Kites (or Tobi as they’re known in Japan) circling high above the ground then you’ll want to carry a longer prime lens; for example a 400-500mm. You may want to consider a short lens if the species you’re setting out to photograph is a little more comfortable around people and you’re likely to get closer; such as waterfowl or garden birds. Alternatively you may want to use a variable telephoto lens, which will give you the freedom to shoot subjects both near and far – a personal favourite is the Sigma 150-600, as it offers a huge range and is good value for the lens you’re getting.

Lenses can be some of the heaviest and bulkiest of the equipment you carry with you, so selecting the right one before you set out can save your shoulders a little extra strain and help you focus on what you really want to photograph. It isn’t all about lenses though! The same principle applies to everything from the kitbag you carry to the tripod you use.

Only use a smaller shoulder bag if you’re going to be shooting with a shorter lens and out for a few hours to minimise the bulk of your equipment – it will make moving around quietly a lot easier. If you’re setting out for a longer shoot or need to carry larger lenses and a sturdy tripod, then consider a full backpack with proper support which will allow you to carry your equipment as comfortably as possible.

A White Throated Kingfished (Halcyon smyrnensis) sits on a broken bough above the brackish water of a lagoon in Bentota, Sri Lanka.

#3 Master of Manual

You need to shoot in manual mode if you want to capture the best possible images with your camera, but to do that you also need to be able to use your cameras settings intuitively and understand exactly what’s happening in-camera when you adjust your ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed. The only way to really get to grips with this is practice.

Photographing birds is one of the most challenging forms of wildlife photography because you may only have a fleeting few moments before your subject is aloft and disappearing beyond the treeline. Prepare your settings as much as possible before you even catch a glimpse of your subject.

If you’re moving through varying habitat or the light levels and weather are frequently changing, make sure that you are taking test shots every few minutes to ensure that the images are adequately exposed and shooting fast enough to freeze the motion of leaves and foliage without blur (this is a great way to ensure that you are shooting with a fast enough shutter speed to capture sharp images of the bird species you’re waiting for!).You’ll need to be able to make quick changes to your shutter speed, aperture and ISO levels without looking away from the viewfinder and know intuitively how much to adjust each to capture the shots you’re after. Practice makes perfect!


#4 Study Your Subjects

It’s no use setting out to shoot a particular species of bird with no knowledge of the species, your chances of success are minimal without at least a little information about the bird and its behaviour.

The Chough, for example, is a relatively common bird within the Corvidae family and they’re easy to find and photograph – but you’d have zero chance of photographing one in the England or Wales unless you ventured to the very boundaries of the West Coast; the only place they’re found on the island. The Bewick Swan is another species that is fairly easy to find and photograph, but only during Winter (because they’re migrants). This is all essential knowledge you’d need to have researched beforehand, and the more you can find out about a species the better!

Try to use online forums, wildlife websites and other photographers for advice regarding the species you’re hoping to shoot and learn as much as possible. Learn about the food they prefer to eat and the times of day that they’re most active, find out their preferred habitat and even see if you can learn to recognise their song (this is a great site for that: xeno-canto.org). The more information you can find the better – you can never know too much about your subjects and it can all be applied to your photography. Many birds of prey for example will have preferred perches from which they survey or consume their prey; and if you see one and miss the shot, you can take your time and set up in preparation knowing that it is likely going to return after a short wait.

All of this knowledge will help you to figure out the best locations and times to shoot for your selected species and hopefully maximise your chances of a successful expedition.

A Hawk Eagle scans the plains of Udawalawe National Park in Southern Sri Lanka.

#5 Correctly Composed

You’ve done the hard work; you have researched your subjects behaviour and habitat, your equipment has been honed-down to precisely what you’ll need, test shots have been taken to ensure the correct settings on your camera and you know where to look. The last thing you’d want to do is mess up the shot with bad composition and in-frame clutter. Afterall, we aren’t just shooting for the sake of recording the creatures presence; we are shooting to capture incredible images of the species in all its glory!

Take your time once you’ve found a suitable location or somewhere that you know your subject is present and ensure that your shot is composed properly. Try to get low (or high) and shoot at the same level as your subject to convey a more relatable image to the viewer; show them the world as your subject sees it. Ensure that the light is behind you; so that the bird(s) is illuminated and think about the habitat – if there is a lot of foliage or branches, consider changing your angle so that you can isolate your subject and put more distance between it and the surrounding environment.

Try to avoid a very cluttered frame and if there is too much undergrowth or leaves that are distracting the viewer from the bird(s) you’re photographing, why not fill the frame with your subject instead and go for a more intimate portrait shot?

