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One Bird Photography Tip Which Can Make Or Break Your Bird Photograph

One Bird Photography Tip Which can Make or Break Your Bird Photograph

Bird Photography is one of the most interesting of all types of photography. Because of their beauty and unpredictable behavior, birds make very exciting subjects to photograph.

Also, Birds are one of the most widely photographed subjects since they are abundant in most of the places. However, it takes lot of patience and endurance to create great photographs that you can cherish for a long time.

Today you will learn just one bird photography tip without which your bird photograph will loose its value, no matter how beautiful or how rare the bird is.

Every great bird photographer will always get this right even if it requires him/her to wait for hours or even days sometimes. What is it after all?

It’s the Eye of the Bird which matters the Most in Bird Photography

Have you ever wondered why some photographs of beautiful birds seems to lack something? When you look at such photograph, you feel that something is missing or something is not right. Which will almost always be that the bird eye is not as sharp as you expect.

When you look at a bird photograph, your eye goes straight into the eye of the bird since it acts as an anchor point or the reference point of the photograph. This is because we look into the eyes of others when we communicate, unless ofcourse we are not happy with that person 🙂

Take a look at some sample images below:

Bird photography tips. Green Heron and Seagull. It is very important to get the bird's eye is tack sharp focus to make a photograph look beautiful.

The eye of these birds is out of focus whereas their other body part is in sharp focus. You can create great photographs with just the eye in sharp focus and everything else blurred out, but not the other way around

Are you able to see that these photographs lack something important? Once you know this, you will never make this mistake again.

Now, take a look at these images:

Bird Photography Tips. Peacock portrait and Green heron portrait shows their eyes in tack sharp focus making it very lively

When Bird’s eye is in tack sharp focus, we can make a connection with them. Birds become alive!

Do you see the enormous difference it makes on the photograph? Birds come alive, you are able to make connection with the bird as you have an eye contact now.

This is the most important lesson I learnt about bird photography. The same concept holds true for Portrait Photography of People, Wildlife, Pets, even insects or any living thing we can have an eye connection with.

Importance of Catch Light in the Eye

We understand that it is important to get the eye in tack sharp focus. What if that eye was not reflecting any light? Isn’t it boring? Check the following examples.

Bird Photography Tips. If the birds eye does not have a catch light, then it feels lifeless

Though these birds are beautiful and they are perfectly focused, they lack the most important catch light in their eyes. It makes them very dull or lifeless

When there is no catch light, the birds look dull and lifeless.

In Cinematography, Portrait and Fashion photography, it is considered the most important aspect of all. If you observe any movie or photographs of the models you will always see the catch light in the eyes of the actors or models. Without the catch light they look very dull or pessimistic.

The same principle applies to bird photography. Light in the bird’s eye implies life and liveliness. Since birds are usually found outdoors, you will almost always get the catch light in their eyes. However, it is good to review your photos in the LCD monitor to see if you got it right before returning.

Below are some more examples of birds with catch light.

Bird Photography Tips. Birds with catch light in their eyes make them very lively.

You can see the difference catch light can make on the photographs. Strive for focusing on eye with catch light, unless you are shooting a back-lit bird

How to get the Catch Light

It’s very simple. Position yourself such a way that sun is behind you 🙂 Maybe not….because neither birds nor Sun co-operates…

However, you can try your best to position yourself or wait for such an opportunity. This position will give you a front-lit bird photograph which is most widely used in bird photography. Another important feature of front lighting is that you will avoid the shadows on bird’s body and also the lens glare.

Though one should try side lighting and back lighting to get some creative results.

If the bird is in shadow, you can use flash. However, please avoid using flash as much as you can since it will disturb the birds. Always remember to respect the wildlife.

5 Easy Steps to get Bird’s Eye in Tack Sharp Focus

Now that you understand how important it is to get the eye in sharp focus, let us learn how to do it.

Step 1: Switch to Aperture Priority Mode

Switch to Aperture Priority mode, so that you can control only the Depth of Field (DOF) and let the camera take care of Shutter Speed and ISO. It is the most widely used setting because the birds are always on move and using manual mode can be difficult unless you are too good at it.

