Wildlife photography guide

Learn how to take beautiful wildlife images in our step by step photography guide.

The man behind the guide.

Ben Andrew is an award-winning photographer and a columnist for Nature’s Home, the RSPB’s member magazine. His first success in photography came when he won the Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust Photo of the Year competition with a picture of a Grey Heron. Since then, Ben has gone on to win several other similar competitions, including the Countryfile Calendar competition with his “Happy Hedgehog” image and the “British Seasons” category of the British Photography Awards. Ben’s work has now led him to become the RSPB’s picture researcher, managing RSPB images. 

Photographing singing birds

For a few months a year, generally between March and July, our birds are looking their absolute best! They're sounding wonderful too, as they belt out some of their best tunes to hold a territory and attract a partner. This a great time of year for photography and here are some top tips for making the most of this most audible of seasons.

 

Residents & migrants

At this time of year our resident species that spend the whole year here are gearing up to nest, but before they do, they need to regain territory and attract a mate. These birds have the advantage of being able to start early so many of them will sing during winter and into early spring – look out for blackbird, dunnock, wren, robin and song thrush – some of our most tuneful species as they sit up on branches and vegetation letting the whole world know they are there!

However, as we move through the season into mid-spring many of our more exotic migrant species arrive and then it’s their turn to fill the airwaves with their own unique sounds and songs! Blackcap, chiffchaff and willow warbler arrive first, followed by whitethroat, cuckoo, nightingale and eventually turtle dove.

Whether it be our resident birds or our spring visitors, all of these species dwell in a variety of different habitats. Look out for regularly used song posts that they will come back to and work out a plan to try and see and photograph as many of them as possible before they fall silent for another season.

Get up early!

It sounds obvious but when it comes to wildlife photography the best times of day are when the light is at its absolute best and this is either at dawn or dusk! But for singing birds generally mornings are best! Not only will the light be beautiful (if you pick a day with a decent sunrise) but dawn is when the countryside is at its quietest. Even urban areas are quieter at dawn and many birds do live and breed in gardens and city parks so don’t forget you don’t have to find a completely wild spot.

At dawn the cool and still air allows the sound of bird song to travel further and therefore this is when most birds choose to sing. Make the most of these conditions using your ears to find the birds and then think about using the light creatively. Shoot into the sun for those backlit or silhouetted shots (meaning you can create a simple outline of the bird in full song) or shoot frontlit to get lovely warm light on your subject.

Refine your technique

So we know what species to look out for, where they may be dwelling and when is best to photograph them, but now it’s time to put everything into practice to capture those shots.

In terms of camera equipment it’s important that you can make use of a long lens, ideally something over 200mm. You don’t have to have the biggest or best lens but not all birds are easy to approach on foot without disturbing them. If you want to capture natural behaviour of them singing then it is best to photograph from a distance so they don’t fly, once you have found a subject and got some shots feel free to move slowly closer taking small, incremental steps.

 

Think about framing, if the bird is facing sideways, singing in one direction, then position the bird to one side of the frame so it is singing into the negative space. Try and adjust your settings so that you use a relatively fast shutter speed and make use of any settings you have that allow you to shoot continuously. When a bird sings its beak goes through a variety of different positions and the best shots are when the beak is at its widest and most open. You want to try and get that shot and often timing this isn’t easy so you may just need to hold down the shutter button and keep persisting.

Finally do your best to get eye level with your subject, if the bird is singing from the very top of a tree you can step back a bit or find some raised ground but you may just need to move on and find a different subject singing lower down, the more eye level you are the better the connection is with your subject and the better the photograph.

Most importantly, have fun and enjoy being out amongst nature, it’s a privilege to hear such wonderful sounds!

Ben Andrew