The World of Bird Photography

The World of Bird Photography

Well, I couldn’t help myself any longer! I’ve been excited to share with you all one of my favorite parts about birding and that is photography. Don’t worry though; I won’t be going too in-depth regarding camera gear as I could make several posts about that topic. Afterall, it’s not always the equipment you have, but what you do with it.

Instead, I want to go over some of the tips for bird photography that relate to techniques and mindsets leading to successful ETHICAL bird photography. The ethics of photographing wildlife, especially birds, is becoming a more and more prevalent part of this branch of photography and that is great news for birds.

To get started, I want to go over some general rules that are standard practices for bird photographers in order to be successful. After that we’ll go over important practices specifically for ethical bird photography.

One guiding mantra that I think 100% sums up bird photography is the 4 Ps… Passion, Perseverance, Practice, and most importantly, Patience! Without these four elements, bird photography is dang near impossible.

Tips for successful bird photography

  • Practice, Practice, Practice! – Spend time photographing more common and friendly bird species that may be around your home such as Black-capped Chickadees, Sparrows, gulls, or mallard ducks that will give you more opportunities to practice techniques and ways to interact with wild birds respectfully.
Female Mallard Duck
Morgan Quimby Photography
  • The Early bird gets the Worm – Even though you can go outside any part of the day and most likely encounter some species of bird, there are times of day that are more desirable to bird photographers. The early morning and late afternoon/early evening light is ideal as the light is the softest and the birds are usually very active foraging or singing. The soft light avoids harsh shadows on the avian subject, brings out the natural colors and beauty of the bird’s plumage, and allows for the camera to pick up a catch light in the bird’s eye that just makes the photo feel that more alive in the end.
Burrowing Owl
Morgan Quimby Photography
Common Merganser ducklings
Morgan Quimby Photography
  • Dress for success – While camo clothing is a great addition to your wardrobe for bird photography, wearing dull Earthy colors will work too. Avoid bright colors, especially white, as this will provide you with better opportunities to get closer to the birds.
  • Don’t focus too much on the weather forecast – It may seem odd, but don’t be afraid to get outside in “bad” weather! – Sometimes, photographing birds in the rain, snow, wind, hail, etc. can yield the most captivating images! It tells a story, and can create a dramatic and moody image that makes more of an impact than a photo depicting a sunny day might.
Song Sparrow
Morgan Quimby Photography
Canada Jay
Morgan Quimby Photography
  • Move slowly – Once you spot a bird, take an initial shot because you never know how long they will stick around! Afterall, it could be a rare bird and you’d much rather have a low-quality shot than no shot at all! If the bird is stationary and seems comfortable and calm, take a few steps and fire a few shots. Continue to take small sets of steps ending with taking a few shots. Be mindful of the bird’s behavior and if their comfort level changes. Make sure to leave enough down time between each small advancement forward to show the bird that you’re not a threat. If they start to give off warning or alarm calls or shift their body to a more erect and tense position, back down and give the bird it’s space.
  • Focus on the Eyes – As humans we tend to focus on the eyes of a living creature in photos and birds are no exception. After all, the windows are the eyes to the soul. I know, it seems cheesy, but its true! If a photo is composed in a way that a bird’s eyes are not easily visible in the photo or isn’t lit well resulting in dull black eyes, it makes the subject look lifeless and dull and will cause the photo to be unsuccessful.
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Morgan Quimby Photography
  • Get down to the bird’s level – Bending down or laying on the ground gives you more intimate photos of birds resulting from the eye contact with the individual and the creation of pleasing blur in the foreground and background. This technique gives you the ability to transport the viewer into the bird’s world.
Morgan Quimby Photography
  • Follow the Rule of Thirds – The rule of thirds is a standard in most branches of photography, but in bird photography it is especially important in order to capture the moment and really take your audience into the bird’s world. By placing the subject bird in the bottom left, bottom right, upper right, upper left, or some variation, you are able to showcase part of the bird’s habitat. However, this rule isn’t always applicable. Sometimes, filling the entire frame of the photo with your avian subject is ideal, such as close head shots for example.
House Wren
Morgan Quimby Photography
Example of filling the frame for a close-up bird portrait. Notice the grains on sand stuck to the side of this Sanderling’s bill!
Morgan Quimby Photography

Ethical bird photography tips

  • Don’t bait birds – I’m not saying bird feeders stocked with seeds and worms is a bad thing, it’s the live bait such as rodents, snakes, or fish used to bait birds of prey such as hawks, owls, and ospreys that can be disruptive to their natural predatory behaviors and cause them to be reliant on human handouts.
Example of a natural feeding shot that are the ethical choice over baiting a bird of prey
Bald Eagle
Morgan Quimby Photography
  • Habituation – Visit a location for several days in a row so that the birds will become more comfortable with your presence or you will learn more about the local’s daily routines and behaviors.
A friendly American Goldfinch that has gotten very used to me and my camera’s presence around my property

Morgan Quimby Photography
  • Be aware of the species behaviors and know the bird’s limit – It is important to observe the bird’s posture and look for changes such as freezing, or hunching over into a protective, aggressive, or pre-flight stance. However, you would ideally know the species behavior and calls well enough to stop advancing before these posture changes.
Whenever a bird is preening (like this Eastern Kingbird) or singing, that is usually a good indicator that the photographer is doing a good job hiding their presence and respecting the bird’s space as the individual feels safe to do these behaviors that make them vulnerable to predators
Morgan Quimby Photography
Whenever a bird is preening or singing (like this Red-eyed Vireo), that is usually a good indicator that the photographer is doing a good job hiding their presence and respecting the bird’s space as the individual feels safe to do these behaviors that make them vulnerable to predators
Morgan Quimby Photography
  • Do not intentionally altar a bird’s natural behavior to get the shot you’re after. For example, if you see a majestic Bald eagle sitting in a tree, do not make screeching noises, advance too close, or throw a rock at the tree trunk to get the bird to take-off, giving you an opportunity for a flight shot. Yes, I know that was a very specific, but that’s because I witnessed a “photographer” doing these things with my own eyes.
  • No flash photography – Avoid the use of flash with nocturnal birds such as owls as it can actually temporarily affect their ability to avoid danger or hunt for food.

  • DO NOT use drones to photograph birds in flight, birds in a nest, etc! They are sometimes used for research purposes, but they are very disruptive to bird behavior and should be avoided by photographers not using them for official research.

  • Keep a distance to photograph a nest – If you come across a bird nest, take a few photos from a distance and move on. Do not scare off the parents from the nest, or cause stress to the fledglings. Also, if you continue to visit a nest, you can actually leave a scent trail for potential predators. Furthermore, do not alter the structure of a nest in order to get a more pleasing photo. This can damage the protection from the elements and camouflage that the pair of birds designed the nest with.
Photo of this mother Eastern Kingbird taken at a respectful distance, with a telephoto lens, and cropping of photo applied in post production

Morgan Quimby Photography

I encourage anyone with a digital camera to try their hand at photographing birds, especially while we are all at home with free time on our hands. Even if you don’t have a long telephoto zoom lens, you can still practice with an entry level camera studying and photographing the common birds that frequent your property, especially if you have stocked bird feeders. Stay tuned for next week’s blog where I will be sharing stories of inspiration from birders about their spark bird – the encounter that started their lifelong love of the avian world and birding!

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