Break Out the SHORT Lenses, It’s Time for Bird Photography!

August 5th, 2011 by Chris Klapheke


Break out the short lenses, it’s time for bird photography!

Wait, did I really write that?

I’m a bird photographer (when I grow up and get really good I’ll be an avian photographer) and I’m usually lugging around a 600mm with a big old tripod and gimbal head. Of course, I’ll get comments such as, “What magazine do you work for?” Or, “That sure is a big camera!”

The comment I get most from photographers is,“I’d love to be a bird photographer, but I just don’t have a long lens to use!” Don’t sell yourself short.


Not all bird photographs are close up portraits of our feathered friends on a perch.  You can make stunning avian images with your short lenses, even your wide angle.  I like to call them “birdscapes”.

The key to making great birdscape images is to get yourself to a place where you can find both pleasing vistas and a large amount of birds.  We’re talking beaches, fields, large bodies of water and such.  Chances are your back yard just won’t do.  National wildlife preserves will be your best bet.

One of the nice things about shooting birdscapes, in addition to not having to haul around heavy lenses, is that you don’t have to hunker down in camouflage or in a blind, hoping you don’t spook your subject.  You do however, still need to get up early in the morning or stay late in the evening, for best light.  If you want birds in full view, keep the sun at your back.  For silhouettes, just the opposite.

Keep in mind that your best birdscapes will be filled with flying birds, so in addition to light, you need to pay attention to the wind.  Birds take off and land into the wind, so if you don’t want images of a bunch of bird butts, keep the wind behind you!

Most importantly, still bring your tripod.  You can get wonderful shots with long shutter speeds. Mentally, think of the birds as an element of your landscape.  Still pay attention to landscape features—foregrounds, skies, mountains.  Add the birds to these features.

Blurs of birds in flight can give you a beautiful abstract feel.  Start with shutter speeds around 1/15th of a second and experiment. Watch for birds on the ground while other birds are flying about.  Long shutter speeds here can give you a cool combination of static and blurred subject.

If your birds are all hanging out on the ground, you can still get some cool shots.  Try a “zoom blur”.  Clamp your camera and lens down on a tripod, and select a long shutter speed like 1/10th of a second.  Focus manually, then trip the shutter while you are twisting your zoom ring.  Fun stuff!

Want to get some images like these?  Most of the photographs in this post were taken at Bosque del Apache, just south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’m honored to join Rick and Juan Pons (an accomplished avian photographer) as an instructor in their Bosque Workshop.  The first workshop is sold out, so they are getting ready to add another.  You can get on the wait list here.



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3 Responses to “Break Out the SHORT Lenses, It’s Time for Bird Photography!”

  1. Alan Lillich says:


    Nice post. I especially like the dense blast-off crowd, one of the best examples of that I’ve seen. The top shot of still camera and blurred birds is nice too. Pat and I are going to Bosque in late December – thanks for the added inspiration.


  2. Gary says:

    Great piece Chris.

  3. Wildlife Photography says:


    I genuinely loved this brilliant article. Please continue this awesome work.

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