Photographing Birds Using Your Digital SLR - dummies

Photographing Birds Using Your Digital SLR

By Doug Sahlin

You can capture interesting images of birds large and small with your digital SLR. You just need a bit of patience and some knowledge of the bird you want to photograph. A bird feeder is an ideal place to photograph small birds. You can travel to an area with a lake or river or to a wildlife refuge for get shots of larger avian creatures. Knowing where your subjects hang out is half the battle.

The equipment you need to photograph birds depends on how close you can get to them, although if you want to capture reclusive birds of prey, the lens that comes with most cameras doesn’t cut it. If you’re serious about bird photography, you need a good lens with a long focal length to reach out to the bird’s roost. A zoom lens that reaches out to 200mm or longer is the ideal solution.

Setting up the camera to photograph birds

Shoot in Aperture Priority mode with a large aperture (a small f/stop number) to ensure that you have a shallow depth of field that draws your viewer’s attention to the bird.

A low ISO setting ensures that you get a crisp image with a minimum of digital noise. Choose the lowest setting that will yield a shutter speed that enables you to handhold the camera. If you’re shooting in low-light conditions, stabilize the camera with a tripod instead of increasing the ISO because a higher ISO setting will produce digital noise (noticeable in the shadow areas of the image).

Use a focal length of 100mm or longer for wild birds you can’t get close to.

Single Shot Focus mode enables you to quickly establish focus using a minimum of battery power. Using a single auto-focus point allows you to focus precisely on your feathered friend. Use image stabilization if the lighting conditions yield a slow shutter speed; however, turn it off if you use a tripod.

If you’re photographing a flock of birds, switch to a higher ISO setting to get a smaller aperture (larger f/stop number), such as f/8 or f/11, which gives you a greater depth of field.


Prepping for the picture

Generally, you want to capture the bird and a little bit of its surrounding, which is why you use a large aperture (small f/stop number), and shoot in Aperture Priority mode.

Most birds stay put when feeding, so establish yourself near a feeding area before mealtime. It’s best to sit patiently and wait for the birds, especially if you’re photographing in a place where the birds aren’t used to humans. If you’re photographing skittish birds, find a spot where you’ll blend into the background.


Be aware of your own safety. When you photograph wading birds in the wild, watch out for predators like alligators who often inhabit the same areas. If possible, travel with a friend who can keep an eye out for you while you photograph the birds.

Choose a position with a background that contrasts nicely with the bird’s colors. For example, green foliage provides a great background when photographing white birds. If you find that you get no details on a white bird, the camera has exposed for the entire scene while overexposing parts of the bird. The remedy is to use exposure compensation to decrease exposure by 1/3 or 2/3 a stop. If the bird’s features are too dark, it may be because the sun or other light source is behind the bird. Use exposure compensation to increase the exposure or move to another position where the light shines directly on your subject.


Make sure you have the auto-focus point positioned over the bird — preferably over the eye nearest the camera — when you press the shutter button halfway to achieve focus.

Focusing on small birds

You photograph a small bird in a way similar to shooting someone’s portrait. You want your subject to be in focus, but you don’t want the foreground or background in focus. Shoot this type of picture in Aperture Priority mode, using a large aperture (a small f/stop number). Use a single auto-focus point and, if possible, achieve focus on the bird’s eye. You use Continuous Auto-Focus mode because your subject will probably move after you achieve focus. Shooting in Continuous Drive mode allows you to take pictures as long as you hold your finger on the shutter button, so you can hedge your bets, hopefully getting a couple of interesting pictures when your subject comes into view.

Catching birds in flight

When you photograph a bird in flight, your goal is to stop the action. A shutter speed of 1/500 of a second is plenty fast enough to freeze a bird in flight. The suggested ISO setting should yield an f/stop of about f/4.0 in bright conditions, which is a large aperture that gives you a soft, out-of-focus background. You may need to increase to a higher ISO setting to achieve this f/stop if you’re photographing in overcast conditions. You use Continuous Auto-Focus mode, which lets the camera update focus while the bird moves closer to or farther from you. Using Continuous Drive mode lets you capture a sequence of images, such as when the bird comes in for a landing at his nest. You can also capture a majestic series of images of the bird in flight. The suggested focal length works when you can get fairly close to the bird. However, you may need a focal length of 200mm or greater if you’re photographing an elusive bird, such as an eagle or an osprey.

[Credit: Photo courtesy of Roxanne Evans,]
Credit: Photo courtesy of Roxanne Evans,