Bird Photography: 8 Common Mistakes to Avoid

Bird photography can be a frustrating pursuit, even for those of us who have done it for most of our lives. Encounters can be brief or hindered by any number of factors. When an image is captured and the excitement and immediacy of the encounter has faded, the resulting photograph might be disappointing – perhaps because of a bad background or wrong exposure, or the focus was on the wrong bit of the bird.

In this article, I’ll take a look at some of the most common issues that can frustrate and how you can try to remedy them. But the single most important message is do not be discouraged. Persevere, as the more you get out in the field and take pictures the more you will learn and develop your photography.

1. Eyes not sharp

It is a common issue to get home, load your images onto the computer, and discover that you have not got the birds’ eyes sharp. This is more of an issue in large birds, such as swans, ducks, geese, and large waders. 

Red grouse in flight
I concentrated hard to focus on the head of this grouse as if the autofocus sensor had locked on to the bird’s body the head and eye would have been out of focus ruining the shot.

If you are keeping focus on your subject but not concentrating enough on whether the head and eye are sharp, the body and wings of the bird might be beautifully sharp but the head soft.

So, the placing of the focus point on the bird is crucial if you do not have much depth of field. This becomes even more important when photographing large flying birds, as it is very easy for the autofocus to lock on to a near wing and the bird’s body will be soft.

Instead, try and focus on the bird’s neck. The other option, if you have enough light, is to use a larger depth of field so all of the bird is likely to be in focus.

Read more: How to Photograph Birds in Flight

2. Flock shots

Picture the scene: a huge flock of geese take off, you grab your camera and manage to take a few frames, and then discover your autofocus has locked onto a bird at the back of the flock. Now, those in the foreground are out of focus and the opportunity was wasted. 

Flock of Crab Plovers
This large flock of Crab Plovers allowed close approach but to make sure the whole flock were in sharp focus I used an aperture of f 20

In such a situation, I try to concentrate on focusing on the birds closest to me. If some of the birds must be out of focus because of the depth of field, it is generally more aesthetically pleasing for it to be those at the back of the group.

When photographing flocks of birds, try to use as big a depth of field as possible. If you use a DSLR, then use the depth of field preview button on the camera to ascertain what will and will not be in focus.

3. Off-centred compositions

Unless your subject is looking at the camera, it is normally more aesthetically pleasing to put your subject to one side of the frame and looking into space. This typically adheres to the rule of thirds.

Whitethroat bird photography
By placing this whitethroat on the right of the frame, the bird is looking into space making for a more balanced composition.

Of course, rules like this are there to be broken but plonking a bird – especially if it is perched – in the centre of the frame does nothing for the merits of the image.

So, rather than leave your autofocus sensor in the middle of the frame, learn to move it around when composing. Or, you can use back button focusing to give more creative control over subject placement.

4. Wrong exposure

If you shoot in automatic exposure, there will be times when your exposure meter is fooled and you get your bird incorrectly exposed. It might be too dark (perhaps with no detail if against the sky), or you might burn out the white plumage of a bird like a heron or egret.

Egret preening
To ensure the reeds behind this egret were correctly exposed and the egret not over exposed so losing feather detail I used my histogram to make sure no pixels were  going off the right hand end.

Learn to use your exposure compensation dial to ensure you can at times either let more light in to over expose a little, or – in the case of white birds photographed in sunlight – underexpose a little.

This all comes with practice. On the whole, cameras these days are good enough to help, but they are not yet completely foolproof. So the final check should to be to look at your histogram on the back of the camera, and ensuring no pixels are going off either end.

5. Not fast enough to freeze the action

One of the most common reasons action shots are not sharp is down to not using a fast enough shutter speed.

You can get lucky and capture sharp flight shots with speeds as slow as 1/125th or 1/250th sec, but generally you need to at least 1/500th for large birds – and considerably faster the smaller the species. 

Fighting thrushes frozen in motion
A shutter speed of 1/1600 was used to freeze these fighting thrushes.

I frequently use speeds of 1/2000th sec or more for many of my flight shots. It is a balancing act between having enough depth of field and controlling ISO. The higher the ISO, the bigger the decrease in the quality of your image file; so I try and keep my ISO as low as possible, but always ensure it’s not too low that it risks not having a fast enough shutter speed to freeze action.

Read more: Choosing the Optimum ISO Speed

6. Be careful with backgrounds

By moving a few inches one way or another, you can often dramatically improve the background to your picture. Avoid bright objects, such as branches catching the light, that can become quite distracting in the finished image.

Generally, dark objects in a background are less distracting than pale or light objects. It is best to try and photograph birds away from cluttered backgrounds, so train yourself to check the background when you are looking through your viewfinder.

Read more: Choosing the Best Foreground and Background

Golden Plover with clear background
I got low to photograph this Golden Plover so the background was further away and so beautifully out of focus.

7. Lens shake

The longer the lens, the more shake you might suffer. There are cameras and lenses that have fantastic image stabilisation these days – notably the mirrorless systems – so it’s less of an issue than it used to be. However, it is still a common reason for soft images.

So, if you are handholding your telephoto lens then do ensure you either use a fast enough shutter speed to eliminate shake – unless you are confident your image stabiliser is up to the job.

8. Go slow

My final piece of advice, especially if you are new to photographing birds, is to move slowly. Too often I see birds spooked by photographers because they approached too fast and were too direct. Or, if sitting in a hide, they suddenly swing their lens into action and thereby startle the subject.

Avoid sudden movement and, if approaching on foot, try a zigzag or angled approach. It will make your bird more relaxed and not send it airborne.

Read more: 6 Tips for Better Fieldcraft in Wildlife Photography

Visit David's website

David Tipling first picked up a camera at the age of fourteen, and has been photographing ever since. His stunning images have been used in hundreds of books and magazines, and he has also appeared on television for his work. David has won awards in many prestigious competitions, including the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

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