Birding Tips: Photographing Birds in Water

Eastern Bluebird

Captured at just the right moment, photos of birds on the water can be stunning and complex. But they can be notoriously difficult to take.

Once you have water features in your yard and see regular visitors, prepare yourself to take their picture. You should spend some time watching your yard so you know what time of day the most species tend to visit your bird bath or water feature. Also, be sure to take into consideration the lighting of the area. You want to make sure that the subject and the water will be well-lit for a truly brilliant photo. The best light comes from behind the photographer, so a water feature in a yard may be better in the morning than in the evening, or vice versa, when the sun is low in the sky.  A feature facing south, so the photographer faces north could be good all day. Looking south for photos hardly ever works. Best you could hope for would be string side-lighting in the morning or evening.

Bullocks bathing in water

Keep in mind that you’ll want to be close to the birds, but getting too close may scare them away. You’ll need to find either a good spot to hide or a distance that works for both you and the subject. Consider using a tripod and remote shutter release. This will give you a close-up shot without having to worry about scaring away the birds!

Also, consider your angle for the shot. Try to get at water level or just above it to better capture the vantage point of the bird. Some birds may move very fast in the water, splashing, bathing, or bracing for a take-off. A fast shutter speed is imperative to capture the rapid movement of water and feathers. While a bird is at your birdbath or water feature, track its movement to make sure it is in focus when you’re ready to shoot. If your camera has a burst shot or sports mode, use this to take multiple, fast shots.

Male Sparrow Bathing

Another great way to capture birds in action is to learn to anticipate the action. Take your eye away from the viewfinder for awhile to observe your subject. Do they have any indicators before they perform an action? Is there a pattern to these actions?

If the feature is small, you might be able to pre-focus on a particular spot. Eliminating the need for the camera to focus means it will take the photo faster, allowing you to capture actions you might otherwise miss. Pre-focused with the camera fixed on a tripod means you can watch the bird not the camera, and start taking photos as the bird flies in. This is the best way to anticipate the action. Look for these and be ready to capture your perfect water photo!

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