#6 Camoflauge and Concealment

Some birds will be comfortable in your presence; normally the more recogniseable birds such as passerines and corvidae or laridae, but others will require a little more stealth for you to get close-enough for a good shot.

It may sound a little strange but (habitat permitting) your car can be a fantastic form of concealment. Many species seem to be a lot more comfortable in the presence of a vehicle rather a person with a camera and some of my closest encounters have actually occurred whilst shooting through an open driver-side window! I’d encourage you to drive slow and keep the engine running… you’ll be surprised how close you can approach in your car.

Admittedly, many areas you won’t be able to just drive into and when a little more camoflauge is required I’d really recommend considering a portable hide. There are some great ones on the market and the one that I use is a camping chair with a foldover canopy that makes for a comfortable den; in which you can set up a tripod and camera without sticking out too much from the surrounding foliage.

If a portable hide is still a little too much extra weight or you simply don’t have the patience for ‘the waiting game’ then why not try a simple camo net? You can move around freely and they are easy to use both standing and lower to the ground.

A Great Tit (Parus major) sits atop the handle of an old farm mechanism at the Fingringhoe Wick nature reserve in Essex, UK.


#7 Behaviour Beats Portraits

Don’t wait for your subject to pose for you, start shooting as soon as the bird is in-frame and capture every unique movement and interaction with its environment. Bird photography doesn’t have to be a portrait or still life – use your images to relay movement and different behaviours.

There are countless shots of each species perched on a branch or floating atop the water; so I encourage you to capture something unique. Show the world more than just another portrait, show them something different and interesting! It will engage your audience, spark thought and conversation and help you to raise your profile as a photographer.


#8 Perks of a Park

Before setting out on an intrepid expedition to photograph a rarely seen species of bird (or any other wildlife for that matter) you have to make sure you’re practised and prepared. You want to be confident in your ability and your knowledge, and there’s really no better way of practising than in a local park or garden.


The birds will be more accustomed to human presence (especially if there are feeders in use) and it is the best place to practice your camera skills and experiment with different compositions and shooting techniques. There will be less time spent scouting or waiting and more time shooting – normally with a variety of different species too!

Spending time photographing in locations like this are the perfect way to build your confidence, learn about bird behaviour (allowing you to start to predict their movements) and build the foundation of a portfolio with more recogniseable species. These will be birds that are photographed abundandtly, so they’re also a great subject to try and invent unique and thought-provoking ways of photographing.

A Little Cormorant (Microcarbo niger) perches awkwardly on a broken trunk over the water below.

#9 Take Every Opportunity

Though you want to make sure that you have a clear focus when setting out on a shoot – this doesn’t mean you should let other opportunities pass you by.

You’ve taken measures to ensure you have only the necessary equipment with you and have found the perfect location for your subject, you’re set up in a portable hide or beneath a camo net and have found signs that your target species is in the area… but then perhaps something completely unexpected flutters, wanders or slithers into frame. Why wouldn’t you snap a few shots?


There will undoubtedly be situations when this happens and as soon as you swing your lens to this new and unexpected animal your original subject appears – as if to taunt you, just long enough to send you into a panic – missing both the unexpected subject and the original before they both disappear. Situations like this are rare though and provided you still keep your original focus in mind, definitely take advantage or every opportunity that presents itself!


#10 Patience and Persistence

Finally… patience. This is perhaps one of the hardest skills to gain, and for some people it seems you either have it or you don’t.

Sometimes it is a skill that can only truly be learnt once you’ve experienced the pay-off. At first it can be tedious as you sit and wait for hours on end, cold and achey from a lack of movement – but as soon as that bird flies into view or peeks out of the nest, it suddenly all becomes worthwhile and that’s enough to really teach you the importance of patience in the field.

There will be occasions when you don’t have to lay in wait for hours at a time, but they are rare and anyone wanting to build a career out of bird or wildlife photography will need ample patience and perserverence to be successful.
Hopefully these 10 Top Tips of Bird Photography for Beginners will help set you on your way – and if you have any of your own advice or ideas be sure to share them in a comment below! If you’d like to see more of my own images or find out about me as a photographer please visit www.aaronnorthcott.com and click on the social media links below.

Website: www.aaronnorthcott.com

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Aaron NorthcottOther articles by author

A multi award-winning photographer, Aaron has a diverse portfolio of powerful, inspiring imagery and an impressive résumé of clients and commissions.

Specialising in Wildlife, Travel & Landscape photography, the work Aaron produces has been seen around the world and has been used for everything from Tourism and Conservation to Outdoor Living, Lifestyle and Adventure.

Aarons passion for photography, his subjects and the world around us is always evident through the images he captures - and pushes himself constantly to be one of the most versatile, creative and innovative visual artists working in the photography industry today.

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