cover photograph birds close up
cover photograph birds close up

Photographing birds during your birding tour is not easy: they do not usually pose for you, and if you get too close, they will probably fly away. Therefore, the main difficulty of this type of photography is the movement. A hummingbird can flap its wings up to 60 times per second, and an imperial eagle can fly at 150 km per hour! 

It is very different to photograph a relaxed puffin among the rocks than when fishing and diving continuously into the sea. Therefore, bird photography is classified into two types: at rest and in flight. In this article, you will discover all the differences between each type of photography and you will learn how to photograph birds close-up.

How to photograph birds at rest?

Photographing birds at rest is the simplest type of bird photography. Although it depends on the type of bird you are looking for, if you want to practice this type of photography, the easiest thing is to approach a lagoon, to the rocks of a cliff, or pay attention to tree branches.

Moreover, it is advisable to start photographing big birds because they are more predictable and their movements are slower. Big wetland birds such as herons, cranes or flamingos are the perfect models.

1. Bird portraits

photograph bird portraits

When birds are photographed at rest, the most common is to make a portrait in which the bird is the main element of the photography. If you want to give a more professional touch to your photos you can use the bokeh effect, so you get the bird in focus and the background of the image out of focus. The technique is the same as with people or objects, but the magic is in reducing the depth of field.

Keys to a good bokeh

  1. Open the aperture of your camera diaphragm for more light to enter (f/2, f/1.8, f/1.4…).
  2. The distance of focus matters: the closer you are to the bird, the greater the blurred distance behind it.
  3. Use an objective with a wide focal distance (between 70-400 mm).

But the most important advice for making bird portraits is to always (always!) try to focus on the bird’s eyes.

You can also read: Guide to ethical bird photography

2. Bird and landscape photography

Another way to photograph birds at rest is to integrate them as an element within a landscape photograph. In these photos the bird is not isolated, but it can be seen within its habitat and allows us to know the context of the photo. To make a good shot, you have to take the photo as if it were a landscape photograph and make the bird(s) the point of interest.

How to get better landscape photos with birds?

Follow these tips to make your landscape photos more professional:

  • Use small diaphragm openings to focus the background (is the opposite of achieving a bokeh effect).
  • Use a wide-angle objective (between 16 mm and 24 mm).
  • Use a tripod to stabilize the image and minimize vibrations.
  • Consider the three-thirds rule.
  • Make photos with morning and afternoon light.

How to photograph birds in flight?

white bellied woodstar

Photographing birds in flight is more complex because you have to consider two types of movements at once:

  • The displacement of the bird
  • The movement of its wings

If you want to succeed in bird photography you must have the statistics on your side: the more times you shoot, the more chances you have of capturing a spectacular photo. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you go to places where there are large populations of birds, such as natural parks, lagoons, wetlands or bird roosts. Here in Peru, the options are: Manu National Park, Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley.

Light is also very important. During the early morning hours and late afternoon the sun is not too high and the bird will not be covered by its own shadow. That is why we recommend you always shoot with the sun on your back: the light is better and you will avoid looking at it directly in an oversight.

You can also read: The best bird photography tips for birdwatchers

Settings for photographing birds in flight

But on top of all this, the big challenge when photographing birds in flight is to get the wings frozen. The key to achieving this is using very fast shutter speeds. These will serve as guidance:

  • With big birds: 1/1000s or 1/1500s
  • For birds of prey in flight: from 1/2000s
  • With small birds: from 1/2000s to 1/5000s

In order to shoot with very fast shutter speeds you will have to open the diaphragm opening a lot and raise the ISO to compensate for exposure. Do not be too afraid of noise (if you raise the ISO too much, a kind of grain will appear in the image): it is easier to fix it in the post-editing process than trying to edit an underexposed photo.

Finally, to be able to photograph birds at great distances without looking too small in the image, use a telephoto lens of at least 300 mm. These were some tips to photograph birds close-up. Now you are ready to start photographing birds! And most importantly, don’t forget to focus on the bird’s eyes. We hope this information has been useful to you!

Colourful Birding invites you to discover beautiful bird gardens that can be visited and that create a space of protection for many animal species. Do not hesitate to contact us if you require further information about our bird photography travels.

Photo: Alfredo Cornejo