A Guide to Urban Bird Photography

urban bird

When we think of urban wildlife photography, popular subjects such as foxes or rats may come to mind, as well as the feral pigeon. There is a rich variety of wildlife calling our urban dwellings home, beyond these familiar subjects, including urban bird species.

urban bird photography

One of the best parts about urban wildlife photography is working with relatively habituated subjects; the birds inhabiting our concrete jungle are no different.

Urban bird photography can be a great opportunity to try something different with your photographic technique, get close to a species that’s usually tricky to approach, or even just test out some new gear on a reliable subject.

In this article, we’ll look at some top tips to help you out with your urban bird photography.

Where to find urban birds

Whilst birdlife can be found anywhere in our towns and cities, I find the best place to start is where we, humans, serve food and eat outside. Think markets, street food, outside pubs or restaurants, grocery stores, and parks!

The opportunity of a free meal is too much to ignore, and birds like starlings or gulls can be great subjects in these places, as they scramble to feed on what we leave behind.

Locations such as city parks can also be bird hotspots, where birds may gather in the hopes of getting scraps from picnics, as well as anywhere where there might be a bit more ‘greenspace,’ including churchyards or graveyards.

urban bird photography

Additionally, if there are any bodies of water to be found in your urban park, waterfowl such as ducks, swans, and geese may be attracted here.

It’s also important to remember that ‘urban’ doesn’t have to mean heading to your nearest high-rise metropolis! Towns, villages, and even new build housing estates all offer those key urban components and there will be birds there.

The most common species of urban birds, of course, will vary based on where you are in the world, but some common species may include:

The fastest animal on the planet, the peregrine falcon, even calls our cities home. The tall buildings or church spires make a perfect replica of that cliff-top environment and with the ready supply of pigeons and alike, they’re never going to go hungry.

Urban birds of prey can also be found and photographed in these city environments. London, for example, is thought to have the second-largest population of urban peregrine falcons in the world.

urban bird photography
The timing for this photo was very tricky and, as with lots of wildlife subjects, needed a lot of patience (or is it stubbornness?). The parent birds would visit every 15-20 minutes to feed their chicks and stay for a minute or less. I had to hope this coincided with a light change and then on top of all that time my exposure for that split second all three lights are eliminated, then just pray for a decent pose. It took a lot of attempts but was fun with a new challenge and many such challenges can be found with urban birds.

Top Tip: Don’t forget to think outside the box and look for urban birds in some more obscure locations. For example, it seems unexpected, but traffic lights can be one such location. They can be hard to spot, but some species, such as mistle thrushes, even nest in traffic lights.

Read more: 7 Ways to Capture Character in Bird Photography

Equipment for urban bird photography

While you’re out taking photos, and a camera is of course most important, it’s always worth having your binoculars with you for a quick ID on a flyby bird or to check if that distant grey blob on the side of an office block really is a peregrine!

You can expect to be able to use a variety of lenses with urban bird photography. In purely natural places, you are probably aware that you may rely heavily on a long lens to capture a bird portrait.

However, with the slightly tamer individuals that you can hope to encounter in an urban environment, you may find more opportunities for wide-angle shots. These require you to get closer to your subject, so it’s worth having a wide-angle lens to hand.

urban bird photography tips
Getting close to a starling in the countryside would be very tricky, but here they are used to people allowing me to try something a little different.

Remote triggered camera setups are also a possibility in urban environments, though you should, of course, never leave your camera equipment unattended.

For the photo above, I’ve remotely triggered my camera and a wide-angle lens with a pop of fill flash among the trollies of a supermarket where the crumbs fall through to the ground.

A wider lens can make it harder to isolate your subjects, but that’s the point with this style of photo, as you’re immersing the viewer in the whole scene.

It can be particularly effective for urban bird portraits, as part of the fun of photographing these birds is showcasing the unusual environments in which they have made their home and their associated adapted behaviors.

However, don’t forget to still bring along and be ready to use your longer lenses, like a 70-200mm. You may not be able to approach your intended subject, and having a zoom lens can also offer different compositions of the same subject.

urban bird

For example, in the photo above, I shot at f/2.8 on a longer lens to isolate the bird as much as possible among the leading lines and shapes of the trollies. It’s less immersive than the wide angle of the previous photo, but cleaner and possibly more striking in a different way.

One of the drawbacks of any urban photography can be the unwanted attention from other people wondering what you’re up to, and who can blame them when you’re lying on the floor with a camera in somewhere like London’s Borough Market?

Limiting yourself to a 70-200mm lens rather than anything bigger can help with being less conspicuous in crowded areas, but don’t be afraid to take something bigger if you do feel comfortable.

urban bird

400mm and above might just help you isolate a subject that’s further away, and you can always divert the attention of strangers in a polite way.

If your arms and back can take it, a tripod can be useful in lower light situations, but often in an urban setting being nimble and maneuverable is extremely useful for getting the framing right quickly.

Read more: What’s the Best Lens for Wildlife Photography?

Managing light in urban bird photography

While it’s tempting to increase your f-stop number to get a greater depth of field, I would advise a minimum of f/4, ideally having something that’s f/2.8 in your camera bag.

Not just for the isolation a wider aperture gives you, but also because urban environments can be rather dark or shaded, and those extra stops can really make a difference with the shutter speed needed.

Nighttime can offer fantastic urban bird photography opportunities, with neon lights and silhouetted shapes.

