Camp & Draw: How to Photograph Birds

By Savannah Troy

I do bird research- specifically, behavioral ecology of the Mountain White-crowned Sparrow- so I particularly enjoy getting shots of birds in their natural habitats. By virtue of their wildness and flightedness, however, avian life can be a challenge to photograph. So to save you some of the trouble that I found, here are some tricks to help you get started:

  • Camera settings: When photographing birds (or any wildlife, really) it is best to have your shutter speed as high as it can reasonably go for the light conditions. A fast shutter speed will allow you to capture sharp images of the bird even if it is in flight: too slow, and the bird will likely be blurry. A fast shutter speed will require that you compensate with a higher ISO and a wide f-stop to allow enough light in. Conveniently, a wide f-stop will give you very tight depth of field, which produces sharply focused subjects against a very soft, out-of-focus background. This can be nice when shooting in the forest, because it will blur the brush and vegetation that a bird might be hiding in and place more emphasis on the animal itself.

  • Equipment: Photographing birds is a form of bird watching. Therefore, binoculars or a spotting scope in addition to a camera will come in handy. For your camera, the biggest zoom lens you can get, the better off you will be. However, I’ve taken decent photos simply by holding my phone up against the eyepiece of binoculars or a spotting scope.

  • Behavior: The best time for birding is early in the morning. Right at dawn and for an hour or so afterwards are when birds are their most active. The best way to encounter a bird is to move quietly through the trees, and sit and wait patiently at a spot if you hear lots of bird song.

  • Advice by species: Birds never stay still for long. Even if you are experienced with bird behavior or photography, getting a decent shot of a bird is still a challenge. When just getting started taking photos of birds, I would advise going for species that live near water. There are countless, beautiful species of ducks, swans, geese, herons, egrets, cormorants, grebes, and more that can be seen on bodies of water. Conveniently, these birds tend to move slowly and swim atop the water, making them easier subjects to photograph. On the other hand, species like hawks, swallows, and flycatchers are very hard to capture because they are constantly in flight (often very fast flight).


Hopefully, these tips can get you started taking beautiful pictures of beautiful animals. Happy birding!