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Two Atlantic puffins touching bills in Newfoundland

Bird photography composition guide: perched, in flight, action, and more

Birds make beautiful subjects for photographers. The camera brings out colorations, feather patterns, and behaviors that can be difficult to appreciate with just your eye.

Composition is often the difference between a good and a great bird photograph. Composition is the arrangement of the bird and its surrounding elements in the photo. An excellent composition shows context about where the bird lives or highlights interesting behaviors and beautiful postures. Here are our tips for creating bird photos that stand out.

Perched birds

When photographing a bird on a perch or nest, pay attention to the following: First, look for clean backdrops that are free of distractions. When faced with a busy backdrop, use a wide-open, large aperture to blur the background and minimize distractions. Large aperture means the lowest f-stop number on your lens, like f/2.8 or f/4. Also, change your position, if possible, to manage the background of your images.

Second, allow the shape and size of the branch or perch to dictate the composition and, ultimately, the placement of the bird. Photos should show enough of a branch, nest, or perch to make it easy for the viewer to identify, but not so much that it dominates the photo. Be conscious of where you crop the perch or nest. Sometimes, you’ll crop a branch at the edges of the frame, but other times, it makes sense to include the entire branch.

Third, notice the posture and gaze of the bird. If the bird is looking to the right, allow more room on that side of the photo.

Nashville Warbler
Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla). This crop was determined by including all of the leaves on this branch at the top, left, and bottom of the photo and then allowing space on the bird’s right based on its right-facing posture.
Tropical Kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus). The final crop was determined by the bird’s direction and by including the branch at the top and the branches in the lower right.
Tanzanian red-billed hornbill
Tanzanian Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus ruahae). Because the bird is gazing to the right, the termite mound perch was placed in the lower left third of the photo, ensuring enough of the mount and the bird’s long tail are in the frame.
Two Bald Eagles in Yellowstone National Park
Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). The final crop is determined by including the tree trunk and branches on the right.

Be conscious of how branches and foliage in the scene intersect with the bird, and avoid unwanted intersections (tangencies) when possible.

Lesser Violetear (Colibri cyanotus). The two branches behind the bird are an unwanted intersection with the bird.
Violet Sabrewing (Campylopterus hemileucurus). Notice the clear, clean background that doesn’t distract from or intersect with the bird.

Birds in flight

Photographing birds in flight can be straightforward for large, gliding birds but borders on the impossible for small, fast birds with erratic flight patterns. For birds with erratic flight patterns, identify takeoff and landing spots to which they’ll likely return for better results.

When photographing birds in flight, focus on a few things:

  1. Allow more room in your photo in the direction of flight, giving them space to “fly into” and implying the direction of motion to your viewer.
  2. Choose wing postures representing the bird’s most beautiful colorations and patterns.
  3. Be aware of the bird’s angle of approach. The most desirable compositions are when the bird is approaching the camera or directly parallel to it. Photos are less attractive when they pass by and veer away.
Northern Gannet in flight
More space is allowed on the right side of this photo to give the Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) room to fly.

This sequence of Bald Eagle photos shows the various wing positions at takeoff. The first stroke is fully extended, directly above its head. Be sure to photograph at a wide enough angle so that wing tips aren’t cropped off. The up-and-down strokes of its wings feature more feather and wing detail than when the wings are pointed directly out. Larger birds also have a “TIE fighter” posture during the upstroke, where the wings are bent.

Swallow-tailed GullSwallow-tailed Gull
The lower wing position of this Swallow-tailed Gull (Creagrus furcatus) shows more of the beautiful wing coloration.

Takeoff and landing

Takeoff and landing are two of the most dramatic moments of bird flight. At takeoff, the wing positions are more pronounced, and if positioned correctly, a photographer can show off both the top and bottom of the wings. When they take off, birds flex their muscles and extend every feather on their wings, with their primary, secondary, and tertiary feathers on full display.

It can be easy to anticipate when larger species will take flight. Also, for many species, takeoff is often preceded by defecation.

Black-chested Snake Eagle (Circaetus pectoralis) at takeoff.
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) with wings at their apex during takeoff.
Great Grey Owl’s (Strix nebulosa) plumage is on full display at takeoff.

Landings present another unique moment in bird flight when the bird concentrates and extends its talons. Often, landings involve unique wing positions, and the bird makes last-second adjustments using its wings as flaps to slow and guide it to its landing spot.

