A Beginner's Guide To Photographing Wild Birds

Photographing birds is tremendously tricky and requires as much wildlife know-how as it does knowledge of settings. So, if you're interested in getting started, here is a beginner's guide to push you in the right direction.

My situation is strikingly similar to Pye Jirsa in this video. I primarily shoot people or products, and wildlife is rarely something I've ever done, and certainly not something I'd set out to do specifically. That isn't to say it's not something I'd love to do, it just hasn't been the direction my work (or gear purchases) have gone. Then, at the start of this year, I had an opportunity while testing some equipment for review.

Like many genres of photography, birding had enormous amounts of nuance. Not only are you having to shoot in pretty testing conditions most of the time, but the subject is not remotely interested in playing ball. You need to be an animal behaviorist and wildlife guru to be consistently in the right place at the right time. So, that's the advice I would add-on to Jirsa's great tips: find someone who knows about birds or a tour guide if you're somewhere famous for its wildlife. They will take you to the right place, at the right time, and have you looking in the right direction. It doesn't have to be a tour guide either. A local who bird watches often will have a trove of information you could use.

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Never Mind's picture

Something is wrong with the video link since it only shows an image. This should be the correct one I believe:


Malcolm Wright's picture

I really enjoyed this video.

Chuck Homler's picture

I have to disagree with Pye on a number of points.

1) I would not advise anyone to go looking for birds with less than a 300mm lens. Get to close to larger birds and they fly away. With patience you can get close to smaller birds, but you'll want more reach. And in the woods, you want a fast aperture too.

2) Time of day for birds is really dependent on the birds you want to photograph. If you want waders / shorebirds, check the tides. If you want to photograph songbirds, especially in spring and during migration, morning time is great, but not because of the light - birds are active and foraging and usual pretty vocal, which helps locate them.

3) I would not recommend a lens where f/11 is the fastest aperture unless you knew you were going to have great light and birds that are staying still. I can't imagine tracking a flying bird, where you want a very fast shutter, with f/11. And I don't know how responsive the AF would be at f/11 even in good conditions with a small songbird or even a larger bird that is fairly close.

If you are getting into birds, and you don't already have gear for that purpose, I'd recommend the Canon 7D MkII and the 100-400mm. Or the 300 mm f/4 with a 1.4 extender. The gear can be found used for a reasonable price. I shoot Canon, but I am sure there is comparable equipment for other makes.

I took this one with the original 7D and the old 100-400. (This is a reduced size image because I posted it to Wikipedia.)


Fetching image ...

And in addition to the photo gear, think about what you want to accomplish and what other gear you can bring to give you access. For instance, I'm on the east coast. If I want shorebirds at dawn, I wear waders. I get into the water and sit facing the birds, getting low and I get good results.

Wearing muck boots, camo, etc will help you get closer to your subject or get the subject in better light.

Just my two cents.