What makes a Good Bird Photograph?

by Dr. Sharif Galal
January 23, 2017

Great Horned Owl in flight by Sharif Galal ©

Great Horned Owl in flight

As a child, I spent most of the weekends with my father wandering on the country side and river banks observing different birds and critters. I still remember the thrill that I had every winter when thousands of migrating birds were passing by our little town which was an important stopover site for many bird species travelling between Europe and their African wintering grounds. 

American Avocets

I always wanted to capture these magnificent moments, but at that time, camera technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today. It was very expensive to buy descent photography equipment and most importantly, to find someone who can teach you the tips and tricks of bird photography. In addition to that, it was impossible to know the outcome of the effort you put before getting the film processed, which sometimes ended with disappointment. My first camera was a Yashica FX7. I shot with that camera for a while untill I purchased my first DSLR which was a Nikon D70 with 70-300mm lens. This Nikon was a huge leap in the technology at the time. It enabled me to see what I captured right away on the LCD screen and I learned quickly what the best settings were to get the right exposure.

Red Winged Blackbird  by Sharif Galal ©

Red Winged Blackbird

White Pelicans - looking at a swimming Cormorant  by Sharif Galal ©

White Pelicans - looking at a swimming Cormorant

When you spend time with birds, you will realize that they have a distinct personalities. Some people think I am crazy but I have had some experience communicating with birds and talking to them and they responded! It happened when I asked a bald eagle to move to another branch where the light and composition were much better and surprisingly, he did. It is something like when you develop a trust with your pet and starting talking to him. It is something magical that happens and I am afraid I can’t explain it. When the birds trust you and feel that you are not here to hurt or prey on them, they will let you come closer. I believe that birds and animals are curious about us the same way we are curious about them. You can clearly see that in environments where animals are not used to seeing humans , (specially hunters) , they will walk towards you out of curiosity.

Bald Eagles - Brakendale, British Columbia  by Sharif Galal ©

Bald Eagles - Brakendale, British Columbia

In this article, I will discuss what makes a great bird photograph in my experience. I am not going to talk about camera settings or composition as these topics have been addressed several times in this forum and I think there are many books that speak to this, but, what if you do not know what makes a good bird photograph? Do you think just by having an expensive camera and lens or shooting a burst of photographs will give you the best photographs? Definitely not…you may get snapshots but not outstanding photographs.

Great Horned Owls  by Sharif Galal ©

Great Horned Owls

In fact , most photographers who respect themselves will get offended if you comment on a great photo they captured saying something like “what camera and lens did you use to take this photo?” It would be exactly the same as if someone cooked you a great meal and put a lot of effort into the recipe and preparation and you ask at the end: This is a great food, what type of stove did you use? Sounds inappropriate, doesn’t it?

Eared Grebes by Sharif Galal ©

Eared Grebes

Let me first start by describing what a mediocre bird shot is from my own point of view. Mediocre shots are usually taken during midday in flat light. In the majority of these shots, the subject is not interesting, in another words, a bird standing on a post or a branch doing nothing doesn’t make a great photograph.  If I am going to mention only one feature of mediocre shots, it will be the angle of shooting. I think that more than 90% of photographers, even the professionals, tend to shoot while standing or from the car`s window, so all these shots have the same perspective.

Black-necked Stilts - Frank Lake, Alberta  by Sharif Galall ©

Black-necked Stilts - Frank Lake, Alberta

It is important to realize that bird photography requires more than just an expensive camera or long lens. There is no doubt about the importance of the gear but the gear itself cannot make a great bird photograph. I hear several debates all the time on which camera or lens by which manufacturer is better and I am sorry to say that these debates are not really valuable, I have had many published photographs in international magazines that were shot by entry level DSLR cameras and a basic 70-300mm lens.

Pygmy Owl with vole  by Sharif Galal ©

Pygmy Owl with vole

Here is the summary of what I think makes a great bird photograph


In my opinion, patience is the key in bird photography, you have to wait for the right light and interesting behavior and composition. I sat at an owl`s nest for three days waiting for the perfect shot that was chosen as a magazine cover later on. It makes me wonder when I see a group of people photographing a bird on a branch without even having any interesting pose or composition. I always ask myself, what are those people shooting? There is nothing interesting about that. Wait till you see a certain behavior or action and that is when you need to press the shutter. This is one of the things that makes a photograph versus a snapshot.

Eared Grebe with young  by Sharif Galala ©

Eared Grebe with young

Angle of shooting

As I mentioned before, most photographers tend to shoot while standing. We see our world at 5 to 6 feet high, but birds see the world a few inches from the ground. To get a feeling of the bird’s world, then you need to get down to their level to get more intimate feeling of birds and you will get eye contact.  In addition, you will get pleasing blur both in the foreground and background. You are less likely to scare the bird. If you want to photograph shore birds for example, then I recommend you lay on your abdomen and point your camera at the bird`s eye. Anyone can take a photo while standing, but very few photographers are ready to be soaked in the mud to capture the moment. In this series of photos, I laid in the mud wearing camouflage for 4 hours and got numerous mosquito bites. My back and neck got sore but when I looked at my camera`s LCD , I realized the discomfort was worth it.

