Bird Photography 101: How to Get Started?

If you are looking for a new hobby, then bird photography can be a wonderful choice. Birds are majestic treasures of nature. Some birds can be challenging to capture which makes it fun.

To click some awestruck moments of birds, a good camera, tripod, and long lenses are necessary. Especially when they are at a great distance. But studying the birds, their behavior, and locations is most important to get into this hobby. 

Understanding different camera settings, tactics, timings to step out, and ethics make this hobby all fun and thrilling.

What Equipment Do You Need for Bird Photography?

Honestly speaking, you do not need all the expensive gadgets out there to get started. But you do need some of the basic yet useful gadgets that make it easier to capture those jaw-dropping images. Here are some gears a novice should consider buying:

  • Binoculars 
  • Monocular 
  • Camera
  • GPS or smartphone
  • Long Lenses with Rain Covers
  • Teleconverter
  • Tripod or Beanbag
  • Gimbal
  • Camera Bags
  • Headlamp
  1. Binoculars

Birds do not like being up close and personal to humans. Also with your naked eyes, you cannot locate most of them. And bins or binoculars can bridge this gap. So you can scan their locations or roosting sites and approach them from a safe distance, for a better click.

Now you might think that camera lenses can also identify birds. But the binoculars field of view ensures that you see more birds at once than the camera lens. And this gadget is quite useful when you do not want to click a bird right away.

With bins, you can study a bird’s behavior and decide whether it is what you want to capture. And it also helps to identify the birds hiding in a canopy which the lens cannot do. 

Two of the most popular specifications are 10×42 and 8×32. The first one is larger in size but the brighter view it shows is second to none.  Though you can definitely go for compact 10X bins, this miniature is extremely expensive. 

Whatever brand or specifications you choose, make sure you shop for binocular harnesses too. It will help you to carry and use them easily through hilly or difficult terrain. So that you can concentrate on photography angles or birds. Also, it prevents them from dropping. 


  1. Monocular 

This is a money-saving option if you are not up for buying a DSLR camera. This device lets you turn your smartphone camera into a high-end digital camera through digiscoping method. You just need to place the gadget in front of your phone to click. Without it, your phone cannot access the views at a short distance.

Which magnification is better for you depends on which birds you want to capture and from what distance. To capture those pose-loving and common species like Robins, Sparrows, or Doves, a 6X monocular is more than enough. But for the exotic birds or a view across the lake, a 20x is a must. It can help you identify and click stunning images from a great distance. 

Remember that the more powerful the magnification is, the less detailed your photos will be. Because it reduces the size of the subjects so that you can get an overall good field of view. So consider buying a powerful one only if you want to capture birds in flight or aerial dance aka murmuration



  1. Camera

To make the most of bird photography, nothing beats a camera. Whether you go in the meadows or the woods, it captures detailed views without any distortion. Nikon, Canon, and Sony are the three most go-to brands for avian photography. 

When there is no breathing room in your budget and all the other cameras seem too hotchpotch to handle, go for a bridge camera. It is lightweight, user-friendly, compact, and cheaper. Good deal for birders who need to capture the winged wonders from difficult terrains.

The best part of a bridge camera is, it does not require any extra-long lens. Because it comes with long zoom lenses. Even many of them come with an automatic mode option to save you from camera adjustments hassle. It makes sure you get to click those distant birds with wide-angle landscapes instantly. But during low light, this will not provide a high-quality image.


Before pressing the camera shutter, if you want to see the real representation of how your photo will look, go for any mirrorless camera.  Because in its viewfinder it will show you in real-time, how different adjustments can have an effect on your photo. You can see how different lighting, filters, or focus will change the view, unlike DSLR viewfinders. 

If you have some prior experience with cameras, you should prefer a DSLR. Especially, if you wait too long to get the perfect shot. Its long-lasting battery will not die when you need it the most. And it provides high-quality pictures of those birds in flight with great details without reducing the size of the subject matter. 



