Wild Bird Photography

Some of you may know Melvin already from calling Wex Photographic to place an order or to ask for advice. He's our resident bird photography expert, with over 15 years experience in the field. His passion for this fascinating area of wildlife photography is infectious, so we asked him to share with us why he loves photographing wild birds and he's been generous enough to offer up some advice for those just starting out...

It is just not possible to do full justice to a topic as specialised as this in a brief blog – this has been my prime photo interest for over 15 years and I am still learning (and who knows, hopefully improving), but I hope I can give you an outline of a few things that will help you.

So where shall I start then? At the end of course!

Your Passion

If you’re reading this, the chances are that like me, you get great pleasure and delight from these fantastic, wonderful, creatures - whether in the garden, at a reserve, or around town.

Picture the non-stop swift, gracing us with too short a visit here in the UK, wheeling and screaming their call at break-neck speed. If you get those vibes, you may well want to capture a picture – and you’ll be hooked.


So when the latest round of the Wex Photographic Staff Competition was announced as "Your Passion", guess what subjects I was going to enter.

Melvin's winning image from the recent Wex Photographic staff photography competition - D3 + 300mm f4 lens, ISO 400, manual exposure, 1/1600 @ f8


It didn’t start like that of course and that’s the first thing I would like to get across – It ain’t going to be quick and easy. A long term approach, born no doubt of an interest in birds and other wildlife, will be needed to see you through the mistakes that you doubtless will make, and the disappointments along the way.

Before: Getting the shot

The following are some thoughts and pointers which I hope will help all photographic disciplines – but will need to be all the more “just right” to succeed in photographing birds, which is very demanding.

Too often, in my opinion, photographers rely on auto operation. That’s often the way we do things if we don’t know better:

Automatic Exposure

The most sophisticated metering systems (Matrix, Multi-pattern, Evaluative) will give extremely good and reliable results in a good percentage of instances. But guess what – a high percentage of bird encounters will be outside that “easy” envelope.

I learnt this to my dismay the first time I used my “most expensive camera yet” (15 years ago now). It had the latest in sophisticated exposure automation and was clearly going to give me correct exposures in all situations, right?

Wrong! Clearly the algorithm chosen by the camera of the 10,000 it had to choose from was rarely the right one! I was disappointed, but if truth be told it was not the camera. It was that thing behind the camera that was to blame - me. So, I had to really get to grips with exposure and my failure rate hurt me.

Lets state the obvious: birds can be white, birds can be black. They can be taking up a big or a small part of the frame. They can be against a blue sky or one that is virtually white. There’s a few f stops to play with!!

Herring Gull taken on a beautiful, still morning from the fisherman’s boat on the way to Bass Rock - D3 + 300mm f4, ISO 800, manual exposure, 1/2000 @ f8


Picture this - a migrating eagle having just crossed the Mediterranean, flies across the sky which is alternatively blue, then white clouds, then a bit of both. In auto, the camera will change it’s exposure assessment throughout, even if the light falling on the subject (which is the bit you want to expose correctly) is at a constant level. To get it consistently acceptable you will need to take manual control.

  • Don’t sweep failure under the carpet
  • Look critically and analytically at your results
  • Buy a good photography book or join a photo club
  • Develop a manual technique that works reliably for you
  • That technique will doubtless be a good percentage rational, but the crucial subjective assessment cannot be taught, only learnt through continuous practice
  • If you don’t learn it for yourself, it won’t stay learnt


This may all sound purist, but practice (and I can’t emphasise this enough) and practice some more. It will become second nature to you, much more satisfying and produce a higher hit rate of acceptable exposures.

Top tip: understand how your chosen technique works and as a result you will know when reverting to Auto can still be the best bet.

Automatic White Balance

Auto White Balance can work, but like automatic exposure, should be considered as potentially unreliable in different situations. Review your technique in the same way too – but my view is that this is less critical than exposure for birds in natural light.

Raw or JPEG?

Simples, raw. Trust me, I’m a camera salesman! There can be no alternative if you want the best quality images your camera is capable of and your chosen processing software will normally permit colour temperature adjustment. Jpeg files are compressed and the more you change them, the greater the loss of quality will be.

This Puffin shot was cropped significantly and is 'pushing' the post processing somewhat - Nikon D3 + 300mm f4 lens, ISO 800, manual Exposure, 1/2500 @ f8


After: Post Production

For the most demanding of subjects, careful post processing is called for and again your technique will evolve and improve.

I keep:

  1. The original RAW (for later, different creative post production work),
  2. A Tiff file as a high quality “first go” processed/optimised image, and
  3. A Jpeg for ease of browsing and sharing

A couple of post processing tips:

  • Back up religiously – if you lose your hard-fought for, fleeting, normally one-off pictures you will feel sick, very sick.
  • Monitor accuracy has to be a pre-requisite. Make sure your monitor is accurate and re-calibrate regularly.
  • Composition - “do your own thing” is my creed. Crop to what the image demands, trust your own judgement  and don’t work slavishly to “rules”
  • A really good image will look good in more than one post processing treatment

Another patient wait to get this shot of a Hoopoe. It needed careful post processing beyond Natural History competitions rules limits - D3 + 500mm f4 + 1.4x convertor on Gitzo monopod and Wimberley Head, ISO 400, manual exposure, 1/640 @ f9


Top tip: If you’re entering photography competitions, read the rules! They may restrict the amount of manipulation that is permissible.

Advice on Kit

I have only ever used SLRs but I hope that this advice will help when digi-scoping or using bridge cameras as well:

  • Choose as fast an operating camera as you can afford – not just frames per second which can vary with different camera settings
  • There are real reasons why bird photographers go for the flagship models, it’s not just ego or self-delusion!
  • Fast operation is important. My best camera has what I call a hair trigger – hardly any shutter release lag
  • Lenses – guess what? As fast and as long as you can afford
  • Cameras with APS-C size sensors obviously give the crop-factor extra reach benefit
  • 300mm focal length is fine for, say, sea bird colonies with close access and a minimum maximum aperture of f5.6 will keep size and weight reasonable. Beyond that, cost and weight increase dis-proportionally
  • Big lenses demand additional support considerations and 'normal' tri/monopod heads will just not do. I lost money on at least 3 heads for my 500mm f4, before buying the one that I have now used for over 10 years, the Wimberley Head Mk II, which is all part of improving my hit rate.
  • There is never a single universal camera body or lens solution
  • Occasionally, smaller focal length lenses (plus a great big dollop of luck) will still deliver the goods

Photographing this swallow was an exercise in patience! D300 + 300mm f4 + 1.4x convertor, ISO 400, Matrix Aperture priority with -0.7x compensation, 1/1600 @ f8


Remember: kit is nothing more or less than a tool. A means to an end, against whatever you are trying to achieve.


I hope this will help you if you are considering setting out, or you want to improve your success rate, on capturing (metaphorically only!) wild birds. Time spent concentrating on technique, planning ahead, self criticism and analysis is going to be the key.

Whatever my abilities were when I started, it is not where I am now, and the same will apply to you. After some time a personal style will develop, often acquired at a sub-conscious level (blimey - that was a bit deep wasn't it?) and you will get closer and closer to doing your own thing and that will shine through in your pictures.

If you want to see more of where I’m coming from, you might like to look at my website:  www.spiritofthebirds.com

If it helps to inspire – great!