Engaging Bird Photography

#1 Requirement: Patience, coupled with attentive observation of flight or roosting patterns.

Capturing compelling images of birds in their natural habitat is definitely doable, both with your camera mounted on a tripod, as well as holding the camera firmly in your hands. For hand-held avian photography, you’ll want to use your fastest speed lenses. My go-to choice for this activity is a 200 mm fixed-focal-length Canon professional-grade lens. This is a 1:2.8 minimal f-number, 72 mm diameter lens. Shutter speed setting should be 1/800-of-a-second or faster. Take multiple shots in rapid succession, while attempting to anticipate the arc of the bird’s flight or where the animal tends to perch. It is possible to hold a 400 mm telephoto lens and make quality images (see Cooper’s hawk in Monterey, California),

Cooper`s Hawk in Monterey, California

but the ambient light level must be high. This is because many 400 mm lenses are 1:5.6 minimal f-number, which is fairly slow for a given exposure. It’s much easier to use this type of lens when it is mounted on your tripod.

Long-distance images demand the 400 mm lens mounted on a stable tripod. The female barred owl perched on a branch in the woods nearby our home is one of my personal favorite photographs.

Barred Owl in Northern Virginia Woodland

My wife and I love to listen to and observe the three owls which inhabit the woods in our immediate area. Several elements make the photography extremely challenging. One is having the camera, 400 mm lens, and tripod at-the-ready when we notice that one or more owls are in the trees. That process can take several minutes, and by then the owl could be off to other parts of the local terrain in which they feed and nest. The dense leaf canopy significantly reduces the ambient light, so early evening shots—exactly when the owls are most active in our observations—are largely precluded. But one sunny Saturday afternoon, the female owl stayed perched for more than 15 minutes up on a branch about 75 feet from our back deck. My wife has a knack for spotting the owls amidst the foliage. I was able to grab my camera, tripod, and 400 mm Canon lens from upstairs, set up the equipment on the deck, and attempt to locate the owl through the viewfinder—which was not an easy task. At that point, it came down to exactly which way the owl was perched on the branch, how she was maneuvering her feathers, and whether she was looking toward me. That took more than 10 minutes of close observation. I took many test shots—probably 25 or so—to ensure that I was getting a good histogram. And then, success!

During the winter, I use my tripod and 200 mm fixed-focal-length lens to capture birds eating at one of our five feeders. I particularly like to observe bird activity while snow is falling.

Landing in the Snow--Wild Birds

The local birds, which include cardinals, blue jays, wrens, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees, are notably busy feeding when it snows. That sets up the potential for quality photography. The key is to take bursts of shots, preferably through an open window, although that can lead to cold faces and fingers. It is not uncommon for me to take 300 images or more at shutter speeds north of 1/1,000th-of-a-second, and always in both RAW and JPEG format.

Now go have fun!

Photo credits: Photobulb.

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September 08, 2019


I feel fortunate to have photographed Barred and Great Horned Owls by hand holding. Sometimes being at the right place at the right time is important. I knew where the owls were by how the neighborhood birds were reacting: erratic flying, loud warning screams. I was able to grab my camera, find the owls and take shots before they flew off.

August 24, 2019


Appreciate your feedback. No, I had not seen the birdhouse light switch before. Thanks for letting me know.

August 20, 2019


Love your article. Love the Birds. Have you seen the birdhouse light switch? Its a fun way to bring the charm of birds into your home, without the mess, and all the charm. https://www.amazon.com/Big-Birdhouse-Orange-Double-Switch/dp/B07L387LKV

August 16, 2019


Great article! Always love reading input from other birders! William 

August 15, 2019


Thank you very much for your feedback. Glad that you liked the barred owl photograph.

August 15, 2019


Excellent article, with very helpful info. I love bird and nature photography, and will definitely incorporate you suggestions. I've been lucky enough to get a couple of decent pics of Cooper's hawk, and you're right -  once the settings are dialed in, the rapid fire technique will often give you some real gems. And kudos on the owl pic as well!

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