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The many aspects of bird photography


The glint in this Prothonotary Warbler’s eye, the interesting foliage, and the colour contrasts contribute to the success of this bird photograph. Photo by Paul Nicholson.


If you are out bird watching, you might well see other nature lovers, some of whom will have a camera slung around their neck. It’s easy to jump to a conclusion that these folks are more interested in photography than birds or that they are expert photographers. Many bird photographers know, however, that there are many reasons to snap pictures.

The most common reason is the most obvious: Birds are beautiful and it can be gratifying to capture the image of one. The picture can be shared with others and it can be a powerful reminder of an excellent day in the field.

Most excellent photos will share many characteristics. First and foremost, there is the subject. The bird may not be front and centre, but it will be a focal point. Keep the bird in focus.

Another critically important component is light. Typically, a backlit subject won’t be ideal. Keep the sun behind you. Ideally, there will be a “catch light”, that little reflection glinting off of the bird’s eye. Another consideration is the time of day. Experienced photographers will refer to “the golden hour” which is the hour just after sunrise or before sunset when the sunlight has richer, less glaring quality.

Composition is another important aspect of bird photography. A sharp photo of a bird in front of a bleak background isn’t usually as compelling as an image of the same bird in interesting habitat.

A bird photo is most compelling if there is some kind of story being told. When I first started photographing birds, I would want a straight forward profile shot since these were the images that I saw in field guides. But when I studied other bird photographers’ images, I was drawn in by photographs of birds feeding or flying or preening or interacting.

Although there can be some dramatic shots made if the photographer is looking up at or down on a bird, being eye-to-eye with the subject can often result in a very powerful image. This might even mean crouching or lying flat on the ground.

Study the bird images that appeal to you and try to determine what makes them successful. There are lots of resources on this theme including websites and courses.

Apart from having a nice portfolio of beautiful bird shots, there are other good reasons to take bird photos.

Having a shot, even a technically poor shot, can be very helpful in species identification. When you have just seconds to view a bird and the light is poor or the view is obscured, a quick photo can be very useful. The same is true for a bird in the distance. A zoomed-in image can provide you with useful field marks that would otherwise be missed.

A further use for photographs is simply documentation. If I am posting birds on the eBird platform or contributing on a similar citizen science platform, even a mediocre photo that accompanies a post can give the site curators confidence in a species identification and it can give other birders an idea of what to look for. Photos of a Red-necked Grebe that I posted in January reminded others that in basic non-breeding plumage, the species doesn’t have a red neck.

If you are new to bird photography, consider practicing on more common birds such as Mallards, Canada Geese, or Ring-billed Gulls. This can build skills so that when you do have a ten-second photo op with a rare bird, you are ready for it.

Bear in mind that for new and experienced bird photographers alike, the code of birding ethics is always important. The welfare of the birds comes first.


Bird photography is fun and it can be gratifying. It can also make you a more skilled bird watcher.

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