Step 2: Select Continuous Speed or Burst Mode setting

Select the highest possible continuous speed settings in your camera so that you can get multiple photos. It is important to use burst mode since birds are very active and always on move. You don’t want to miss that next interesting move which may never happen again, isn’t it?

Step 3: Select Single Point Focusing for Perched Birds

If the bird is perched (in resting position), then select single point focusing. Because single point focusing gives you the control to focus just on the eye.

Bird Photography Tips. Select single point focusing, with burst mode capture and aperture priority settings for the perched birds photography

Select Aperture Priority mode, Continuous burst speed (Ch, the highest setting), and single point focusing AF-S. Settings shown are for Nikon D7100 DSLR. It may be different in your DSLR, please check the manual

Now, focus on the bird’s eye. Choose the maximum aperture values like f2.8, f3.5 or f4 if you want blurred background or bokeh effect or minimum aperture like f8, f11 or f16 to show the bird in its habitat . Choose the composition which suits the best. Take multiple shots.

It is good to take multiple shots just in case if the bird moves slightly or you introduced camera shake.

Below are some examples of bird filling the frame with bokeh effect.

Bird Photography tip. Seagull closeup and Juvenile Blue Heron close up.  Just the eye of the bird is in sharp focus, rest of the background is blurred giving a Bokeh effect

Just the eye of the bird is in tack sharp focus in the left image. In the right image, the bird is in sharp focus, but the background is out of focus

And here are some examples of bird in its habitat.

Bird Photography Tips. Geese with Goslings and Cedar waxwing perched on a tree branch. Birds in their habitat.

Image shows the birds in their habitat giving emphasis on their surroundings. Whichever composition you choose, the bird eye has to be in focus

But is it always possible to take this approach? No. Since they are birds after all…very active and always moving.

Step 4: Select 9-point or 21-point or All focusing points for Moving Birds

If the bird is changing its position while perched or preening or in flight, then select 9-point or 21-point or all-point focusing depending on how big the bird is in the frame.

Bird Photography Tips. Select 9-point or 21-point of all-point focusing, with burst mode capture with coninuous hight speed and aperture priority settings. This is very useful in bird photography.

Select Aperture Priority mode, Continuous burst speed (Ch, the highest setting), and multi-point focusing based on how much big the bird is in the frame or the viewfinder. Settings shown are for Nikon D7100 DSLR. It may be different in your DSLR, please check the manual

It is very very important for you to understand this.

Choose the focusing points based on how big the bird is in the viewfinder or frame, NOT based on how big the bird is!

Confused? Let us look at some examples.

Bird Photography Tips. Juvenile Great Egret perching on iron rod. American gold finch perching on a branch which fills the frame.

Left image shows big bird as integral part of the composition, it takes only a portion of the frame. Whereas in the right image, bird fills the frame, though the bird is very small

You got an idea now? Depending on how close you are to the bird and the composition you choose, you can either fill the frame with only the bird or make it as an integral part of the entire scene showing its habitat as we saw in above examples.

The ultimate aim here is to select the points which can cover the bird plus a little bit more space around it to accommodate its movement.

Step 5: Select Aperture Value based on How Big the Bird is in the Frame

You have to select the aperture value based on how big the bird is in the frame. It is critical to making a successful bird photograph.

In simple terms, more area the bird covers in the frame which generally means the bird is closer to you, smaller should be the lens opening (like f/8, f/11, or even f/16) to increase depth of field.

Smaller the area the bird covers in the frame which generally means bird is farther away, bigger should be the lens opening  (like f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6) minimizing the depth of field.

Sounds complicated? the idea is to keep as much of bird in focus as possible so that the eye is always in focus. In case of doubt, go ahead and try different aperture values.

I will cover the underlying concepts of Depth of Field and its effects on various aspects of photography in detail in the upcoming articles. Please do subscribe to get notified, if you haven’t.

