Ultimate guide – Photographing Birds (with Video)

photographing birds grey heron
Reading Time: 17 minutes

Purple Heron 600mm, 1/2500 sec, f/4, Mode: Av, ISO: 200

Photographing birds is as challenging as it is rewarding. You do not need to be an avid birder to appreciate the beauty of these wonderful creatures.

In this article I cover tips, techniques and equipment for photographing birds that I hope will inspire you to to add this genre to your wildlife and nature photography activities.

This is by necessity a very long article so please use the Contents tab to select the sections that most interest you.

Best Camera Settings for Photographing Birds

I recommend that you shoot in either aperture mode (Av) or Manual mode (M). Either of these give you the control you need to successfully photograph birds – particularly birds in flight.

The exposure triangle of aperture, shutter speed and ISO is best managed in manual mode when it comes to bird photography. I shoot primarily in manual mode with auto-ISO.

photographing birds yellow billed duck

Yellow Billed Duck 500mm, 1/3200, f/5,6, Mode: Manual, ISO: 500

Best aperture for Photographing Birds

When deciding on what aperture setting to use I have two possible scenarios to take into account, namely;

  1. Am I trying photograph a bird in flight? i.e. an action shot or
  2. Am I trying to photograph a bird that is perched? i.e a portrait shot

The next influencing factor when deciding aperture setting is how far away is the subject from me and what is the background like.

Invariably a bird in flight is at some distance so I use the aperture that will 1. give me the fastest shutter speed if shooting in Av mode and 2. the aperture that will give me the sharpest image.

In most lenses this is one or two stops above the maximum aperture of your lens.

For example, if I have a 600mm f4 lens on the camera I will usually shoot at f5.6 or f 6.3 and if I have a 500mm f5.6 lens I will set my aperture to f6.3.

A bird that is perched may be pretty close to me and so the decision regarding aperture setting will be determined by:

  1. How much of the bird do I want in focus? and
  2. How much of the background do I want in focus?

In most static/perched situations my personal preference would be 1. I want the bird 100% in focus and 2. I want none of the background in focus.

If the perched bird is large (a heron for example) and very close, I would be obliged to set the aperture at around f8 to get it all in focus and may not be able to blur out the background as much as I would like.

The smaller the perched bird is the larger the aperture you can use.

If the lens I am using is super sharp throughout its’ aperture range then I would set it to the widest possible aperture to blur the background out completely.

Some lenses lose sharpness at each end of their aperture range so I then set the aperture 1 or 2 stops smaller than the widest aperture as mentioned above.

The image below of a Spectacled Weaver was taken with a 600mm f4 lens ‘wide open’ at f4 and it is acceptably sharp.

photographing birds spectacled weaver

Spectacled Weaver 600mm, 1/2000 sec, f/4, Mode: Manual, ISO: 280

Best shutter speed for Photographing Birds

Here is a chart of shutter speeds I recommend for different bird sizes and relative movement (in good light).

Bird SizeIn FlightPerched
Large1/1250 sec1/450 sec
Small1/3200 sec1/1250 sec

Please note that these are recommended minimum shutter speeds.

photographing birds lilac breasted roller

Lilac Breasted Roller 500mm, 1/3200 sec, f/5, Mode: Av, ISO: 400

You will be forced to shoot at lower shutter speeds in low light and the rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should not drop below the focal length of your lens.

This means if you are using a 600 mm lens you should not drop the shutter speed below 1/600 sec.

I have found that in general, with the advances in image stabilization and vibration reduction features available in a lot of camera bodies and lenses, you can shoot at much lower shutter speeds than in the past. 

The ideal solution to handling very low shutter speeds is to support your camera and lens by using either a mono pod, tripod or bean bag to help prevent camera shake.

The image below is me shooting a 500mm f4 hand held in Botswana.

Note the support I am giving with the one arm which still allows me to operate  the back button focus and the shutter release button with the other hand.

If you are forced to shoot hand held I would recommend you do not try this at shutter speeds less than 1/1250 sec.

best lenses for wildlife photography 500mm f4 nikonraphing birds hand held

Best ISO setting for Photographing Birds

As with any photograph needing good image quality, keeping your ISO as low as possible is key to keeping your images relatively noise free. 

This is often tricky when photographing birds in flight as the high shutter speeds required can necessitate you raising your ISO to very high levels to keep the correct exposure.

