I’m really excited to be writing an article on wild bird photography techniques and tips.
I have intentionally used the term “wild” because I think all birds should be wild and free as indeed I do with animals.
But even if they are caged they are fast moving and a challenge. What spoils cage bird photography for me, besides the lack of freedom the birds have, is the inevitable mesh or glass that comes between me and the subject.
Why do I find this subject so exciting?
For a number of reasons:
- Although similar to wild life photography there are a lot of differences.
- It’s quite a challenge because the subjects are invariably small, fast and shy.
- It requires patience (which I don’t have much of and that adds to the challenge).
- You have to be familiar with your camera gear to succeed.
- It’s very rewarding.
- Birds are everywhere!
- So many species with a huge variety of character, colour, habits, habitat etc.
Let’s get straight into it …
Best Camera Settings for Bird Photography
The first thing I want to mention is that I highly recommend back-button focusing for all your photography but in particular for bird photography. To me it is the only way to track a bird in flight and a perfect way to focus and re-compose. Watch the video below to learn more.
Following on from the video remember to be in Auto Focus continuous with bird photography.
- Use aperture priority so that your bird stands out against a soft blurred background whenever possible.
- Always focus on the bird’s eye when photographing individual birds.
- Select the appropriate number of focus points. This will depend on the number of birds in the photo and whether the subject is static or moving. For static shots a few focus points would work whereas for group shots and birds-in-flight use more focus points to ensure a greater chance of success.
- Use a wide aperture for individual birds to get a nice soft background.
- For groups of birds select a smaller aperture for greater depth of field to get more birds in the group in focus.
- Select a fast ISO and fast shutter speed. This will be true for 99% of your bird photography.
- If you want to get some action in the wings practice your panning technique and use a slower shutter speed while maintaining focus on the bird’s eye.
- If shooting into the sun increase your exposure compensation as your subject will be in its own shadow. The opposite it is true when the sun is behind you and shining directly on to your subject.
Best Wild Bird Photography Equipment
Regardless of what camera and lens you have birds are a lot of fun and a great challenge to photograph.
Ideally though the best equipment for wild bird photography will include:
- Because birds are small (even the larger ones) a lens with reach is a must.
- Because of the crop factor (equates to extra reach) a crop sensor camera is ideal.
- A fast focusing camera and an equally fast focusing lens.
- A camera with a high frames per second rate.
- A camera with a good buffer size.
- A camera that is good in low light.
- A camera with ample focus points as birds in flight are fast moving and difficult to track.
In the DSLR range of cameras the big players are Canon and Nikon and the models that best match the needs of the wildlife bird photographer are the Canon 7d Mk II and Nikon D500.
Of these two models the Nikon D500 is the hands down winner as per the table below. The Nikon D500 is also the winner in the best camera for wild life category.
The following table comparing the Nikon D500 Vs the Canon 7d Mk II shows the main features best suited to bird and wild life photography.
Canon 7D Mk II
Dual DIGIC 6
Maximum Frames Per Second
Continous Shooting – seconds
Buffering Capacity for RAW,
lossless, 14- bit
Native ISO Range
100 – 51,200
100 – 16,000
153 point, 99 cross type AF System
65 point – all cross type AF System
4K up to 30p
1080p up to 60p
4K up to 30p
1080p up to 60p
Where To Find Birds To Photograph
In your county, city, parks, neighbourhood and your own garden. You do not need to travel far at all. Birds are literally everywhere.
The easiest way to have the largest selection to choose from is to set up a feeding station in your own back yards – it might take a few days before it is found but once they know where it is the birds will flock to it.
Build or buy your own bird hide to have in your garden – see the video below.
With a home bird hide and feeding station you can set up your camera to photograph remotely while having your coffee or wine.
Parks and ponds are another place where birds congregate for safety and food.
In New Zealand certain waterways and lakes have dedicated bird hides, they are fantastic for getting up close and personal without scaring birds off. Be sure to check with your local birding group for anything similar in your area.
Take your camera with you on your daily walk.
The Beach and Seaside
There are always an abundance of sea birds at the beach – low tide is an excellent times as to photograph birds foraging in the shallows.
Mountains and Country Side
Diverse and different types of birds are seen out of cities and towns and they are generally more shy – you will need to practice your stalking skills.
Fortunately the world is waking up to protecting our wild heritage and there are many places that protect birds and provide safety and security for them. In New Zealand (love this place) we have ongoing programs to eliminate imported predators and the birdlife has flourished as a result.
In August 2017 I went on a big cat photo safari to South Africa which kicked off with a visit to an underground bird hide at a couple of waterholes. It was the highlight of the trip for me as it was so unexpected and just plain mind blowing.
Many of the photos you see on this site were taken on that trip.
There are many countries that have tourists who visit just for the bird life. Choose one and have one of the most interesting holidays of your life!
There are always thousands of birds at the zoo. Not only the caged exotic ones but generally just flying around in a place that has an abundance of food and is safe and secure for them.
Endless Potential and Opportunities
There really is no limit to bird photography and each time you go out you will find new challenges and opportunities.
Why not share your experiences and some of your bird photos in the comments below?
I may even ask you to do a guest post for me … (BIG HINT)