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Top 10 Bird Photography Tips for Beginners (That Are Easier Than They Look)

Top 10 Bird Photography Tips for Beginners (That Are Easier Than They Look)

Bird photography is a little intimidating thanks to how swift and elusive birds can be. However, once you understand their behavior and how to adapt, this niche is easier than it looks!

Snapping photos of birds is just as much psychological as it is technical. You need to get into the head of a bird to understand what it’s feeling and what it might do. You also don’t need incredibly complex equipment, especially when you already have a basic grasp on composition and good lighting.

Sounding more approachable already? Bird photography has a reputation of being tricky due to the flighty nature of birds (pun intended). I have 10 bird photography tips for beginners to help you snap gorgeous, well-lit photos.

Source Image: Pixabay

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Always Research Your Birds First
  3. Don’t Overthink Your Gear And Equipment
  4. Choose A Versatile Time Of Day
  5. Try to Find Active and Common Birds
  6. Get Comfortable With Burst Mode
  7. Learn The Basics Of ISO
  8. Try Your Hand At Video, Too
  9. Use the Surrounding Environment to Enhance Composition
  10. Stay Patient and Embrace Unpredictability
  11. Conclusion: Gorgeous Bird Photography Doesn’t Have to be Intimidating

a close up of a black, white, and red woodpecker resting on a tree against a green background

Source Image: Pixabay

1. Always Research Your Birds First

Understanding your bird’s behavior will help you anticipate when, where, and how to shoot. This research should involve important details like the species and their flight patterns (also known as locomotion).

For example, the house sparrow is a very common bird in the sparrow family. It frequently shows up in forested areas, but is also widespread in urban areas with a lot of human activity. Unsurprisingly, they have a diverse diet of insects and plants, so you can find them eating almost anywhere. 

This information will help you anticipate where to find a house sparrow (such as right outside your house or at the nearby park). Since they frequently show up around people, they’re less likely to be easily startled if you’re nearby. Last but not least, they tend to fly in straight lines with little hovering. You’ll have to be ready with a quick response, such as burst mode.

There are a slew of useful resources for studying different bird species, such as the National Wildlife Federation

a photographer standing on a bridge with a tripod shooting bird photography of two white cranes

Source Image: Pixabay

2. Don’t Overthink Your Gear and Equipment 

A common beginner photographer fear is that your gear and equipment aren’t good enough. Even basic equipment can snap strong photos, especially when you’re working hard on fundamentals like photography composition

Your Camera of Choice

Start off with whatever camera you have at your disposal. Whether that means a high-quality DSLR, your smartphone, or a disposable, you’re good to go.

If you haven’t used your camera in a while, take a few practice photos before going out. You want to make sure your equipment doesn’t have any broken buttons or malfunctions.

A Brimmed Hat and/or Sunglasses

Since you’ll be doing the majority of your photography outside, you’ll need to keep the sun out of your eyes. A wide-brimmed hat, baseball cap, and/or sunglasses should do the trick. 

A Versatile Camera Lens Filter

If you have a DSLR, consider adding a versatile camera lens filter to your roster. Specifically, a neutral density filter to check off multiple visual boxes at once. 

These wonderful lens filters will create richer colors while reducing the risk of overexposure, an issue that can bleach out your photos. However, if you’re more worried about your camera lens being damaged, you can also try a UV filter. These will protect your lens from dirt, dust, or fogging. 

An Affordable Tripod

Shaking hands is a frustrating issue for beginning and even intermediate photographers. While there are several ways to reduce this issue, an affordable tripod can help immensely.

Let’s say you find a pleasant spot by the lake or at the park to snap bird photography. A tripod will allow you to stabilize your shot and keep your arms from getting tired at the same time.

an example of afternoon photography showing a grebe swimming on water against a green backdrop

Source Image: Pixabay

3. Choose a Versatile Time of Day

Choosing a difficult time of day for bird photography like late evening or night may leave you discouraged. Versatile times of day will give you more wiggle room for error (while also making it easier to spot birds in the first place). 

