Top tips and the best kit: getting started in bird photography

Birds are beautiful creatures but can be difficult to photograph. Check out our recommended kit for capturing incredible shots and learn from wildlife photographer Aaron Sterling just how he does it.
A bird with bright orange plumage is photographed on a branch, the background out of focus behind, in an image taken on a Canon EOS R6 by wildlife photographer Aaron Sterling.

Photographing animals and birds in their natural habitat can be both challenging and rewarding. Birds are especially unpredictable, and can flee as soon as they sense the slightest movement, but they are fascinating subjects to photograph.

So how do you succeed at bird photography? Being patient, persistent and having a basic understanding of bird behaviour are all important, as is having the right kit for shooting these relatively small, fast-moving creatures.

Wildlife photographer Aaron Sterling has been watching and photographing birds for as long as he can remember. Here, he shares his tips for photographing birds without disturbing them, and the features to look for when choosing cameras and lenses to start your journey in bird photography.

Know where to go and what to look for

Two photographers sitting side-by-side in a bird hide.

You can take one of two approaches to bird photography, advises Aaron. "You can wait for wildlife to come to you, which gives you more of a chance of spotting something rare. Or you can be on the move, in which case you'll see a lot more, but risk spooking the birds as you're moving about." A photography hide is an ideal option if you're happy to stay in one place.

Shot from above, a Canon PowerShot SX740 HS camera on a blue backpack alongside walking poles.

It is important to be well-prepared when venturing out to photograph birds. Remember to wear comfortable shoes, carry an umbrella and pack some snacks in your backpack to keep your energy levels up.

Getting to the chosen location early is key, says Aaron. "Find a spot where animals are used to seeing people so they're not as skittish as they might be," he suggests. "If you're starting out, go to a nature reserve and get used to that environment."

Shooting from a hide is ideal for not frightening your subjects. "I use a a small camouflage-print tent with holes in it," he continues. "I just sit in it and be patient. The more time you spend outside, the more you get an idea for where's a good spot."

If you don't have access to a nature reserve, you can photograph birds in your local park or even your garden. "Install a bird feeder," Aaron advises. "These are brilliant because they attract different birds. Put a little stick by the feeder to make it look natural, and the birds will land on it, making it look like you've been out and about." Play around with the framing so that you don't show the feeder in the final shot.

You have to learn to adapt to changing weather, and it is important to acquaint yourself with basic photography principles. "Learn all you can about shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and what works best for the kind of shot you're looking for," says Aaron.

You also need to learn about your subject, but this doesn't have to be daunting. "The more birdwatching you do, the more interested you become in finding out more," says Aaron. "You start to recognise bird calls, and learn that smaller birds are often found in shrubs while birds of prey prefer to perch on top of tall trees."

Camera features to look for when photographing birds

Weight and portability

A Canon PowerShot ZOOM camera sits atop a fallen tree trunk, wooded landscape out of focus in the background.

"The Canon PowerShot ZOOM is smaller than my phone, fits in my pocket, and does the job of a proper camera, so it allows me to enjoy myself without feeling weighed down," says Aaron.

A hand uses the Canon Camera Connect app on a smartphone to view and share wildlife images taken on a Canon camera.

Aaron likes to share his photographs on social media, and the Canon Camera Connect app makes the process easier. With it, you can transfer images between your Canon camera and smartphone. You can also geotag your pics, so you'll never forget where you spotted the robin or the reed warbler.

If you're planning to be out and about on your feet all day, you want kit that's easy to carry. The Canon PowerShot ZOOM, a pocket-sized superzoom monocular camera, is ideal for bird photography, enabling you to shoot stills at 12.1MP and Full HD video. Its compact body reduces the risk of a bird being frightened off and it features a 3-step zoom, with focal lengths of 100mm, 400mm and 800mm, so you can fill more of the frame with your subject. The PowerShot ZOOM is also Full Auto, so you don't have to spend time changing settings.

Aaron tried out the Canon PowerShot ZOOM at the Christopher Cadbury Wetland Reserve on the outskirts of Birmingham, UK, and liked the way he could just slide the camera into his pocket and pull it out as soon as he spotted a bird. "I love the strap because it helps you carry it so easily," he Aaron. "You don't have to worry about it slipping out of your hands, especially when you're in a rush."

An alternative compact-sized camera is the Canon PowerShot SX740 HS, which features a built-in 40x optical zoom and a 20.3MP CMOS sensor, so you can shoot high definition photos with ease.

If you're looking for a camera with interchangeable lenses, the 24.2MP Canon EOS R50 is small and discreet – weighing just 375g.

High-speed, silent shooting

Two small birds on a branch, one passing food into the other's mouth in a photograph taken by Aaron Sterling.

Aaron knows it comes down to milliseconds when capturing that stand-out moment. When a bird appears, it's best to take a burst of shots to improve your chances of getting the perfect image, so try using your Canon camera's RAW burst mode here. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM lens at 1/320 sec, f/11 and ISO 2500. © Aaron Sterling Photography

Burst mode is probably the best approach for shooting fast-moving subjects such as birds. The Canon EOS R50 captures moments at 12fps (15fps with the electronic shutter), while the EOS R10 can capture continuous bursts of images at up to 15fps (23fps with the electronic shutter).

