Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

June 21, 2012

Getting Close to Small Birds

Abert's Towhee

Abert’s Towhee

Nikon D300, AF-S 300/2.8 plus TC20E (2x), ISO 400, 1/500th second at f/8, tripod, Gilbert Water Ranch, 88% of frame

The Problem

A fundamental problem for bird photographer’s is getting close enough to small subjects in the wild for decent size images. Over the years I’ve noticed how many novice photographers assume there must be a quick and painless way to do this, and they are convinced of it from all the excellent tightly framed images they see posted on the web these days.

My personal position on this is that too many beginners want instant success without putting in all the hard work or expense a lot of the accomplished photographers have gone through to get the results that appear so easy. But there are ways to get better images than simply over-cropping.

Massive Cropping

Unfortunately, many novice photographers believe that all they need to do is crop a very small part of their frame and blow it up to get a tight composition. Some of them argue that the ever increasing MP count of camera sensors allows them to get quality results out of these massive crops because even after cropping they are left with a lot of MegaPixels to work with. This just isn’t true in almost all cases. Lenses have a limited ability to resolve detail, and whenever we crop we are not only reducing the amount of information we have to work with (fewer pixels); we are also reducing the resolution of our optics by effectively enlarging the images with the crop. Just look at the lens tests in any magazine and note that the more an image is blown up the lower the rating of the lens becomes. This applies to even the best lenses. Cropping has the same effect as over enlarging, and if you start out with a marginal lens (as many of the consumer grade lenses are) you quickly run out of resolution.

I believe that most bird photographers crop their images to some degree – if you shoot wild subjects in natural settings then it is almost always necessary to fine tune composition in post processing with some amount of cropping. Experienced photographers who care about the quality of their images, though, limit the amount of cropping that they will do.

The Abert’s Towhee at the top of this post is 88% of the full frame. The crop was made to improve composition by taking a bit off the left edge and thereby moving the subject out of dead center. That’s a rather small crop that doesn’t have much impact on overall image quality. The Abert’s Towhee below, however, is a larger crop – only 40% of the full frame. That crop, coupled with the lower resolution of the zoom lens used, takes a toll on detail in the final image even at this web size.

Abert's Towhee at water feature

Abert’s Towhee at water feature

Nikon D70, 70-300 VR Nikkor, ISO 400, 1/125th second at f/8, tripod, backyard, 40% of frame

I strongly advise novice bird photographers to forget about trying to make do with massive crops as it will set a low quality standard that you will regret in the future when you master other techniques.

Bird in Habitat Composition

Instead of trying to fake a tight composition by massive cropping I suggest learning to compose images with a smaller subject and use the setting to “fill out” the composition. For a lot of photographers this can be difficult as it requires dealing with more compositional elements than just the bird, and finding a setting that suggests the habitat preferences of the subject without becoming distracting or cluttered is harder than a lot of people think. This Orange-crowned Warbler is a good example of keeping te subject small in the frame and using the habitat to complete the composition:

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

Nikon D200, AF-S 300/2.8 plus TC2E (2x), iso 400, 1/160th second at f/5.6, tripod, Gilbert Water Ranch

I find this to be a strong image with an effective composition, even though the warbler is rather small in the frame. Learning to compose in thi manner is a good skill to develop as it will always serve you no matter what focal length lens you have.

Backyard Birds and Blinds

One of the easiest ways to get close to birds is to make them come to you. Many photographers do this by using feeders or water in their yards to attract birds, arranging the feeders and water features for best light. Although we have fed birds in our yard for 30+ years now I rarely try to take photos of the birds that come in for the handouts. One reason for this is my wife thinks that birds need as much food as possible from as many feeders as possible, and that leads to chaos as far as photography is concerned. To make a feeding station work for bird photography one needs to limit the feeders (one is best) and make sure that there is only one good perch for the birds to use on approach. That way the camera can be positioned to frame a bird on that carefully selected perch when the light is best. Many people can do this with modest telephoto lenses (like 200mm). Some photographers perfect their setups and technique and produce technically perfect images; a few even make a career out of this approach.

This cowbird (probably Brown-headed but maybe Bronzed) has been coming to the patio along with the Abert’s Towhee surrogate parent that my wife insists on feeding meal worms.