My recommendation is that you try not to go above ISO 6 400.

This seems like a very high number but with modern technology you are able to shoot at much higher ISO’s than you did in the past. This is because:

  • Modern camera sensors have evolved to the point that they can handle very high ISO’s, particularly cameras with sensors below  25MP resolution.
  • The editing software available today does an amazing job of reducing noise in your image without reducing sharpness. The two that I recommend you look at are:
    • DxO Pure Raw 2
    • Topaz DeNoise AI 

I keep my camera on ISO auto when photographing birds and set a maximum ISO limit of 16 000.

photographing birds martial eagle in flight

Martial Eagle 500mm, 1/2500 sec, f/7,1, Mode: Manual,Exp comp: -1/3, ISO: 450

Best AF Modes for Photographing Birds

I have my camera set up so that the AF button on the back of the camera is set to focus as a small grouped setting – on Nikon this is Dynamic 9 point setting.

I have programmed the front top custom button to single point focus and I can reach this with my middle finger should I wish to switch from dynamic group focus to single point.

This is a DSLR setting and on a mirrorless system I would recommend that you set up your back button focus to 3 D tracking (animal) and your customisable focus button to wide area large.

Whether you are using a DSLR or a new mirrorless full frame camera I would further recommend that you keep the focus on continuous rather than single shot.

Your subject is usually in motion and you need the camera to keep focusing for as long as you have the focus button pressed.

A huge advantage for mirrorless cameras is that once they are programmed to lock onto a subject you can recompose your shot i.e move your camera, so that the subject is where you want it in the frame, and the focus point will stay where it is.

With the DSLR you have to become adept at toggling the focus point across the frame to ensure you have focused in the right place (usually the birds eye) before you hit the shutter.

lanner falcon stooping

Lanner Falcon 700mm, 1/3200 sec, f/7,1, Mode: Manual, ISO: 400 

Best cameras for photographing birds

The best camera is the best one you can afford. The two most important capabilities required when photographing birds are:

  1. Speed of auto focus and
  2. Frame rate or burst rate

This does unfortunately mean that the cameras most capable of capturing images of birds in flight are at the top end of the price range. 

Below are some recommendations in varying price ranges.

Bird Photography with DSLR crop sensor Cameras

If you are on a tight budget you should be looking at a crop sensor camera rather than a full frame camera. My recommendations for crop sensor DSLR’s are:

  • Canon EOS 90D USD 1 200
  • Nikon D 7500 USD 1 000

Bird Photography with DSLR full frame cameras

Bulkier and more expensive, full frame cameras can shoot at higher levels of ISO and capture more colour information. My recommendations for full frame DSLR’s are:

  • Canon EOS 6D Mark II USD 1 400
  • Canon EOS-1D X Mark III USD 6500
  • Nikon D6 USD 6 500
  • Nikon D850 USD 2 800

Bird Photography with mirrorless Cameras

Mirrorless cameras are increasingly dominating the sports, action and wildlife genres and for good reason.

Lightning fast focus capability coupled with 20 frames per second (some are 30 frames per second) burst rate capability at full RAW is ideal for bird photography and beats the DSLR’s pedestrian looking capabilities quite easily.

The auto focus systems of some of the newer full frame mirrorless cameras are proving to be a bit erratic but each firmware update that comes out gets closer to resolving the issues.

My recommendations for full frame mirrorless cameras are:

  • *Sony Alpha A7 IV USD 2 500
  • Sony Alpha a1 USD 6 500
  • Nikon Z6 II USD 2 000
  • Nikon Z9 USD 5 500
  • Canon EOS R5 USD 3 900
  • Canon EOS R3 USD 6 000

*Top recommendation

nikon z9 best wildlife photography camera african fish eagle hunting

Taken with the Nikon Z9. 500mm, 1/4000 sec, f7.1, ISO 1100, Exposure compensation +2/3

Best lenses for photographing birds

You will need a lens of at least 400mm focal length to photograph birds. I have managed to photograph birds with a 70-200mm zoom lens but that is the exception rather than the rule.

Wide aperture super telephoto prime lenses are incredibly expensive so you may wish to consider some of the zoom lenses at a smaller aperture or equivalent third party lenses like Tamron or Sigma.

Some of my recommended lenses are listed below.

