Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

Tips and How-To's

5 Pros on Taking Better Bird Photos

Photographers share advice, their most memorable avian shots, and the ones that got away.

1. Wildlife photographer Melissa Groo has received numerous accolades for her work—most recently as the Grand Prize winner of the 2015 Audubon Photography Awards.

Advice: 

  • Look for repetitive behavior. Many things that birds do, they are likely to do again. If you’re not ready the first time, be ready the second or third time. 
  • Never stop thinking about where you are in relation to the bird. Get to the spot you want to be when the bird engages in its behavior again. Move your location, always paying attention to the background and how it will affect your image. Even just a few inches to one side can make a big difference. Change lenses, zoom in and out, get a different viewpoint. Shoot vertical, shoot horizontal. Place the bird in a corner of the frame rather than the center. 
  • If your bird is low, as much as you are able, GET LOW. This has a huge impact on your photos. This perspective really will help to bring you into the world of the bird and also helps to throw the area behind the bird out of focus, placing the attention on the bird. 
  • Shoot in RAW file format if you are concerned about being able to fix exposure in post-processing. Shoot in JPEG if you want to have the fastest frames per second possible. 
Northern Harrier. Photo: Melissa Groo

The backstory: One image stands out the most in my mind, because for me it was the moment that really cemented my love of bird photography. I was photographing a Northern Harrier from my car, and at one point she flew directly toward me and held me in her gaze, seeming to consider me for a brief moment. In those few seconds, I felt her wild soul and knew that this was what I wanted to do: capture moments in the lives of wild animals, and try to connect viewers with those animals.

 

2. Award-winning photographer Michael Forsberg has dedicated himself to using his photography as a call to protect wildlife and wild places, and is a senior fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. Most recently, Audubon ran an incredible shot by Forsberg of the prairie pothole region.

Advice: 

  • Remember the three “P’s”:  planning, patience, and persistence. Plan well so you know the lay of the land, the subjects, and the habits of the birds you are photographing. Be patient; you may wait all day long for one split second where everything comes together. Bird photography takes time. Finally, be persistent. A good photograph doesn’t happen every day. But the more time you invest, the more often you are rewarded.
  • Honor the animal. Let them come to you—don’t “go get them.” When they do come to you, they have accepted you or your blind into their world, and now you have a bond of trust that should not be broken.
  • Have fun and enjoy the wonder of it all. Your passion will show in your images. Then make sure you share your images with others.
  • When you share, you help build appreciation, and appreciation is the first step in conservation.

The one that got away: Usually you see only a photographer’s success, but I fail a lot as a photographer, waiting for birds that don’t come, or birds that show up and are doing interesting things but the light is poor. Years ago I spent every day for almost a week lying on my belly in a small homemade blind on a prairie dog town in western South Dakota, waiting for a Burrowing Owl to come up out of its nest burrow. The days were long and hot, so the owls were mostly coming out after dark. But the sixth night in a row it happened right as the sun was setting, and when that tiny owl locked eyes with mine through the viewfinder, it was like it, in all of its wildness, was looking right into my soul. I will never forget that moment for as long as I live.

 

3. Joel Sartore has turned shooting profiles of birds and other wildlife into an art. A 2014 Audubon profile of Sartore describes his quest to get a close-up of every captive species on earth—as many as 12,000 species.

Advice: 

  • Shoot in good light, dress for the weather, and, above all, do no harm.
  • Patience is a huge deal when you're working with wildlife. Find a scene you like, and wait for the actors to appear. That takes time, but it is so worth it.
Green anaconda clutching and killing a Great Egret and a Jabiru Stork. Photo: Joel Sartore

The backstory: My most memorable bird shot is probably this one of a green anaconda clutching and killing a Great Egret in the Pantanal of Brazil. I was in shallow water, and was shooting at water level just a few feet way. The kill was slow. My assistant saw the Great Egret flapping its wings but not taking off, so he was fairly certain that a snake had the bird. Plus there was a Jabiru Stork standing out there in the water trying to poke a hole in the snake as well. The stork flew off as we waded out to the egret. Once we got to the downed bird, we could see a green anaconda’s coils around the lower part of the bird’s body.  It was a very amazing moment to be a part of. I felt bad for the bird, though.

 

4. Award-winning conservation photographer Mac Stone specializes in documenting the Everglades and America’s swamps. Check out his series of photos of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers that ran in the March-April 2015 issue of Audubon.

Advice: 

  • Learn everything you can about your subjects, its behaviors, its prey base, its habitat. The more groundwork you do in learning, the more it will show in your images.
  • Shadow a specialist or biologist who works with the birds or studies them in the field. Learn to see like a scientist. Having eyes for the field will translate to more intimate photographs.
  • All too often, we photograph birds to show other birders and, in turn, we create one-dimensional photos because we’re preaching to the choir. Shoot as if it’s for someone who has never seen the bird before. Ask yourself: What makes this bird unique? What makes it important? Why should we appreciate it?

The one that got away: Oddly enough, the bird that got away is also my most memorable shot. Working on a story about the endangered Everglades Snail Kite for my book Everglades: America’s Wetland, I spent months planning a perspective that had never been attempted before. I budgeted and gave myself four days to make a unique frame of the kite hunting apple snails, using a camera trap and a wide-angle lens. After spending those four days waiting in my canoe from dawn to dusk, with no success, I had to return home. I was utterly defeated and deflated. It was expensive, and I didn’t think I could afford another failure. But it kept gnawing at me, this idea that I had to make it work. So, going for broke, I bought another plane ticket, rented a car, and went back to Lake Okeechobee.

It was critical to me to make this frame, because it helped tell a bigger story about the connection between healthy wetlands and this icon of the Everglades. I spent another three days in nine-hour shifts waiting in my canoe. With help from state wildlife biologists, we finally pulled it off on the seventh day. Here’s a video about how we did it.

 

5. Now that Connor Stefanison, who took up photography in 2008 at the age of 17, has completed his degree in ecology, conservation, and evolution at Simon Fraser University, he’s dedicating more time than ever to nature photography. Stefanison spent several days in the field with biologists last year for an Audubon story about restoring Common Loons.

Advice:

  • Spend as much time as you can in the field photographing. The more you practice, the easier it will be for you to quickly adjust camera settings, anticipate and understand bird behavior, and correct for any mistakes you made in the past. 
  • Don’t get caught up in thinking you need the latest and greatest equipment. Some of the world’s most iconic bird photographs were produced using cameras that would be considered inferior to today’s low-end DSLR bodies. I generally find that I take more photos when I’m carrying less gear, mostly because I’m able to move around quicker and get into position sooner.
  • Learn to love your wide-angle and mid-range focal lengths. Bird photography is not all about tight compositions taken with long super-telephoto lenses. By using wider lenses, you will be able to include more of the bird’s habitat. Doing this will often create an image that tells a larger story and provides more impact with the viewer. 
  • Don’t be intimidated to learn how to use flash. Learn it, and a whole new world of creative possibilities will open up. 
Common Loon. Photo: Connor Stefanison

The backstory: My most memorable bird image is definitely from my first experience with a particular female Common Loon that I have now been photographing for a few years. She’s a very tolerant loon, and accepted my presence from the first time I encountered her. The image is of her sitting on her nest at sunset. Many nesting Common Loons are quite shy toward humans, but this one was completely calm toward me. I’ve spent numerous evenings sitting beside her at sunset, and every encounter is just as exciting as the first. 

I don’t recommend approaching just any nesting bird to take this type of photo. This is only possible with certain tolerant individuals. Always consider the welfare of the subject before attempting to make an image.

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