How To Become a Better Bird Photographer: Advice From Audubon Photo Award Winners

Go from beginner to award winner by following these strategies from alumni of our annual bird photography contest.
Magnificent Frigatebird, captured by 2020 winner Sue Dougherty.

While lucky timing never hurts, it takes practice and patience to create images like those featured in the annual Audubon Photography Awards. Thats abundantly clear, at least, when reading the stories behind each shot.

How do you get there? A few months ago, we decided to ask former winners and honorable mention awardees of past contests. We sent out a survey to more than 70 photographers, alumni of Audubon photo contests held since 2009. Below you can find a sampling of some of the sage advice that flooded into our inboxes. 

What is one tip you would give to a person newly interested in bird photography, or something that you wish you knew when you began?

“Make a major effort to learn the behavior of birds in all phases of their life cycle. Take the patience to wait as long as it takes to capture that one instant of time where your image portrays a unique feature or behavioral action which clearly typifies the species.” —Gary Zahm

“If you’re coming from a photography background, you must become a better birder. If you’re coming from a birding background, you must become a better photographer.” —Blake Shaw

“Start close to home with slow moving birds and then progress to faster, smaller birds.”—Diana Rebman         

“Patience. This is not a hobby to be rushed. Take your time and wait patiently and you'll get your shot.” —Michael Libbe

“Always put the welfare of your subject before your image. Knowing the life cycle, behavior, and preferred habitat of the birds you want to photograph not only makes you better at finding your subjects and a better naturalist, but it also makes you a more ethical photographer, because you will be able to recognize and minimize the stress that your presence may be causing—both on the bird and the habitat. It’s important to know when to walk away from a shot.” —Natalie Robertson

“Spend more time researching habitat and behavior of targeted species, as this will pay off in dividends. Gotta make your own luck.”—Scott Suriano 

“1. Study photos, and also paintings, that you like. Why do you like them? What makes it a strong composition? 2. Watch the background. Move around, keeping your eye in the viewfinder until the background frames the bird. 3. Make sure that the different layers of the image (background, foreground, subject) don't overlap, and that the corners frame the image. 4. My main rule is that there are no rules.” —Carolina Fraser 

“For birds, especially small birds, get the longest focal length you can afford. It will be very rare that youll find yourself having too much focal length.”—Martin Sneary 

“Take the shot when you see it and shoot plenty of pictures.” —Susan Davis 

“Study art—even art that has nothing to do with birding. Visual art has its own language and its worth taking the time to learn it. Find a painting that moves you and think about why it has such an impact on you. This process will help you create more expressive images that in turn connect with other people.”—Kevin Ebi 

“Rather than running around to get lots of different birds, focus deeply on one or two species over a season and tell the story of their lives, capturing intimate moments, poses, and details that will stand out from the rest.”—Melissa Groo

“The very best thing is to learn from a mentor, travel locally or internationally with fellow photographers and immerse yourself in learning from others. Simply put...go out and practice, and dont be afraid to learn from mistakes. There are also many ways to make amazing images.” —Sue Dougherty 

“When you go in expecting to get specific shots or find a certain animal, it almost never goes as planned. I think it’s better to go in open-minded to what you may find, by having that clear mind you have less tunnel vision and may notice more of the nature around you that you may have previously ignored.”—Sebastian Velasquez 

“Think outside of the box to create unique, eye-catching images, and most importantly, use your images on social media to promote conservation, and love for the natural world.” —Liron Gertsman 

“Go slowly. Go quietly. Theres so much more around than you first realize. Just sit and listen. Theyre there.” —Michael Schulte 

“Concentrate on getting the proper exposure in your camera using the histogram.” —Tim Timmis

“The more time you spend outside looking at birds, the more opportunities you will have to photograph something cool. It’s sometimes more about just being out there, than being the most technically advanced.” —Marlee Fuller-Morris 

“Love what you do. Dont get frustrated or down on yourself. Sometimes youll get amazing images; other times you may not get images at all. Always start with a goal of reveling in nature. Embrace the journey and be patient...the payoff is worth it!” — Mariam Kamal

What is one single piece of gear or accessory—small or large— that changed the game for you in your bird photography, or that you could never do without? 

“Merlin App for field identification anywhere in the world.”— Blake Shaw

“Black Rapid camera straps are very useful, especially for heavy cameras. You can carry cameras without a strain on your neck and allows for quick access to take a photo.”—Vayum Tiwari 

“My Simms waders and scuba booties. It allows me to wander in any area that is wet, sit in ponds for hours, belly crawl on the beach without getting sand burns, and prevents bugs and other critters from biting me. The booties are lightweight and protect the stockinged foot. I can put foot warmers in the bootie and that keeps my feet warm when sitting in icy ponds.”— Gail Bisson 

“Things changed for me many years ago when I bought a dedicated 500mm f4 lens. It is so important to be able to get nice out of focus backgrounds. Add a fx camera body with great tonal range and a teleconverter and I am good to go. At some point I will have to consider weight and change to a mirrorless system, but essentially I would like the same set up.”— Diana Whiting 

“Ground pod to get low level eye-to-eye shots.”—Tim Timmis

“A high-quality bean bag is always with me, especially when utilizing my vehicle as a blind.  Here in Utah I always love the winter season where eagles and other raptors can be seen in greater quantities. The beanbag is invaluable when photographing from my vehicle.” — John Blumenkamp 

“A telephoto lens with a long focal length, and seeing as Im a birder, a decent pair of binoculars. A telephoto lens is essential to be able to capture images of birds without getting too close. Long telephoto primes are very expensive and out of reach for most, but there are very affordable options that produce excellent results from most camera brands. The use of teleconverters on shorter lenses like 300mm+ get you closer to the action while maintaining an ethical distance from the subject. Binoculars to me are essential—I have a tantrum if I accidentally leave them at home. I use them to locate and identify birds and potential subjects, and to observe behavior.”—Natalie Robertson 

“My tripod. I started out with a monopod and quickly found that with heavier lenses, a tripod is absolutely priceless. I have an Induro CLT103 Stealth Carbon Fiber Tripod, and I love it. With my tripod, I don’t have to rely on my hands to steady my heavy lenses. That means I have fewer blurry shots... Fewer missed opportunities!”— Mariam Kamal 

“I think the Canon EOS R5 is a game changer with the animal eye focus. It allows me to capture the moment and a sharp eye on my subject nearly every time. In both stills and video. I think this camera really is a game changer.” —Donald Quintana