Best Fixed/Prime DSLR lenses for Photographing Birds

The 850mm f5.6, the 600mm f4 and 500mm f4 lenses from Canon and Nikon are the ultimate lenses for photographing birds. 

They are however heavy and very expensive. In the list below I include 2 slightly less expensive prime lenses for you to consider.

Nikon 850 mm f5.6 USD 16 000

Nikon 600mm f4 USD 12 000

Nikon 500mm f4 USD 10 000

Nikon 500mm PF f 5.6 USD 3 500

Canon 600mm f4 USD 13 000

Canon 500mm f4 USD 9 000

Sigma 500mm f4 USD 6 000

lens settings for birds in flight


Focus Limiter: Set your focus limit so that it does not attempt to focus throughout its range. For birds in flight you need the lens to focus as fast as possible and not ‘hunt’ from zero feet.

Turn vibration reduction/image stabilisation Off – particularly when shooting from a tripod.

Best DSLR Zoom lenses for Photographing Birds

On average the zoom lenses available to not perform as well as the primes and the longer the range of the zoom the softer the lens becomes at each end of their focal length.

Modern zoom lenses have improved dramatically in quality over recent times and you are no longer sacrificing as much quality as you would have.

Here is a selection of recommended zoom lenses for bird photography.

Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6 USD 1 400

Nikon AF-S 180-400mm f/4 TC1 USD 12 400

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 USD 11 000

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 USD 2 400

Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 USD 1 200

Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 USD 2 200

balck shouldered kite

Black shouldered Kite

Best Mirrorless lenses for Photographing Birds

Sony has the largest selection of native lenses for its cameras as it has been producing full frame mirrorless cameras for the longest.

Canon and Nikon are catching up and their Z and RF lenses are also top quality.

Here is a selection of mirrorless lenses suitable for photographing birds.

Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6 USD 2 000

Sony FE 600mm f/4 USD 13 000

Canon RF 800mm f/5.6 USD 17 000

Canon RF 600mm f/4 USD 13 000

Canon RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7. USD 3 000

Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 USD 6 500

Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 USD 2 700

Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 USD 1 400


teleconverter 1.4 x

One way to increase the reach of your lens is to use a tele converter. They come in 1.4, 1.7 and 2.0 times magnification.

Three things to know before you use a tele converter:

  1. They will reduce your aperture by at least 1 stop i.e a 1.4x tele converter will take your f4 lens to f5.6
  2. They can reduce focusing speed
  3. They can impact image quality

I have used 1.4 x tele converters on most of my lenses when photographing birds with great results.

As a general rule I would say that you can safely use a 1.4 x tele converter without sacrificing too much.

One stop of light is not critical unless you are shooting at night and the 1.4x teleconverter has a zero to negligible impact on focusing speed and image quality.

I know photographers that use a 2x tele converter on their 70-200mm f2.8 lens and they swear by the results.

It is possible to rent tele converters so I would recommend that you experiment.

Consider the background when photographing birds

Shallow depth of field for Bird Portraits

In some cases you will have sufficient time to consider the background against which your subject is framed.

You will not always have that luxury of course, particularly with a bird in flight. 

Your subject needs to be a reasonable distance away from the background to enable you to blur the background effectively.

Shoot at a low aperture of f2.8, f4, or f5.6 to get a smooth, out of focus background.

Wildlife photographers often disparagingly refer to photographs of perched birds as ‘BOS’ (bird on stick). The inference being that if you cannot capture a bird in flight then don’t photograph birds with the big boys. 

This is of course nonsense.

Think of it like you are shooting a portrait and approach the task the same way. 

photographing birds stone chat

Stone Chat 500mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5,6, Mode: Manual, Exp comp: -1/3, ISO: 1600

Show the environment

Documenting the bird in it’s natural habitat can assist with the visual story that you are telling.

If you can do this without too many distractions in the frame then you should be alert to these opportunities.

I suggest you avoid trying to photograph small birds that are deep in a thicket but wait until they come into a largely visible position and use a slightly wider angle or zoom out to show their environment.

Feeding behaviour is a good example of how you can show the birds environment as well as it’s behaviour – particularly if a  bird primarily has one food type. 

yellow billed horn bill

Yellow billed hornbill 500mm, 1/500 sec, f/4, Mode: Av, ISO: 640

Clean backgrounds work best when you are seeking to blur the background.

