Improving Bird Photography

Improving bird photography seems to be on the minds of more and more people that I meet when I’m out with my camera gear. Many folks seem to be focused on the potential benefits of buying new camera gear in terms of advancements in computational photography technologies, and enhancements to auto-focusing systems. While these factors can be important, improving bird photography can also be achieved without spending money on new camera gear.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 141mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-1000

Regularly Practice Eye/Hand Coordination

Many photographers, especially those of us who are new to bird photography, are not accustomed to using long focal length lenses. Recognizing a photographic opportunity and then being able to bring our camera’s viewfinder up to our eye at the correct angle to quickly find a potential subject bird, is a fundamental bird photography skill.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-640

This holds true whether a bird is in-flight, perched, or in the water. Many of the image opportunities that Mother Nature presents to us are fleeting in nature.  Birds can change their flight paths in a split second. Perched birds, especially smaller ones, can be quite nervous and move about on twigs and branches almost constantly.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-6400 Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, 3004 pixels on the width, subject distance 131.5 metres

Birds often feed very quickly to help reduce the risk of their meal being stolen. All of these scenarios mean that we often have very little time to find a bird in our viewfinder, frame our composition, and capture our image.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-720

Improving bird photography involves us being honest with ourselves regarding the requisite skills we need to have, in order to be effective out in the field with our camera gear. Practicing our eye/hand coordination on a regular basis is one of the best ways we can improve our bird photography.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-500

The more we push ourselves and our camera gear… the more potential for improvement that we develop. If you use a telephoto zoom lens it can be difficult, but worthwhile, to practice finding birds in our viewfinder with our zoom fully extended.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-1000, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI, cropped to 3619 pixels on the width, subject distance 39.4 metres

If our birding lens can accept teleconverters, practicing our eye/hand coordination with our lens fully extended with a teleconverter attached, can help accelerate our eye/hand coordination skill development.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 800 mm, f/14, 1/2500, ISO-6400, subject distance 23.3 metres, cropped to 4692 pixels on the width

This type of regular practice session is on the extreme end… especially with a 2X teleconverter… but it can make photographing a bird-in-flight with a fully extended zoom lens without a teleconverter feel easy by comparison.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, f/5.6, 1/5000, ISO-1800

Study Bird Behaviour.

Much of improving bird photography is found by increasing our knowledge of bird behaviour. Taking the time to observe birds pays huge dividends, regardless of the camera gear that we may own and use. Observing nesting behaviour. Noting common flight paths. Watching for body and head movements that foretell what a bird is about to do, can dramatically increase the number and quality of our bird images.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400mm, f/6.3, -0.3 EV, 1/2500, ISO-2500, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4464 pixels on the width, subject distance 11.7 metres

When we take the time to study bird behaviour we learn to recognize some common signals that many birds give us. Crouching and knee bends often predict a bird will be taking flight. As does a perched bird defecating. The direction of a bird’s head can indicate the flight path that it is likely to use. The angle of a bird’s beak often predicts the angle of flight that the bird will follow.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-1250

Learning the location of favourite perches of a particular species of bird enables us to anticipate specific actions occurring. This can lead to us capturing interesting, ‘precise moment’ photographs.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 192mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-800

Even very common species of birds that are photographed in an action sequence can add some drama to our portfolio of bird images.

Frame 8, Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-400

The more we study birds and understand their behaviours, the better able we are to create action-oriented images.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-1000

Practice Shutter Release Timing.

Seeing an image in our minds of the photograph we are hoping to capture allows us to practice our shutter release timing. It doesn’t take much skill to use a ‘spray and pray’ approach with bird photography. We may end up with huge volume of in-focus images… but often the majority of them will be deleted after-the-fact. It can be far more productive to take short bursts of images during a specific action sequence, rather than capturing one long run.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.7 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-2000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 24.8 metres

Some of the computational photography technologies like Pro Capture that are available make it much easier to capture specific action sequences. Practicing our shutter release timing with these computational photography technologies can help us reduce the number of frames we are capturing by tightening up our response time. Every unneeded image we can eliminate in the field, saves us time in post.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @208 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-4500

Use Effective Buffer Management.

It is important that we understand the buffer limitations of the camera that we are using. This allows us to use effective buffer management so we are more prepared for image opportunities that may suddenly appear.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 346 mm, f/8.6 1/3200, ISO-1000, Bird Detection AI, Pro Capture L, cropped to 1807 pixels on the width, subject distance 53.1 metres

Clogging up our buffer with long runs of similar-looking bird images creates a risk that we may not be able to capture something that is a bit out-of-the-ordinary while our buffer is still clearing.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 170mm, f/6.3, 1/2500, ISO-720

If you can afford them, use fast memory cards as they will allow your buffer to clear faster and maintain your readiness for fast breaking photographic opportunities.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-2500, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 6.8 metres

Learn Your Camera Inside Out

Improving bird photography becomes limited when we haven taken the time to learn how to use our camera inside out. It is important to experiment with various settings to determine what works best for us. Try to capture the ‘impossible shot’ just to see what will happen. We can practice making changes to our camera settings without looking at the dials and buttons on our camera body. This will help us reduce our response time to late breaking image opportunities.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, f/6.3, 1/3200, ISO-16000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4153 pixels on the width, subject distance 7.2 metres

Learning to use our cameras inside out sometimes leads us to push our ISO values and shutter speeds in specific situations. Understanding the practical limitations on how we use our camera gear can be helpful when trying to squeeze every bit of performance out of it.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, f/9, 1/4000, ISO-4000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 2719 pixels on the width, subject distance 18.3 metres

Buying New Camera Gear.

