Make Better Bird Photographs

This post features info about my Master The Art and Craft of Bird Photography on-line seminar/class – but it also includes bonus info on bird photography. Check back from time to time as new info will be added (at the end of the post).

Latest update: 1.12.15: Make Better Black and White Photos.

You can also leave a comment at the end of the post. The more (info) the merrier!

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Before I get going here, click the image above to learn about a cool "Birds in Flight" photo contest.

Okay, here we go!

Do you like making bird photographs – and processing your bird photography images? If so, I think you will like my on-line seminar/class, Master The Art and Craft of Bird Photography. I'll show you how to photograph birds in flight . . . to birds on a sick.

The class/seminar is about one hour in length and costs $29.00 - until February 1. After that date the class/seminar will cost $49.00. Click here to order.

The seminar is a recording/QuickTime movie of my Keynote slide presentation, Master the Art and Craft of Bird Photography. You watch and learn at your own pace.

Click here to see a preview of the class - which features almost 150 images from my travels around the world.

That's me with my assistant during one of our bird photography shoots! :-)

In the seminar/class I cover shooting and a bit of processing, including, "Thinking Like a Painter." In that section I talk about sharpening selectively, illustrated above with a Photoshop screen grab (from the class). Process: Filter > Convert to Smart Filter > apply Unsharp Mask, mask out the background. Sharpening the background would detract from the main subject, as well as increasing noise, which can show up in out-of-focus areas in a frame.

Of course, you can also sharpen selectively in Lightroom – illustrated above with two Lightroom screen grabs – top showing selective sharpening (on eagle), accomplished by holding down the Opt/Alt key when using the Masking slider (moving it to the right) in the Details panel.

The concept: A painter would not sharpen an entire image, so think/work like a painter.

Speaking of thinking like a painter . . .click the image above to see a clip that did not make it into my seminar/class. I did not include it because: I cover Thinking Like a Painter in the seminar/class - and because I wanted to keep the class just under one hour. So enjoy - and always think like a painter. ;-)

In the seminar/class I also talk about using plug-ins to improve images. Above is a screen shot that shows the Tonal Contrast filter in Nik Color Efex Pro - a cool way to increase contrast for a more dramatic image.

Above is a screen shot that shows another Nik Color Efex filter - Darken/Lighten Center - that I use to draw more attention to the main subject.

I also briefly cover Daylight Fill-in Flash in the seminar/class. For more detailed info on fill-flash, see:
Daylight Fill-in Flash - Layers Magazine
Daylight Fill-in Flash - Outdoor Photographer Magazine
Daylight Fill-in Flash - X-Train

Above: A must-see for serious bird photographers: The Blast Off at Bosque del Apache, New Mexico. Below: grabbing a bite to eat in Alaska. :-)

Here are 10 quick bird photography tips:

1 - Focus on the eye. If the eye is not in focus, you’ve missed the shot.
2 - Make sure the eye is well lit. If it’s not, you have missed- the shot, unless you want a silhouette or if you are looking to create a sense of mystery in the scene.
3 - Expose for the highlights (small areas of bright feathers).
4 - Set your camera on focus tracking to track a bird right up to the moment of exposure.
5 - Set the focus point in your viewfinder to focus on a small area of the frame and set that point on the bird.
6 - Use a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second to freeze the action fast-moving birds.
7 - Set your camera to the fastest frame rate to capture subtle differences in the subject’s body position.
8 - Take full-frame shots and environmental photographs.
9 - Watch the background. It can make or break your shot.
10 - When you are composing a photograph of a flying bird, leave some room in the frame into which the bird can fly.

Try to avoid these bird photo faux pas:
Left: bird is flying away from you (in some cases);
Right: tail is amputated.

Like photographing birds at zoos - but don't like the wire fences that ruin your photographs? Try the photographer's disappearing act, as illustrated above. Use a telephoto lens, place the lens (w/out a lens hood) directly on the fence where there is an opening, and shoot at the widest aperture. This set-up creates a very shallow depth of field, so the fence disappears. This techniques works best when the fence is black or in the shade.

In the top photo, I darkened the edges of the frame to draw more attention to the main subject.

Below: The technique works for big cats, too! :-)

How cool! Steve Bailes from Spartenburg, SC sent me a note with the following cool tip. Check it out! Thank you Steve!

Looking forward to your bird seminar.  One trick you may not know that I learned from birdwatching. 

