Table of Contents
You have to get up pretty early in the morning to photograph the early bird getting the worm. That’s how I discovered bird photography to be one of the most rewarding types of image making I’ve tried—even if I’d usually rather sleep in. When you have a good day, you can enter a state of zen-like efficiency that lets the horrors of modern life melt away into snippets of photons that trigger the receptors in your eyes to perceive visions of ecstatic natural beauty. On a bad day, you curse the forces of the universe that have aligned against you, but still come away with a day of communion with nature and hope for something better next time.
I interviewed three professional bird photographers to find out how to get started. Wildlife photographer, writer, and conservationist Melissa Groo; photographer and blogger Melissa Hafting; and biologist, freelance conservation photographer, and Wild Bird Research Group co-founder Sean Graesser shared advice that I put to work to get the images you’ll see below. One thing they all agreed on is that any would-be bird photographer should follow Audubon’s guidelines for ethical bird photography to help maintain a healthy environment where birds are allowed to thrive. This means giving birds space so they don’t feel threatened, not interfering with their nesting or parenting, and not disturbing their habitats.
How to start photographing birds
Even if you plan to start off by going to your local park or your own backyard, knowing about bird behavior and how best to photograph it will help you get the best results. You’ll also need some specialized photo equipment and information, and you can even set up your backyard to be more bird-friendly.
Websites can be a great free resource to help you figure out where you should venture. Cornell University’s eBird is part of a giant science experiment that logs bird sightings in locations that are searchable and links out to information about the birds that have been spotted there. If you create a free account, you can keep a list of your own encounters to help feed the database and further eBird’s research. A related project called All About Birds provides more in-depth information on specific species. The National Audubon Society also has an online guide with illustrations, photos, and recordings of bird songs.
Things to get:
- A superzoom camera or powerful telephoto lens: Keeping your distance is essential to ethical birding. Any of the picks in our guide to the best superzoom cameras give you enough zoom for birding, though the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ300, the Canon PowerShot SX70 HS, or the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX99 are the best because they have zooms that extend to an equivalent of 600 mm or more. If you use one of our mirrorless-camera picks, you’ll end up spending quite a bit more for a lens that has enough zoom (and possibly a teleconverter to use with it), but you’ll also have the option to crop your photos, since those lenses capture higher-quality images that will still look quite good if you pluck out a small portion. For Olympus users, we recommend the M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm f/2.8 Pro lens, coupled with the M.Zuiko Digital 2x Teleconverter MC-20. Fujifilm owners should look to pair the XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR with the XF2X Teleconverter WR, while Sony photographers can opt for the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG DN OS, the Tamron 150-500mm f/5-6.7 Di III VC VXD, or the lighter-weight, shorter-zoom Sigma 100-400mm f/5-6.3 DG DN OS C (you’ll have to commit to cropping with the latter, since it won’t accept a teleconverter).
- A field guide for birds: Field guides are great for identifying birds, but they’re more useful for photographers because they have info on bird behaviors, such as what they like to eat, what sort of locations they use for nesting, and what migration routes they use. Wirecutter recommends The Sibley Guide to Birds and the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America in our guide to the best binoculars; photographer and blogger Melissa Hafting suggests The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. “This one goes into so much detail about their range, what to look for in different subspecies, differences in plumages of juveniles versus adults, and other neat facts about the birds,” Hafting said.
- A free app to ID birds: Cornell’s free Merlin Bird ID (Android, iOS) can listen for a bird’s song and identify the species based on the sound and your location. It draws on the same research as the eBird website, and you can access it on the go and feed your sighting list with the eBird app (Android, iOS), as well. Audubon has its own app (Android, iOS), which has a function that narrows down the bird possibilities based on your location and factors you select, such as size, color, type, activity, habitat, wing shape, tail shape, and types of sound. I used the Merlin app to identify the birds I heard in the field, and AirDropped images to my phone to use it to identify those I photographed. Either app can fill in for a field guide to some extent, but if you want your phone to listen while you look up facts about a particular bird species, you might find a physical book indispensable.
Nice to have:
- A blind of some sort: Some parks and nature preserves have large structures from which you can practice photography, but very serious bird photographers might own a small, tent-like blind that’s camouflaged and has a port in the side for your lens. Photographer, writer, and conservationist Melissa Groo recommends the Tragopan brand. “They’re made of hardy material compared to [cheaper] blinds that don’t last more than one season,” she said. Wild Bird Research Group co-founder Sean Graesser agrees, and told us that while Tragopan blinds are “on the more expensive side,” they’re “hands down the best.”
- A tripod or monopod: If you’re in a blind, having your large, relatively heavy lens on some sort of support can be very helpful. The same is true if you set up in your backyard or find a good location to stake out. Any of the picks in our guide to the best tripods will do the trick, but the Sirui P-204SR monopod might be the easiest to bring along for a hike in the woods.
- A camera with a bird-tracking autofocus mode: Sony’s a7 IV is an expensive mirrorless camera, but it has an extremely good autofocus (AF) tracking mode that can see when a bird is in frame and keep focus on the subject as it moves. (It even maintains focus on the eye when possible.) While any of the picks in our mirrorless-camera guide will do a good job of tracking, the Sony a7 IV is a step above the rest. Other camera companies have started to include similar tracking in more expensive models, but this is the first one we’ve been able to test that offers this capability at an affordable price. If you have a camera already, there’s no need to upgrade just for this, but if you’re planning on doing a lot of birding or considering a new mirrorless camera, it’s something to keep in mind.
