Photographing Birds

Cameras and Lenses

When photographing wildlife in general, you will be far enough away from your subject that you will want a telephoto lens to get any kind of detailed close-up – see my article on zoom lenses for more information. You also want to be able to pan your camera as it moves across the sky, so either use a tripod that allows you easy movement, or be comfortable hand-holding your lens such that camera shake is minimized. A 300mm or 400mm lens is ideal, especially it if has rapid autofocus that works well with your cameras continuous autofocus (a.k.a. Servo mode for Canon cameras).


Experts agree that any wildlife photo looks best when the eyes (at a minimum) are in focus. To that end, set your auto focusing point to the centre one since that generally results in the fastest focusing job. Also, if you’re using manual mode, set your aperture to its maximum (f/4, say), and meter off a neutral shade (the sky, perhaps) to close with an appropriate shutter speed. Try to work it such that your shutter speed is at least 1/1000 second so that the entire bird is in sharp focus.

When the bird enters the viewfinder’s frame, start moving your camera with the bird and engage your autofocus on its head as best you can. Continuous shooting grants you the best chance of getting a keeper, since at least one of the shots will likely turn out well.

Tips for getting started

  • Larger birds are easier to shoot than smaller birds, so if you can, start with the big ones – you have a better chance of capturing them in motion since they move slower and are easier to capture in a panning motion
  • Avoid busy background that detract from detailed feathers – aim for simple backgrounds, or use a long lens to blur the background (small f/stop for narrow depth of field)
  • Focus on the head (especially the eyes) of the bird, if at all possible
  • Overcast days yield better detail in feathers than direct sunlight
  • Keep your eye in the viewfinder and your finger on the shutter release so you don’t miss a shot!