Backyard Bird Photos: Basic Tips

Carolina Wren at the Bird Feeder
Carolina Wren at the Bird Feeder

Birds are wonderfully photogenic and endlessly fascinating. If you enjoy birdwatching, sooner or later you are going to want to take pictures of the birds you watch. For many of us, bird photography can become an integral part of birding. Taking pictures of birds can be a challenge though. Birds go about their business and don’t always sit still for a picture. Here are a few things I’ve learned as I’ve spent time taking pictures of birds in my yard and on birding trips.

* Learn how your camera works and what the settings do. Cameras often have more bells and whistles than you really will use. The trick is to spend time with the manual and the camera to figure out which features will be useful to you and then practice using them.

If you have a DSLR camera and need to learn how to use settings beyond automatic point-and-shoot (like aperture priority, speed priority or manual modes), check out the excellent photography courses on Lynda.com or see if your local community college or camera store offers classes.

Female Red-Winged Blackbird
Female Red-Winged Blackbird Watching Me Watch Her.

* Know the limits of your camera. Spend some time taking pictures with the camera you have and you’ll soon get a feel for the kinds of pictures you can hope to get with it and that can save you a lot of disappointment and frustration. Bird photography needs a camera with a longer reach than what you need for the typical family get-together. A cell phone camera can take quick shots for recording birds you happen to see but won’t go anywhere close enough for most bird shots you will want to take.

Nikon D40X with 18-55mm Zoom Lens
My Old Trusty Nikon D40X with 18-55mm Zoom Lens

Even a DSLR camera will only give you middling shots unless you have a very long lens to get you close enough. I have an entry level DSLR camera (Nikon D40X) that I’ve had for years. It takes very nice photos of people and landscapes, how-to shots (for VSN articles) and even some lovely macro shots of butterflies and flowers, but with my 18-55mm zoom lens, I could only get shots of birds where they were so small that you would have to heavily crop it to see any detail. A good quality lens to go beyond 200mm could cost a thousand dollars which is a bit rich for my budget and heavier than I wanted to lug around.

Common Mergansers
Common Mergansers. This is About as Close as the Coolpix p900 Can Get to Distant Birds.

I decided instead to get a Nikon Coolpix p900 bridge camera (which you can see here on Amazon.) It is basically a super zoom lens (24-2000mm) with a camera attached. It worked out to be less expensive than a long lens for my older camera. Most of the photos on this blog are taken with this camera. It takes very nice pictures of backyard birds, especially when the light is good and I’m quite pleased with it for this purpose. It doesn’t have the reach or quality to take professional level pictures of birds way out in the distance, but for backyard bird photos and for many photos of birds during birding trips, it does a nice job. To take photos of waterfowl in the distance, Osprey or Bald Eagles in their nest, birds high in the air in flight or other close up shots of birds at a far distance, a long lens or a DSLR camera attached to a birding scope (“digiscoping”) would be the way to go.

Nikon Coolpix p900 is a Super Zoom Bridge Camera
Nikon Coolpix p900 is a Super Zoom Bridge Camera

* Experiment with different camera settings. If you are new to photography and your camera has a bird watching mode, you might try it and see how you like it. But also experiment with other options as the automatic point-and-shot settings don’t work for every situation. You might set the camera in a basic way for the type of shots you think you’ll get in a particular day but you should know how to quickly change settings if you need something different.

Nikon Coolpix p900 with Lens Zoomed Out
Nikon Coolpix p900 with Lens Zoomed Out

The Bird-watching scene mode in my camera was an okay place to start but I fairly quickly decided that I wanted more control over my photos. So I examined what the Bird-watching mode was doing that I liked and what I didn’t like and used that to set up my own default settings. For example, I liked that the Bird-watching mode was set to take several pictures with every press of the button. (Birds move so much that often you need to take multiple pictures. Two thirds or more will probably have blurred bird parts, often the head. By taking multiple photos at a time, you are more likely to get a good one.) So when I am taking photos of birds, I often have my camera set to continuous rather than single shots.

I didn’t like that in Bird-watching mode, the camera automatically picked the ISO level for the picture. I prefer to set that myself, based on the light available. I typically set my ISO to 200, although I will sometimes bump it to 400 if the light isn’t as good. I’ve found that I’m not as happy with the pictures my camera takes of small birds at higher ISO levels so setting it myself is working better for me.

