Six Tips for Standout Bird Photographs

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) feeding on crabapple fruit in late winter, Ithaca, New York, USA. Canon EOS 7D, EF 500mm f/4 IS USM lens, 1.4X extender, Gitzo tripod. 1/1250 second, f/5.6, ISO 800.
Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) feeding on crabapple fruit in late winter, Ithaca, New York, USA. Canon EOS 7D, EF 500mm f/4 IS USM lens, 1.4X extender, Gitzo tripod. 1/1250 second, f/5.6, ISO 800.

Story & photos by Marie Read

Whether
beautiful or bizarre, colorful or cryptic, exuberant or elusive, birds captivate
us with their spirited ways and fascinating lifestyles. It’s no wonder they top
the list of favorite subjects for many nature photographers. That’s been true
since the dawn of nature photography, even more so since the digital age brought
getting great photos within reach of anyone with a camera. The result is a
world saturated with gorgeous bird imagery. So, how do you create images that
stand out from the crowd? Once you’ve mastered the classic portrait, take your photos
to the next level: make more
meaningful images by showing the bird in its habitat or by capturing its
behavior. Here are a few tips to help
you.

Background
Check!

It’s
happened to all of us: you’re clicking away gleefully, enthralled by the
gorgeous bird in your viewfinder. But when you play back the images, you realize
you’ve somehow overlooked that annoying twig apparently growing out of its head!
In a classic portrait nothing should draw attention away from the bird itself so
be sure to check what’s behind and around it before you press the shutter
button. The background need not be smooth and featureless but you definitely
want to avoid distracting elements behind the bird’s head. Check for stray branches,
bold horizon lines, or very bright or dark spots. Raise your tripod slightly up
or down or move from side to side to change the juxtaposition of the elements
in the frame. Alternatively, wait until the bird moves into cleaner surroundings
or against a more distant backdrop. Or try attaching a teleconverter to the
lens to throw distracting background elements out of focus.

Occasionally
something that at first seems distracting can be worked into a composition. The
bright spot behind the Cedar Waxwing in the opening image was on the left of
the frame when I first composed the shot. I nudged my tripod over a few inches to
reposition the highlight directly behind the bird giving a halo-like appearance.

From the Editor: NANPA’s Showcase 2020 competition is happening now! Use these tips to capture your own prize-winning entry. Learn more about Showcase.

Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani), foraging amid seaweed-covered rocks along the water's edge, Monterey Peninsula, California. Canon EOS 7D, EF 500mm f/4L IS USM lens, 1.4x extender, Gitzo tripod. 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 1000.
Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani), foraging amid seaweed-covered rocks along the water’s edge, Monterey Peninsula, California. Canon EOS 7D, EF 500mm f/4L IS USM lens, 1.4x extender, Gitzo tripod. 1/500 sec., f/5.6, ISO 1000.

Include the Habitat for Story-telling Images

Going
beyond portraits, there are various ways to create more meaningful photos. One
powerful strategy is to let the bird’s habitat be an important part of the image.
Not only does this allow you to tell stories with your photos—telling the
viewer where the bird lives and how it interacts with and is affected by its
surroundings—but it also gives you more freedom to make compelling
compositions.

In
my favorite shot of a Black Oystercatcher the bird takes up only a small part
of the frame. It’s surrounded by the varied colors and textures of seaweed as
it forages along the rocky intertidal zone of the Pacific Northwest, while the
moving water hints at the incoming tide.

Pay
attention to the composition for these bird-in-habitat shots. Avoid the boring
bulls-eye look! The smaller the bird is in the frame, the more important it is
to keep it out of the center of the composition. Instead, place the bird
off-center (use the classic “rule of thirds” to guide you if you like) to
create a dynamic composition that will keep the viewer interested.

Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator) male in foreground performing courtship display to female in background (left), Aurora, New York, USA. Canon EOS 7D II, EF 500mm f/4/L IS II lens, 1.4X III extender. Gitzo tripod. 1/2000 second, f/5.6, ISO 500.
Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator) male in foreground performing courtship display to female in background (left), Aurora, New York, USA. Canon EOS 7D II, EF 500mm f/4/L IS II lens, 1.4X III extender. Gitzo tripod. 1/2000 second, f/5.6, ISO 500.

To Capture Behavior, First Understand Your Subject

One of the best ways to improve your bird photography is to develop a deep understanding of birds. Be ever curious about avian life history and behavior, because with information comes predictability, the basis of many a good photo opportunity.

You
need to know two types of information: species’ behavior and individual habits.
The former includes the range of typical activities that all members of the species
do and that you might want to capture, such as courtship displays (for instance
the Red-breasted Merganser’s “salute-curtsey” display shown), nesting behaviors
and feeding methods. You can glean this information from books and online resources
such as Birds of North America Online (https://birdsna.org).

Equally
important are the day-to-day habits of the very individuals you plan to
photograph. Get to know the locals by being a bird watcher as much as you are a bird photographer. Notice repeated patterns
of activity…where do the local birds feed, rest, or bathe? Which perches do
they prefer? Do they have regular flight paths? Are they there only at certain
times of day? From which direction is the best light? These things let you know
where and when to position yourself (or set up a blind if need be) for the best
opportunities. Time spent in the field, observing individual birds closely and
discovering their ways for yourself—even without a camera in your hand—has the
added benefit of training you to notice birds’ subtle body language, something
that can help you capture the decisive moment.

Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera), male taking flight, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, California. Canon EOS 1D Mk III, EF 500mm f/4 IS USM lens, 1.4X extender, Gitzo tripod. 1/2000 second, f/5.6, ISO 500. (Digitally retouched-space added at top of image.)
Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera), male taking flight, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, California. Canon EOS 1D Mk III, EF 500mm f/4 IS USM lens, 1.4X extender, Gitzo tripod. 1/2000 second, f/5.6, ISO 500. (Digitally retouched-space added at top of image.)

Anticipate by Reading Birds’ Body Language

Spend
enough time with birds in the field and you’ll begin to recognize the subtle behavioral
cues they give when something is about to happen. Perhaps the best known are pre-flight
cues: postures that signal a bird’s intention to take wing. For instance, before
taking off eagles, spoonbills, and herons crouch and may poop; swimming waterfowl
(such as the Cinnamon Teal shown) sit up tall and flip their heads around
agitatedly; cranes lean forward distinctively. Pay attention to these signals
and be ready to fire off a burst of shots.

You
can predict certain courtship behaviors too. Two Western or Clark’s grebes
swimming toward each with heads held low and giving raspy calls will shortly run
in synchrony across the water in their “rushing” display. Duck courtship
displays are difficult to predict and very brief, often taking just a second or
two. Noticing the subtle cues preceding them is challenging. Mallard drakes may
give subtle head shakes before displaying, while Red-breasted Mergansers,
goldeneye, and Ruddy Ducks may simply hesitate briefly as they swim along, the
only cue you’ll get! Recognizing such signals and having fast reflexes are the
secret to capturing the action.

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Utah. Canon EOS 7D II, EF 100-400 mm IS II lens (at 400mm), handheld, AF Point Expansion (5 points). 1/2500 second, f/5.6, ISO 500.
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Utah. Canon EOS 7D II, EF 100-400 mm IS II lens (at 400mm), handheld, AF Point Expansion (5 points). 1/2500 second, f/5.6, ISO 500.

Optimize Your Autofocus System

Birds
are always on the move: preening, feeding, running around (or swimming if they’re
aquatic) and, of course, flying. Even at rest they constantly make slight head
movements to keep a wary eye on their surroundings. For that reason, it pays to
take full advantage of your camera’s autofocus (AF) system. Let’s consider AF
mode, AF area, and fine-tuning AF performance.

First
select the AF mode intended for
moving subjects. This directs the camera to focus continuously as the
subject-to-camera distance changes. Manufacturers’ terminology varies. For Canon
it is AI Servo, for Nikon AF-C.

Next,
choose the optimal AF area for the
situation. Distributed across your camera’s sensor field is an array of AF
points, ranging in number from a dozen or fewer in entry-level cameras to
hundreds in professional bodies. You can limit which AF points are active by
manually selecting a single point or an area varying in size from a small
cluster of points to a large zone. Alternatively you can let the camera choose
automatically from all available points.

For that
all-important tack sharp eye, the goal is to place the AF point over the bird’s
face but depending on how large the bird is in the frame and how fast it is
moving this is no trivial task! Let the camera help you. I tend to use a single
AF point only for stationary subjects. For birds in flight or otherwise moving
fast I use an AF point cluster (Canon’s AF Point Expansion or Nikon’s Dynamic
Area AF mode) as I did for the Barn Swallow banking in midair shown. For fast
erratic fliers such as nighthawks or small terns it’s hard enough to keep the
bird in the frame, and the fully automatic option may work best (Canon’s
Automatic AF Point Selection, Nikon’s Auto-Area AF or Group Area AF).

Finally,
many cameras give you the option of fine-tuning
AF performance
to match the characteristics of subject movement. Consider,
for instance, a Great Blue Heron flying smoothly in a straight line versus the
erratic stop/start action and sudden twists and turns of a foraging Reddish
Egret. In Canon cameras, AF fine-tuning is done by means of the AF
Configuration Tool, a drop-down menu offering several preset combinations of
three parameters (Tracking sensitivity, Acceleration/deceleration tracking, and
AF pt auto switching). For Nikon users it’s achieved via the Focus Tracking
with Lock-on menu. Other camera brands have similar settings. Read your user
guide carefully to understand the effects of these adjustments. AF fine-tuning
adjustments are explained in detail in the Birds in Flight chapter of my book Mastering Bird Photography (see below).

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) male taking flight in cattail marsh in spring, Ithaca, New York. Canon EOS 7D, EF 500mm f/4 IS USM lens, 1.4X extender, Gitzo tripod. 1/1600, f/8, ISO 400.
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) male taking flight in cattail marsh in spring, Ithaca, New York. Canon EOS 7D, EF 500mm f/4 IS USM lens, 1.4X extender, Gitzo tripod. 1/1600, f/8, ISO 400.

Take Risks!

Digital technology has opened up a world of
possibilities for bird photographers. For me it means the freedom and
confidence to take photographic risks. Whether
it’s creative use of shutter speed, lighting or composition, let yourself experiment.
And if some fast action happens, don’t hesitate—shoot! You might get something
special like a Red-winged Blackbird taking flight. If not there’s always the delete
key!

Above
all, have fun!

Marie Read is a professional wildlife photographer based near Ithaca, NY. Her images and articles about birds and their lives appear in magazines and books (including her own titles) worldwide. Her latest book is Mastering Bird Photography: the Art, Craft and Technique of Photographing Birds and Their Behavior, available through Rocky Nook.