Sometimes there is a bird that just won’t come out in the open for a photo.  I use an Audubon app on my I-phone. 

When I was at the coast, I knew the sound of a painted bunting but it was across the marsh.  I simply took out my phone, pulled up the bird and played the vocalization (which it heard from 50 yards across.)  As soon as it heard it, the bird flew and landed within 20 feet, ready for a photo.  Since I was near some bushes with dead branches, I guessed where it would come and set myself so that the sunlight would hit it when it landed. 

This isn’t a photography trick, just a bird trick, but it works very well in the springtime and early summer to draw birds into close range.

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Photographer  Susan Wilkinson makes a good point (on a Google+ post) about bird vocalization apps. Take it away, Susan.

Steve's use of a bird app's vocalizations to call in birds is a common practice and one that I have used as well. I just want to make a point that I think should be mentioned.

"First, it is important to point out that the use of playback is prohibited in many parks and refuges. It is also illegal to disturb any endangered or threatened species (and playback can be interpreted as disturbance). Any potential negative impacts of playback are more likely to occur in areas with a lot of birding pressure, so avoiding playback entirely in those places is a good idea. Where and how to use it in other situations is up the individual birder."
Credit: Sibley Guide 

Many federal, state parks and wildlife refuges do not allow the use of such apps. Also, there are many avid bird watchers and photographers who frown upon the use. 

Here's a few links for anyone that is interested in the use of these apps:
American Birding Association
Sibley Guide
Ethics of Bird Calls

Thanks for sharing all your wonderful tips and beautiful images, Rick. 

Here's a look at the gear I use for my bird photography:


Like black and white bird photography? Learn about how color filters (in plug-ins) change the tones in a photograph. Experiment with different color filters to see which one is best – for you.

Also know that contrast becomes more important when the color is removed.

Like on-line learning? Click here to see all my on-line classes.

Explore the light,

P.S. Interested in live-learning? I am running a small-group photo workshop to Bosque del Apache in December. All my workshops are listed on my 2015 Photo Workshops page.

Bad Light + Reflector + Diffuser + Plug-ins = Good Light

Making pictures. That's one of the things we like to do on my photo workshops. Having fun is another!

On my recent South Beach photo workshop, I demonstrated how to make a picture by turning bad light into good light by using:
• a diffuser (to soften harsh shadows),
• a reflector (to increase the contrast on a subject and to add catch light to a subject's eyes),
• plug-ins to enhance the subject.

Above is a behind-the-scenes shot of our "model-on-a-jet-ski"shoot. That's my friend Cesar Rivera (who heads up New Way Photography in Ft. Lauderdale) on the left holding a Westcott refelctor, and that's me on the right holding a Westcott diffuser.

I used the following  filters in Nik Color Efex Pro to enhance my shot: Classic Soft Focus, Dynamic Skin Softener, and Reflector Effects.

Above is another before-and-after example that illustrates the benefits of using a reflector/diffuser and plug-ins to make a picture/control the light.

Above is a behind-the-scenes shot of our "model/American" flag shoot.

The main messages of this post:
1) Make pictures;
2) If you like people photography, don't leave home without a refelctor/diffuser kit. If you don't have one, check out my own Westcott Light Controller and Tote Kit.

My camera/lens for these shoots: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24-105mm IS lens.

All the plug-ins I use are listed here. Note: You can save a bundle on plug-in bundles (all the plug-ins in a collection) on that page!

Learn more about light:
My on-line classes
My iPhone and iPad apps.

Explore the light,

Today's Guest Blogger: Susan Wilkinson

I would like to start by thanking Rick for asking me to be a guest on his blog. We got in touch on Google+ after I read about his new bird photography class.

Opening image: Eastern Bluebird returns to its perch with an unlucky spider. ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/1000 at 485mm.

My interest in photography began in December 2012 when my husband gave me my first dSLR camera as an anniversary gift. At first I was filled with joy, imagining all the incredible pictures I planned on taking. Up until then, I thought photography was that simple… just point and shoot. Heck, with all the bells and whistles my new camera had, I was sure I would be taking professional looking pictures that day!

Looking back now, I realize that a camera doesn’t know what I want my images to look like;it will never be able to read my mind. If I want the camera to know what my images should look like, I have to tell it. So, for the past two  years, I’ve been learning to “speak its language."