Buying new camera gear is an ever-present option. It can be tempting to open our wallets when we read/view camera reviews. Or learn about a new lens. Sometimes purchasing new camera gear works out as we had planned. And… sometimes not.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 285 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-320, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 2546 pixels on the width, subject distance 9.6 metres

In early June it will mark 4 years since I began shooting with my Olympus M4/3 camera gear… and I’m a very happy camper. Perhaps I’m a slower learner but improving bird photography with new camera equipment is not in the cards for me. I’m still more than happy to be experimenting and learning with the gear that I own.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/1600, ISO-1250, Pro Capture L, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 4033 pixels on the width, subject distance 101 metres

Technical Note

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. For those readers who are interested in calculating equivalent field-of-view, multiply focal lengths for Olympus M4/3 cameras by a factor of 2 and Nikon 1 cameras by a factor of 2.7. This is the 1,258 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

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8 thoughts on “Improving Bird Photography”

  1. Thomas
    Your posts are often a source of interest and inspiration to me, so thank you.

    I enjoy nature photography and like yourself I use an Olympus camera, for me this is the e-m1 mark ii. It works well for me except one area – birds in flight, the tracking doesn’t work at all and because of this I’ve spent many a hour practicing my technique so I don’t have to use it. However there are times when I wish I had some form of tracking, for swallows for example. For this im considering the e-m1x (the om1 is way too much for my budget). Reading your excellent concise posts I feel I may benefit from this (setup correctly) and I just wanted to thank you for your posts in helping me to decide. There are a lot of knockers of Olympus and people who don’t know their stuff before posting and they have put me off from purchasing but your honest posts make me feel more comfortable with my decision. Thank you.

    1. Hi Mark,

      Thank you for your supportive comment… much appreciated. I’m glad that the posts have been a source of interest and inspiration for you.

      It’s not my place to tell folks what they should or shouldn’t buy when it comes to photography gear. The E-M1X is an excellent camera for my needs and after almost four years of ownership I still love the camera. Like any tool, it did take time for me to learn how to use it in ways that fit my shooting style. You’ll be the only person that will be able to determine if the E-M1X is ideal for your needs.

      When it comes to photographing swallows in free flight with your E-M1 Mark II you may want to try using cluster area AF… if you haven’t already done so. Robin Wong has a YouTube video that explains this feature and how to set it up on your camera: . Using this setting can help improve the results when photographing birds-in-flight in specific situations.

      On a personal basis, I seldom try to photograph swallows in free flight any more. I concentrate my efforts on photographing swallows taking flight and coming in to land at nesting boxes or at natural nesting sites. We are fortunate to have some locations in the local area that have a number of swallow nesting boxes. I use Pro Capture H at 60 frames-per-second for the vast majority of my E-M1X images of swallows in flight.

      I find that the body and wing positions of swallows coming in to land or taking flight are significantly more interesting when compared to the birds in free flight. I typically find that swallows in free flight provide a very limited array of body and wing positions and the resulting images are seldom interesting enough for me to consider them as keepers. This is a personal assessment of course.

      Last year I went out with my wife’s E-M1 Mark III and her M.Zuiko 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II and captured some of my all-time favourite swallows-in-fight images using Pro Capture H (60 fps) as the swallows were coming in to land or taking flight around some local nesting boxes.

      Mark, you very well may find that investing in an E-M1X makes perfect sense for your specific needs. Before doing that, it may be beneficial to try cluster area AF with swallows in flight, and to try using Pro Capture H at 60 fps around swallow nesting boxes with your E-M1 Mark II. In advance of swallow season you can always experiment with other small birds that are difficult to photograph in free flight.

      I’ve never used an OM-1 so I can’t comment on that camera’s performance when it comes to birds-in-flight. It appears that many folks find its bird-in-flight capability to be improved over the E-M1X. So waiting a while and investing a bit more money in an OM-1 may make sense for you. You may also want to consider if you would like using the E-M1X with its double gripped full body style. I have large hands and I absolutely love the format of the E-M1X. You may… or may not.. like it to the same degree that I do.


      1. Thanks for your detailed reply. I would never ask you to suggest which camera is best for me, like you say this is a personal choice.

        I have tried the cluster AF but without much success, I will however try your suggestion of 60fps near nesting and I’ll also look at Robins video – thanks for the link.

        I’m in the Uk and at the moment I can purchase a lightly used x for £600, a used om1 is in excess of £1700 so the difference is huge. I like the ergonomics of the x and that is also part of my consideration.
        Thanks again

        1. Hi Mark,

          Thanks for the additional insights. Since cluster AF hasn’t worked well for you and you like the ergonomics of the E-M1X, as well as very attractive E-M1X pricing in the used market, all indicate that the E-M1X may be a solid choice for you.

          From my perspective the ‘wow’ camera in the Olympus/OM System line-up is the E-M1X. It is simply the best performing and most comfortable camera that I’ve ever owned… that’s why I own two of them.


          1. Well your pics certainly echo your opinion and show what an excellent photographer you are.
            All the best

  2. Thomas,
    I have been looking at Olympus’ EE-1 Red Dot Sight. It fits on the flash shoe. I thought it may improve my bif shooting. Have you or any of your readers used this sight? As always, we enjoy your articles. Thanks.

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