Large objects in close proximity to your bird make it all the more difficult to get the smooth out of focus background we are looking for.

Get into the habit of looking past your subject when you are composing the shot to ensure that your background is not intrusive.

This may mean you have to move your position to achieve a better result so do this carefully in order not to scare the bird away.

white bellied sunbird

500mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5,6, Mode: Manual, Metering: Multi-segment, ISO: 450

Research bird behaviour

One of the fascinating things about photographing birds is the incredible variety in the appearance and behaviour of your subjects.

Unlike large mammals, birds always appear to be busy – either nesting, courting, mating, feeding, fighting or flying.

If you know that you will  photographing birds that are unfamiliar to you then you should invest a bit of time researching their habitats and behaviour. 

Fun fact -did you know that many species of birds defecate just before they take off? 

Try and get yourself acquainted with some of these habits in order to put yourself in the best position to nail the shot. 

Capturing feeding behaviour of birds

From the predatory swoop of birds of prey to the intricate dance of the sugar birds and humming birds, feeding behaviour of birds gives perhaps the greatest opportunities when photographing birds.

In the example of the Carmine Bee eater below, they usually return to their original perch once they have successfully caught an insect.

In fact, most bee eaters and rollers do this.  

They also beat and toss their prey before consuming it.

Knowing this, you should be firing off images as soon as the bird lands back on the branch with prey in its beak. 

The image below is one of at least 20 fired off during this sequence.

carmine bee eater

Carmine bee eater 600mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5,6, Mode: Manual, ISO: 1400

Capturing the nesting behaviour of birds

If you are fortunate enough to discover a nest in a location that favours getting good photographs then you are truly in luck.

Your luck has doubled if there are chicks in the nest and the attentive parents are going about the exhausting business of flying backwards and forwards with food for the hungry youngsters.

Remember to photograph in an ethical manner and note the following:

  • keep your distance so as not to influence the birds behaviour negatively
  • do not damage or remove any branches or vegetation that may be obscuring your view
golden tailed wood peckers

Golden tailed Woodpeckers 600mm, 1/500 sec, f/4, Mode: Manual, ISO: 2800

Photographing birds in flight

Photographing birds in flight is as much about when and where they are going to fly as it is about photography techniques, lenses and camera settings.

If you are in the wrong place, or in the right place but at the wrong time, in the wrong light it doesn’t matter that you have the best gear as you are simply not going to get a decent shot.

Camera settings for photographing birds in Flight

Camera settings for birds in flight photography have been touched on earlier in this article but can be summarised again as follows:

  • Shutter speed – from 1/1 250 for very large slow flying birds to 1/8000 sec for very small fast flying birds. The image of the great white pelican below was shot at 1/1600 sec.
  • Aperture – one stop above your widest aperture for budget lenses (you can usually shoot wide open on the flagship prime lenses)
  • ISO – Auto up to a maximum recommended by the users or reviewers of your particular camera
  • Metering mode – Matrix/evaluative metering for birds in flight. I wouldn’t recommend spot metering until you are comfortable knowing when to switch back and forth from each. 
  • Camera mode – Manual if you are using Auto ISO and Av if you are manually setting the ISO
  • Back button auto focus – yes for birds in flight if you are using a DSLR. This gets a bit more complicated when using a mirrorless camera as it is not entirely necessary, nor does it provide additional benefits depending on the quality of the auto focus tracking and this varies from brand to brand currently.
  • Auto focus mode – 3D or dynamic group mode if you are using a DSLR and 3D animal detect mode if you are using a mirrorless camera. This is a broad generalisation and now a massive topic by itself that requires individual and in depth research if you have bought a full frame mirrorless camera.
  • Burst mode – the setting that gives you the largest number of frames per second in RAW file format. Remember to purchase memory cards capable of handling this and learn what the buffer restrictions of your particular camera are.
great white pelican

600mm 1/1600 sec, f/4, Mode: Av, Metering: Multi-segment, ISO: 250

Photograph flying birds in the best Light

We spoke about how the size of the bird can effect your camera settings, particularly aperture and shutter speed.

Photographing birds in flight necessitates high shutter speeds and wide apertures 90% of the time and these two requirements need good light to be feasible. 

As a general rule it is advisable to have your back to the sun when photographing birds in flight so that the bird is well lit when it is flying across your field of view or towards you.