For us to communicate effectively, the first thing I did was let it know that I was the boss. I put it in Manual mode and that’s where it stays. I’ve learned words I never knew before... aperture, ISO, shutter speed, depth-of-field, and I even understand how to read the histogram. I enjoy the time I spend with my camera capturing images of the beauty I see around me. I still have a lot to learn before I’m “fluent in photography”. But, it’s an investment that allows me to express myself artistically and that makes it all worthwhile.

So, why do I photograph birds? My husband has been an avid birder for 25 + years and is able to identify a species by it’s vocalizations. To be perfectly honest, I never paid much attention to birds and when he quizzed me to identify one, my reply was to tell him the color of the bird. As much as I wanted to impress him with being able to identify at least one bird, my brain couldn’t take learning both ornithology and photography at the same time.

I love a challenge, but I’ll be the first to admit... bird photography is one of the most challenging genres. For starters, it requires the patience of a Saint. Birds are not willing subjects. They flit from here to there in the blink of an eye and are spooked by the least little movement. Having to apply everything I learned about photography in a matter of seconds forced me to master shooting in Manual mode. Bird photography does has it’s advantages. Unlike people, birds don’t complain about how they look in a picture, they can be found just about anywhere, and it has taught me to slow down and appreciate things I might otherwise take for granted.

I am proud to say that today I can identify any bird I see without the help of my “resident bird expert” husband and I’m thought of by some as a “bird expert”, too. There are many who even refer to me as a “bird photographer”. So, perhaps that’s not so bad after all.

Above: Killdeer taking to flight. ISO 200, f/8, 1/1000 at 405 mm.

Bird photographers typically shoot using a large aperture for several reasons, one of which is Depth-of-Field (DOF). DOF is the amount of distance between the nearest and farthest objects that appear in acceptably sharp focus in a photograph. By using a large aperture,
(denoted in f/stops), I’m able to: 1. blur the background, 2. separate the bird from the background and 3. have more light reach the camera’s sensor which allows for a fast shutter speed, as well. Most of my images are taken using an aperture of f/4 up to f/8.

Above: Northern Mockingbird. ISO 100, f/8, 1/640 at 420 mm.

When photographing people, wildlife, insects, or even the family pet, the most important thing to focus on is the subject’s eyes. The eye(s) need to be sharp and in focus. This is particularly important when shooting with a large aperture (small f/stop), because of the shallow depth-of-field (DOF). I photograph birds using a large aperture, a single focal point (usually the center point because it tends to be the sharpest) and place it directly on the eye to ensure it is tack-sharp.

Above: American Bald Eagle. ISO 200, f/8, 1/800 at 490 mm.

I try to shoot at eye level to the bird so the person looking at my photograph will connect with the subject. However, birds are not very cooperative. They rarely stay in one place for more than a few seconds, which often means long hours sitting very still and quiet, waiting for that brief moment to finally get “the shot”. Other times, I take what I can get at that moment because I may not have a second chance, which is what I did to capture the image of the Bald Eagle. In a “perfect world” I would prefer to be at eye level with the bird, but that just wasn’t possible. This was the first time for me to see a Bald Eagle in the wild, and it took me an hour, inching slowly, bit by bit, to get close enough for a decent shot. I certainly wasn’t passing up the chance to photograph this regal bird!  

Another key to making exceptional images of birds is to capture the catch-light on the eye. A “catch-light” is simply the highlight of a light source reflected off the surface of the eye.This highlight adds depth and dimension to the eye, and gives the eyes life. For birds, the light source I prefer to use is natural ambient light from the Sun. It is acceptable to use a flash, but only when necessary and in moderation. As you can see in the Mockingbird and Eagle images, the iris and eye color are visible and the bird is perched looking toward the Sun, allowing for a great catch light on the eye.

Above: Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (female) in a territorial display during mating season. ISO 400, f/7.1, 1/1500 at 485 mm.

Bird photography generally requires the use of a fast shutter speed in order to snap a picture before the bird moves out of the frame of focus.The general rule of thumb in photography is to set a minimum shutter speed equal to 1 times the focal length of lens [1/focal length]. However, due to the fact that most bird photographers use telephoto lenses with a focal length of 300 mm+, a minimum shutter speed less than 1/500 is generally not fast enough. Conditions permitting, it is best to set a shutter speed of 2 times the focal length of the lens [1/(2x’s) focal length]. Personally, I use a minimum shutter speed of 1/640, or faster. A fast shutter speed increases the likelihood of getting a photo with a bird in it and helps to minimize motion or camera blur. 