  1. Long Lenses with Rain Cover

When a tripod or beanbag is just not convenient to use, the telephoto lens is the hero. Especially, when birds are at their top of movements and you need to capture it without blurring the subject.

A long telephoto lens increases focal length so that you can get precise detail which is not possible from the built-in camera lens. When you cannot get close to birds, this comes in handy to take close-range photos from far away. Also, it provides a compression effect so that the subject and background look visually close to each other, just how our eyes see in real-time. 

When you want to capture those exotic feathered friends, emphasizing the focus on them is a must. Because the background will remain but those birds are not likely to visit that place often. If you solely want to focus on the subjects, then a long lens can give you the most blurred yet sleek background. 

A bare minimum of 300mm lens is a good deal for a novice. Two of the most common photo lenses are Canon 400mm F5.6 and Canon 300mm F4. But of course, what brand will make it to your gear kit depends on your budget and purpose as well.

When you make a budget for it, don’t forget to take rain cover for your lens. Because the weather doesn’t care about your expensive gadget, fog and rain can disrupt its functions. But rain covers can protect the camera body and lens. 


  1. Teleconverter

If you do not want to invest your money in an expensive lens, then go for a lightweight teleconverter. And you can opt for a cheaper 200mm lens and use a 1.8 converter to get a 400mm reach. 

A 1.7x or 1.4x converter alone also can give you a better close-up of the birds. But before you buy one, check whether your camera can fit it or not. Because most cameras are compatible with a spare lens rather than a converter. 



  1. Tripod or Beanbag

Holding that heavy lens and camera all day long can feel like an intense weight lifting session. Also, as a beginner, you cannot get a proper balance without a tripod. 

Tripod gives you the time to compose your image and get a steadier shot. Especially when you need a longer exposure time. You just need to mount the camera on a tripod and it will stay stable even during the wind. Without it, you might come home with some blurry shots. 

If you want to capture birds during their movements and represent the passage of time, you have to use slow shutter speed. Because this speed can give you the effect by sharpening the static elements. But without a tripod, your camera will not produce the effect. 

Consider buying a tall tripod. Because you can always lower the legs to get your perfect balance. But you cannot extend a short tripod. 

Sometimes while you are on a safari or your own vehicle, a tripod is not feasible to use. Especially if you want to click birds from your car window. In such a scenario, remember to use beanbags. It supports your heavy lens and camera even over a car door. Carry it empty and when you need to use it fill it up with rice or wheat to make it stand properly.



  1. Gimbal

If you let your camera and lens sit on a tripod in one direction, you might miss many stunning views. So you need to tilt and pan them in different directions.

A gimbal helps you with the camera movements. And you can rotate it at 360 degrees too to get celestial photos. Also, it lets you take an upward shot so that your subject appears clearer. It only weighs 2lbs so you do not have to worry about comfort. 


  1. Camera Bags

Don’t waste your energy on carrying all the gear with bare hands. Rather save it for locating and clicking stellar photos of the winged wonders. And camera bags with comfy compartments make it easier for you.

If you have only a bridge camera and converter or small gadgets, get a pouch to carry the accessories. But for those giant photo lenses and gadgets, a large messenger bag or backpack is necessary. Its straps let you carry all the equipment with ease and safety. It features extra cushioning so that the accidental drops do not have any effect on the gears.

If you only have a small camera and batteries, you should get a camera holster or waist bag. You can wear it over your shoulder or around the waist. It is really a no-brainer to carry. 


  1. Headlamp

If you are going in the woods especially at dawn or dusk, taking a headlamp is a must. It helps to illuminate your way so that you can watch out for your steps. And save yourself from potential threats. Also during the dark, this gadget is useful to find your way back home.

If your purpose is to identify birds at low light, consider getting a headlamp with red LED mode. Because white light can disrupt birds’ activity or frighten them. But they do not see the red light so it does not affect them.


What Camera Settings Do You Need as A Beginner?