Nikon Coolpix p900 Battery and a Charger
Nikon Coolpix p900 Battery and a Charger

* Always have an extra battery and plenty of memory for your camera. Nothing is worse than running out of juice just when that beautiful bird appears right in front of you. Keep in mind that batteries can run down quicker in cold weather so especially be sure to have a spare or two when you’ll be taking pictures out in the cold.

Birds in Snow Taken Through Window Glass
Birds in Snow Taken Through Window Glass

* While taking photos of birds through window glass might seem reasonable, doing this reduces the quality of the picture. Window glass, even if kept clean, can be a real challenge to camera focusing. The finished picture tends to be soft and you lose detail. Taking photos through window screen is even worse, as the camera often tries to focus on the nearby screen at the expense of the bird on the other side. Some people do take photos through windows by opening the window and removing any screens or storm windows. This can work nicely as a photo blind, although it has the obvious disadvantage of letting cold air into a heated house in the winter or hot air into a cooled house in the summer.

Carolina Wren Singing
Carolina Wrens Will Often Get Very Close

* Get outside with the birds. Hang around. Let them get used to you. If you sit fairly still for long enough, they’ll start going about their business and then you can start taking their pictures. Some of them will get surprisingly close. Try to avoid quick sudden moves. Instead keep the camera ready in your hand, move slowly and stay low as much as you can.

Tufted Titmouse in Feeder
This Tufted Titmouse is Looking a Bit Nervous.

* Try not to stare at or point a camera lens at one bird for long periods of time as they can see that as threatening. If you find that your presence is interfering with what the birds need to be doing (eating, feeding their young, nest building, etc.), back off. The reason you are taking pictures of the birds is that you like them. You don’t want to impact their lives negatively for the sake of a photograph!

Not all birds will tolerate a human around but many will. For example, today I saw our local Eastern Towhee in the yard through a window. He hung around under the picnic table scrambling for tidbits on the ground but as soon as I came out and sat in the back doorstep he disappeared, although most birds in my yard are cool with that.

Blue Jay with Peanut
Blue Jay with Peanut Found on the Picnic Table Bench

* Get to know the birds that hang out in your yard and where you can expect them. I know that the Blue Jays will come out of the woodwork to pounce on the peanuts as soon as I spread them out on the picnic table benches, so I have my camera ready and pointed in the right direction. I also know where to find the American Goldfinches and where the Downy Woodpeckers will land on the tree before they head over for the suet. With some patience you can get photos of birds that you know will show up sooner or later.

* When you are out somewhere new looking for birds, you won’t always know where to expect them. Taking pictures of the birds in your yard is still good practice for these less structured times. You’ll find that all that practice in the yard makes it easier to find the bird in your lens, focus and take the shot when you are somewhere else.

Common Grackle
Common Grackles Can Be Quite Beautiful

* I’ve taken some pretty cool pictures while hanging out in the yard trying to outlast the nuisance birds I’d like to discourage, like Brown-Headed Cow Birds and Common Grackles. Instead of getting stressed about them, I walk around trying to take their pictures. With these birds I don’t bother to stay low; I just go for the shot. (Hang around long enough and they leave in disgust, although they usually will eventually come back.) Taking their pictures is good practice and I’ve discovered their beauty in the process. (But even so, I still don’t want to encourage them in the yard.)

Dark Eyed Junco
Dark Eyed Juncos Are Often Found on the Ground

* Get on the birds’ level. If you are trying to get a shot of a Dark-Eyed Junco or a Chipping Sparrow, get down on the ground where they like to eat. You’ll get much better more intimate shots than looking down at them from human height.

Cardinal Close-up
Cardinal Close-up

* Try to get as close as possible to the bird and then try to focus as close as possible. Close ups usually make more interesting shots. Think about what is needed to tell the story and frame the shot that way. Usually I will try to compose a shot so that I get the whole bird in the shot, knowing that I can crop it later that is what I need, but sometimes I will focus really tight and get just a head shot, which can be really cool. But try not to cut off weird parts of the bird. Just like you don’t want to cut off the top of Aunt Jane’s head when you take her picture, you usually don’t want to cut off a bird’s crest or tail!