Early Morning Is One of the Most Flexible

During early morning hours you’ll get the best of both worlds: softer light as well as plenty of bird activity. Just make sure to set your alarm so you don’t miss out.

Early Afternoon Is Solid for Strong Light Sources

Depending on the bird species, you may also see quite a few bird flocks during the early afternoon, too. The higher sun will also provide a strong light source to carve out your subject as well as the background.

Early Evening is Tricky, Yet Dramatic

If you want to play around with the golden hour, consider waiting until early evening. While most bird species will be tucking away for the night, you may get some pretty dramatic shots.

However, this time of day is best once you’ve gotten a few photos under your belt. The lower light is still more challenging for beginners, so I’ll talk about ISO further down the list.

a bright shot of a blue jay perched between delicate branches against a gray background

Source Image: Pixabay

4. Try to Find Active and Common Birds

Going for a temperamental goose or an elusive hawk will likely leave you disappointed. Some of the best birds to go for in the beginning stages are common species you can easily find anywhere.

Owls are majestic and mysterious, but usually show up at night. Birds of prey regularly ignite our imagination, but rarely show up in urban settings. I probably don’t need to bring up that birds of paradise are also unreliable to start with!

If you live in North America, below are a handful of common birds separated by subtypes.

Songbirds are Readily Available Nearby (Or Even At Your House)

Easily one of the best starting points for a beginning bird photographer is the iconic and charming songbird. These birds are so easy to find, they can even show up at your porch or outside your window.

You’ll easily find these birds throughout your neighborhood or nearby park:

  • Sparrows
  • Blackbirds
  • Blue jays
  • Cardinals
  • Robins

Waterfowl Appear at Rivers, Creeks, and Parks

If you prefer the arched necks and larger wingspan of waterfowl, swing by any body of water. You’ll not only get opportunities to see birds splashing and swimming in their natural habitat, but gorgeous water photography, too.

Most urban and recreational parks have the following birds:

  • Ducks
  • Geese
  • Swans

Seabirds Combine Bird Photography and Ocean Photography 

Do you live close to the ocean? Seabirds regularly grace photographer’s portfolios for their striking silhouettes and bold coloration. There are also plenty of opportunities to brush up on your beginner ocean photography.

You’ll easily find the following birds:

  • Gulls
  • Albatrosses
  • Terns

an example of bird photography showing a blue and purple hummingbird against a gray backdrop

Source Image: Pixabay

5. Get Comfortable With Burst Mode

Birds are incredibly fast and sometimes unpredictable. Burst mode is a useful setting that will help you snap a series of quick photos when the bird is in motion.

Whether you’re trying to improve your iPhone 11 pro photography or prefer the Samsung line-up, your smartphone should have a Burst Mode setting. Once selected, just snap a photo and wait a few seconds. You’ll then be able to sift through several photos to see which one suits your fancy.

Depending on the age and brand of your DSLR, you may or may not have a Burst Mode feature. Modern DSLR cameras will use this feature much like a smartphone, though sometimes under the name continuous mode or continuous shooting mode.

two birds flying against a bright morning with a city in the background

Source Image: Pixabay

6. Learn the Basics of ISO

ISO in photography is a measurement system to help you change how sensitive your camera sensor is to light. Jotting down the best ISO settings for bird photography during the day will save you time fumbling with your camera settings. 

200 to 400 for Early Morning and Afternoon

Since the early morning and afternoon are already pretty bright, you won’t have to change your ISO much. The earliest hours may require a slightly higher number to compensate for the rising sun.

100 to 200 for Late Afternoon 

Late afternoon is when the sun’s at its highest. Your ISO settings should be minimal to let natural daylight do the bulk of the work. 

