10 Practical Bird Photography Tips for Capturing Action
You know it when you see it–that amazing bird photograph that makes you stop scrolling and say “Wow!” Maybe it’s that perfect wing position of a beautiful bird in flight. It can be a tender moment between a mother and her young or something as simple as beautiful back lighting on a bird’s feathers. As bird photographers, we recognize these winning shots when we see them. Let’s face it though-bird photography isn’t easy!
Bird photography has some of the same challenges as all wildlife photography. Subjects are unpredictable by their very nature, beautiful light is sometimes challenging to find and you may find yourself sitting there for hours, waiting for that perfect moment. And when your subject is a bird, remember it can fly! But all of these challenges make that special photograph even more precious because you know what went into capturing it. While there is always an element of luck involved in capturing that special shot, remember the saying “Luck favors the well prepared!” So while not easy to capture, these kinds of shots can be yours if you are willing to follow some time tested techniques.
Remember these 10 bird photography tips next time you head out into the wilderness.
#1. Get to know the birds you are photographing
If you know you are going out to shoot a particular avian subject, do your homework before the shoot. Learn about that particular bird’s behavior so you know how to anticipate the action that you hope to photograph. In addition, be observant while you are in the field waiting for “the moment.” You can learn so much about an animal just by watching what they do, and you will know when to photographing because you can anticipate what is going to happen.
That was the situation that allowed me to capture one of my all time favorite images! I love loons, and was more than happy to spend 4 days laying on the deck of a pontoon boat, watching these magnificent water birds. During those many hours, I began to notice certain patterns of behavior and I found that I could anticipate when the loon would rise up out of the water and do that famous wing flap!
This allowed me to set my camera exposure and focus and get my bird photography composition correct even before the loon started to rise up. I used a very fast shutter speed and high speed shooting and continued to shoot until the action was over. I was able to select this shot from the almost 80 images of this wing flap, it was the peak of the action and I was lucky that it was in beautiful light. Hmmm, lucky and prepared!
#2. Learn to use your bird photography equipment
You may be thinking “well, of course!” but I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to become totally familiar with your DSLR or mirrorless camera so that changing focus settings or making adjustments to camera exposure can be done very quickly. You must be able to adjust quickly and easily so that you don’t miss that once in a lifetime shot because you couldn’t remember how to change focus modes! Light and actions change very rapidly when you are photographing birds in the wilderness.
Practice with your DSLR or mirrorless camera at home, until changing camera exposure and focus settings becomes something you can do smoothly and very quickly.
#3. Use high speed shooting mode to photograph bird in action
You were probably very excited about the much touted “frames per second” when you got your DSLR or mirrorless camera. Now is the time to put that fast speed to use!
Because you are able to anticipate that special moment, you can ready yourself to begin shooting as soon as you think the action is about to occur. If you wait until you see the precise behavior, you will most likely be too late. Start shooting in anticipation of the shot you hope to capture, and shoot at the fastest continuous speed of your camera. And don’t stop shooting until the action is over! Yes, you will come home with lots of shots, but that’s ok. You can then spend time in Lightroom choosing just that one bird photo that captured the perfect moment.
This image of a Harris Hawk landing on a branch was captured with this exact technique. I saw him flying towards the branch, I had already determined the exposure settings and focus mode. I used the fast continuous shooting mode at 30 frames per second, beginning shooting as he was just coming in. I continued to shoot until he had landed on the branch. I had over 100 shots of this one bird on this approach, but I was able to select the exact one that I wanted, with his wings in a symmetrical position and his claws extended in that peak, tense position. The subtle backlighting outlining his feathers was a gift!
#4. Use Large Memory Cards
If you follow my suggestions of using high speed shooting mode for bird photography, you will likely be shooting hundreds if not thousands of images in a single day. For this you will need multiple, high capacity memory cards make this possible.
I find that it is helpful to have a consistent workflow for managing memory during a multi day shoot. I begin each day with a clean card that has been formatted in the camera. I always have extra cards along for bird photography outings. This is because if I am lucky enough to have good shooting conditions, I have plenty of memory available. During the day, if I fill a card, I place that card back in the case with the back side facing out. That way, I won’t reload that card into the camera later and possibly overwrite shots from earlier in the day. At the end of the shooting day, I download the memory cards to my computer, back them up to another drive and then format them in the camera, ready for the next day of shooting. It is important to take the time to be sure your images are in two distinct places before you format that card!
I would recommend that you avoid the temptation to delete images while in the field. That is a job best performed in Lightroom on a large screen monitor. Asking your camera to delete images from the card can slightly increase the chance of corrupting your card, and you want to avoid that. Also, while you are scrolling through images on your LCD and deleting, you may miss out on photographing birds in action.
#5. Choose the right Focus Mode for Bird Photography
When things are moving quickly, your camera needs to be able to keep up with the action and focus on the subject accurately. Each camera is different, so your job is to learn about which focus modes will give you consistent results for bird photography. You will be using continuous auto-focus mode for photographing birds in action, but selecting just the focus points or focus area depends upon you DSLR or mirrorless camera.