Cowbird on the patio

Cowbird on the patio

Nikon D300, 70-300 VR Nikkor, ISO 800, 1/400th second at f/5.6, hand held, back yard, 89% of frame

Water can also be a strong attractant for birds, especially where it is a scarce commodity. A birdbath works but makes for sub optimal images with limited potential for use. A small water feature (like in the second towhee photo above) also works but isn’t that much more attractive than a regular birdbath. But it isn’t that difficult to make an artificial small pond or stream with recirculated water and carefully placed stones that can be effective settings for bird photos.

These same techniques can be taken into the field. Many birders who take their motor homes to the parks in south Texas set up feeders to bring in the birds. And some photographers will set up water drips outside a blind in places where there is a lot of bird activity to lure in subjects.

Playback of Recorded Calls

Ten years ago photographers went to a lot of effort to make up bird call tapes to play back through a portable speaker from a small cassette player in the field.  Today iPods and other MP3 players along with bird ID applications for them have made the use of bird calls simple in the field. I’ve even seen this done with a small wireless speaker from an iPhone. It is very effective and seductive for photographers, but I find it very troubling and ask that photographers not use recordings – especially with rare species or while any species is involved in nesting activity. Since I don’t use the technique I have no images to illustrate this point.

At or Near a Nest

Another “trick” used by some photographers is to shoot at or near an active nest. Adult birds are programmed to feed their offspring and will often continue to do so even with a photographer much closer than they would tolerate while engaged in any other activity. This can be very risky for the birds – close attention can cause the adults to abandon a nest before the eggs have hatched; parents might leave recently hatched birds exposed to the sun longer than they should when a photographer is too close; human presence can bring predators to nest sites to investigate. Please exercise common sense if you decide to try this and always put the welfare of the subjects above your desire to get a good photo. n no case should you trim away any vegetation to get a better view of the nest.

I’ve written about this before and used these images:

Bell's Vireo exposed nest

Bell’s Vireo exposed nest

Nikon D200, 300/2.8 plus TC20E (2x), ISO 200, 1/60th second at f/10, tripod, fill flash, Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Note the clipped twigs above the nest that should be protecting these chicks from the got sun – probably trimmed away by a selfish photographer wanting a “better” view of the nest.

Anna's Hummingbird nest

Anna’s Hummingbird nest

Nikon D200, 300/2.8 plus TC20E (2x), ISO 200, 1/60th second at f/11, tripod, fill flash, Boyce Thompson Arboretum

This is another nest that’s been exposed by a selfish photographer who trimmed away protective vegetation to allow a cleaner “better” view.


Another place to get close to birds is where they can’t fly away – zoos. I now many people do this but it has zero appeal for me so there are no images to illustrate this option.

Rehabilitation Centers

I’ve known bird rehab centers in NJ and here in AZ, and such places offer another chance to get close shots of birds with shorter lenses. The problem with these birds is that they are often not in good physical shape – perhaps missing an eye or with a wing that droops from a brain injury with a car. The photographer needs to compose carefully to hide such defects if attempting to make a pretty image. And like zoo shots it is difficult to make any of these images look like a wild bird in a natural setting.

A Couple References

There are often articles in photo magazines telling How To Do It, so look for them every few years. But for better coverage try some books you might find at the public library or the shelves of a Goodwill store.

Bird Photography Guide

Bird Photography Guide

I picked this up for $1.00 at a thrift store. It dates from the days of film with only a passing mention of digital photography, but it has material on feeders and water and calling birds, even including a couple lists in the back for which technique works with which species and what tpe of food to use.

Larry West Book

Larry West Book

This is a decent guide to bird photography, also dating from the days of film. It doesn’t reley entirely on big telephotos and I like many of the “smaller in frame” compositions West uses to illustrate the book.




  1. Awesome tips here! I’m such a novice at photography and your advice is enormously helpful. My best attempt at getting close to birds to photograph were in Panama where I had so many hummingbirds around me at feeders that it was easy to get shots. (Well, easier than normal.) Particularly since they queue up on nearby branches to wait for their turn at the feeders. In fact, my 300mm lens was sometimes “too big” to get the shot I needed, but I was clicking so fast I didn’t take the time to change lenses. Thanks!

    Comment by Lisa — June 21, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

  2. I have a lot to learn!! Wonderful post.

    Comment by jmgoyder — June 21, 2012 @ 6:39 pm

  3. A great post Rich!

    Comment by Mia McPherson — June 22, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

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