Updated: Feb 11, 2021
At first, bird photography can be very daunting, but the more you practice the better you'll get. Bear these tips in mind next time you go out.
It does help to have a good DSLR and expensive lenses but you can still get fantastic photos on a budget. Ideally you will want at least a 300mm lens, these will range from £80 to over £5k. Look for a decent f/4 if you can afford it, but if not don't worry, a standard 300mm f/5.6 will be okay to start with. Most of the cheaper 300mm lenses will be zoom lenses, these are great to start with. As for a camera, as a Nikon user i would always suggest you buy the best you can afford. The D3500 is a great camera to start for around £600 with a 300mm zoom lens, but if that's more than you can afford, look for cheaper options on eBay.
Now you have your equipment, find somewhere safe set up. You can use your garden, or a local woods. Ideally somewhere quiet, where no one will scare the birds away. Add food to an area you want the birds to land, like a bird table or log, branch or a perch you set up. Get yourself hidden and wait.
When photographing birds be mindful of composition. Most of the time having the bird fill the frame is great, but remember there are other elements in the photo that might help enhance the shot. You want to capture the bird looking in your general direction, if the bird is looking away it normally doesn't work. Remember the rule of thirds, and try to get the bird looking into the the empty space. These are some of the golden rules, but don't forget, rules are meant to be broken, and sometimes the best photo breaks all the rules.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of bird photography in my opinion is the background, This can make or break your photo. You can have a stunning shot of a bird but if the background is messy and distracting it will ruin the photo. Look for clean backgrounds or look for light through trees that can create a stunning bokeh, in nature this is fairly easy but in the garden you might have to improvise. Use an old coloured sheet or a camo net as the backdrop, these work perfectly. Remember to set you aperture to between f/4 and f/8 and make sure the background if far enough away to blur out
One golden rule of bird photography is to always focus on the eye. This is the same in most cases of wildlife photography but essential when capturing birds.
6. Let There be Light
Light is key to a good bird shot. Its not always something you can control, but when setting up be aware of your location. You don't want the sun coming up in your face. Early morning or late in the day when the light is soft is the best time, and normally when birds are most active. Look for dappled light coming from behind tree's, this can produce stunning light.
Birds are always on the move, so it's good to fire off a series of shots to try and get one that shows off its personality. It might be a mean looking Green Finch, a boisterous Starling, or a grumpy Bull Finch, but capturing that moment makes the photo stand out.
8. Keep it Level
It's usually better to photograph birds a eye level, so when setting up a table, or a perch try to make sure you are at a similar level. That way when the birds land you should be able to get a nice angle, and this will then transport the viewer into that birds world.
When using perches try to frame your subject using nature. branches with leaves, or branches with small tree flowers make great looking frames that either completely or partially surround the subject.
10. Camera Settings
Okay, now the technical bit.
Always shooting in RAW, while its always nice to nail the shot in camera, most of the time you will need to make adjustments to the photo in post processing and RAW will allow you do that. Most of the time i need to adjust the white balance, bring back some detail in the shadows, work on the contrast and highlights to make sure i am completely happy with the image
Set your White Balance to auto
Whilst i tend to use manual mode, most of the time setting up in Aperture mode is easier, especially if you're new to bird photography. By selecting the aperture (F-Stop) the camera will choose the shutter speed for you. Ah but what if the light is poor?
Auto ISO is the ideal way to combat poor light, although not the only way. Setting auto ISO will largely depend on your camera, too high and the noise becomes an issue. Some DSLR's will allow for higher ISO's than others so to start with i suggest setting the Auto ISO to be a max sensitivity of 800 and go from there. Some DSLR's will also allow you to set a minimum shutter speed, i would suggest starting with 1/640 for birds on perches, if you struggle then increase it to 1/1000 and if the light is there you can go higher especially if you want to capture birds in flight. Just remember that the higher the ISO the more noise in the photo. If you do suffer with high noise then consider something like Topaz Denoise AI
Back Button focus is a must for bird photography, once you go to back button auto-focus you won't go back. Check out Steve Perry's YouTube post here
I try to use a single spot AF where possible for fairly static birds, but with modern DSLR's you can set some buttons to various functions, so i have my main back button focus set to single AF point but i also have a button set in group mode and one set for Dynamic AF area 9 points so i can choose my focus mode depending on the situation.
Finally always select continuous shooting mode, that way when you fire a series of shots you should nail one or two
Research the best place to set up for your bird photography. Use a method of concealing yourself by using a pop up hide, or a camo net. Use attractive perches, branches, tree stumps or anything natural that you like the look of.
Remember to think about composition, the background and focusing on the eye. and above all think about the light and where is comes from.
Keep as level with your subject as you can, and look to photograph the birds behaviour or personality. This is difficult to start with but you'll soon start to notice some birds have a very quirky personality.
Finally some extra tips, practice practice practice, the more you do the better you'll get. Above all have fun, there's nothing better than being surrounded by nature, learn to appreciate what is all round us and respect it.
Look at other photographers, see what works and what doesn't, this will give you an idea of what you'll need to do.
There are a couple of YouTube bird photographers i like to watch for tips, check them out