Bird Photography is a beautiful thing. It gives us a glimpse into nature that would be impossible to see with our naked eye, and creates a permanent record of things typically only seen through telescopes. Effective Bird and Wildlife photography isn't just an art form, but also a great tool in conservation and research, allowing us to capture and document rare or exotic birds in high resolution, but from a safe and healthy distance, so as to not dissuade them from coming back.

It is also a unique and rewarding form of photography, with its own set of principles and techniques, unique from many other photography genres. In this blog we will be taking an introductory dive into the wonderfully wild world of bird photography, helping you take flight in capturing beautiful images of your favourite feathered friends.

Cardinal - Anthony Puddu 2021


Composition is crucial in any form of photography. It is what elevates a photograph from a simple picture to art, from a snapshot to a story.

Rule of Thirds: A common composition method, utilizing the Rule of Thirds can create a more dynamic and engaging photo by involving the subject's surroundings, and creating context in your photograph. This helps to place the bird in a scene, which can often be more visually appealing than an isolated bird portrait.

The Rule of Thirds is used by dividing the image into 9 equal parts, 3 vertical divisions and 3 horizontal, and placing your subject in one of the intersecting points. There are also similar composition tools such as the fibonacci sequence, which can also be effective starting points.

Leading Lines & Framing: Don't be afraid to utilize the elements surrounding your bird into your image as well. Often times, a compelling setting, background and foreground can make a photograph significantly more engaging.

Utilize elements like branches, clouds, foliage, streams etc. to draw your viewers eyes towards the bird. This can be done by utilizing these elements to create a path to, or frame around the bird in question.

This technique is even more effective when combined with the Rule of Thirds, and especially so if both the path/framing elements AND the bird follow the thirds lines.

Eye Contact: 
Often when photographing birds, you will have a very shallow area that is in focus (Depth of Field), and depending on settings, it's possible to have only the eye in focus, while the beak is slightly out, and vice-versa.

In these cases, it is typically best to prioritize keeping the eye in focus, as this is the part of an animal people tend to focus on first, and create an emotional connection with. It is also often understood to be an intentional choice, when paired with out of focus beaks or other facial elements.

Image of Blue Jay using Rule of Thirds, framing, leading lines and fibonacci sequence - Anthony Puddu 2023
Rule of Thirds overlay
Leading lines
Framing using the triangle of branches surrounding the Blue Jay, and the circle of blurred leaves.
Fibonacci sequence with blurred leaves


Use a Fast Shutter Speed:
Birds are fast, and their wings are even faster. Our cameras need to be even faster than that if we intend to freeze motion and capture tack-sharp birds in flight without blur.

As a simple starting point, we recommend shooting at no less than 1/1000 shutter speed. This will allow you to capture most birds in most scenarios.

The downside to fast shutter speeds is that the faster the shutter speed the darker your image. To counteract this, if a bird is stationary, you can often get away with setting your shutter speed to 1/(2 x your focal length), allowing you to also retain more light. For example, when shooting at a focal length of 200mm, you can typically expect to get sharp photos of stationary birds at a shutter speed of 1/400.

Keep in mind that birds like Hummingbirds will require much faster shutter speeds, (sometimes 1/2000 and higher), as their wings move incredibly fast.

Cardinal in Motion (1/2500 Shutter Speed, F5.6, ISO 2500) - Anthony Puddu 2021

Select the Right Autofocus Mode:
This is crucial for ensuring birds remain in focus, even if they decide to move. Set your camera's autofocus mode to Continuous (AI-Servo or AF-C), with tracking sensitivity and speed high.

This will inform your camera to continuously adjust focus as the bird moves, and adjusting sensitivity and speed tells your camera to prepare for a subject that is fast and unpredictable.

Some modern cameras also feature AI Subject Detection (Sony, Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon), with settings for birds and wildlife. This will prepare your camera during tough focusing situations.

Purple Finch at Long Point Bird Observatory (1/1600 Shutter Speed, F5.6, ISO 1600) - Anthony Puddu 2023

Aperture and Depth of Field:
Your aperture (f-stop) is a very important setting, not just for the brightness of your image, but also for its overall look.

Aperture provides 2 key functions, by increasing it, you will end up with a progressively darker image, but as your image gets darker and the f-stop increases, more of your image will be in focus.

Often in bird photography, it is ideal to keep your aperture as low as possible, or in other words, as wide-open as possible. This will allow you to retain as much light as possible, which is important as our fast shutter speeds can reduce our available light substantially. This will also create a substantially blurrier background, allowing the bird to 'pop' out of the image with more visual depth. This is the effect that most "Portrait Modes" on Smartphones replicate.
Scarlet Macaw - Dominican Republic - Shot on iPhone 13 Pro Max Portrait Mode - Anthony Puddu 2023

ISO: It is typically best to keep your ISO as low as possible, while retaining correct exposure, or brightness. When ISO increases significantly, without enough available light, you can expect to introduce noise or 'grain' to your images.

Unfortunately, in bird photography, we often live at elevated ISOs, sometimes 1600-3200, due to high shutter speeds, and often shooting at dawn or dusk. As a result, we again recommend setting it as low as you can, while still having enough light for an effective image.  

Modes: We recommend setting your camera to Manual mode, with AUTO ISO. This allows you to ensure the two settings that are critical (Shutter Speed and Aperture) are always set where you need them to be, and that your camera will automatically select the correct and lowest ISO that allows your image to be properly exposed.

Noise and 'grain' can typically be corrected in editing, but it's much harder to correct images that are out of focus or have motion blur, therefore we recommend ISO being your only variable.

And that's it!

We hope our 101 dive into Bird Photography helps your skills soar to some new heights, or helps you spread your wings and try this wonderful hobby for the first time. If you have some photos you're particularly proud of and want to share, head over to our Facebook and join our monthly Bird of the Month photo contests!
Red-Breasted Nuthatch - Winner of October 2023 - Dave Woodhouse
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