Atlantic Puffin landing
Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) landing.
Lilac-breasted Roller at landing
Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus) at landing.
Northern Gannet landing
Northern Gannets (Morus bassanus) look on as one prepares for landing.

Bird action

Bird action photos are some of the most challenging to capture in wildlife photography but often the most compelling, as they reveal details that escape the human eye. Their motion is fast, with exciting moments happening in the blink of an eye. One reason avid bird photographers buy expensive camera gear is to capture fast action, as fancier cameras have higher frame rates and better autofocus systems.

Pay attention to birds’ behavior and anticipate their timing. Feeding, hunting, and fighting occur quickly, so use a high frame rate of at least ten frames per second or faster, plus a fast shutter speed of at least 1/1600–1/2000 second to capture the right moment. You may capture tens or hundreds of frames and discard all but one to get the exact frame you want.

Blue-footed Boobies diving
Blue-footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii) plunge-diving. Notice how they tuck their wings as they approach the water. 1/2500 second shutter speed at 15 frames/second.
Flightless Cormorant catches a tiger snake eel
Flightless Cormorant (Nannopterum harrisi) swallows a tiger snake eel. 1/1600 second shutter speed at 10 frames/second.
Bald Eagle in flight with fish
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) eyes its catch in midair. 1/1600 second shutter speed at 15 frames/second.
Little Blue Heron catches a fish
Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) catches a fish. 1/2000 second shutter speed at 20 frames/second.
Bald Eagle ready to grab a fish
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) with talons extended, ready to catch a fish. 1/1600 second shutter speed at 15 frames/second.

Focus on the eyes

Like any form of wildlife photography, eyes play a critical role in forming a bond between the subject and the viewer of a photo. Birds have some of the most unique and striking eyes in the animal kingdom, so be sure to feature them. Ensure that the closest eye is in focus.

In typical mammal photography, both eyes looking directly at the camera is desirable. Because of the placement of their eyes and a desire to show a profile of their beak, birds are most often photographed using a side profile, not looking directly at the camera. (Owls are an exception to this.)

Snowy Owl peeks through her primary feathers as she takes flight
Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) have perhaps the most unique and piercing eyes of any bird.

Rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a commonly used compositional tool in photography and other art. It is a “rule of thumb” that discourages placing the subject at the center of the image, leading to more visually engaging images. An image is divided into nine equal parts, with two vertical and two horizontal lines. The subject is aligned with these lines or their intersections.

The rule of thirds is useful and can provide a good guide or starting point when thinking about your final composition. However, it is merely a suggestion, and you should experiment based on the contents of your image.

Photo of a Willet using the rule of thirds
The Willet (Tringa semipalmata) is aligned to a vertical line using the rule of thirds.

Lighting

Birds are frequently in dark, forested areas where photography can be challenging. However, a dark forest often has dappled light, and the lighting can be pretty dramatic when a patch of light falls on a bird, especially if it is a catch light on the eye. Also, take advantage of side light or backlight to highlight the feathered outline of the bird.

Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa) with catch light on its face.
Rim lighting on a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus).
Northern Gannet
The backlight highlights the Northern Gannet’s (Morus bassanus) beautiful white and tail feathers.

Take advantage of reflections

Birds are often found in and around bodies of water. Their reflections are a compelling addition to the composition, and make sure that your crop includes the bird’s reflection.

Black-necked Stilt
Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) and its reflection in the Galapagos.

Flocks of birds

When a flock of birds is flying in formation, check to ensure separation between the birds and that they all have similar postures.

Flock of Blue-footed Boobies
While these Blue-footed Boobies (Sula nebouxii) are nicely separated, there are a couple who have different postures.
Flock of Blue-footed Boobies
Moments later, the formation all shares a similar wing posture, improving the photo with better symmetry.

When there is a large, chaotic flock of birds, fill the frame with the chaos. In scenes like this, you usually have to crop off parts of some birds at the edge of the frame. Where possible, look for a crop where you don’t have to crop off parts of birds, favoring the leading edge over the trailing edge of the flock.

Snow Geese
Flock of Snow Geese (Anser caerulescens) taking off.

When photographing a large group of birds with a large depth of field, you won’t be able to have them all in focus, even using smaller apertures. Focus on the birds in the front, allowing the focus on the ones in the back to be softer.

Griffon Vultures (Gyps fulvus).