Robin in Late Afternoon Light
American Robin Surveying the Scene in Late Afternoon Light

* Look for good light. Usually the best light for pictures is when the sun is low in the sky, either in early morning or late afternoon. Go out on days when the light is pretty and watch for opportunities to take photos of birds who are in that great light. Watch how the light is striking the bird. If there is both light and shadow on the bird, this could create a beautiful shot . . . or it could create a half dark half light shot that looks terrible. Sometimes you need to be patient until a bird moves out of a shadowed area into the light.

Female Northern Cardinal in the Rain
Female Northern Cardinal on a Cold Wet Day

Rainy days can be great days for birding as the birds are often very active but the light can be miserable, creating flat looking, almost monochromatic pictures. Take the shots but understand that the light is probably going to limit the quality what you get.

Male Eastern Towhee Original Shot Uncorrected
Male Eastern Towhee Original Shot Uncorrected
Same Eastern Towhee Picture with Quick Corrections via Lightroom
Same Eastern Towhee Picture with Quick Corrections via Lightroom

* Get some good photo editing software and learn to use it. While we all occasionally take a beautiful shot that doesn’t need any correction, most photographs can usually be improved quite significantly with some basic photo editing. Remember, the goal here is not to create something fake. The goal is to adjust the picture so it looks like it did in life.

In the days when I processed photos for my VSN magazine, I used Adobe’s PhotoShop for color and light correction and cropping. These days I am more likely to use Adobe’s Lightroom software instead as I find it to be a very quick and efficient way to process and organize large numbers of digital photos.

Typically I will upload photo files from my camera to Lightroom and browse through them quickly to delete any that are out of focus or missed the bird or are bad for some other obvious reason. Then I will name the files with a general topic (like “backyard birds” and the date) and will add keywords to the files (like “Cardinal”, “Bird Feeder”, “Blue Jay”, “Squirrel”, “Suet”, etc.) Keywording makes searching for a photo of that cardinal or suet or whatever easy in the future.

Then I will go to the Develop section of Lightroom and try the Basic tab’s Auto feature. Lightroom will then adjust the photo to what it thinks is right. I find that it typically overexposes the picture and sets the contrast too high, so I very often use the sliders in the software to bring them back to where I think it looks right. I also sometimes will use the slider to adjust the shadows, particularly when the photo is of a dark bird with a dark eye (otherwise the eye gets lost.) I also will often crop a photo to better bring attention to the bird and I’ll finish up by adding a touch of sharpening. If a photo is especially good, I’ll spend more time with it and do more of the work manually, but as I typically take hundreds of pictures in a day, I find this is a good way to get a feel for what I got quickly.

Goldfinches Eating Nyjer Seed
American Goldfinches at Nyjer Feeders

* Understand that photography can have different purposes. Do you want to create a frame worthy professional quality photo? Do you want to create something fun to post on Facebook or share online with birding friends? Do you want a record of the bird so you can prove a rare sighting? Or maybe you want to have a photo of every bird species that you have seen. You also might take a picture to help you remember field markings on a bird you’ve never seen before and want to look up in a field guide later or show another birder for help with the ID.

American Goldfinches and a few Pine Siskin Through Window Glass and Screen
American Goldfinches and a few Pine Siskin Through Window Glass and Screen

While you always hope for the best picture possible, notice that in some of these situations, even an out-of-focus or poor light shot will fulfill the need. For example, this winter, I was getting unusually large flocks of American Goldfinches at my feeders. When I reported it via eBird, the sighting was flagged. To confirm it, I needed to attach photos. In a perfect world, I might have gone out and sat in the cold until the birds I startled came back so that I could take really great photos. But what I needed in this case was identifiable photos of the birds, so I stayed inside and took them through a window. While not my best photos, it did the trick and my sighting was accepted.

* Practice. Practice. Practice. I’ve read that to learn to do something really well takes 10,000 hours. If you want to become a better birder or a better photographer, you have to put in the time. The more time you spend, the better you’ll get. Learn from your mistakes. Make adjustments. Try again. Practice and you will find your bird photographs have improved and will keep on improving.

Nancie

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Male Red-Winged Blackbird
Male Red-Winged Blackbird Waiting For Me to Leave

Nancie

Update: Also see Creating Your Own Bird Photography Camera Settings

Update: Also see Photographing Birds at Magee Marsh

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