Tips for Birding and Wildlife Photography

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Bird and wildlife photography is one of the most challenging genres of photography, but the results can be some of the most rewarding. We share this tiny spaceship, called Earth, with a diverse population of majestic creatures, large and small. Capturing great photos of our animal neighbors, whether it is in your backyard, offshore, or on a photo safari, is not only a way to show and share what you saw, but images of these creatures can have wide-ranging impact for environmental movements around the world.

Here are some tips (beginning and advanced) to make you a better wildlife photographer.

Beginner Tips

Respect: Respect your subject. Don't invade habitat carelessly. Wildlife can be sensitive to humans, so, even though you want the shot, don't get so close that your proximity will alter the behavior of the animals.

Aperture Priority Mode: You can always use Auto Mode, but use aperture priority mode to shoot at wider apertures, allowing your camera to let in more light and help isolate your subject using shallower depth of field.

Fast Shutter: Wildlife is often in motion. You will want to freeze this motion by using a fast shutter speed. Even if the animal is motionless, the turn of a head or ruffle of wings might cause blur in an image.

Light, Light, Light: Where is the Sun? Where are the shadows? Where does the light fall? Photography is all about light. You will want good lighting to capture wildlife at its best. Be conscious of where the light falls.

Isolate: Animals are often surrounded by foliage and scenery that creates a crowded background. A great shot might be the one in which the photographer isolates the subject from the background (see shallow depth of field, below).

Burst Mode: Plan on shooting a lot when capturing wildlife and birds. Modern cameras allow shooting rates that were once unheard of. Use this to your advantage to capture the perfect moment.

Know Your Camera: Wildlife photography is often dynamic. Animals make for horrible models because they are uncooperative and often in motion. Know your photography gear so that you can change settings rapidly.

Study: Learn about the animals you wish to photograph, and their habitats, before you arrive at the location. Knowledge can help you anticipate the animals' behavior and habits so that you can get the shot.

Pro Tips

The Eyes Have It: Whether you are photographing people or animals, if the eye(s) are in the photo, they should be in sharp focus, so aim for the eyes by positioning your autofocus sensor at that point.

Far Focus: Some autofocus lenses let you limit the autofocus to specific distances. In general, wildlife will be at the far ends of the autofocus range. By limiting the lens to the far distances, it can focus and refocus faster.

Action! The best wildlife photos capture action. Be patient. Study your subject. And—be ready. Most birds will eventually take flight. Most animals will not stay still for very long. Prepare to capture the action when it happens.

Get Closer: The closer you get to the wildlife, the more dramatic your images can be. The caveat is that you want to respect the habitat of the wildlife, not alter the behavior of your subject, and stay safe.

Stabilize Your Camera Gear: Camera shake can ruin even the best images. Especially with longer focal-length lenses, use of a camera support can be critical to acquiring sharp images. Use a tripod, monopod, bean bags, or other alternative supports for maximum stability.

Include the Habitat: Closer is better, unless you have lost all sense of space and environment. Is that photo of the bison’s head from the local zoo or from a vast mountain meadow? Be sure to include the animal’s natural habitat in images.

Change Perspective: Try to photograph from the eye height of the animal—not the photographer. When possible and practical, get down low or up high when you need to, and shoot level. Most photos are taken from human eye height. Be different.

Patience: Be patient! You cannot direct or pose an animal in the wild. You might have to wait hours or even days for your shot. Be prepared to be patient.

What tips do you have for bird and wildlife photography? Share them with us, below.

5 Comments

I shoot a lot of Eagles and Osprey. I shoot in RAW, edit in Lightroom for best results.  For me Sutter priority is best and I meter on a center point on the bird.  I also go with a shutter speed no less that 2500 and run auto ISO to keep it that way in changing light.  Bald Eagles has a distinctive ritual before they take flight that I have learned and it helps a lot when you know they are about to take flight.  Eagles also face into the wind so it helps to know your wind direction as it dictates their coming and goings.  

Frank S. wrote:

I shoot a lot of Eagles and Osprey. I shoot in RAW, edit in Lightroom for best results.  For me Sutter priority is best and I meter on a center point on the bird.  I also go with a shutter speed no less that 2500 and run auto ISO to keep it that way in changing light.  Bald Eagles has a distinctive ritual before they take flight that I have learned and it helps a lot when you know they are about to take flight.  Eagles also face into the wind so it helps to know your wind direction as it dictates their coming and goings.  

I meant Shutter, not Sutter.  And the dedicating before flight is a huge indication of flight.  

Frank S., Thanks very much for taking the time to share some of your tips on technique for photographing these beautiful birds. We appreciate hearing from our readers, always.

All good points very well illustrated. If I could add a comment - many birds have a predictable ritual which they carry out pre-flight. I have spent hours filming 'Royal Spoonbills'. They are slowish and steady in flight, but notoriously difficult to track with, once they take to the air, which also requires that you continue to keep them in focus, manually in my case, as I refuse to trust my video shots to auto-focus. But many species of birds do have certain habits in common. Spoonbills, irrespective of which way they are facing initially, turn to face into the wind.

Being lightly built, unlike species of browsers such as swans and geese, they ascend really steeply. They will usually defecate before taking off, I call it 'emptying the tanks'. That will be followed by a rearward flexing of the legs from the 'knees' in order to secure an initial 'spring'.

These actions usually occur in the sequence I have given. Once you are able to interpret them and follow-through, your incidence of successful shots will greatly increase in my experience. However, totally different techniques are called for when filming another common New Zealand species, Black Swans. These have a heavy wing-loading, making getting airborne something of a chore with much flapping and large feet pounding on the water-surface with pistol-shot like 'slaps', which are great if you can obtain at the same time, 'clean' sound, in- synch.   

Thank you for your comments, Ian J. S.! It seems to us as though you have spent a great deal of time observing and filming these birds. We appreciate your tips and descriptions of their fascinating behavior.

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