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The Sport of Getting Photos of Birds

Birding / Hiking / Adventuring Roadtrip Info


Dec 2018
We are enthusiasts, not experts - read disclaimer.

Wow Was This Difficult Starting Out!!

Going to the ocean and getting shots of birds sitting still or even ducks swimming around is one thing. Getting photos of warblers in forests is another. I remember one trip chasing a titmouse around an enclosed low forest. It was like it was all juiced up on some super power berries laced with cocaine. Hopping back and fourth between branches, swinging in front and behind, going back and forth between trees, and finally going so far into brush we lost it. It was bedlam. So I started cursing at the thing and we coined the phrase "bad attitude birding". Here's what we've learned.... Photos For Identification  - Or For Art?
I'm assuming you are using a hybrid camera where you can zoom from inches away to past binocular range without changing lenses.
Also I'm assuming you are focused on getting a shot of the bird to ID it. If you're trying to get a great photo rather than a good ID you'll have a different set of problems to add on to this. So I'm not touching ISO, f-stops, swapping out lenses on a DLSR etc.

First: General Rules:

1) Get a bad shot as soon as you can and improve from there. Some birds will sit around for you so you can do a perfect setup but if you're trying to see new species you'll find the ones you miss are fast or hidden.
2) If the bird is moving around or really far off and it's just going to come off as a smudge - try taking video. You only need one good frame to ID it while it's bouncing around or if it's far off sometimes it will move just right so you see a big blotch of color on it's wing when it catches the light.

Four Types of Environments:

I'd say most challenges of trying to get a photo are 1) Far away in open spaces where you can walk up to and around a bird 2) Surrounded by forest with tall trees 3) Surrounded by forest with up to 20ft trees 4)Airborne. I'll go over each from the perspective of mistakes made that teach lessons.

Environment 1) Far Away and/or Open Spaces:

This one is pretty straightforward. Someplace we frequent - Powerline Road - is the spot that comes to mind as a good example. It's just a road with some lone trees and power lines on hilly fields.

A) Getting too close too fast.
Often you'll see a bird on the power line or lone tree and think you'll drive up to within 1 power line pole away. But the moment you open the door it flies off. Some birds will always fly off the moment you get within 3 power poles away (pretty far). That same bird might not fly off if you approach on foot one pole closer. So what we do is park far off and immediately zoom in and get a shot and maybe video (and ID if it's just a dove or something). Then walk another 10 feet - get a shot... repeat until you feel like it's about to fly off or it does. You never know how close you're going to be able to get.

B) Walk Around / Wait.
This goes with # 1 pretty well. On a trip to Powerline Road we almost never see anything good in the first minute or two much less just driving through. Some places birds pause for a minute while passing through - so if you're there 20 minutes you have 20x more of a chance than one minute. Then there are birds that hide and make no noise when they hear a new noise and eventually come out. And in general there are lots of things that are there but are so quiet or camouflaged that you won't see them until you tune into your environment for 15 minutes.

C) Sun in the wrong spot.
Often if a bird is above you you'll have the problem of the sun being in the wrong place - all you can see is a silhouette. If you're really close you might be able to make enough out but often you have to circle around the bird. I'd treat it like coming in from a distance - get a shot and start quietly moving, hopefully at enough of a distance that you don't scare it off. The chances of it flying off or deeper into trees etc is likely high so I'd suggest taking video as you go and hope you can get something.

So in general the main advice is to spend time walking around a likely birding spot before giving up and really tune into everything you can. Powerline Road usually has meadow larks but we stopped several times before we caught on. Now we can hear them and often spot them sticking their heads up from grasses like little turkeys out for a walk.

