Last Updated on August 1, 2021 by Nancie
Need some tips for photographing backyard birds? Birds are wonderfully photogenic and endlessly fascinating. If you enjoy bird watching, sooner or later you will want to photograph them. For many of us, bird photography becomes an integral part of birding. But it can be a challenge. Birds go about their business and don’t always sit still for a picture. Here is what I’ve learned photographing birds in my back yard.
Estimated reading time: 19 minutes
Tip: Understand Your Camera
Learn how your camera works and what the settings do. Cameras often have more bells and whistles than you really use. The trick is to spend time with the manual and camera. (If you’ve misplaced your manual, check the manufacturer’s website. They often offer pdf versions there.)
Figure out which features will be useful to you and then practice using them. Check out my Creating Bird Photography Camera Settings post to see how I set up my camera for bird photography.
If you have a DSLR camera and need to learn things like aperture priority, speed priority or manual modes, check out the excellent photography courses on Lynda.com. Or see if your local community college offers classes.
Understand Your Camera’s Limits
Every camera has its strengths and weaknesses. Know the limits of your camera. Spend time taking pictures with it and you’ll soon get a feel for the kinds of pictures you can hope to get with it. That can save you a lot of disappointment and frustration.
Look at how quickly your camera can focus. See how it does in bright sunlight or in shade or at dusk. See how close it will let you get to a bird on the other side of the yard.
Tip: Get a Long Lens For Bird Photos
Bird photography needs a camera with a longer reach than what is needed for the typical family get-together. Sure, a cell phone camera or most point-and-shoot cameras can sometimes take a quick small shot for recording birds you happen to see. But it won’t go anywhere close enough for most bird shots you will want to take.
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 and even some lovely macro shots of butterflies and flowers.
But with my 18-55mm zoom lens, bird shots are so small they would need to be heavily cropped see any detail. A good quality lens to go beyond 200mm could cost a thousand dollars for this camera. This was a bit rich for my budget and heavier than I wanted to lug around.
Nikon Coolpix p900
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. (2019 Update: Nikon now offers a Coolpix p1000 version as well.)
Most photos on this blog are taken with this camera. It takes very nice pictures of backyard birds, especially when the light is good. 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.
Tip: Play With Camera Settings
Experiment with different camera settings. If you are new to photography and your camera has a bird watching mode, try it. See how you like it. But also experiment with other options because the automatic point-and-shoot 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 on a particular day. But you should know how to quickly change settings if you need something different.
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 it was doing that I liked and what I didn’t like. I used that to set up my own default settings.
Just as one example, I liked that the Bird-watching mode takes 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.
And 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’ve found 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.
Tip: Get Extra Batteries & Memory
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.
Tip: Avoid Photographing Through Glass
While taking photos of birds through window glass might seem reasonable, it 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 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 (and bugs) into a cooled house in the summer.
Tip: Hang Out With Birds
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. Then you can start taking their pictures. Some birds 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.
In my yard, the regular birds have gotten pretty comfortable with me. If I come outside to sit down, some won’t move at all. Some will spook but come back in just a few minutes once I sit down. Others take half an hour or so to get comfortable again.
Not all birds will tolerate a human around, but many will. For example, one day 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. As soon as I came out and sat in the back doorstep, he disappeared, even though most birds in my yard are cool with that.
Tip: Don’t Stare Too Long
Unless you are in a bird blind, if you can see a bird, there is a good chance he can see you. Birds tend to notice when you are looking at them. 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 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 birds is that you like them. You don’t want to impact their lives negatively for the sake of a photograph!
Tip: Get To Know Birds in Your Yard
Get to know the birds that hang out in your yard and where to expect them. For example, Blue Jays come out of the woodwork to pounce on the peanuts as soon as I spread them out on the picnic table or toss them on the ground a few feet away from me. Because I know this, I have my camera ready and pointed in the right direction.
I also know where the American Goldfinches hang out and where Downy Woodpeckers will land on the tree before they head for the suet. With some patience you can get photos of birds that you know will show up sooner or later. Watch and have your camera ready!
Tip: Practice in Your Yard First
When you are somewhere new looking for birds, you won’t always know where to expect them. But 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 quickly find the bird in your lens, focus and take the shot when you are somewhere else.
