Top 3 Tips Bird Photography for Beginners

Bird photography is currently listed as one of the fastest growing hobbies in the world. With SLR cameras becoming more affordable, the binoculars are slowly being replaced by cameras and lenses. Its good to see so many people starting to enjoy birds and I hope this trend continues.

I have been teaching photography for a few years now and over the years I have noticed some patterns or habits with many beginners and some slightly-experienced photographers as well. In this blog post, I discuss three of the top things that you need to do or realize in order to become a good bird photographer. There are dozens of articles out there that talk about the technical stuff, but I want to look at some of the more basic points that many beginning bird photographers struggle to truly understand.

Bird photography example with high shutter Speed, Bar Headed Geese

Bird Photography with High Shutter Speed, Bar Headed Geese

Please note that I am not undermining the necessity of learning the technical stuff. I’m merely pointing at things that many of us ignored when we started our own journeys. Let’s start with one of the key principles of bird photography…

Knowing the Bird’s Circle of Confidence

It is easier to look at birds as people that you want to approach than looking at them as simply subjects. Every individual person has a different comfort level in front of the camera. Very similarly, not all birds behave alike when it comes to letting you approach. Some let you closer than others.

Birds have a circle of confidence. Break that and more likely than not the bird will fly off. It is very important for a bird photographer to realize and appreciate that. Whats intriguing about this circle of confidence is that it changes based on how you approach. Spend more time getting close to a bird and more often than not the circle gets smaller and smaller. Not all images need you to be up close but it helps in understanding the birds’ comfort level before jumping in. A lot of beginners tend to rush in, where as the key to success is exactly the opposite.

Studying the Behavior and Looking for Hints

Behavioral cues are the building blocks to build a successful bird photography portfolio. In fact, the more you venture out locally to meet and understand the birds without a camera, the better your bird photography will become. Here are a few quick behavioral tips that I have picked up over the years. I would love to hear more from you as well.

  • Did the raptor (bird of prey) just poop? It means it’s ready to fly. Well, it looks like it is already too late but no harm in stepping backwards as soon as it goes into the mode.
  • A flock of geese generally has a sentry that keeps watch while the others feed. If it becomes too alert or starts looking around frantically, step back. If the bird starts calling, forget it… just be ready for some in-flight images.
  • Has the bird folded one of its leg? That’s a sign that it’s not too alert or concerned. Move in slowly.
  • All wildlife is alerted by sudden movements. Be as slow as possible and then a bit more.
  • When driving, keep your camera in position before the car stops. Picking up and placing the camera on the window after the vehicle stops in front of the subject often alerts the subject.
  • Waders/shorebirds stretching their wings? Chances are that you have come too close, too fast. These types of birds are probably the easiest to approach. You just need to let the tide come in; the birds arrive with the tide.
  • Many birds have regular perches and they often repeat return to these every few minutes. Watch and choose your place wisely. It isn’t always the closest first.
  • Ducks have a habit of cleaning themselves thoroughly after a bath which always leads to a nice set of wing flaps.

    Example bird behavior of flapping wings before they fly off.

    Bird Behavior – Flapping wings before they fly off.

  • Forest birds are creatures of  habits and are surprisingly very particular about time. I have observed many forest birds coming down for their morning bath with astonishing accuracy with respect to time. This is a perfect time to create images.

    Bird photography example with source of light behind the camera.

    Bird photography example with source of light behind the camera.

  • Many times we try to position ourselves between the source of light and the subject. While doing so, make sure you don’t block the bird’s view of the light source. A sudden change in light intensity is bound to cause a problem.

Studying the Place

One of the key components to good photography is your knowledge of the location. I have heard many people say, “Oh I’ve been there before, nothing to see.” That’s exactly the opposite of what it should be. Studying the place gives you an insight which is very useful while creating images. I believe that you must understand the difference between taking an image and making an image in order to grow as a photographer. Take the following image, for example…

Example of Bird Photography in well known environment

Example of Bird Photography in well known environment

This image was created in a local water body close to my home. It’s a place that I have been visiting for the past ten years which gives me a big advantage when I go there and decide where to position myself. You’ll notice the image has a warm champagne wash to it, unlike how water normally is. The key to getting this was to realize that the man-made bridge on that water body cast a beautiful hue on the water before sunset. So, for the few days in the year when this does happen, I go there and wait. I wait for waterfowl to arrive and provide me with these slightly different images.

It has been almost five years since I have seen any new bird in this water body; but the point is that it gives me some brilliant opportunities to create images of species that I know and understand well. I would love for you to try this with your neighborhood patch of forest/waterbody/scrubland/etc.

The Shoveller Splash
Watch out for more articles in this series regarding tips about background and foreground use.

About Author Rahul Sachdev

My interest in wildlife goes back to my play-school days. I remember having a collection of plastic replicas of wild animals and believe me, that collection used to be as dear as gold to me. The fact that I grew up on stories of Jim Corbett helped a lot as well. I started wildlife photography around 2004. Thats the year when I had a family outing to Ranthambhore national park in India and that trip changed a lot of things for me. I had a Nikon N65 (a film camera) then and a basic 70-300mm lens. I did not make any decent images during that trip, I did not see a tiger on that trip but it definitely served as a trigger for my journey as a wildlife photographer because it made me aware of the sounds and colors of nature like never before.