4 Basic Ideas for Photographing Birds

Like many photographers, I enjoy taking pictures of birds. Occasionally, I’m asked about my methods and thoughts for catching my images. Here is what has worked for me—a sort of photo philosophy, if you will, of some basics of bird photography.

Photograph the Ordinary

First of all, appreciate backyard birds and other local fauna. In my opinion at least, most of the best bird shots show an emotion, expression or behaviors, not necessarily the more exotic critters. And don’t forget, what may be commonplace and boring to you may be interesting to someone from a different area.

grackle photography

Grackles are usually dismissed as just some blackbird. Get them in the right light and they can be surprisingly iridescent.

Be Quick

When you’re watching a flock or some other group, recognize where the energy is concentrated among individuals. You are more likely to catch the interesting behavior shots, but be quick! A great shot typically lasts a fraction of a second. As photographers, we all know it’s all about that decisive moment.

geese photography

Disciplining an unruly gosling only lasts a fraction of a second, but it can yield an interesting image.


After talking to other photographers, I believe one of the most basic and yet underrated skills is simply taking time for listening to the birds around you. Learn to filter individual voices. You can learn a lot about your surroundings by what they tell you. You don’t think you can understand? Nonsense! Listen to the tones and become aware of the impression you feel. Think of those murmured, indistinct conversations you encounter at the local coffee shop or other public areas. You might not be able to hear individual words, but you can get a gist of how the participants are feeling by the tone and pattern of the sounds. You can quickly sense if the conversation is becoming intense or fearful even if it’s muffled or in a foreign language. Consider a sporting event. You can easily tell if something important happened if you hear crowd reactions, even if you are outside the arena or in a next room from the action. Just listen. Learn to see with your ears. Birds have tremendous emotion and variety in their communications. Soon you will easily distinguish the repetitious birdsong for territory versus flocks of individuals keeping track of each other, or warning of something. You may hear several birds sounding agitated, and if you pause and listen, you might hear other similar birds coming closer, repeating the same urgent sounding calls. Chances are they spotted a predator and are calling attention to it and mustering reinforcements to help drive it away.

hawk photography

A family of blue jays who live in my back yard alerted me to this red tailed hawk as they noisily drove her off.

Choose a Regular Location

Keep going back to the same areas. It will give you a consistent way to really practice and learn more subtle differences in camera settings and what works best for you. You will be more comfortable in a familiar surrounding and be able to notice and concentrate on the details of shooting techniques. You can plan your goals and practice effectively and efficiently as you learn what options are available for what you wish to accomplish with your images. You will learn more about your subject in its environment and be better able to anticipate actions.

egret photography

This great egret provided beautiful motivation as I struggled to learn how to expose for moving white feathers in various weather conditions, and became familiar with my camera.

These general tips are a great start, but there’s always more to learn. Share your own tips for basic bird photography in the comments below!

About the Author:
Sue Lindell is an amateur photographer who is an active member of the Des Plaines Camera Club in Illinois. Further examples of her work can be found at www.lindellimagery.com.

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3 responses to “4 Basic Ideas for Photographing Birds”

  1. Dick Feldman says:

    Perceptive comments about getting the gist of bird vocalizing. Usually the focus is on identifying the bird by the call but her approach is a better and more intuitive way to get into it.

  2. Lila Katherine Smith says:

    What is the best setting, aperture, iso, for photographing birds?

  3. Larry Wood says:

    I’ve learned some of the best opportunities come when least expected. I try to have a camera with me at all times. One great picture I missed was a golden eagle on a fence post way down a country road in the middle of nowhere. We looked at each other, me in my car, he on that fence post, for several minutes. Oh for my camera, left at home that day.

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