600 to 800 for Evening

Since the sun is starting to set, your ISO should be bumped up to compensate. Fiddle with these settings a little to prevent troublesome noise from appearing (unless you like the style).

a red and gray robin perched on a branch and looking over one shoulder

Source Image: Pixabay

7. Try Your Hand at Video, Too 

Photography and video often go hand-in-hand. Consider shooting short videos of bird activity to improve your ability to capture their personality.

When you shoot a video, you’ll be able to learn more through repetition than fleeting glimpses. You can play back your video to study the mood and behavior of each bird species. Whether they’re more playful around water or easily startled by noise, you can use this knowledge for your next photoshoot. You can also take still shots from the video to supplement your growing portfolio.

Saving videos is more memory-hungry than saving still images, so remember to bring a spare memory card or two. The last thing you want is for the perfect shot to pass you by because your camera’s storage is full. For starters, 1 GB of memory can hold nearly six hundred photos and a few hours of lower-quality video. However, you can save more or less video depending on the video’s quality and what equipment you’re using to record. 

If you want to be extra careful about losing your work, consider signing up for a cloud storage system. You can transfer your photos there once you’re done to safeguard against accidental deletions or corrupted files.

an example of bird photography showing a heron at the edge of a lake surrounded by stalks of grass

Source Image: Pixabay

8. Use a Zoom Lens for Distant Birds

When you want to snap shots of distant or migrating birds, you’ll need the lens to match. If you feel like updating your equipment, a zoom lens will allow you to capture a higher level of detail.

Distant subjects can be tricky to capture, but it’s nothing a zoom lens can’t handle. The best zoom lens for bird photography should be somewhere between 100 to 400mm. Not only will this option make it easy to capture a great distance from your vantage point, they’re easy to find in most photography stores. 

The best aperture settings for bird photography should be between f/4 to f/5.6. This aperture setting provides a nice contrast between the bird’s detailed plumage and colors while blurring the background. 

a gray and white seagull perched on a craggy rock next to the ocean

Source Image: Pixabay

9. Use the Surrounding Environment to Enhance Composition

Birds don’t exist in a void – their environment is just as much a part of them as their feathers and claws. Strong composition in photography takes into account every last element.

The environment can be used to draw the viewer’s eye, such as surrounding leaves, branches, or a stone arch. For example, the above photo uses both the craggy rocks and the blue of the ocean to center the bird. Its small size and gray coloration automatically stand out against the environment.

Of course, all of this supports the story you’re telling, too. The above photo could be a depiction of loneliness in a turbulent world. It could also represent adventure with the rollicking waves and wide, open space.

several geese taking flight against a backdrop of green trees

Source Image: Pixabay

10. Stay Patient and Embrace Unpredictability

Part of being a photographer is just in your mindset. Bird photography can be challenging, but being patient and embracing unpredictability will surprise you.

When you’re patient, you’ll be able to push forward during slow periods with very little bird activity. Just when you think no opportunities will present themselves, you could snap the shot of a lifetime. With a Burst Mode setting on your side and suitable ISO settings, you can reduce the margin for error.

Likewise, embracing unpredictability will keep you from being disappointed when shots don’t turn out well. Let’s say you missed a shot where the bird was in an ideal position. You may find another angle or position was even better than you had imagined.

a bright white and grey gull against a blue background

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Gorgeous Bird Photography Doesn’t Have to be Intimidating

It’s never been easier to find a photography niche that speaks to you. Bird photography can be a little intimidating, but it’s incredible what a firm grasp of the basics and a good attitude will do. 

You don’t need a lot of equipment to snap compelling shots of birds. Your camera of choice, a few clothes for the weather, and good timing will do most of the work. However, adding a zoom lens or a camera lens filter to your DSLR set-up enhances your work further. You’ll be able to snap shots at greater distances as well as capture richer, deeper colors.

Bird photography for beginners is best done by keeping the subjects simple. Instead of pursuing rare bird species, start out with more common subtypes like robins, songbirds, and gulls. Take some time to study up bird species in your area, especially details like flight patterns and ideal times of day. A little preparation will save you the headache of going home empty-handed.


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