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Seven ways to improve your bird photography

When we consider the pictures submitted to this magazine, we often wonder: How do the photographers do it? By what magic do they produce such beauty? As professional Jeffrey Rich tells here, no exotic alchemy is at work, just patience, familiarity with the locale, openness to the unexpected, knowledge of the subject, and playful imagination — factors that can bring magic to your photos, too. –The Editor

Barn Owl (Tyto alba) at Tule Lake NWR, California.  Photo ©Jeffrey Rich
Barn Owl (Tyto alba) at Tule Lake NWR, California. ©Jeffrey Rich

1. Add behavior to make a bird look larger in the frame than it really is

Finding a cooperative Barn Owl in the early-morning hours is always exciting. But this photo could easily have been nothing special: a bit far with an average background, just an owl standing on a rock, a portrait too small in the frame. But the bird was getting soaked in the rain.

Since I know that all birds flap their wings after getting wet, and that raised wings would double the size of the bird, I decided to wait. (How wet I got wasn’t an issue. Keeping the equipment dry is more important than keeping the photographer dry. Thankfully, professional camera gear can take a fair amount of moisture without damage.)

Adding behavior such as this is a great technique. If you’re too far away for a frame-filling portrait but close enough for a cool action shot, then you’re in position to try it. You’ll find that it’s also a big help when you’re working with lenses with smaller focal lengths. Even with a 300mm or 400mm lens, you can be close enough to make great action shots.

The key is being prepared. Shortly after this owl flapped its wings, it flew off to roost. I had only one shot at it. Equipment: Nikon F5 with 500AFS lens, Groofwin mount

2. Anticipate interaction between birds to create images with tension

Whooper Swan • Cygnus cygnus • Lake Kushiro, Japan Photo ©Jeffrey Rich
Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus) at Lake Kushiro, Japan. ©Jeffrey Rich

The beautiful Whooper Swan breeds far from North America, on shallow lakes and slow-flowing rivers in northern Eurasia, and it winters no closer than eastern Asia. At Lake Kushiro, Japan, where I took this photo, a spring heated by volcanic activity keeps the water from freezing over and the swans winter in large numbers. Whenever waterfowl come together in close quarters, lots of activity is bound to happen. These swans are calling. One had just landed, and the others seemed to be greeting it. The more you learn about such behaviors, the easier it will be to be ready when they occur. Equipment: Nikon F5 with 500AFS lens, Bogen tripod

3. Get as low as possible when photographing ground-level birds

Arctic Tern • Sterna paradisaea • Nome, Alaska Photo ©Jeffrey Rich
Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) at Nome, Alaska. ©Jeffrey Rich

I photographed this Arctic Tern in Alaska in summer. Once I located its nest — nothing more than a scrape in the dirt containing two eggs — I set up a portable blind at a distance that wouldn’t disturb the parents and slowly moved it until I was in the right place for distance, light, and background. When photographing ground-level birds, I often lie on my belly with the lens resting on the ground or positioned as low as possible on my ground tripod. Since I know terns raise their wings after they land, capturing this image was just a matter of time and patience. Equipment: Nikon F5 with 500AFS lens, Bogen tripod

American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) at Tule Lake NWR, California. ©Jeffrey Rich
American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) at Tule Lake NWR, California. ©Jeffrey Rich

4. Keep the head and eye in focus

All birds preen, and often. It’s a common behavior, and one that can create great action shots and body contortions. If you see a bird preening, chances are it will be preoccupied and won’t pay much attention to you.

Work slowly to get into position, be patient, and keep your eye on your viewfinder, ready to snap the shutter. When a pleasing body twist or angle creates an artistic set of lines, shoot and keep shooting. The general rule is to keep the head and eye in focus, giving the viewer a sense of the bird.

In this case, I waited for the head, neck, and back all to come into view. But it’s OK to break the rules sometimes and just shoot body patterns and feathers that make great compositions.

For this shot, serendipity came into play. I was in my blind waiting for waterfowl to return to an area where they had been loafing earlier. The ducks never showed, but the pelican did. Watching it preen, bathe, and loaf was a real treat.

Equipment: Nikon F5 with 500AFS lens, Bogen tripod

5. Pre-visualize movement that you suspect is about to happen

Nothing is as exciting as photographing a heron as it captures a fish. I found this Cocoi Heron in Brazil’s Pantanal, where it was hunting piranha and I was working from the safety of a small boat.

Cocoi Heron (Ardea cocoi) at Transpantanera Highway, northern Pantanal, Brazil. ©Jeffrey Rich
Cocoi Heron (Ardea cocoi) at Transpantanera Highway, northern Pantanal, Brazil. ©Jeffrey Rich

Since I know the hunting style of herons, I anticipated the forward lunge and pointed my camera at the spot where I guessed the head would reach. That way, it could go into the picture frame. Keeping the camera on a tripod allows me to look through the viewfinder while I wait. Sometimes I sit with a finger on the shutter and my eye against the camera back for 30 minutes at a time or more — but it’s worth it. Equipment: Nikon F5 with 500AFS lens, Bogen tripod

Bonaparte's Gull • Chroicocephalus philadelphia • Kenai, Alaska Photo ©Jeffrey Rich
Bonaparte’s Gull • Chroicocephalus philadelphia • Kenai, Alaska
Photo ©Jeffrey Rich

6. Keep an open mind to the surprises Mother Nature provides

Working in Alaska in summer makes for lengthy days in the field. When I made this picture, I was shooting at first light — about 4 a.m. — and I was positioning my boat to photograph not a gull, but a family of Common Loons.

The scene was beautiful. Mist was rising off the lake, the loons were calling, and the sun was starting to warm me up.

The gull was nesting nearby. When it landed in the top of a tree, I knew the photographic opportunity would be too good to pass up. The gull called occasionally, but mostly it just stood there watching. What a surprise! Equipment: Nikon F5, 500AFS lens on a Bogen tripod

7. When you find a cooperative subject, stay with it

I made the image below in one of my favorite places: the Klamath Basin in California. It never disappoints in new images. I was driving the 10-mile auto tour route in the Lower Klamath refuge with my photo group, scouting for promising spots to set up my blinds. When we came across these young swallows, we stopped and, using the car as a blind, slowly eased into position for the shot. But the angle wasn’t perfect, so at a distance that wouldn’t spook the birds, we got out and slowly inched closer. It took a good hour for it all to fall into place.

Thankfully, the swallows were cooperative subjects; they remained right where we spotted them initially, perched side by side. When you find a bird that is this tolerant, spend time with it. The more time you invest, the more natural behaviors you’ll be able to photograph. Chances are, you will end up with more than just a portrait, as I did here. Work your subject. If it’s cooperative, stay with it. Equipment: Nikon F5 with 500AFS lens, Bogen tripod

Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) at Lower Klamath NWR, California. ©Jeffrey Rich
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) at Lower Klamath NWR, California. ©Jeffrey Rich

Jeffrey Rich is a wildlife biologist and bird-photography specialist whose photos are published frequently in BirdWatching magazine and other major birding publications. You can learn about his popular nature-photography workshops and small-group photography tours on his website.


Originally Published

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