In this video and article, professional nature photographer Ian Plant offers his favorite tips and techniques for taking successful bird photos, and he shares 30 examples that will provide inspiration when you are making your own bird images. At the end of this article is a PRO exclusive video demonstrating several bird photography digital processing techniques.
Although I don't specialize in bird photography, in my 20 years as a nature photographer, I've taken a lot of bird photos. In the video below, I offer my top ten tips for taking amazing bird photographs. These tips will help you take your bird images to the next level.
After you've finished watching the video, take a look at the following 30 inspiring examples of bird photography, along with plenty of additional tips for taking stunning bird images.
#1: White pelican, USA
I photographed this white pelican in J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Birds that eat fish whole will flip their prey so that the fish goes down their throat head first, so that the fins can’t expand and injure the bird. Knowing this behavior, once the pelican grabbed a fish out of the water, all I needed to do was to set a fast shutter speed and wait for the perfect moment. Canon 5DIII, Canon 500mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/5000 second.
#2: Greater flamingo, Namibia
This is one of my favorite techniques when working with coastal birds at sunrise or sunset. For this photo I took in Namibia's Walvis Bay, the sun was setting in the background on a clear day, casting a bright and colorful reflection into the water. I waited for a flamingo to walk into the brightest part of the reflection, exposing for the bright highlights and letting everything else go dark. Canon 70D, Canon 200-400mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 100, f/8, 1/500 second.
#3: Black-browed albatross, Falkland Islands
I love shooting wide-angle whenever I can, and the Falkland Islands are a great place for wide-angle bird photography. Many of the species here are completely unconcerned with the presence of humans. Going wide allowed me to include the colorful sunset sky in the background. Canon 5DSR, Canon 11-24mm lens, ISO 400, f/11, 1/80 second.
#4: Chestnut-breasted coronet, Ecuador
I love making photos like this: dark, mysterious, and abstract. I photographed this hummingbird pinned against bright specular highlights in the background, caused by sunlight hitting leaves in the forest. The bird was in the shadows, and I chose an exposure for the highlights, letting the coronet go (mostly) into silhouette. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 250, f/6.3, 1/250 second.
#5: Black-capped donacobius, Brazil
Small birds can be challenging to photograph; they move around fast and typically require a long lens, with a focal length between 600mm and 800mm often being necessary. If you can't get a tight framing, a wider view can often work well if you bring in interesting parts of the surrounding environment. I waited for the moment when this bird called. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 500, f/5.6, 1/1000 second.
#6: Atlantic puffins, Iceland
Visual separation is helpful when photographing groups of birds. For this whimsical photo of a cluster of puffins "surfing" updrafts along the coast, I kept shooting as their relative positions changed, waiting for a moment when the closest puffin was separated from and framed by the puffins in the background. Canon 5DIII, Canon 100-400mm lens, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/500 second.
#7: Bald eagle, USA
Getting successful shots of flying birds requires a fast shutter speed (1/500 or 1/1000 second is typically sufficient, depending on how fast the bird is flying), good autofocus (preferably AF that continuously tracks moving subjects), and a steady set of hands well-practiced at panning with your subject as it moves across the sky. Wings up or down is preferred as well. Bringing this all together with the moment when the bird calls requires patience and a little bit of luck! Canon 20D, Canon 500mm lens, ISO 1600, f/6.3, 1/400 second.
#8: Lilac-breasted rollers, Zambia
I photographed this colorful pair while on safari in Kafue National Park in Zambia. Pose is vital to successful bird photography, and having two divergent, alert poses here helps create a dynamic composition. Canon 7DII, Canon 200-400mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 160, f/6.3, 1/500 second.
#9: Snow geese, USA
Every winter, snow geese descend by the thousands at various wildlife preserves across the United States, including Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Photographing large groups of birds can be chaotic, so having one bird that stands out to focus the viewer's attention helps simplify your compositions. I made the single flying goose the centerpiece of my photo, with the fog and golden sunrise backlighting adding color and mood to the image. Sony a7IV, Tamron 50-400mm lens, ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/2000 second.
