Digital bird photography

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Tips and tricks for digital bird photography

  • Introduction
  • Composition guidelines
  • Equipment choices
  • Camera settings
  • Special tips and advice for digital bird photography 

digital Bird Photography


Digital Photography Bureau is delighted to bring you this article packed with awesome advice, tips and tricks and some fantastic images courtesy of Debby McCandless.

After first picking up a camera at sweet 16, Debby has remained hooked on photography ever since. She has honed her skills over the years, never losing her passion especially for nature photography. Now she shares her experience and her stunning images with visitors to her own website


digital bird photography

Debby, what is it that inspires you so much about Digital Bird Photography? 

I find digital bird photography is one of the most rewarding types of photography.

It's a challenge to get well exposed, in-focus shots and it requires patience to get close without disturbing the birds in their natural habitat.

I'm also amazed at the variety and colors you find in birds and when I encounter a bird I haven't seen before I’m encouraged to learn about it, so photographing birds is also educational for me.

It also keeps me on my toes as far as knowing my camera functions because you have to be quick or you will miss the shot!



What key tips would you give for Composition in digital bird photography?

I use the rule of thirds a lot.

I like to place the eye at one of the intersections or keep the birds in one of the thirds either horizontally or vertically.

If the bird is looking left or right, be sure and leave some space for them to look into such as in the above photo of a meadowlark. You will see that there is more space on the right of the photo for the bird to gaze into.

However if a bird is looking straight on (as with the Owl photo at the head of this page) then it's often best to center the bird.

Always give birds-in-flight room  to fly within your composition to give the viewer a sense of space and freedom.

hawk in flight

What equipment do you favor for your digital bird photography and why?

I like to use a DSLR camera with high speed continuous drive mode as it's important to take several photos in a row as often your second or third photo will be the most in-focus.

Auto focus tracking, such as AI Servo on Canon models, will help maintain the bird in focus when it is moving.

I typically shoot in RAW  format for the greatest creative control in post processing.

For super sharp images I prefer to use a long prime lens of 400-600mm. Faster lenses are expensive but do allow more light for those early morning and late evening bird encounters.

If a long, fast, prime lens is beyond your budget - then a zoom lens with a focal length of 300mm can also give good results.

For stationary birds a sturdy tripod is a must and I urge those serious about their digital bird photography to invest in one!

For birds in flight I find a lens that has image stabilization is helpful and using the rear af button is a good tip as it allows you to keep shooting without accidentally re- focusing should you want to instantly adjust the location of the bird within the frame for compositional reasons.

What other camera settings do you normally use for digital bird photography?

Be sure to use shutter priority of at least the focal length of your lens or higher.

If you have a crop sensor camera such as my Canon 7D (1.6 crop) then you have to factor that in. For instance a 400mm lens on a 1.6 crop factor would (in general) require a shutter speed of 1/640 or more.

I try to shoot at 1/1000 to freeze action if I have enough light. Of course, you can always increase your ISO to get a higher shutter speed, but try to keep the ISO to 800 or less.

For birds- in-flight I use the auto focus tracking (AI Servo) and high speed continuous drive mode. For stationary birds I use single point AF and one shot drive mode.

I like to use spot metering to ensure I correctly expose for the bird and not the surroundings and typically set daylight white balance, although as I shoot in RAW I retain the option to fine tune white balance to my liking in post production.

gull in shorebreak

Above image from digital photography bureau


Do you have any other tips and tricks that are especially relevant to bird photography?

Yes absolutely,
Always get the glint of light in the birds eye to bring life to the subject in a photograph. As with all wildlife, always get the eye in focus even if most of the rest of the bird is slightly out of focus. Show the birds doing something if you can (as with this photo of the two birds).

Try to keep the background uncluttered (as few branches as possible).

For greater success, learn about the intended subject’s behavior and where you will likely find


Disturb the bird’s natural habitat and routine as little as possible.

A blind can help you get closer to birds. If you are just starting out, go to a park and photograph birds that are used to human presence because they will be less flighty.

Early morning about 3 hours after sunrise is my favorite time to photograph birds as they are pretty active and the light is good quality.

I pick a spot that gives me a little cover where I know the type of bird I am looking for usually shows up and wait patiently.

Photographing a dark bird against a bright sky will lead to an underexposed bird or blown out

Sky. Try to avoid photographing against a bright sky if at all possible.


digital bird photography summary


Many thanks again to Debby McCandless for sharing those words of wisdom and her awesome photos.

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useful links from this page

go to JARGON BUSTER digital photography terms explained

using the rear AF button

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