Most kids will never see a wolf pack in their backyard or an otter in their neighborhood creek. But birds? They’re everywhere—and that’s why they make great photography subjects for children.
Not that birds are the easiest things to photograph—they’re small, have faraway perches, and tend to, well, fly away. But naturalist and wildlife photographer Lucas Bustamante says that by simply being curious about the fliers, kids will increase their chances of snapping great pics. Plus, focusing on birds can help kids focus on other natural surroundings as well.
“If we activate the naturalists we have inside, we activate and wake up our senses that normally we might miss in our fast and busy lifestyles,” he says. Here are some “cardinal rules” (pun intended) for helping kids snap some great shots of the highfliers.
Start in your own backyard. To help kids develop patience and curiosity, begin your photographic adventures right outside your own home. “We photographers are often asked questions about where we started, but we’ve all started in our backyards,” Bustamante says. “That’s where you start training your eye. Just study the animals in your backyard and the interactions they have.”
Know before you go. Before kids take their first shot, do some research together about the birds in your area and where to find them. “Listen to bird calls, look at pics, and learn the birds you might see,” says conservationist and photographer Melissa Groo, who recommends the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Brush up on bird behavior. Helping kids learn about how certain species might act can improve their photo skills. “For instance, some birds, such as red-tailed hawks and bald eagles poop just before they take flight,” Groo says. “Photographers call it ‘lightening the load’ and they know to get ready for a flight shot when they see that happen!”
Attract the birds—but ditch the bird calls. Encourage kids to place natural seeds or fruits that local species enjoy in the backyard. “Study which birds are in your area and the trees they feed on,” Bustamante says. “If you plant them, the birds will come to you.”
But don’t use whistles or bird-calling apps to attract birds, which can fool them into wasting energy looking for a fake bird instead of hunting for food and caring for young. “Some species of birds can be disturbed by these calls,” Bustamante says.
Catch some wind. Photographing birds in-flight is easier if kids are prepared. “Birds love to take off into the wind,” Groo says. “Position yourself upwind of birds if you hope to capture them taking off in flight.” Since capturing moving targets on camera can be tricky, Bustamante suggests practicing beforehand. “Try following moving objects with your camera or phone. This will help train your stability and will result in better action pics.”
Be an early bird. Kids might not like this tip, but often the best bird shots come early in the morning, when the fliers are claiming their territories and hunting. The early morning dew attracts worms, so children will be likely to catch breakfasting birds. After that comes their songs to potential mates. “It’s called the dawn chorus—and it’s a fabulous thing to experience,” Groo says.
Focus on the eyes. Although keeping the photo sharp is key, focusing on the eyes will help a child hone in on the bird’s face better. “Your camera’s focus point should be centered on the eyes when you press the shutter,” Groo says. “It’s super important for the eyes to be sharp, as that’s where our own eyes, as viewers, go.”
Work all the angles. Having kids move a couple of feet to the right or left can produce a better shot than shooting the first angle they see. “In nature photography, things that are behind or in front of your subject are crucial,” Bustamante says. “If things look cluttered, it can be distracting for the observer. Try moving gently around your subject [so you don’t affect its behavior] to find a cleaner background and foreground for the shot.”
Get the best light possible. Bright sunlight can create a harsh contrast or shadows under the bird, so stick to early mornings or overcast days before the sun is high in the sky. “This is called ‘the golden hour,’ but if it’s overcast all day, you can shoot all day,” Groo says. “The perfect day for me is sunny for an hour or two, then it gets overcast, and then gets sunny again the last couple of hours.”
Get the color correct. Then challenge kids to think about which conditions will best show off the birds’ color. “Some birds—like European starlings or painted buntings—look better in overcast light or rain since it gives color a saturated quality,” Groo says. “And you’ll want to photograph white birds only late in the day or in overcast conditions, or they’ll be bright white with no detail.”
Seek out surprising spots. Think beyond wooded areas or your backyard. “The beach or a shore can be a great place to find ospreys, terns, and pelicans fishing,” Groo says. “Garbage dumps can even be great places to find gulls, which are also awesome for practicing your takeoff and landing action shots!”
Look for city birds. Another surprising spot to find and photograph birds can be in urban settings like parks, streetlights, or even skyscrapers. “These birds are used to people walking around and know that they don’t normally pose a threat,” Groo says. “So it gives you a good opportunity to stick around and see some of their natural behavior.”
Watch for guest stars. Kids shouldn’t be looking for only an amazing bird shot. Paying attention to the surprising harmony birds have with surrounding wildlife can create fantastic photos as well. “If you see that a bird is coming to the same spot each day, you’ll notice its interaction with the other birds, bugs, and animals in its environment,” Bustamante says.
Be a storyteller. A bird does more than just fly in the sky or perch in a tree. “There are birds fighting, birds looking for or showing off for mates, birds feeding young, or birds migrating through after they’ve just flown 2,000 miles,” Groo says. Before kids take a shot, ask them what that bird might be doing—and what it might do next. “Think of it like a game of Red Light, Green Light,” Groo says. “When a bird goes back to its natural behavior and starts foraging again, creep up a few more steps.”
Show some respect. If the birds change their behavior or seem agitated, have kids give the fliers a break for a bit. “It’s crucial to know your subjects well enough to know when they feel uncomfortable,” Bustamante says, adding that maintaining a comfortable distance will help birds feel unthreatened by the photographer.