When and where to go
Now that you’re ready to go out, you should probably think about being a better birder than I am and go early in the morning. “Get there before dawn, and you’ll be amazed at how much more visible the birds are,” Groo told us. “At sunrise you get something called the dawn chorus, which is an incredible thing to experience just as a wildlife viewer and listener because the birds all start singing as the sun is coming up.” Grasser agrees. “At that time your lighting should be pretty even,” he said. “As the day goes along, their activity changes quite a bit and they’re no longer staying stationary. They’re moving around searching for food or nest building, depending on what time of year it is, and then at night they’re coming back to their home turf, singing and letting everyone know.”
If you’re still puzzling over your location, consider what you’re looking for. “If you’re going for a certain species, knowing their behavior is best,” said Grasser, “but if you’re just going for a general group of birds, knowing the habitat is the most important thing.”
“I like to go to places where there’s at least two different types of birds,” said Hafting. “So there’ll be a marsh habitat, but there’ll also be a beach nearby where I’ll get shorebirds. Some places have three aspects, so they will also have a woodland where I can get raptors and goshawks and things. I like to go to a place where I’ll get a good diversity of species.”
“City parks can be really great places to go,” said Groo, “because the birds there are used to people. When I’m out in the wild, all the birds are like, ‘I’m getting out of here, this human isn’t supposed to be here.’ City parks can be a more fruitful time, and they’re also compressed into a smaller area.”
Once you’ve found your spot, it’s time to find some birds. “I’ll usually hear them first before I see them,” noted Hafting, “and then I’ll track them down by their song. If it’s a bigger bird, I’ll always look for what will fly in over the marsh, or if it’s shorebirds, I will plan my visit around the tides. I check the tides before I go out shorebirding every time, and I wait for high tides. Otherwise you’ll go there and end up with a lot of mud, which happens to a lot of people.”
When you spot a bird, remember to be respectful of your subject. “Look at the bird’s behavior,” said Hafting. “Is it putting its wings up to make itself look bigger? Is it defecating? Those are signs that a bird is feeling nervous. You want them to keep feeding, keep foraging, moving around, calling to each other. Just doing their normal behavior. If you see any signs that it’s not being normal, then you don’t keep approaching it.”
What settings to use
In general, you want short durations when it comes to shutter speeds. “Birds are so fast, and they make these almost imperceptible movements even when they’re perched,” said Groo. “So I’m always on continuous focus mode and the fastest possible burst mode, and I really try not to go below about 1/800 or 1/1000 [of a second].”
To get fast shutter speeds, use a high-sensitivity (aka ISO) setting. For most of the images included here, I kept my ISO around 1600, but I captured them after the sun was fully up. If you head out earlier, you’ll likely want to push that up toward 6400. Depending on your camera and your personal feelings about noisy images, you might feel okay about going up to ISO 12800 or 25600, or even higher. There’s nothing wrong with that. A little grain is better than a blurry bird.
The most important thing is to keep trying. “You can get discouraged really quick,” said Grasser, “especially if it’s a new hobby, because birds are moving fast, and all of a sudden you’re taking these blurry photos. Go out and get a ton of photos. It doesn’t matter what it is, just get yourself comfortable and familiar with your camera.” In time you’ll see dramatic improvements in your images.
After your day is done
If you’re like me, you will come home with photos that aren’t necessarily perfect. As you move around wooded areas, you’ll notice that the light can change drastically as birds hop from one branch to the next. I always set my camera to capture both raw and JPEG images so I have the most leeway when editing. I typically use Adobe Lightroom (Android, iOS, iPad) on my Apple iPad Pro for editing after transferring raw images from my card using a USB-C card reader. If you’re just planning to edit JPEGs on a mobile device, opt for one of our picks in our guide to the best photo-editing apps.
Raw files will be more forgiving if you end up drastically brightening the image, and you’ll also get better results when making more targeted adjustments, like increasing only the brightness of shadows or trying to tame overly bright highlights. You also end up with more versatility when adjusting colors. I’ve found that images captured on cloudy days can have a much nicer feel if you shift the white balance toward a warmer color temperature. Color temperature is usually shown as degrees Kelvin in editing software, and if the camera defaults to something below 4000, raising it toward 5000 or going slightly above that can often give an image a more pleasing tone.
Also, don’t be self-conscious about selecting a smaller portion of your photo than you originally captured (aka cropping). Birds move around a lot, and because it’s extremely difficult to capture a perfectly composed image while trying to focus, monitor your shutter speed, worry about aperture settings, and check on your ISO, you’ll almost certainly end up cropping. “Especially if you’re posting for social media, crop away,” said Grasser. “People want to see the subject very full in the frame, and my photography that I post on social media is driven that way.” Even if you try to show the bird with more of its environment, it’s usually helpful to trim the edges of your images.
After you’ve shared your photos, consider sharing your time. Most public parks and nature preserves have volunteer days at various times of the year, where you can help maintain trails or clean up litter left by less mindful visitors. As humans, we are the ones encroaching on the living spaces of animals, and we need to be respectful of that if we want to be able to discover the wonders of nature and snap pictures of birds flapping in the rushes down by the riverside.
This article was edited by Erica Ogg.