Birds against a bright sky

When photographing birds in flight, the bird is often flying through a bright blue or white cloudy sky. While not directly related to composition, it is essential to recognize that your camera will make exposure errors in such scenes. The camera’s exposure meter sees a scene it thinks is too bright, lowering the exposure and underexposing both the bird and the sky. When photographing against a bright sky, use exposure compensation to raise the brightness by 2/3 to 1 stop. But be careful. When the bird flies in front of a landscape, your exposure will be too bright.

You can also brighten the image in post-processing. Bring the sky to the appropriate brightness to show a natural sky-blue color. Even after the scene is brightened, the bird’s underside usually needs to be brightened by raising the shadows to reveal more detail.

California CondorCalifornia Condor
California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). The camera meter’s exposure of the condor against the blue sky is too dark. Brightening the photo by one stop shows a more natural sky blue color and more detail in the condor.

Creative blur

Unlike video, it can be challenging to represent motion for birds in flight. Photographers usually use fast shutter speeds to freeze the wing motion of birds in flight. However, slow shutter speeds can impart motion blur in the wings and imply motion and action to the viewer.

Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus), 1/160 second, f/18, ISO 800

Tell a story

Birds play an important role in ecosystems, sometimes as carrion scavengers or predators. Courtship, nurturing, and fighting also help tell a story. Certain behaviors help birds adapt to their environment and regulate temperature, like drying their wings or standing on one leg. Find opportunities in your bird photography to tell these stories.

Vulture and a Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer) feed on a zebra carcass.
Northern Giant Petrels (Macronectes halli) are opportunistic scavengers and, at times, vicious predators. This one is drenched in blood from a recent feeding.
Northern Gannets at Cape St. Marys bird colony
Northern Gannets’ (Morus bassanus) bill-fencing is a courtship display.
Anhinga drying its wings
Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) dries its wings and keeps cool in a Florida marsh.

Birds in the landscape

Don’t let far-away birds discourage you from photographing them if they are in a grand landscape. A small bird in a large landscape gives context about where it lives and tells a story about its habitat.

When composing birds in a landscape, focus first on framing the landscape and then figure out how best to incorporate the bird. This may involve changing your position or waiting until the bird flies into your preferred scene.

South Georgia Shag

The snow-capped mountains provided a stunning backdrop from our exhibition ship in South Georgia. Many South Georgia Shags were flying in between our boat and the mountain range. It was essential to capture the entire height of the mountains, plus some water and sky. With a relatively featureless ocean and sky, we included only small amounts in the composition.

South Georgia Shag in flight
South Georgia Shag (Leucocarbo georgianus). The bird is nicely isolated, but its cloudy backdrop isn’t as dramatic as it could be. Its wing position is fully extended, and the wing detail is barely visible.
South Georgia Shag in flight
South Georgia Shag (Leucocarbo georgianus). Moments later, the same bird is in front of the mountain range. The contrast of rocks against the snow is more dramatic and visually pleasing, and the downward wing position shows more beautiful wing details.
Tawny Eagle

This Tawny Eagle was perched in front of a beautiful acacia tree in Kenya, with Mt. Kenya looming in the background. While the bird is small in this scene, it is nicely isolated. The composition is framed relative to the tree and the mountains in the background.

Tawny eagle under an acacia tree with the peak of Mt. Kenya in the background
Tawny Eagle (Aquila rapax).
Bald Eagle

The snow-covered forest dominates the right two-thirds of the scene, framing and isolating the Bald Eagle in the sky and providing a strong diagonal line that mirrors the eagle’s flight path.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).
Southern Giant Petrel at sunset in the Drake Passage
The distinctive silhouette of a Southern Giant Petrel (Macronectes giganteus) at sunset.

Focus on bird details

A bird photo doesn’t always have to show the entire bird. Unique feathers, features, or talons can make for interesting closeup photos.

Frigatebird feathers
The green iridescent sheen of the male Great Frigatebird’s (Fregata minor) feathers.

Mastering bird composition

When photographing birds, observe their posture, background, and surroundings. Take photos with elements that help tell a story or make the composition more visually pleasing. During flight, photograph with the direction of flight in mind and take enough frames to feature optimal wing positions. When the action is fast, use fast frame and shutter speeds to obtain that perfect moment.

Mastering composition in bird photography takes practice, but one of the joys of digital photography is that it allows unlimited experimentation. Happy birding!

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