Here are some examples of birds with two aperture settings to understand the effect.

Bird Photography Tips. Bald Eagle close up and Peacock close up photographs with Bokeh effect of shall depth of field

Though both birds are big and both photographs “seem”to be taken with a similar aperture settings, it is not the case. I have used aperture value f/2.8 for the left image and aperture value f/8 for the right image! Why? because, I was atleast 20 feet away from Bald Eagle and only 7 or 8 feet away from the Peacock


Always remember to get the eye in sharp focus and also the catch light in the bird’s eye. I hope you are convinced enough that this bird photography tip can make it or break it.

Do you agree with what I said? Do you think something else is more important than this, as far as bird photography is concerned? I would love to hear your opinion in your comments.

If you have not subscribed already, please do so. I will be writing in-depth articles on all the foundational concepts of photography which will help you to understand and apply each concept with ease.

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Prathap is a professional nature photographer and founder of Nature Photography Simplified blog. He aims to simplify every photography concept to help beginners and amateur photographers.

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This Post Has 19 Comments
  1. Nice article Prathap, thank you for sharing it with us.
    In addition, I guess, to get sharper details of the bird(say, feather texture)… a faster shutter speed will help … say 1/250 or 1/400 works good usually(note: at higher shutter speeds, there should be enough light)

    1. Thanks a lot Prabhath. You are absolutely right. I will be writing a separate article to cover the shutter speed to use in order to reduce the vibrations or camera shake and also will talk more about aperture settings to get the maximum details. Thanks for bringing it up.

  2. Loved this article Prathap!
    Never realized the importance of capturing the catch light in the eye.. Always felt something was missing in the picture everytime the catch light wasn’t there on the eye, but never actually spotted it until I read this one!! Thanks for this.. 🙂 Can you please share more of your work if possible?

  3. This article is an eye opener. I learnt a lot. It is something very useful to a person like me who has returned to photography after retirement!

    1. So glad to hear that dear Prabhakaran. I admire your interest in bird photography at your age. I look forward for more interaction with you in the future too.

  4. Hallo Prathap,
    Thank you for a most interesting article. I did notice though that you said nothing about metering mode. On your camera however your setting was set to “Spot Metering”. Is this important because exposure on the bird itself is more important than the background?

    1. Hello Jan,
      You are most welcome. This article is very specific to explaining about focusing on Bird’s eye to get pleasing images. This is the reason I have not mentioned about metering mode. You are right; I generally use Spot Metering for the bird photography as it is very important to get the exposure correct for the bird. However, I also use exposure compensation along with it to make sure that I have the right (or balanced) exposure for the background too 🙂
      If you are using Evaluative or Average metering then:
      – You may expose properly for the entire scene but the bird may be bit underexposed (especially the dark birds). Bringing up the shadows in post may yield in noisy result (Ex: Black/Dark grey colored birds like Crows, Cuckoos, etc)
      – On the other hand, the bird may be overexposed but the rest of the scene is properly exposed. You cannot help this photograph in post if the clipping is very high. (Ex: White colored birds like Egrets, Herons, etc)
      Hope it is clear now.

  5. Agreed with Mr.Prabhakaran. This article beautifully composed like an interesting story. For a beginner like me it is very much worth.

  6. Great article, thanks so much for this. I was shooting some shorebirds last weekend and was fortunate enough to get very close to them where they filled the frame. I was so disappointed that the legs were out of focus with settings I had used previously with great success. I did not know that the closer you were the smaller the aperture. I will use this for sure. Thanks!

    1. My pleasure! Chuck Cornell. You might have to use f/8 to f/11 depending on the lens, bird size and your distance to the bird, to get sharp focus. In any case, make sure to focus on the eye of the bird which needs to be in tack sharp focus. Even if any other body part goes out of focus, it will still look great.
      Wish you more success!

  7. Hi!I am regular reader of arrival on bird photography.what ere tips or are advising its marvolous.I enjoyed or arrival reading.I am having one quotion. How to photograph on humming birde.?

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