Tip: Photograph Nuisance Birds
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, I sometimes 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 typically come back later.) Photographing them is good practice and I’ve discovered their beauty in the process.
Tip: Try Getting Low or High
It’s easy to see the world at our human level. But instead, try getting on the birds’ level. For example, if you want 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 and more intimate shots than looking down at them from human height.
But often birds are up in the trees or perched on other structures. Photographing them from below can result in pictures of bird anatomy that probably isn’t what you intended.
Sometimes you don’t have a choice, but if you can, look around and see if there is a way to get up higher closer to their level. For example, when my family visited Mexico, we often stayed in houses with walled yards. Whenever possible, I tried to find a way up onto the flat roof. Using my long lens from there got me better shots that trying to look up at birds from ground level.
Tip: Try Close-Up Photos
Experiment with your photos. Try to get as physically close as possible to the bird and then try to focus as close as possible. Close-ups can often make really interesting shots. Think about what is needed to tell the story and frame the shot that way.
Usually I try to compose a shot so that I get the whole bird in the picture, knowing I can crop it later if that is what I need. But sometimes I 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!
If you aren’t sure how close a bird is going to let you get, start taking shots farther out. Then take more as you move closer. That way if the birds flys, you at least have something.
Tip: Find Good Light
Look for good light. While you can take photos all through the day, usually the best light is when the sun is low in the sky in early morning or late afternoon. Go out on days when the light is pretty. Watch for opportunities to take photos of birds who are in that great light.
Notice how 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.
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 photo quality.
Tip: Edit Your Photos
Get good photo editing software and learn to use it. While we all occasionally take a beautiful shot that doesn’t need any correction, most can usually be improved quite significantly with basic photo editing. Remember, the goal here is usurally not to create something fake. The goal is to adjust the picture so it looks like it did in life.
Back when I processed photos for my VSN magazine, I used Adobe’s PhotoShop for color and light correction and cropping. When I got more into bird photography, I started using Adobe’s Lightroom software instead. It is a very quick and efficient way to process and organize large numbers of digital photos.
But these days, because I am not happy with Adobe’s switch to subscription pricing, I edit my photos in On1 Photo Raw. It’s like a mash up of LightRoom and PhotoShop, although a little rougher around the edges. And in 2021 I just added On1’s NoNoise AI software to my bird photography editing workflow. If you shoot in raw, it can do some amazing things to improve noisy shots of birds (something that can easily happen when using higher ISOs and sometimes less than ideal lighting.) On1 offers free trials of both if you are interested. (Note: I have no incentives on this recommendation; just a happy customer.)
Add Keywords to Photos
I upload photo files from my camera to my editing software on my computer. Then I typically browse through them quickly to delete any that are out of focus, missed the bird or are bad for some other obvious reason.
After that, I rename the files with a general topic (like “backyard birds” or other birding location and the date.) This is better than the mix of letters and numbers a camera usually gives a file.
Then I use the software to add keywords to the files (like “Northern Cardinal”, “bird feeder”, “Blue Jay”, “Squirrel”, “suet”, etc.) Keywording makes searching for a photo of a cardinal or suet or whatever easy in the future.
Do your keywording each time you upload your photos to your computer. This makes it easier to remember what you have in the picture. It is also a lot of work to have to do months worth of photos at one time later.
Adjust the Photo
Next I go to the Develop section of my photo editing software and try the Auto feature. The software adjusts the photo to what it thinks is right. When I used Lightroom, I found it typically overexposed the picture and set the contrast too high. So I very often used the software’s sliders to bring them back to where I think it looks right. I also sometimes will use a slider to adjust the shadows, particularly when the photo is of a dark bird with a dark eye. (Otherwise the eye gets lost.)
I 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.
Tip: Consider Your Photo’s Purpose
Understand that bird photography can have different purposes. For example:
- Do you want to create a frame worthy professional quality photo?
- Do you want to create something fun to post on social media or share online with birding friends?
- Do you want a record of the bird so you can prove a rare sighting?
- Do you want a photo of every bird species you have seen?
- Or you might take a picture to help you remember field markings on a bird you’ve never seen before so you can look it up in a field guide later or show another birder for help with the ID.
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, one 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.
Tip: Practice A Lot!
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.
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