To avoid disturbing your subject, you want to make as little noise as possible when you're working close-up, and cameras with a silent electronic shutter mode enable you to shoot without making a sound.

RAW Burst mode with pre-capture, found in cameras such as the Canon EOS R7, is another useful feature for photographing unpredictable subjects. The camera starts capturing RAW files when you half-press the shutter button and then, when you fully press it, saves the images in the buffer – up to half a second's worth of shots. "That's extremely important while photographing birds because you never know when they might fly away," explains Aaron.

An excellent way to photograph birds at home is to set up a camera on a tripod near a bird feeder, position yourself out of view and shoot remotely. A wide range of Canon cameras have Wi-Fi connectivity, and all EOS R System cameras also have Bluetooth. The Canon Camera Connect app enables you to control a broad range of settings and trigger the shutter from your smartphone or tablet. Canon's EOS Utility, which is included in the initial software setup with all EOS cameras, also enables you to operate your camera from your computer and view your images on a larger screen.

AF tracking for moving subjects and Animal Eye Detection AF

A small songbird perched on a tree branch surrounded by thin twigs and set against a bright blue sky. Taken on a Canon EOS R10.

Subject tracking AF means you can even focus in on a bird through foliage. Taken on a Canon EOS R10 with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens at 500mm, 1/1000 sec, f/8 and ISO 400.

A small bird is perched on a branch against a dark, blurred background in a photograph taken by Aaron Sterling.

"Bird photography is a great way to raise awareness about the impact we have on our environment," says Aaron. "That's one of the reasons why I do it – I love birds and want to share their beauty with everyone else." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM lens at 400mm, 1/250 sec, f/8 and ISO 1600. © Aaron Sterling Photography

The Dual Pixel CMOS AF II autofocus technology in EOS R System cameras such as the EOS R50 and the EOS R10 works alongside the DIGIC X processor to deliver swift subject tracking, enabling you to focus instantly on a moving bird. Animal Eye Detection AF is one of a range of advanced autofocus features designed to help you get sharp shots of birds in flight. The AF will look for birds in the frame and prioritise these as the main subjects to track, locking onto their eyes if it can detect them. This means you don't have to sacrifice sharp focus when capturing a bird on the move.

Low light capabilities

A heron perched on a partially submerged branch at the edge of a dimly lit river, taken on a Canon EOS R10.

Aaron prefers shooting in the daytime, when the lighting is more favourable, but cameras such as the Canon EOS R10 can help you capture stunning images of birds in low light. Taken on a Canon EOS R10 with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens at 343mm, 1/800 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 100.

Many birds – such as owls – venture out only at night, or in the early morning when lighting conditions aren't ideal for photography. The 24.2MP Canon EOS R10 is equipped with -4 EV low-light focusing and its maximum sensitivity of ISO 32,000, extendable to ISO 51,200, enables you to photograph even in moonlight.

What to look for in a lens for bird photography

A waxwing perched on a twig amongst blurred blades of grass, taken with a Canon RF 800mm F11 STM lens.

Photographing from a bird hide puts you at a safe distance from your subjects, so a bigger lens is useful. The Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM can be extended to 1600mm with a Canon Extender RF 2x. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 800mm F11 IS STM lens at 1/40 sec, f/11 and ISO 1600.

A small bird perched on a branch, the background out of focus, taken with a Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM lens by Aaron Sterling.

The narrow angle of view offered by a telephoto lens such as the Canon RF 100-400mm F5.6-8 IS USM makes it easier to pick out the perfect soft background to frame a bird against. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 100-400mm F.5.6-8 IS USM lens at 400mm, 1/250 sec, f/8 and ISO 1600. © Aaron Sterling Photography

Birds are typically smaller and harder to approach than other wild animals, so you often need a longer focal length to photograph them. The Canon RF 600mm F11 IS STM – which is Aaron's preferred focal length for photographing birds – is a lightweight super telephoto lens that will enable you to fill your frame with beautifully detailed images. It also has a 5-stop optical Image Stabilizer (IS) to help prevent blur caused by camera shake.

Zoom lenses give you more framing options, allowing you to go from wide shots that capture birds in their natural environment to tighter portraits highlighting specific features. With a powerful zoom range (equivalent to 29-240mm on a full-frame camera), the Canon RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM is compact, lightweight and quiet, with 4.5-stops of optical IS. Another compact zoom with a focal length range that makes it suitable for bird photography is the Canon RF-S 55-210mm F5-7.1 IS STM. Its 7-bladed near-circular aperture gives a pleasing look to out-of-focus areas, isolating your subject for images with more impact. Find out more in our guide to the best entry-level lenses for wildlife photography.

You don't have to be a bird photography expert to enjoy it, and there's no downside to it. "Birdwatching can be quite addictive," says Aaron. "It's like a video game, where you complete one level and want to immediately tackle the next. You spot one bird and then you want another and another. Take the opportunity to connect with nature, and you will start to appreciate our beautiful planet more. And remember, it is a privilege to watch birds."

Written by Nikita Achanta

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