Taking good photos of wildlife can be difficult, especially birds, as they often move in three dimensions. The right equipment certainly helps, but like most photographs it’s never all about that.
Composition and narration
Whatever equipment you have (and I’ll get to that), the first thing you need to think about is trying to be at eye level. You will find that this is not often an image that will work whether you are shooting up or down.
Second, try to make sure the eye (if it’s visible) is in focus. Many newer cameras are equipped with “animal eye detection autofocus” for this very reason. A blurry eye will usually ruin an otherwise good image no matter what is captured.
Third, try to tell a story. Whether it’s showing where the bird is, what it’s about to do, what it’s doing, or what just happened, the images of large birds (and all the wildlife ) usually tell some kind of story.
When and where
If you want to capture the beautiful fine details of their feathers, the best time is usually when the light is “soft”. This normally means that the weather is cloudy or the birds are in the shade.
And where is the best place? Well, it depends on the story you hope to tell, but the wonderful thing about birds is that they are everywhere. You just have to watch, listen and be a little patient.
One of the advantages of cell phones is that most people always wear one, so they can capture spontaneous moments. Frighteningly, as I was writing this article, Sulfur-crested Cockatoos came and sat on the table outside my window, looking inside. With my old mobile, I could easily take a picture. Sure, it’s not the best picture I’ve ever taken, but hey, it tells a story, and it’s good for social media.
But if you want to get into serious bird photography, as a rule of thumb, some type of sports camera is the way to go – one that will focus quickly and take a lot of frames per second. Combine that with a long zoom lens (say 100-400mm) and you’re pretty good to start.
And why a zoom?
Well, you usually don’t know how far away you’ll be from the bird, and unless you have the money to buy and the ability to carry a large number of heavy prime lenses, zooming in will get you there. allows easy and quick dialing in the field and are easy to transport.
Once you’re ready to shoot, your settings will basically depend on what the bird is doing. Regardless of that, I always suggest taking creative control over your shutter speed and aperture and managing your exposure by setting ISO to “auto”. I know this will be heresy for many bird photographers who strive for the least grainy image possible, but in my mind who cares about a little grain if you get the speed of Perfect shutter and depth of field – that’s what helps tell the story.
And what should those shutter and aperture settings be?
If the bird is in flight and you want to freeze the moment, I suggest a shutter speed of at least 1 / 1500th of a second, an aperture starting at around 5.6, and your autofocus continuously. . That said, you don’t always have to use a fast shutter speed and freeze the moment. Sometimes by slowing things down you can get some really creative results.
But if the bird is still, it’s just a matter of how still the bird is, how well you can hold your camera, and which f-stop will give the best results to tell this very important story that i mentioned. The focus mode here can be whatever you want; I normally go for the single autofocus.
Ultimately, there are many different types of cameras, lenses, and settings that will allow you to take great pictures of birds. What you get depends on…. well so many things … but if you are just starting out, these tips should be a good place to start. However, the most important thing is to get out there, play around, see what works (and what doesn’t) with what you have, and always be ready with a camera in hand.
Note: I almost always have my camera with me. This image (above) was taken through the open door as I sat inside on a rainy day writing this article.