Good bird photographs, perhaps more than any other wildlife subject, stir the soul. Taking well-composed shots of most species of birds, where the animal fills a significant portion of the frame, is generally quite difficult unless you are working with tame or highly habituated birds, or shooting from a blind or near a feeder. Even in those circumstances, sharp, properly exposed photographs require a high level of technical competence and quick working skills.
Taking acceptable pictures of wild birds in natural settings requires a great deal of devotion and patience, and some knowledge of the natural history of the species with which you are working, if you want anything other than random snapshots of whatever species you might be lucky enough to approach. Because birds are often nearly constantly in motion, any one shot is likely to be unsuitable due to blur or an unappealing posture, turned head, or closed eye at the moment you choose to open the shutter. Consequently, most bird photographers burn lots of film, and expect a low proportion of truly excellent photographs. Here are a few of my recommendations based on more than 20 years of taking mostly mediocre to poor bird photographs. For a much more detailed tutorial on bird photography, see Bill Horn's excellent instructional web page.
1) Longer lenses are better. I used a 400 mm lens with a 1.4x Teleconverter for most of the shots on this site. 400mm is usually considered the minimum acceptable focal length for serious bird photography. With a 400 mm lens, you must be about 10' away from a bird the size of a cardinal to get a frame-filling image. You are very, very rarely 10' away from a wild bird, and when you are, it's usually not for very long. Even for larger birds such as herons and egrets, you still have to be quite close to the bird to get a frame-filling image. Really devoted bird photographers typically opt for 600-800 mm lenses, often used with teleconverters, and still complain about not having enough focal length most of the time. Bigger lenses are heavier and much more expensive, however. Mirror lenses seem like an ideal solution because a long focal length can be folded into a small, light package. I used a 600 mm mirror lens for many years, and now I look back at most of the shots I took with it (that didn't wind up in the trash can) and cringe. Mirror lenses are not as sharp as traditional refracting lenses, they are slower (typically marked at f8, but actually slower), and they produce funky out of focus highlights that look like donuts.
2) If you can't get a frame-filling image, carefully consider the composition. The natural tendency for me, and most photographers, when faced with an opportunity to photograph a desirable bird that might fly at any moment, is to place the bird dead center in the frame and fire away. Resist the tendency. "Bullseye" compositions are one of the most common mistakes in bird photography. Try to place the bird off-center, preferably heading or looking into the frame, with some simple or non-distracting environmental features to balance the composition in the part of the frame where the bird isn't. It's difficult to think about composition when you're excited and rushing to get that first shot of a particular species, but generally shots where the bird is relatively small in the frame and placed dead center are visually boring. Read any basic photography book and learn about the rule of thirds and other simple compositional guides.
3) Unless you use an Image Stabilized (IS) lens from Canon or their counterparts from Nikon (VR) or a third party equivalent (Sigma OS, for example), you SHOULD ALWAYS use a tripod to reliably get sharp images. Use the fastest shutter speeds that are practical to minimize the effects of subject or camera movement. I used to boast that I could handhold my 600mm mirror lens down to 1/60 of a second. I was (am?) an idiot. These days, I look critically at the thousands of slides I took with a handheld telephoto lens and realize that what I should have been saying is that I can take RECOGNIZABLE bird photographs handholding a 600mm mirror lens down to 1/60 of a second. A recognizable photograph of a bird is not necessarily a good bird photograph. Even when shooting at shutter speeds of 1/250 or faster, the difference in sharpness between a handheld and tripod mounted shot with a medium to long telephoto lens is dramatic. Most bird photographers consider sharpness to be one of the most desirable elements of good bird photography.
4) Know your subjects. Study the behavior and ecology of the species you are interested in so that you have a reasonable idea of what to expect at particular sites, and how it will behave.
5) Shoot lots of frames of even static subjects. Memory cards and storage space are cheap. But remember that every shot you take will have to be edited and filed once you get home. Use moderation when you can. Personally, I don't relish spending hours at the computer culling, renaming, and filing away thousands of digital images.
For many birder/photographers, there are really two types of bird photographs: record shots, in which you are simply trying to obtain a good, well-exposed, sharp image of a particular species to confirm (to yourself or others) that you saw the species, and "artistic" bird photographs, in which the primary impact is not so much the identity of the specific bird but the more aesthetic considerations of composition, color, pattern, etc. Of course the two can overlap. In general, opportunities for record shots come far more frequently than do the latter. For many of us, the minimal criterion for deciding whether to take a picture of a particular species is this: "Is the shot I'm about to take potentially better than any shots I've previously taken of this species?"
6) Read a good book on bird photography by one of the masters, such as Arthur Morris' The Art of Bird Photography.
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