If you’re going to be shooting late into the evening and relying heavily on the lights around you, like I was when photographing this kittiwake (above) from Newcastle, you’re will to need to be letting in as much light as possible through your camera settings.

urban bird photography

I mentioned before that urban bird photography can be a great opportunity for trying new techniques, and sometimes a darker environment can force that upon you.

As far as being ‘different to the norm,’ a slow shutter really can add dynamism and interest to an individual image or a portfolio. Look for opportunities in which you might use this to your advantage, such as flocks of birds or birds in flight.

It may take some trial and error to get to an image you’re happy with, but the results can be unique and satisfying.

These starlings roost under the pier in Aberystwyth every winter, and when the sun has set, the light is so low you have to embrace the movement.

The photos were taken at f4 and around 1/10 of a second to bring out the movement in the shuffling starlings as they find a comfy spot for the night.

urban bird photography

Photographers are often chasing the light, but our urban environment can offer both constant and predictable light as well as that which is moving or fleeting. The variety is great when combined with natural light too.

That’s exciting and offers an opportunity for trying different techniques, looking for silhouettes, or just using the light to add something different to your photo.

This is where the wider aperture mentioned previously can really help, as the ambient light from the sun tends to be low when we switch things on around town.

urban bird

These pied wagtails roost at Heathrow Airport, and their roosting silhouettes can be lined up with all sorts of man-made lights in the terminal building. It’s great fun lining things up and waiting for the birds to poke their head up.

Read more: How to Harness Light in Bird Photography

Using color in urban bird photography

Vibrant colors do exist in the countryside, but often not to the scale and frequency that they can be seen when shooting in an urban environment. This is one of the most exciting aspects of urban bird photography, so don’t be afraid to use it!

You will likely find when scouting for new compositions in an urban environment that the colors jump out first, and then it can be a waiting or planning game to find that willing or suitable subject.

Look for complementary or contrasting colors to your subject, and think about how you might be able to utilize what you see.

Is the color solid and part of a structure or building, therefore would work best as a background? Or is it related to a light of some kind, such as a neon sign or traffic light, which could be used as a backlight for a silhouette shot, or even be strong enough to reflect color onto the features of your subject?

urban bird
Sometimes opportunities are fleeting, and you have to be ready at a moment’s notice. This kingfisher was frequenting a stream near a road, which wasn’t typically urban feeling, but at one point, I could line up a set of traffic lights behind while the bird was perched on a bullrush.

Recently in a harbor in Northumberland, I spotted a striking traditional fishing boat and knew the vibrant red would complement the black and white of an eider.

bird photography

All I had to do was line things up and wait. I shot a wider scene here to include the array of colorful buoys too, and although it’s not taken in a big city, it has a strong urban feel in my opinion.

Read more: An Introduction to the Power of Colour Photography

Considering background

The surroundings and background of your urban bird images can be some of the most formative components of the scene, and it is well worth using them to full advantage – otherwise, you might as well be photographing birds in a natural environment.

urban bird photography

Actively look for interesting textures, colors, shapes, and even text that you might be able to incorporate into the scene. This may be able to inform or impact a sense of story in your image.

For example, this black redstart was frequenting a rough area of ground right in the middle of a huge new housing development. Having watched it use a fence to flycatch from around a doctor’s surgery, it was just a case of shuffling from side to side to line things up with the NHS logo behind.

I’m often guilty of going as wide as possible with my aperture because of the subject isolation, but for this photo, I increased my go-to f/4 to f/6.3 to get a little more definition in the background – enough to be able to read the sign.

Remember that you may need to fiddle with your settings to get the desired effect. Getting your background right is a key component in all nature photography, but for this photo, it’s arguably the key element.

To be truly classified as an ‘urban bird photo,’ the bird in your image should be accompanied by something manmade in the frame. Even if it’s just a hint, a blur in the background, or something even more subtle.

But photographing birds in an urban environment is also a great way to take wild-feeling photos of birds that can be shy in the countryside like jays or kestrels.

urban bird photography

These photos were taken in London’s parks yet show no hint of city life because of the wild patches that can be found in most urban settings.

There are many subjects you can apply this to, and it is a fantastic way of building a portfolio of trickier subjects because of their relatively relaxed demeanour around people.

Top Tip: Don’t be perturbed if your subjects start to act shifty when you approach slowly with a camera in hand, despite just seeing three screaming kids walk right past it. In doing so, you become the anomaly in their environment, and fieldcraft often needs to be turned on its head.

urban bird photography

Be bold, stay upright until you need to be eye level to shoot, and don’t worry about muted clothes or a silent approach… you’ll likely blend in much better that way!

Read more: The Importance of Backgrounds

In conclusion

I’ll conclude by saying that urban bird photography may not be something you always set out specifically to do. With cameras and lenses getting smaller and lighter, I recommend not leaving them behind on your romantic city break or family holiday.

The opportunities are everywhere, and it’s likely that the urban birds in a city abroad are different from what you can find locally. That makes things exciting, as you may come across a winning image, even when you least expect it!

Be it the white storks of Marrakech or Barcelona’s monk parakeets, there will be opportunities to work with the lights, the structures, or just get nice and close to something new to try out the camera you got for Christmas!

Visit Daniel's website

Daniel is an award-winning wildlife photographer based in Hertfordshire who has had a passion for the natural world since he was very young. He enjoys all aspects of wildlife photography but has a special interest in things of urban nature. This approach has helped him win the British Wildlife Photography Awards on two occasions.

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