The Beauty of Birds

A professional’s guide to capturing avian magic

  • Text & Photographs by Melissa Groo
  • Wildlife Photography
  • Dec 01, 2020

Ensuring both sun and wind were at her back, Groo waited a half hour before this snowy owl took off toward her in Ontario.

BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY CAN BE an enormously gratifying endeavor. It invites you to be out in nature, fully present and tuned in to your wild subject. You enter a kind of meditative state, where everything else falls away. At the same time, it’s arguably the most challenging type of photography. Keeping focus on a small, winged creature flitting in and out of foliage or blazing across the sky demands quick reactions, tenacity and patience. But this makes it all the more satisfying when you get a striking image. A few basic principles can greatly increase your chances of capturing such a photograph: 

Light. The key to great photography is making use of good light. Shoot with the sun at your back and your shadow pointing at the bird, which allows for full illumination. On sunny days, shoot at the edges of the day—within roughly two hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset. A high sun creates unattractive contrast on a subject, and early mornings also are when birds are most active.

Movement. Birds are constantly on the move. Even when they’re perched, they’re making small adjustments very quickly. Keep your focus point on the eye; a sharp eye is the most important element of your photo. A high shutter speed is crucial for birds—at least 1/400 second for perched birds and at least 1/1600 for flight. Ideally, with birds in flight, you’re even higher, at 1/2500 or 1/3200. You will also hugely increase your success rate with flying birds if you ally with the wind. Birds tend to face into the wind at rest, take off into the wind and fly into it when possible. This means you want the wind at your back, so you can get the front side of birds flying. And because sun is best behind you, look for an easterly wind (from the east) at sunrise and a westerly wind at sunset.

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To capture bird behavior, such as a reddish egret striking for a fish in Florida, “be ready for sudden movement with a high shutter speed,” says Groo, who took this photo lying down “to get more into the bird’s world.”

Composition. If possible, avoid placing your subject dead center of the photo and do not crowd your birds into a tight frame. Leave them room to look or move into. Consider including habitat to achieve more of a storytelling image.

Behavior. While beautiful portraits can captivate, photos depicting classic or unusual behavior offer more impact. Study the natural history of the birds you photograph and learn about their courtship rituals or hunting techniques. Once you understand and can predict behavior, you’ll be better prepared to recognize and capture it. And you’ll be tuned in to special moments that show emotion, such as joyful reunions between mated birds or loving nudges between a mother and her chick. These kinds of images can evoke real feeling in your viewer and are key to unique and compelling bird photography.

Positioning yourself. Attempt to minimize your presence. Even in your own yard, use a pop-up blind or shoot from a window. Cars make terrific “mobile blinds” because birds tend to be more comfortable with people in vehicles than on foot. For a more intimate view, position yourself on the same level as the bird instead of shooting up or down at an angle.

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A chase between black skimmers on Long Island provided another serendipitous “moment of action” after a patient wait.

Patience. Stay with your subject. Nothing is more rewarding or fruitful than spending deep time with an individual bird or species. If you have the opportunity to do this, in your backyard or at a local park, for example, take it. It’s only over a lengthy period of time really observing and extensively photographing an individual or species that you can capture unique images that provide an intimate look into a bird’s life.

Ethics. Photography urges us closer to birds that naturally see us as predators. While our goal is to capture good photos, we must also strive to ensure our wild subjects can freely pursue the activities so critical to their survival—feeding, resting, raising young and staying wild—despite our presence. “Baiting” raptors such as owls by providing prey, for example, may cause the birds to acclimate to humans, making them vulnerable to vehicle strikes and other dangers. In all cases, use empathy as your guide, observing a bird’s normal behavior from a distance, then watching for changes as you move closer. Look for signs of alarm or imminent flight.

Though our very presence is a disturbance at some level, we can minimize the threat. Sometimes it’s best to back off or even to walk away. For us, the pursuit is just about taking photos, but to a wild bird, every single moment is about survival.

See our exclusive online gallery of 10 additional bird images—some of our favorites from the lens of a master.

Melissa Groo teaches photography and co-wrote the National Audubon Society’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Keeping the Wild in Wildlife Photography »
Crowd Appeal: Spectacular Wildlife Gatherings »
Blog: 10 Tips To Improve Your Wildlife Photography »

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