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The Art of Photographing Birds

Lesson 10 of 22

Bird Portraits


The Art of Photographing Birds

Lesson 10 of 22

Bird Portraits


Lesson Info

Bird Portraits

and now we're getting into the subject matter cause, after all, the gear is just a means to an end. Ultimately, what we want to focus on is the birds in front of us, or perhaps behind us. Anyway, let's start off with birth portraiture of which is really the conventional way to photograph birch. And this is what photographers have been doing ever since we started focusing our cameras on birds. So here's a portrait of two shoveler ducks arresting young. One of them is standing on a on a piece of wood there, that's the female on the right, and the male is on the left. She's asleep. He's keeping one eye out, and they alternate that. So there's actually more going on than just an aesthetic combination of male and female and the reflection in the water. And in this next video, we're going to take you into the world of bird portraiture. In the course of one of our field trip sessions in Colusa National Wildlife Refuge in California, let's run the video. What makes a good bird portrait value n...

eed a subject, and you need to have decent light and nothing else to distract from the bird itself. So how do you build it up? No distractions in the background, no distractions in the foreground, and you can make the portrait more intimate by getting as low as possible. You want to be eye level with the bird itself, and that is what we did this morning. We crawled close towards him, birds at the arresting logs in the water. Instead of standing on the viewing platform where most visitors go, we stretched ourselves out on the gravel right next to the shoreline, a whole bunch of duck's pen tales and shovelers sleeping in front of us. Some of them are sitting in the water and others are on the locks and the lights, gorgeous lights coming from behind. So this is perfect front light, and there's almost no wind, so we have a really nice reflection of the birds in the water as well. So what I'm seeing is individual birds. I'm also seeing pairs. There's a pair pin tails right there, male on the left, female on the right, and I'm seeing some structure as well because the logs are a little bit of ah, a compositional interest, and a few reads in the foreground. Anders. Reflection in the water. So we've got different ingredients. Let's see what we could do with the lenses that we've got here. So the disadvantage of the fixed focal length lenses You can adjust the composition very easily, so you really need to start looking for what is optimal with the lens link that you have. So I see that pair of pain tails on the logs. You see them to a little bit to the right. What are the best settings here? Let's analyze it on Committed thousands of a second at F eight. I can open it up to if I open up, my aperture rolled away in the background. This new there. So now it 1000 and 56 No, In my eye, Sl's dropped down to 1 That looks pretty nice. I'm switching my release mode from continues. Fact a single, because this is a situation where you need to burn to a lot of frames. Better be deliver it and I looked for smooth foreground, no vegetation in the foreground and no birch in the background of a take away from drawing the viewer into the identity of the birch themselves. How do you do that? Technically, in order to keep your background smooth, you want to keep your Apertura when you minimise your depth of field. But it's always a bit of a compromise because you also want to make sure that you retained definition in the plume image of the bird. And that means closing the opportune down a little bit. And then you start looking for the finishing touches. The versa moments and one of the birds looked up. There was a catch light in their eye, and that's the finishing touch. This is a static situation to Birch aren't moving, so that actually makes it possible to move to manual focus. As I'm analyzing this scene more carefully, I think I need to apply a bit more depth of field because we want to get the whole Bert. But in the depth of field, not just the eye, but also to blue much. So if you focus on the I, it may not be totally crisp on the blue, much in front of the eye, so I'm going to F eight animals are going to do a couple of frames. Now she's looking. That's nice. That's a finishing touch. The background is so smooth. Yeah, there's no vegetation. There's no other birds. So even it after 11 it's still gonna be very smooth. So the best way in this situation is to just run to a couple of different amateurish and sound going from 56 to 11. The shutter speech stays at the 1000. And because I've applied an auto sensitivity setting, Uh, yeah, as I changed the aperture, then the I s o gets adjusted automatically, and I'll explain the details for that setting a little bit later. So those are the two pin tails. Let's see who else we confined here. Oh, look, Look. The pin tails are responding to vehicle came by. The birds are a little bit upset, so they're no longer sleeping there. Alert, Leaving the logs. How subtly There's Ah, some birds are taken off. They're so sensitive. Oh, now flock of amiss taken off. Those are the moments we need to be attuned to a cell. So a vehicle came by and suddenly diverts perked up. They were alert and I got just one or two frames with the bird looking around before things quieted down again. What are the key ingredients For a good portrait, you need a subject. You need interesting light, and the rest is all bonus munching that shoveler. So I think we've got subjects here. Yeah, there's a whole range of birds in front of us. We've got great light, two sons behind us, and the sun behind us will illuminate the plume, which the way you were describing. So we'll also get a catch light in the eyes of the birds when the sun is behind you so but there's another ingredient on that is finding the right foreground to in the right background. And the background, especially, is important because you don't want to have a background that