#10: Snowy egrets, USA
Reflections can add a dose of color and abstraction to your bird photos. With this ominous-looking cluster of snowy egrets, the reflection doesn't seem to match the birds (it actually does, if you look carefully), creating a sense of cognitive dissonance for the viewer. Canon 5DIII, Canon 500mm lens, ISO 800, f/9, 1/500 second.
#11: Blue-footed boobies, Ecuador
The Galápagos Islands of Ecuador are a great place to see lots of amazing bird species. I carefully chose a position for this shot that put the brilliant blue background (the ocean) behind the birds' heads, and waited for a moment when the two birds separated. I used a cluster of rocks between me and the birds to add an abstract, out-of-focus blur to the foreground. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 125, f/5.6, 1/500 second.
#12: Brown pelican, Belize
For this spare composition, I followed the pelican as it dove into the sea at sunset, triggering the shutter at the moment when it neared the colorful horizon. Canon 5DII, Canon 100-400mm lens, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/2000 second.
#13: Snow geese, USA
You can get creative with the shapes formed by flocks of birds as they fly. For this composition, I got lucky: the geese spontaneously formed into an attractive "M" shape just as they passed by the moon. Canon 5DIII, Tamron 70-200mm lens, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/160 second.
#14:Great blue heron, USA
This heron was standing still in waters reflecting the pink glow of the twilight sky. It was breezy, so the water was rippled. With my camera securely on a tripod, I used a long exposure to blur the rippled water, smoothing out the reflections. I fired a flash during the exposure, which froze the motion of the water. You can see the ripple lines in the reflection as well as on the bird; the ripple lines on the bird resulted from the flash reflecting off the water. Canon 20D, Sigma 300-800mm lens, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/4 second.
#15: Tawny eagle, Botswana
I love incorporating the sun into my bird photos whenever I can. For this photo, I used the full moon instead. I chose my position carefully so that the moon was just behind the eagle, perfectly framing its head. Warm sunrise light on the eagle helped balance the exposure. Canon 70D, Canon 200-400mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 250, f/5.6, 1/250 second.
#16: Double-crested cormorant, USA
The golden hours of sunrise and sunset are amazing times to photograph birds. I made this photo as the cormorant took off from the water, shooting from my kayak as I explored the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay. This kept me low to the water, giving me the perfect angle to include the bright and colorful specular highlights in the background. Canon 20D, Sigma 50-500mm lens, ISO 200, f/6.3, 1/250 second.
#17: Little blue heron, USA
I typically prefer photographing birds in colorful light, but you can make great bird photos on overcast days too. Here, I chose a bright exposure to give this reflection image a minimalist, high-key look. The perfect moment was when the heron touched the water with its beak. Canon 5DIII, Canon 500mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/250 second.
#18: Great kiskadee, Costa Rica
Once again, you can see me getting creative with specular highlights. I carefully chose a position that placed the most interesting highlights behind the bird. These bright orbs create a halo effect around the bird, drawing the viewer's eye to the subject. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/2000 second.
#19: Great blue heron, USA
This is the reverse of the technique discussed immediately above. Here, the colorful specular highlights (sunlit autumn leaves) are in front of the bird, not behind. By intentionally placing something between the lens and the subject, and letting it go completely out of focus by focusing on the heron and using a wide-open aperture, I brought an abstract blur of color into the composition. Canon 5DII, Canon 500mm lens, ISO 200, f/4, 1/800 second.
#20: Great egret, USA
I love working with backlighting, especially with white birds. At sunrise or sunset, their feathers seem to glow with a colorful, inner light. Canon 5DIII, Canon 500mm with 1.4x extender, ISO 200, f/11, 1/800 second.
#21: Greater flamingos, Ecuador
It was so much fun photographing this cluster of colorful flamingos. The reflections were just perfect as the birds cavorted while wading through the water. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 125, f/5.6, 1/400 second.