Above: Indigo Bunting (male) in mating plumage. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/640 at 485 mm.

There are many composition “rules." I generally compose my image by studying the bird’s pose. I start by deciding the orientation that presents the bird best, either landscape or portrait. In this case, I chose portrait. Why? Several reasons...
1. I wanted to keep the bird as the main subject, but also include a bit of the foliage as well.
2. The way the bird is perched and the shape of the stem created a natural frame.
3. I typically place the bird’s eye on an intersecting line using the Rule of Thirds or the “Golden Mean”, 
4. The foliage helps to fill the frame and the contrasting colors make the bird stand out.

Rather than composition “rules." think of them as guidelines. They are intended to help create a pleasing image and enhance the artistic expression in one’s photography. Unlike laws, it’s okay to break the rules of composition. However, if you choose to break them, do it intentionally and not by accident.

The topics covered above are some that I feel are the most important, however,there is much more to photographing birds. Learning to master bird photography requires a lot of time spent in the field watching the bird’s behaviors, learning their habitats, and knowing their migration patterns. Most of all, it requires dedication, patience and perseverance.
Like anything else in life, the more you practice, the better you will become.

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and make your own images of our “fine feathered friends!”

My Bird Photography Gear
● Canon 7D Mark II
● Canon Rebel T2i
● Canon 6D
● Canon EF-S 55-250 mm, f/3.5 -5.6
● Canon 400 mm, f/5.6 L prime
● Sigma DG HSM APO OS 150-500 mm, f/5 - 6.3
● Manfrotto ball head mount
● Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod
● Canon Speedlite 580EX II flash
● Canon Backpack
● Satechi Wireless Digital Timer Remote Control (WTR)

Bird Field Guides (books and apps)
Here are a few of my favorites:
- iBird Pro for Android; (app)
- National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
- Sibley Guides
- Peterson Field Guides and
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology (online).

“Photography is my passion. Nature, my inspiration. Expressing both…my never-ending motivation.” -

© Notable Nuances Photography by Susan Wilkinson

My web site.  

Contact information.

Click the image above to learn more about mastering the art and craft of bird photography!

Today's Guest Blogger: Ellen Denuto

I’d like to begin by thanking my old friend Rick for inviting me to be included in his blog.

The images seen here are from the days when we first worked together. They are some of my favorites and photographs that attracted the attention of art directors and galleries at the beginning of my career.

I recently was invited to exhibit these old school “selfies” at the CERES gallery in Chelsea which were taken long before the word existed.

It might be hard to imagine in this age of immediacy, that these self portraits were taken with a manual Hassleblad, black and white film, self timer and tripod- without any assistance or mirrors.

A photographer had to really understand how aperture, film speed, and depth of field combinations were used to create a successful image.

Originally shown as silver prints, I enjoyed the opportunity to scan my wonderful old negatives and print them once again only this time using the latest technology and fine art papers. The resulting prints are absolutely stunning.

The exhibition Out and Out runs through the end of January. Please see links below.

Ceres Gallery

My web site

Musee Magazine

A Tribute to David Stoecklein - by Jason Whitman

On November 10, 2014, the world of photography lost a legend. David Stoecklein was certainly one of the finest photographers to have striven to capture the spirit of the American West with his camera. If you are a fan of the American West, you have probably seen his work.

While David was a world-class artist and Canon Explorer of Light, he loved to share his knowledge with students of his workshops at his ranch in Mackay, ID. I had the privilege of taking one of these workshops in June of 2014 and in November 7-9, 2014.

I want to share some of the images I captured and edited as I feel they honor what he taught me and they faithfully capture the spirit of the American West.

Opening image: This is a photograph of Mike Seal, a close friend of David’s and a true Idaho cowboy. This is one of my favorite edits in my portfolio.

Above: This is my favorite image from our American flag series.

Above: Nothing speaks to the spirit of the west like horses running free.

Above: An appropriate image for this tribute: Jack riding over the hill in the Big Lost Country in central Idaho.

The final image I am sharing is called "Memorial."

Although David is gone, his legendary photography will live on, both his work behind the lens and instructing those who love to photograph the west. His wife, Mary, and sons plan to continue his photographic workshops, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Seeking to Capture the Spirit of the West,
Jason Whitman