Young Black-necked Stilts at sunset - Frank Lake, AB  by Sharif Galal ©

Young Black-necked Stilts at sunset - Frank Lake, AB

Young Black-necked Stilt  by Sharif Galal ©

Young Black-necked Stilt

Look for Great Light

Early morning and late afternoon light is usually the best time for bird photography. The light during these times is soft, the birds are very active as well. Go very early in the morning to capture the directional light and the early feeding behavior of most birds. I rarely see photographers out before 6 am. The same thing applies when waiting for sunset when the light is warm and directional. Wait for the catch light in the birds eyes, the eyes are the windows to the soul. If there is no light in the eyes, the birds will look dull or lifeless. In some instances a fill flash will be helpful, but it can also cause “steel eyes”.  Birds look more lively when there is light in their eye.

Great Horned Owl around sunrise by Sharif Galal ©

Great Horned Owl around sunrise

ellow-headed Blackbird and Young Great Gray Owl in tree by Sharif Galal ©

Yellow-headed Blackbird and Young Great Gray Owl in tree

Shoot in different weather conditions

Weather can influence the final outcome of the photograph. I like to shoot in extreme weather conditions. Rain, fog and storms make for a great background and interesting story and most importantly, uniqueness. Most of the bird photos that I see from professional photographers were captured during good weather, but very few of these photographs were captured in unusual weather. Get the right outfit and be ready for the weather. Some of these photos, I was wearing  waders, waiting for the right moment in a foggy swamps and at a freezing temperature. If you are going to do this please learn about dressing in layers.

Great Horned Owl in the rain by Sharif Galal ©

Great Horned Owl in the rain

Brakendale Eagles in winter by Sharif Galal ©

Brakendale Eagles in winter

Knowledge about the birds and behaviours

Reading about local and migrating birds is a key to understand their behavior and therefore where to be and when to capture the great shot. Birds are always in action. They hardly sit lazyly (except owls). Try to capture this action. Smaller birds are generally very erratic in their flight and also difficult to track since they are generally small in the frame. If you want to be successful with flight photography, start with the larger, slower moving birds like seagulls, ducks and geese. Learn all the field techniques to capture the perfect photographs of these birds. Learn about the bird’s flight patterns. Know their landing and taking off patterns in order to anticipate where to point your camera.

American Avocets - Frank Lake, Alberta by Sharif Galal ©

American Avocets - Frank Lake, Alberta

Tell a Story with your photograph

Storytelling is a way to express the behavior, mood, place or activity of the bird in one photograph. Viewers should be able to picture themselves in the scene. Simply put, a photograph with bird and its surrounding.

King bird feeding young  by Sharif Galal ©

King bird feeding young

lood on Pygmy owl talons  by Sharif Galal ©

Blood on Pygmy owl talons - Photographing things like talons, wings and feathers, will tell the rest of the story.

Young Black stilt taking shelter from the rain by Sharif Galal ©

Young Black-necked stilt taking shelter from the rain

Know your camera

Learn your camera settings well and know when to use a slow versus fast shutter speed. The camera skills are still essential, however, since no amount of luck will help you if you don’t know the basics. I personally prefer shooting on manual mode with a shutter speed not less than 1/1000 sec to get the crisp image, unless I want to convey sense of motion. Ansel Adam at one time said “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”

Hawk with mouse on post and Eared Grebe with baby on its back by Sharif Galal ©

Hawk with mouse on post and Eared Grebe with baby on its back

Nature story about owls in Nature Alberta by Sharif Galal

Nature story about owls in Nature Alberta by Sharif Galal

Become part of the environment

Try to refrain from wearing perfumes or colorful outfits. You also have to remain silent most of the time. In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence. Pay attention to details.

Sharif Galal in camo

Using camo and getting down low in the mud allows Sharif to capture pictures like those shown above.

 “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”  Albert Einstein.

Authors Biography & Contact Information

Dr. Sharif Galal portraitDr. Sharif Galal is a medical doctor and a biotechnology researcher. He received his M.D. from Egypt and his specialty degree in diving medicine from Stellenbosch University- South Africa in addition to a Master’s degree in biomedical sciences from university of Calgary. Apart from medicine and research, Dr. Galal is an amateur underwater photographer, scuba diver and an enthusiastic wildlife and nature advocate.




E-mail: Sharif.galal@icloud.com

Website: www.facebook.com/sharifgalalphotography

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