I use Sony cameras, and I spent a great deal of time learning which tracking focus modes work best for me to catch the birds in action. I have assigned selecting focus modes to custom buttons on my mirrorless camera that can be accessed without ever taking my eye away from the viewfinder. If the focus mode I thought would do the job isn’t working, I can easily switch to something else. Most modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras have these custom settings, and they are invaluable in getting your birds in sharp focus. In addition, I use Back Button Focus because that is what works best for me for bird photography. Find out what works best for you and practice with your camera at home until you are confident in your camera’s focus modes and focus settings.
#6. Expose for the Highlights
Camera exposure when shooting the fast action of bird photography can be tricky, especially in challenging lighting conditions. It can be difficult to capture detail in the bright as well as dark parts of a subject. When the light is steady or changing slowly, I use manual camera exposure while photography birds in action. I will sometimes combine this with auto ISO settings on my Sony camera when the light is changing very quickly.
While photographing birds, make it a habit to check for “blinkies” and histograms on camera’s LCD. I always make sure that I am preserving detail in the highlight areas. Overexposure of the highlights cannot always be remedied on the computer, so you absolutely want to avoid this.
If you are using a Sony mirrorless camera, you may be able to utilize “zebras” stripes in the viewfinder to check the exposure in your viewfinder. I was very distracted by this when I first used it, but after forcing myself to try it again, I got used to it and now find it invaluable.
In the above image of the snowy owl, I was careful to expose for the white highlights on the bird. I avoided overexposing the highlights by photographing the bird using manual camera exposure and adjusting the ISO to preserve details in the feathers. The darker background worked to my advantage here, allowing the lighter bird to really stand out. If I had allowed to camera to choose the exposure, it would most likely have overexposed the bird because of the large amount of dark background, resulting in blown highlights and no detail in the white feathers.
#7. Use a fast shutter speed–really fast!
If you come from landscape photography and are just getting into bird photography, you will probably be surprised by what is considered a fast shutter speed. I remember the first time I tried photographing loons, and I was pretty sure that 1/1000 shutter speed would freeze anything. To my surprise, that was way too slow to freeze the wings of even a relatively slow moving bird like a loon. These days, I usually start at 1/1600 for large, slower subjects like loons but find 1/2000-1/3200 better for fast flyers like eagles. Small birds are really fast, and I’ve resorted to 1/4000 to freeze the action of an incoming songbird. I know what you’re thinking–what about that ISO!!! Yes, your ISO will likely be higher than you are used to, but noise can be handled in post production. If your subject isn’t sharp, the image is worthless. So begin with at least 1/1250-1/1600 shutter speed and check for critical focus on your LCD.
8. Leave the space for the birds move
A lot can go wrong when you are trying to photography birds in action. It is be a good practice to use wider bird photography composition than you normally would if you had time to perfectly compose a shot. Using this photography composition technique is especially useful if you are using a high megapixel camera that can be cropped during post processing. Don’t miss a special shot because you were fussing with “just right” bird photography composition.
I may spend 10 minutes setting up the my photography composition for a landscape photo, making sure all the elements are just right. But when I’m photographing birds in action, I don’t have the luxury of all that time.
On a recent trip to photograph egrets that are nesting nearby, I had only seconds to get a shot of the bird as it flew by with nesting material. I made the decision to photograph this bird a bit wider. I also made sure that he was in middle of my frame during the photo shoot. Then when I got home, I was able to creatively crop a little to allow the bird to be in a nicer position, with a little room in front of the egret. It’s nice to have room for your subject to “move into” but I didn’t have time to try to compose for this in the field.
9. Set Focus Modes and Camera Exposure Ahead of Time
This is just a great way to make sure you are ready photograph birds in action ahead of time. Take a few test shots of the area where you are hoping to catch birds in action. Don’t wait until your subject shows up to realize that you don’t have a good camera exposure. Also, by pre focusing on the area where you think the subject will be, it gives your camera a bit of a head start to get a focus lock.
I sat by this watering hole for quite a while, hoping a bird would stop by for a drink on a hot day. When the cardinal showed up, I was ready with my camera exposure dialed in manually and my focus mode set to zone tracking. As soon as he dipped his head for a drink, I started shooting at high speed continuous with continuous auto-focus. Did I know he was going to flap his wings and give me the shot of the trip? No! But because I was ready, I was able to select a winning shot from the almost 120 shots I took of this single moment.
10. Be an ethical bird photographer
When we are photographing birds or any wildlife, it is essential to employ ethical practices. Be respectful of the creatures you hope to photograph, keeping a safe distance from them to avoid interfering in their business of survival. A bird spends a great deal of energy defending territory, finding food and finding a mate. Something as simple as playing a recording to entice a bird to come closer may seem harmless. But think for a moment about the impact of this on the bird you are trying to photograph. He will be expending calories defending his territory against an iPhone! This may seem inconsequential to you, but there is a delicate balance of survival for wild creatures that may be facing limited food supplies in the face of climate change. Consider your actions carefully and do your best to be respectful of the beautiful creatures we hope to photograph.
A mistake I often see from students is the tendency to show multiple bird photos from a single series of action photos. Make it your job to be highly selective, pick that bird photo that tells your story and really grabs your audience. Resist the urge to dilute the glory of photographing birds in action by showing multiple shots. I know, it’s a bit like selecting your favorite child! But your bird photography will have much more impact if you are disciplined and let that one special photo stand on its own.
I hope you will remember these 10 tips bird photography tips next time you find yourself trying to capture birds in action. It can be thrilling to be in the right place at the right time, but few things compare to knowing how to capture the birds in action Good luck!