Different camera adjustments can make the difference between day and night in the photos. So, you need to understand how you can use the settings to make the most of your endeavor. For starting out you can select the auto ISO and auto camera mode and click. But this option does not let you develop your skills. So, for experimenting with images go for manual mode.

ISO or in simpler terms the brightness level during daylight should range from 100 to 200. Otherwise, the photos will look distorted or blurry once you enlarge them at 100%. But during the dark, you should increase the ISO to 300 or over so you get sharp images.

For avian photography, the bare minimum shutter speed should be at 1/800th, or else moving birds or low lighting captures will not come out clear. 

A fixed aperture does not provide detailed images for different bird behaviors. It controls the amount of light that hits the camera. For capturing birds flying in flocks or foraging or bathing, keep the aperture at f/10. Because it is ideal to freeze the motion. Other than that you can keep it at f/4.

Most bridge camera bodies come with an autofocus option which is great if you want to isolate your subject from the background. But for clicking some moving birds, you need to click the Al Servo AF or Back Button Focus option.

If you have a DSLR and you want to get the perfect shot of those raptors or starlings flying around, then manually activate multiple focusing points from the screen. Because with this setting it is much easier to track and focus them. But if it’s a single bird or Hummingbird switch to single focusing. 

You need to read the metering to understand whether the light will be too bright or dark if you take a photo. To do that, locate the metering M or EV sign on the screen and hold the camera toward the landscape. If the meter needle stays in the middle, your photo will hold natural lighting. Otherwise, you need to reduce or increase the ISO for perfect exposure.

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How to Capture Wonderful Images?

Do not settle for less just because you are starting out. Just know that sky’s the limit when it comes to avian photography. And it is not true that only veterans can take some jaw-dropping shots. You can too if you practice these steps 

  • Study Your Subject
  • Take Safe Shot
  • Visit a Location Often
  • Be Aware of Your Surroundings
  • Isolate the Subject 
  • Isolate Bird’s Body Parts 
  • Capture Different Bird Behaviors 
  • Focus on the Eyes
  • Take Photos from Bird’s Perspective 



  1. Study Your Subject

The better you know your subjects the better photos you will come up with. And to know which species are active during which time and in what activities, get yourself a field guide or bird guide. There are many beginner-friendly guides out there. Or you can digitally learn about them on offline bird apps like eBird or websites like Xeno-Canto.

Try to study what frightens or agitates them so that you do not come across harmful in any way to them. Also learn about their roosting or nesting sites, season, and foraging behavior. 

Research provides you with information such as starlings form patterns or murmuration in the sky over their roosting sites. And Hummingbird species come closer to you if you wear colorful clothing in red, orange, or yellow. 

Just imagine you go out without studying your subjects. And you try to capture a thrilling take-off of the raptors but all you could capture is raptors answering nature’s call. Yeah, usually it’s their time to do so. That’s why you need to study their behavior before you plan your perfect shot.

If you want to capture young birds in their roosting sites, research will help you to understand at what time you can find varieties of them alone without their parents. So studying them before stepping out reduces your guessing game in the field. 


  1. Take Safe Shot

A safe shot is taking a photo from some distance approximately 100 yards away. As a beginner, if you witness some birds at a great distance, you might not feel motivated to click them. Because you think the images will not grab more eyeballs. But I will suggest you take safe shots, at times they make great resources for any documentary.

When you have your teleconverter and lens, taking a safe shot is a wise move. It captures birds in their natural habitats without frightening them. After taking those shots you can approach them slowly and once you reach approximately 25 feet away from them, you can start experimenting with your camera adjustments to get some detailed images. 


  1. Visit a Location Often

Make yourself familiarized with the nearby locations where most people go for birding. It will make you aware of what species come there, at what time, the state of natural lighting, birds’ habitats. Also, it helps to understand which gadgets you require the most in those places. 

Getting familiarized is a good way to keep a track of the way back home from the difficult terrain. For that, you can often visit the woods, seashore, or national parks nearby. This trick opens your door for the possibility to take a shot that happens once in a lifetime. Because you get the time and insights to plan and execute your best click. 