An Aside Before Discussing Forests: Mixed Flocks

Often in forests you'll hear nothing then all of a sudden you have 10-20 warbler sized birds to try to get shots of on the trees. They call that a "mixed flock". Usually it's lead by a titmouse or chickadee and will be followed by various warblers. You'll notice one or two in the first tree - then they make their way to the next tree - then they make their way past you and continue on through the forest. Birds like this usually bounce around between, around, deeper into branches of trees and they do it so fast they are blurred on high definition video - frame one on left side of tree, frame 2 blue, frame 3 right side of tree. It's a major challenge and an encounter with an almost maliciously prescient titmouse one day is what made us coin the phrase bad attitude birding because I was cursing at the bird.

Environment 2) Surrounded By Tall Forest:

I like to hike old dark forests. But that generally means the tops of the trees, the canopy, is 30-50ft above you. There are some birds that inhabit the forest floor - wrens, woodpeckers, and thrush come to mind - but most tend to stay at the periphery or in the tree tops. You can try to get shots of the treetop birds 50ft up but the problem is that you are shooting straight up. If the bird is on the side of a branch you're likely going to have a very bright sky and just a silhouette in your photo. Circling around isn't likely to help since the light source is always above you: the sky. I always keep a camera with me and ready to go but I usually don't bother trying to get these shots unless they seem unusually right.

Environment 3) Surrounded By Short Forest:

If you're in a forest where the trees aren't so tall - 20ft or less is what comes to mind - so tall shrubs / short trees. Because the angle is now very different everything disadvantage I said above about tall forests is cut in half here. It's not usually completely behind a tree branch and the light source doesn't have to be directly behind you. But it is really hard to catch these warblers. They are going to be pretty close and so just keeping track of them so you can potentially get a shot is difficult. Generally the best way to keep track of a bouncing bird is with your plain eyes. So you have to develop the talent of translating what you see with your eye with a partly zoomed in viewfinder. I find you use skills you develop if you've ever taken art classes as an adult. Rather than trying to paint bunch of trees learn to see that it's really a big dark patch on the left, one tree that stands out, and one branch behind the palm, the bird is half way out. Seeing that with your eye then spotting those landmarks in the viewfinder means you'll likely be able to pick up where that bird is again. Another thing that can help but doesn't avoid the need to be able to translate that eye to viewfinder issue is to have a second person constantly point to the bird with a stick or call out where it is - "it moved left 2 feet", "it's on the next tree" etc. It's always very challenging but you can ID birds more often than not.
One thing I don't like about hybrid cameras I've tried is that they're pretty impossible for manual focus. If you're looking at a bush you can get a shot if the bird is on the outside but if it moves inside it's difficult to shift that focus forward. Manual focus usually requires pressing lots of little buttons and in the time you have to do it - good luck. Also it usually requires that you turn off automatic settings to do manual focus and trying to get the lighting right too in that odd environment of bright sky, dark branches - yikes. I keep meaning to try other camera brands but from what I read they all seem not so great at this.

Environment 4) Airborne:

There are a few situations here - each probably could be the topic of several articles if you get down to a per species level. It's very hard to get photos of airborne birds in general. If it's moving close to you you have to move the camera a long distance relative to the bird's flight distance. If it's a raptor flying high in the sky it's doable but autofocus often loses it before long. Both situations you're best off trying to do it with video rather than hope for a shot. The two situations I wish I had a DLSR in are airborne and when birds are deep in brush - DLSRs (I believe) have manual focus where you just turn the lens by hand. Manual focus on the hybrids I've used is like programming a VCR and just not very usable. Still - you can often get usable results I'll get into.

If it's a bird that's fairly close:

As I said - it's very hard to track them with your camera but video rather than still shots is your best bet. Generally I approach it as learning to ID it by sight and if you can't scratch it off the list of very common birds you already know - try to chase down where it landed. If you get good at spotting the usual suspects that means you don't have to chase them down very often. Generally what you pick up on is vaguely what different type of birds look like in flight both by their flight pattern and to their silhouette (color if you're close). Most birds on power lines where we go end up being doves. But we're always on the lookout for the one that isn't. If we can't tell from it's sitting silhouette it's flight pattern is unique enough you can usually call it out quickly. Woodpeckers also have a pattern that you can pick up pretty quickly.

