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Photo Tips: Beauty of Birds

Professional photographer Melissa Groo’s guide to making memorable bird images

  • Photographs by Melissa Groo
  • Wildlife Photography
  • Dec 02, 2020

Melissa Groo, near her home in upstate New York in autumn, sitting in a field of goldenrod photographing Goldfinches.

AWARD-WINNING CONSERVATION PHOTOGRAPHER Melissa Groo has traveled the world photographing everything from African elephants to playful red fox kits—but birds are her special passion. Doing bird photography, “you enter a kind of meditative state,” she writes in National Wildlife’s December–January issue, now online. In that article, Groo offers professional pointers on how to make memorable bird images. As a special treat, we now offer this exclusive online gallery of 10 additional bird images—some of our favorites from the lens of a master.  


A Baltimore oriole in a tree with pink flowers

Baltimore Oriole

“In any bird photograph, showing the eye in sharp focus is critical,” says Groo, “but you often have to deal with a lot of surrounding vegetation, as I did with this oriole shot. If you have not selected the correct ‘area focus,’ it can be all too easy to focus on something other than the eye. For bird photography, I almost always recommend using single-point focus.”


A pair of black-necked stilts cross their beaks after mating

Black-necked Stilts

“Understanding bird behavior is crucial to getting the shot,” Groo says. “I knew that stilts, as a bonding ritual after mating, will cross their bills for just a split second, so I was waiting and prepared with a fast shutter speed of 1/2500 second. I also knew to keep on shooting even after the birds were finished mating—which many would consider ‘the main event.’”


A ring-billed gull caught in mid flight

Ring-billed Gull

“Even common birds such as gulls can be extraordinarily beautiful given the right light and pose,” says Groo. “When photographing birds in flight, keep the wind and light to your back and use the highest burst rate your camera offers (the number of consecutive images it can shoot). Also make sure you’re using continuous focus mode so your camera keeps focusing as the bird moves. The more photos you are able to take, the more chances one of them will offer a transcendent moment.” 


A short-eared owl comes in for a landing on top of a tree

Short-eared Owl

“Try to include some habitat in your photo,” suggests Groo. “Images that show birds interacting with the environment hold visual interest and can tell an important story about a bird’s life. Depicting where birds live is an essential part of bird photography.” 


A great horned owl feeds its young while its mate watches

Great Horned Owls

“When you’re photographing two birds interacting, consider increasing your aperture to allow for enough depth of field to render them both sharp,” Groo says. “Also referred to as ‘stopping down,’ it means going from a smaller aperture number to a larger one—from f/4 to f/7.1, for example, as I did for this photo of two great horned owls. Try several different apertures, then check the images on your LCD screen to see which one works best.“


Piping plover chicks burrow under their mother's wings

Piping Plovers

“For shorebird photography,” notes Groo, “there is nothing like getting low to create a powerful image that draws the viewer into the birds’ world. Use lowered tripods or ground pods, dishes with tripod heads that you can slide along the ground. For endangered species such as piping plovers, make sure you respect fenced-off areas and use a telephoto lens to keep your distance, especially when birds are actively nesting and raising chicks. I photographed these plovers from outside a fence with a 500mm lens and a 1.4x teleconverter.”


A scarlet tanager perches on top of a branch

Scarlet Tanager

According to Groo, “a contrast in color between a bird and its background can create a stunning impact. Bright red, this male scarlet tanager simply glows against the dark, green backdrop. Study a color wheel to learn which colors are complementary—red and green or yellow and purple, for example.” 


A white egret wades through water

Snowy Egret

“Just before sunrise, there’s often a beautiful diffuse glow that’s ideal for bird photography,” says Groo. “It’s always worthwhile to get to your destination and be ready to shoot at least 15 minutes before sunrise. I’ve taken many of my favorite shots in such soft light, either just before the sun comes up, as with this photo, or within the first half hour or so after sunrise.”


A pair of snowy egrets appear to be dancing in midair

Snowy Egrets

“When photographing birds, your most important camera setting is shutter speed,” says Groo. “Birds are incredibly fast. Even when you think they’re standing still, these creatures are continually making small, almost imperceptible movements. To be ready for sudden, explosive action—such as this quick, combative encounter between snowy egrets over feeding territory—I’m usually shooting at least at 1/1600 second.”


A marbled godwits stretches its wings

Marbled Godwit

“I cannot stress enough the importance of being ready to get the shot, even when you’re just in your car looking around,” says Groo. “In the case of this marbled godwit, I was driving through a wildlife refuge when I spotted the bird at the edge of a dirt road. I got out of my car and quickly laid down with my camera ready to go with the correct settings. Because my shutter speed was set to 1/1000 second, I was able to get a sharp shot of the godwit’s sudden, quick wing stretch. Often, you’ll have only seconds before a bird is gone, so, always be prepared!” 

And one final, vital piece of advice when photographing any kind of wildlife: “Always put the welfare of the animal ahead of getting a great shot,” says Groo, who has written extensively about the ethics of wildlife photography, including this 2016 article for National Wildlife magazine. To learn more about Melissa’s work, visit melissagroo.com


Melissa Groo teaches photography and co-wrote the National Audubon Society’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography.


More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

The Beauty of Birds: A professional’s guide to capturing avian magic »
Keeping the Wild in Wildlife Photography »
Blog: 10 Tips To Improve Your Wildlife Photography »

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