#22: Willets, USA
I like to get creative with flash when doing wildlife photography. I photographed these willets on the Atlantic shore one evening during twilight. I chose a relatively long shutter speed to blur the willets as they moved, with the flash freezing their action. The mix of the two creates a ghostly look. Canon 1DsII, Canon 300mm lens, ISO 800, f/8, 0.4 seconds.
#23: Rainforest scops owl, Madagascar
The best photos tell a story. For this photo of an owl nestled within a hole in a tree in Madagascar's Kirindy Forest, I waited for an hour for it to open its eyes. Ultimately, however, I preferred this shot with its eyes closed, which I think more effectively told the story of a sleepy nocturnal owl getting some rest during the day after a long night of hunting. I included some blue sky in the background to counter the predominance of brown tones in this image. Sony a7IV, Tamron 150-500mm lens, ISO 400, f/6.7, 1/500 second.
#24: Greater flamingos, Namibia
Sometimes it is better to take in a wider view when doing bird photography. For this photo of sleeping flamingos off the Namibian coast, I went wide enough to include an attractive pattern of salt marsh grasses, creating a progression of visual elements leading the viewer from foreground to the birds in the background. Once I had my composition set up, I just needed to wait for one of the flamingos to look up. Canon 70D, Canon 200-400mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 400, f/22, 1/320 second.
#25: Jabiru storks, Brazil
I photographed this mating pair of storks in Brazil's famous Pantanal region (known primarily for jaguar photography, but it is also a great place for birds). If storks deliver human babies, do humans deliver stork babies? In any event, moments when two or more birds interact can be great for making interesting photos. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm lens, ISO 250, f/4, 1/400 second.
#26: Snowy egret, USA
I was photographing this egret backlit one morning (you know how much I love backlighting), when it dove into a pool of water trying to grab a fish. After it hopped back out of the pool, it shook itself like a wet dog. The moment when it looked at me with its feathers ruffled was priceless. Canon 20D, Sigma 300-800mm lens, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/800 second.
#27: Great blue heron, USA
Perfect reflections are rare, so when you get dead calm conditions, take advantage. I went vertical to include the entire reflection of the heron, and waited for a moment when it squawked. Canon 5DII, Canon 500mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/400 second.
#28: Greater flamingo, Ecuador
Getting down really low when photographing birds can allow you to include out-of-focus elements from the foreground. This adds depth and layers to your compositions. Here, the water helps lead the viewer's eye to the flamingo in the background. Waiting for a moment when your subject strikes an interesting pose is critical to successful bird photography. Canon 5DIII, Canon 200-400mm lens, ISO 100, f/5, 1/800 second.
#29: Snowy owl, Canada
You can bring some artistic color into your bird photographs by including the sky at sunrise, sunset, or twilight. For this photo of a snowy owl, I laid down flat in the snow so I could pull the colorful twilight sky down behind my subject. Canon 1DIII, Canon 100-400mm lens, ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/80 second.
#30: Red-winged blackbird, USA
Getting to know your subject is critical to successful bird photography. I spent many a frozen early spring morning trying to capture photos of male red-winged blackbirds calling with steam coming out of their open beaks. Learning about their behaviors, and figuring out how cold it needs to be for steam to come out of an open mouth, were crucial to getting this photo. Canon 5DII, Canon 500mm lens with 1.4x extender, ISO 800, f/8, 1/200 second.
I hope you have found these tips helpful, and I hope my photos give you some ideas for taking your own creative bird images. If you want to learn more, the video below demonstrates some important bird photography processing techniques, but it is only available to PRO subscribers.
Sharpening and blurring bird photos: PRO video
In the video below, I tackle two common problems with bird photos. First, I demonstrate how you can easily sharpen your bird photos when your subject is a bit blurry because of missed focus or motion blur. Second, I show how to creatively blur the background to help your bird subject stand out to the viewer. A PRO subscription takes a deeper look at how compelling photos are made, and unlocks access to this video as well as a number of my other courses and tutorials.
You can learn more about using Topaz Labs Sharpen AI here. If you want to learn more about my basic digital darkroom workflow, check out my Digital Darkroom Course, which is part of your PRO membership. You can also explore the many other processing mini-tutorials found on this site.