Somewhat Large Birds:

Ducks and herons are often big enough that you can tell what they are from a fair distance though they look very different in the air than in the water. It's very hard to get usable footage/shots in this situation again. If I try I generally try to zoom out so autofocus doesn't cause a mess. If they are ducks or heron and you're not in the pond they are landing in they are going to keep going and you're just out of luck. Ducks often make calls while flying so I can tell if they are whistling ducks easily for example. Herons are often possible to sort out by the patterns under their wings. Most of this is not photography so I guess my advice is how to limit the number of times you wonder if you missed something new.

Soaring Raptors:

With my camera I can usually get a little bit of footage if they are going in circles following thermals slowly but it's a fight to get the autofocus to cooperate. Very often if you can ID the raptor by eye you can eliminate the need for a photo. Vultures have a distinctive silhouette and they soar high in the air riding thermals. Eagles are also often in the same areas but you can usually spot their white heads. Hawks and falcons are more difficult. You can usually differentiate the general classes of them - osprey have distinctive silhouettes, Accipiters (cooper's, goshawk, kestrel), Buteo (Hawks), Falcons, and Harriers. The group I have the most trouble with is Buteos because most just look so darn similar. Luckily these hawk/falcon guys tend to land before long somewhere you have a fair chance of getting a photo of them. Kites - the most common ones for us are swallow tailed kites and they distinctive tail gives them away pretty quickly. The others look so unusual compared to hawks or anything else that we usually watch where it lands and figure it out with the photo.


Other Oddball Situations:

Really Far Away:

The only time this really comes up, assuming you're using a hybrid super zoom, is if you just can't get close to where the birds are. One example was Mobbly Beach - Brown Boobies sit on a power pole in the bay pretty far out. Not much you can do about that. We were still able to ID them by their silhouettes. Another example is restricted access duck ponds like Skinner Pond. I can only think of a few solutions. 1) Get Closer - I hate answers that avoid the problem. We should assume you've thought of that. 2)Spotting Scope/Telescope -  Binoculars get unusable much over 7x - you really need a tripod. If you have a spotting scope (a mini telescope) you can see very far - like 60x - and you often see people share photos of birds that are very far away by snapping a shot of the eyepiece. I've never seriously looked into this route mainly because you have to carry a tripod with you. If you don't the motion of you holding it will make it totally useless. Another reason is they cost 2-3x what my camera costs. 3) Nikon p900 or p1000 - they have equivalent focal length of 2000 and 3000mm compared to my (and most hybrids) 1200mm. I lost interest in those cameras when I realized they were significantly more weight/size to carry around and the need for them isn't so common. But I've never tried one - maybe it's amazing.

Shy Birds In Duck Ponds:

I'm not sure there are many tricks here. It's about seeing the bird, not really getting the photo. You often will be at a pond and hear for example gallinules but there are either predators around or there aren't enough of them around to feel comfortable being exposed. Just waiting often works and is probably the best advice. Some situations like these I think you can coax them out with recordings of calls but that gets into unethical territory. A different type of example would be the Least Bittern. We've seen them a few times - it gets easier each time. But we always see them when we see them flying in and landing. At that point they seem to disappear but if you look very closely you'll see them poke their head out or bob around with the cattails.


Getting Frame of Video:

For video you can try to go pause video at just the right spot to see that frame that shows the stripe on it's face etc but that's a difficult task. I use software called VirtualDub - it's an open source freeware video processing app that's been a standard for a lot of tasks for quite awhile. All you really care about is using the mouse to drag the video position around and using the left/right arrow keys to slowly get to the right spot. Then I usually use a screenshot piece of software (snagit is great but not free) to actually save the shot. Virtualdub wiki page. Official page.

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