A beginner’s guide to better bird photography

A beginner’s guide to better bird photography

by Spenser Smith November 14, 2018

There are countless photography guides that explore the intricate details of operating your camera—this is not one of them. Instead, I focus on four practical approaches I’ve learned over the past two years that have greatly improved my bird photography.

1. Observe bird behaviour

The seemingly unpredictable nature of birds is what makes them difficult and potentially frustrating to photograph, especially compared to landscapes. The mountain or ocean in your viewfinder isn’t going anywhere, but the same can’t be said for the tiny chestnut-backed chickadee bouncing from twig to twig every half-second. While birds may appear unpredictable, they follow patterns of behavior just like every other type of animal. Recognizing these patterns is key to taking better bird photos.

For example, whenever I approached a perched Anna’s hummingbird, it would quickly fly away to another perch, which made getting a good shot close to impossible. Then I observed a behavior that made Anna’s hummingbirds much easier to photograph: they fly to and from the same handful of favourite perches. To get the photo below, I set my camera and tripod near a perch I knew the hummingbird would eventually land on. While waiting, I kept still and silent. Before long, the hummingbird was on the perch, and I was able to take fifty or so close-up shots.

An Anna's hummingbird.

2. Shoot during diffused light conditions

When the sun is shining and the sky is cloudless, the resulting light is harsh and direct, which creates shadows on your bird subject. Look at this northern pygmy-owl photo for example.

A shadowy northern pygmy-owl.

When the sky is overcast, the clouds diffuse the oncoming sunlight, which creates even and soft light on your bird subject. This is called diffused light. The northern pygmy-owl below is on the same perch as the one above, except it was photographed under a cloudy sky instead of a sunny one. Shooting during dusk and dawn, when the sun isn’t at its peak, is also ideal.

A perched northern pygmy-owl.

3. Understand that closer isn’t always better

When I started photographing birds, my instinct was to get as close as possible, especially when it came to owls. However, this approach often resulted in unimaginative photos (and risked disturbing the bird).

Check out the photo below. I was directly under the tree, and the view of the owl is less than optimal. Also, the photo looks more or less like a hundred other barred owl photos I’ve seen.

A barred owl with colourful leaves.

The next photo is an example where, instead of getting as close as possible, I stayed a fair distance away and framed the owl between two trees. Compared to the previous photo, it offers a unique perspective that portrays the wonder of seeing a barred owl in the wild.

A barred owl peeking through a set of trees.

4. Avoid over-sharpening your shot 

We’ve all done it: cranked up the sharpness of a photo with editing software in hopes of increasing its quality and appeal. While a little sharpening can be useful, especially when working with a cropped image, overdoing it will create grainy, unrealistic photos. 

Below is a photo of a chestnut-backed chickadee cropped to about 50% of its original size. In Lightroom, I set the sharpening amount to 125.

This is what the photo looks like when the sharpening amount is set to 25. See the difference?


Spenser Smith
Spenser Smith


Spenser Smith is a writer, wildlife photographer, and Vancouver Island University student. His work has appeared in Maclean's, Portal, The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, and the Navigator.

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