  1. Be Aware of Your Surroundings 

Having the most expensive gadgets and their knowledge does not ensure a stunning image. It’s up to your intellect and focus as well. So do not look through the lens or camera throughout the day. Try to be aware of the environment too. For example, if you keep on looking in one direction, you might miss great views around you. 

Be alert and focused to listen to any bird calls. If possible try to record it and search for what species it is. It will help you adjust your camera according to its behavior. 


  1. Isolate the Subjects 

If you witness a bird sitting still on a tree branch, try to take a photo with a single focus. Isolate the bird from its background so that its beautiful colors or detailing can come out lively. You have your long lens to blur out the background and emphasize the feathered friend.

If you do not find an ideal spot that isolates the birds from the front, then keep the camera at a lower down position. And the sky will appear as a sleek background. Or you can snap the bird from any corner that helps you to focus on it only. Such isolated photos can make a good entry to field guide books or apps.


  1. Isolate Bird’s Different Body Parts

You can isolate different body parts such as colorful wings, feathers, and tails to create some unique shots. But for it, you do need to use high-end camera lenses with converters. 

Jackson’s Widowbird has a beautiful tail like second to none. Focusing your camera on its tail will surely remind you of the long-haired Disney princess Rapunzel. Or you can focus on the Fly catcher’s beautiful crown or Peacock’s train alone. 

If you notice any raptors foraging with their claws, you should focus the camera on their claws.


  1. Capture Different Bird Behaviors 

If taking portraits does not ignite your soul, capture birds engaged in different behaviors. During their sunbath, some of them stretch their wings or tail. And the others sit quietly. These are some of the good poses to make an entry to your camera.

You can click them while they eat or build a nest. Some birds like white-tailed kites’ courting rituals are stunning to capture. The males offer a mouse to the females during their flight. So always lookout for this opportunity to be their unofficial engagement photographer. 


  1. Focus on Bird’s Eye

Some eyes ignite innocence while others feel quite intimidating. Especially the eyes of nocturnal birds. To capture the highlight present in a bird’s eyes, no need to isolate the whole body. 

You just need to place the camera tripod in a way that the sunray falls behind it. Then keep the aperture at f/4.5 and press the shutter to get an eye-catchy image.



  1. Take Photos from Bird’s Perspective 

The birds will not pose for your camera. So you need to position your gadgets and yourself in a way that matches their sitting or landing level.

Some birds eat worms from the ground or sunbathe in open places. You can lower the tripod or place the bean bag on the ground. Then lie down on the sand or grass to create interesting compositions with a DSLR. 


Best Times and Places for Starting Bird Photography 

There is no best place or time to capture a bird. Because birds are everywhere around us throughout the day. But yes, to capture exotic birds and their natural habitats some times and places are better than others.

You can start bird photography from your home comfort too if you can attract a variety of birds by placing bird feeders and water resources in your backyard. Or you can go to a seashore or lake for gulls, woods for Robins or Doves. Also, national parks are great locations for beginners to spot and capture varieties of birds. 

If you do not want to come home even without a single photo, then step out at dawn. For that, you need to sacrifice your sleep. But if the birds can sacrifice their sleep to sing songs to you, then you can too. Predusk is also a good time to capture migrating birds.


Some Ethics of Bird Photography 

Taking great bird photographs should not cost any harm to the little fliers. So practice some of these codes of ethics to be an ethical bird photographer. And this applies to everyone-be it veterans or a novice.

Never chase birds to click them in flight. They will be scared and might not visit that place. Also do not go too close to their habitats or roosting sites. It agitates them. Also when you get too close to the nesting sites you leave a scent that attracts predators. And they attack hatchlings. 

Try to avoid wearing white, especially if you are going to the woods. Most birds take this color as a sign of danger and they fly away. Also, avoid attracting them with bird calls recording, it hampers their daily activities. Just remember to click photos naturally without baiting them.


You can get into bird photography just with a monocular and your smartphone if capturing memories is the only goal.