Bird Photography, Part 1: Exposure

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Great Egret
Birds are often very uncooperative subjects.  They don't often sit still, they tend to fly away from you instead of toward you, and they rarely come close to you, so you always want a longer lens than the one you have.  Lighting is always a challenge--you want fast shutter speeds, but shooting with the sun high in the sky causes problems.  I've found that when shooting birds, I keep a much smaller percentage of my shots than with just about any other subject.  But there are some tips you can use to increase your likelihood of coming home with more keepers.
  1. Use The Longest Lens You Have.  Birds are usually wary of coming near you, and they tend to fly off when you approach them.  So get the longest, fastest lens you have and be ready to crop your photos.  I use a 400mm f/5.6 lens, which great for hand-holding.  You can get birds in flight easier this way.  Others opt for longer, faster lenses (and MUCH more expensive).  They aren't as mobile, but they can give you better, sharper images.  If you're using consumer lenses like a 100-300mm, you may find yourself frustrated, but you can still get good images.  But focus on larger, closer birds.
  2. Use The Fastest Camera You Have.  Set your camera to the fastest frame rate possible (mine shoots 6 fps, which is on the low side for bird photography).  When you see a shot you want, don't just trip the shutter, press and hold the shutter for a few shots.  When birds are in flight, they are usually moving closer to you or farther away.  So I take a burst, pause to refocus, and take another burst of shots.
  3. Tripod Optional.  I hate saying that, but it's true.  Tripods are essential in low light conditions, but sometimes tripods slow you down too much, and you miss good shots.  If you're using a giant lens, you need one.  But if you're using a setup like mine (Canon 40D with 400 f/5.6 lens), you can get a sling strap that lets the camera hang to your side.  It's often the best way to go.
  4. Take Lots of Shots.  I frequently take more than 1000 photos in a morning when shooting birds. The more you take, the more likely you'll come home with more keepers.
  5. Use Fast Shutter Speeds.  For me the ideal shutter speed for birds is between 1/1000sec and 1/3000sec.  You can get good shots of birds at slower speeds if they're behaving themselves and staying still for you, but especially if you're hand-holding, you want a fast shutter speed.  I usually shoot wide open (smallest f/stop), unless I just need more depth of field.  I then choose the ISO that will let me get a shutter speed of at least 1/800sec.
  6. Be Mindful of the Position of the Sun.  Your lighting will be more even if the sun is at your back, so it's much easier to get a well-exposed image when the sun's behind you.  On sunny days, if the sun is to one side, you'll have harsh shadows in the scene.  If it's in front of you, the bird will be in shadow, and getting him properly exposed will be difficult.  You can get still get great shots when the sun is not behind you, but they will be different kinds of shots, and you'll need to account for that in your exposure.
  7. Use Exposure Compensation.  There's really no way around it.  For darker birds, you'll likely need to increase your exposure compensation to keep detail in those dark feathers.  For white birds, you'll often need to decrease your exposure compensation to retain detail in the highlights.  Usually I advise people to expose for the highlights of a scene, but with birds, my advice is usually to expose for the bird.  Let the rest of the scene fall out as it may.  You want the bird properly exposed.  There are exceptions to this, though.  Obviously, if you want the bird to be a silhouette, expose for the highlights.
  8. Watch Your Approach.  Birds spook easily.  Loud noises will scare them.  Even the motion of you raising your camera to your eye can cause them to fly away.  Don't make sudden movements.  And don't approach birds head on.  Go at angles so that he doesn't think you're a predator after him.  And don't approach a nest.
  9. Find Good Spots.  There are great places to go, and I'm compiling a list of good places I've been.   You are more likely to see new and different birds if go to places where they congregate.  Also, be mindful that birds migrate throughout the year.  Places will become better and worse birding locations at different times of the year.
  10. Birding Ethics. As birding becomes more and more popular, there are more people walking through places where there are birds, and that means that we as birders and photographers are more likely to disturb them.  Disturbing birds causes them to change their behavior, and this over time can cause great birding places to become bad birding places, and it can even cause populations of certain species to decrease.  So when you're out birding, don't just consider your moment in time with the bird, consider others coming after you (and your future visits).  Do not disturb birds or act in ways that will alter their behavior.


  1. Good stuff! Wish I read this article months ago!

  2. Thanks for the complement. Hope it helps you in the future.


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