Tony Northrup Shares Tips For Capturing Close Up Bird Photographs

Every time I go to state parks along the lakeshore, I always see a few people with DSLR cameras walking around taking shots. Anytime there's an interesting bird nearby, it often becomes the subject of their attention. These colorful creatures are as majestic as they are quick though, and don't usually tolerate humans being too close to them. In this video tutorial from Tony Northrup, he shares many tips to get up close to birds in the field or even your own backyard.

Photographer and Author Tony Northrup has put together many video tutorials on his YouTube page, some we've featured here before. There is a wealth of knowledge being shared in these, and I'd definitely recommend checking those out for other helpful tips. Below I've embedded another video from Tony that pairs nicely with the one about shooting birds. In the video below, Tony discusses telephoto and super-telephoto lenses with two other photographers. They share their experiences, recommendations, as well as a few other tips to get more range for your buck.

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Jorje Castillo's picture

this is a generally awesome video... but I can't help wondering about his teaching you how to get the mp3 files from
are they ok with this?

Tony Northrup's picture

I don't see any reason why not. The Cornell Lab of Ornothology (which I'm a huge supporter of) is a non-profit organization, and you're not pirating the files; they're available as MP3 downloads directly... the website's just optimized more for immediate playback than download. Certainly, you could just visit the website with your phone in the field and play the sounds that way, it just happens to be less annoying to download the files.

Jorje Castillo's picture

ok, cool :)
I hope I didn't come up as "pitch-fork riot" mad. just considering too many people in the internet age think "well, it's on the internet, so it MUST be ok for me to take".
but regardless, thank you for the great tutorial video, Tony :).

One consideration of using recorded bird calls in photography is the potential stress to the bird - calls are generally their way of defending territory, and there is certainly some debate over whether you should use recorded calls to draw them out. Personally, It shouldn't be all about getting the shot - I think it's a bad idea to do so with species that are rare or endangered, or in areas where there's lots of birding going on. The American Birding Association (among others) has ethical guidelines about this activity that are worth considering

Tony Northrup's picture

Being a wildlife nut and amateur biologist myself, I have put a lot of research into this. In the book itself (this video is part of chapter 8 of my photography book) I go into more detail, along with some guidelines about using the bird calls in a way that won't impact their lifecycle.

Nobody has ever actually hurt a bird with bird calls. The closest I've found to a scientific study isn't at all scientific, but it is interesting:

A summary of their summary, which to me indicates that experts think a single photographer running a song on an iPhone for a brief period of time while snapping a few shots wouldn't hurt birds:

"There is almost no hard literature on the impacts of playback... There is a strong consensus of opinion that limited playback in a research setting is both entirely appropriateand of little impact... There is a less strong but majority conensus that repeated, high- intensity playback, particulary involving
large groups, *may* (emphasis theirs) be harmful to some species at some times."


I have a D5200 and have a lot of trouble photographing birds in flight. My equipment isn't top notch but I would have thought it would perform better than it is now. Shooting on a clear sunny day with a Sigma DG 70-300mm zoom lens, hood on, in S-Mode at 1/1600, f5.6, and ISO1600/800/400. I am shooting from a Davis and Sanford Magnum XL Tripod. I took about 40 pictures and only 3 came out moderately acceptable. The rest, are absolute garbage. Any recommendations? I will be uploading them to my facebook later but there are some great Bald Eagle vs Osprey shots on my page now that came out again, barely acceptable. I was using P/S/Sport preset with those in various ISO, f, and shutter speed ratios. I do have the detail overlay on them if you don't mind sir! Thanks either way

- David

By Top Notch I mean not D3 level. All lenses and accessories are out of the box new.

Last post, I swear! The above is a bit off topic but, my close up bird shots produce the same effect

Tony Northrup's picture

Heya, David. As I mention in the second video, I'd lose the tripod, but if it's working for you, more power to ya. The settings you posted seem fine, but experiment with your AF. I suspect you'll have better luck if you use Continuous/AF-C and the center AF point only.

We discuss it in the second video a bit, but we all end up deleting the vast majority of our pictures. 3 out of 40 isn't bad. 500 pictures is a good day for us, though sometimes we're over 1,000 each, and I usually delete all but 3 or 4, and I only end up sharing or professionally using a shot every 4 or 5 outings... that's for work in the field (which we focus on in the second video), not for setup wildlife photography (covered in the first video).

There's more info in Chapter 8; the videos are just samplers.

Tony Northrup's picture

Oh, and I'll add, upgrading to a body with a faster focusing system will definitely increase the number of in-focus shots, as would upgrading to a faster lens (such as an f/4 or f/2.8 lens)... but you can get great shots with your gear, if you have patience, and if you get close enough. You can produce pro results with that gear if you use the techniques in the first video, in particular.

Will watch those and go out for round 2. Thank you for the prompt reply!

Tony - My shots have improved greatly since viewing those videos. I still require a lot of reading and testing. The improvement in the past couple weeks was incredible though. This is a link to Photobucket if you care to see. Thanks again sir! The watermark is a default setting when I export my files but, if anyone cares for the original raw file I can email them, free for use wherever.

great tip.. get a 800mm lens..... useless....

Tony Northrup's picture

The first video is all about how to get great and detailed shots by getting close to the birds, specifically so you don't need a long lens.

In the second video, we discussed everything between a $170 75-300 to a 500 f/4, and specifically how to get the most bang for your buck, but at no point did anyone mention an 800mm lens. In fact, I've never even touched one.

Thank you for this Tony! I am pretty new to photography and my interest is only in photographing nature. This summer I wanted to try and get pics of birds. We have berry bushes in the yard so are visited by many birds. It has proven challenging though! A couple of weeks ago I got a very good picture of a waxwing that I was very pleased with. I got it after a week of trying to sneak up on them. : ) Persistence (and likely some luck) finally paid off! Now that I know more about how to go about capturing pictures of them, the time and the effort, I am even more excited about the fact that I got the one I did. Now I have some ideas to try and increase the likelihood of getting more. There are a number of other species that come to the yard that I still hope to get this summer. Also, as a newbie, I was most encouraged to find out that even pros have to toss many of their shots. That makes me feel a bit better too! So, thanks again for this tutorial. I look forward to seeing more of your work and learning from it.

Tony Northrup's picture

Thanks, and you're welcome, Laurie! Enjoy!

Some good tips here, Tony, but I disagree with your choice of using
Shutter Priority mode. By using Aperture Priority and shooting wide open
your camera will always give you the fastest shutter seed for a given
Normally you don't want a lot of DOF since a nice blurred background
really makes the images pop. However, using an extension tube will cut
the DOF even further so you can always bump up the aperture setting to
f/8 or so to compensate if you need more of the bird in focus. I just
try to get the eyes in focus as I would a human portrait and let the
DOF take care of itself.

Tony Northrup's picture

The problem with aperture priority mode is that it will allow the shutter speed to drop below the point where motion blur will ruin the picture.

If I need to control the aperture (and not just shoot wide open), I use Manual mode, specify both the shutter speed and aperture, and then use Auto ISO to allow the camera to autoexpose the picture. Usually I only need to do that when working up-close, like in the blind.

But, for most "in the field" work, shooting wide open is the right choice anyway, so shutter priority is perfect (and it allows me to dial in exposure compensation on my Canon).