Photographing birds flying away from you seldom achieves a decent image in my experience irrespective of the light.

In the hotter climates, birds are also most active in the hour or so just after sunrise and in the afternoon before dusk.

This is particularly relevant if the species of bird you are photographing is a resident of a colony or has a predictable daily flight path to and from a nesting site. 

On colder mornings look in the tops of trees and you are likely to find birds warming themselves up in the morning sun.

If you are patient, they will take off looking for their early morning feed once they have warmed themselves up sufficiently.

The image below of a Rufous Bellied Heron in full breeding plumage was taken at 7 am as he took off from the bank of the Chobe River (Botswana) where he had spent the night.

You can see from the shadow his wing makes on his body that the sun was right behind me and relatively low in the sky.

I waited at least 20 minutes for him to take off however I knew he would once the sun had been on him for a while, so it was worth the short wait.

rufous bellied heron

500mm, 1/2000 sec, f/7,1, Mode: Av, ISO: 1000 

Plan your shot

If you are travelling to a specific location such as a river, dam or bird hide near you then you have the luxury of pre planning the shots you wish to capture.

Knowing where to position your self is important and you would be taking into account whether the location is on a flight path of birds heading to and from their nests, or to and from food sources.

If you are primarily photographing shore birds then you will need to get into position early so that the birds will swim up close to you while you are lying immobile on the bank.

Trying to get into position to photograph shore birds is very difficult once they are up and about as they are very often skittish and will swim or fly away from you as you try and get into position.

Establish whether you will be able to use a camera support at the location or whether you will be obliged to photograph hand held.

Certain locations are not suited to using tripods and, particularly if you are going to be lying prone you will need to bring a bean bag or mini pod to assist you keep the camera and lens steady.

As photographing birds in flight often requires panning the flight of the bird than the main planning activity you can do is practice. And then practice some more!

black winged stilt

Photographing birds from a hide

Photographing birds in flight from a hide or blind adds another level of difficulty.

Birds that are flying across your field of view may not be visible until they are right on you.

This means you have little time to grab focus and start tracking the bird.

This gets easier the further the bird is away from you as the angle widens along with the distance.

The extra distance does of course necessitate longer lenses and this eventuality should be anticipated before planning your outing.

Similarly, you have limited vertical elevation which can impact your angle of view with birds flying towards and over you.

Personally I think hides work best when you are planning to photograph birds flying to and from a food source, particular if the area is baited and ‘man planted’ perches have been erected at pre planned distances.

Photographing from a hide means you can usually be set up on a tripod or pre installed gimbal.

I find that I am using tripods less and less as they limit movement.

I am more comfortable photographing birds in flight from a standing position and hand holding the camera than I am seated behind a tripod in a hide.

The image below of a spur winged goose was taken hand held while I was standing next to a hide – not in it.

spur wing goose in flight

500mm, 1/3200 sec, f/5,6, Mode: Manual, ISO: 500

How to photograph birds against a bright sky (Video)

Get creative

Getting creative shots does not necessarily require a lot of skill. With bird photography photography it is often the lighting conditions that provide such opportunities.

  • If the light is so that low it impacts your shutter speed then experiment with panning.
  • If the light is overly harsh i.e mid day sun, then convert the image to black and white when you get home. Harsh light provides harsh contrasts which often ruins a colour image but can enhance a black and white one
  • Under expose the shot to obtain moody low key images. This works well when your subject is in the light but the background is dark. Take your exposure compensation down to – 2 and experiment from there.
  • Photographing at an upwards angle into a grey sky produces flat looking images, often with an under exposed subject if you let your camera make all of the decisions. Up your exposure compensation to +2 (or use spot metering) and convert to black and white.
open billed stork

Print your Work

I have got into the habit of printing small 5 x 7 prints of birds that I keep in a photo box – like the ones wedding photographers use.

When I get a better image than my least favourite in the box I change them out.

This way I continuously improve the quality of the images in the box.

prints of bird images

Final thoughts

Bird photography can be a frustrating pastime. It is truly the genre of photography that requires the most practice.

If that isn’t difficult enough, it is also a genre that requires you to understand a lot about bird behaviour as well as their preferred habitats.

Many photographers develop a keen interest in birds once they start photographing them.

That certainly happened to me and I love it.


Recommended reading

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