is a distraction from your subject. So the typical ingredients for a good bird portrait are that your background this smooth, and that means keeping your aptitude wide open. That's why even we did the portrait of the Tails a few minutes ago. I suggest that staying wide open at 56 or maybe closing it down a little bit to get more definition in the plume. It's basically your rap empty space around the portrait of your bird. That makes sense. And that's why this situation is so good, because we have smooth water in the foreground, smooth water in the background, and there's not a lot of other birds. All right, come. The stock is making a repeat appearance just to underscore the point and before be re open it up to questions and comments. I would like to run through a couple of MAWR images that illustrate some of the points that were made in the video as well, but applied them in other settings to other subjects. So we've seen their stuck before, and now we can appreciate it in its full glory here. So it's not just the bird itself, but you get the doubling effect from the reflection, and I use that same approach here. So the first challenge is to get close to a bird so you could do a portrait. And once you're dare, then you start looking for ways to make it more interesting. So with waterbirds, water is obviously a factor that you can use to your advantage. Aesthetically now, since I use images professionally and I always look for other opportunities to create negative space as well In this case, this portrait of the highest in McCall was constructed with negative space on top of the birds so that ah, copy and logo of a magazine could get dropped into it. And in fact, this image has been used for covers in magazines quite a few times, but that is a professional consideration. But these days, if you do want to, ah, you release your images on Instagram, you may want to think of square compositions instead of the normal aspect ratio that is dictated by your camera view. Um, here's another progression in bird portraiture. These previous images are all very nice. Yeah, they're very clean Asper to guidelines that I shared with you in the course of the video. But then I start thinking off other ways in which I can make things a little bit more interesting for a portrait of this caca, too, I used a bit of a fill flash. It created some highlights in the birds and in the bird, and then when it was kind of cleaning, it's ah, it's claws. It made it a bit mawr of a behavioral image instead of just a plain portrait. These goals in the Falkland Islands were a pair. Now, when you go beyond portrait of individuals and you get into multiple birds, of course, you really have to start thinking about the relationship between the two birds. I know from my years of watching birds that were actually looking at a pair the females on the left, the mail is on the right. Her head is a little bit smaller than hisses. So we're getting into subtleties here of how these two birds connect. And you could see that as well a little bit in the portrait that I made of the pairs of the Shoveler docks and the pin tails because we were looking at pairs of males and females to and the more you are aware, the bird behavior, I'm going to foreshadow what we're gonna talk about later on the MAWR content you can add to your portrait, and ultimately I would like to strive not just for a portrait of a species. I want to individualize the birds. I want to give them character and reveal personality. Now, some of my scientist friends say No, you shouldn't enter Prum Orefice animals because we're not like them and they're not like us. I say You're the scientist. I'm the artist. I have a creative license to do, something that makes me feel happy and that I also know, comes across to other people because it draws them in. This is not just any old and poor penguin chick. This is a penguin chick that has just been fat fed any days over fit, in fact, and it feels very happy. And here's another example of I I know from your reaction here in the studio that your respond to an image like that. There's a certain universality to it. And so I like to play on those connections and just to carry that idea on to other species. How about this one on albatross but a bad hair day, right? This is a juvenile albatross in the Hawaiian levered islands. It's elation on albatross, and it's just shedding its, you know its its baby. Down and underneath the rial birth is beginning to express itself, but for a few weeks, the other's hair styles from every period in human history, from slightly disheveled, punky look to shall we say, the crew the crew cut. So I like to do these things because it bridges the gap between us and them. And especially even I do photo essays in which the portrait really anchored the behavior and all these other things. These are key images, and then it's easy to make the step to this, which is also a young albatross. But this is actually a more serious situation. This bird is not really able to fly very well, and it's looking rather bedraggled.

Class Description


  • Photograph birds in a variety of scenarios

  • Understand bird behavior to get closer to birds

  • Build the ideal gar kit for photographing birds

  • Set the proper shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for birds

  • Know where to find birds to photograph

  • Capture birds in different types of light

  • Develop a better eye for bird photography


Love birds, but can't quite capture their colorful personality on camera? Join nature photographer Frans Lanting on a journey in start-to-finish bird photography. Master photography basics for photographing birds, from the best camera settings to tactics for getting up close and personal to different bird species.

With a mix of on-site shooting and in-class lectures, learn the ins and outs of bird photography. Build the skills to operate a camera and long lens as well as an understanding of basic bird behavior. Learn to capture more than the boring, obvious photo and dive into categories like bird portraiture, flying birds, flocks of birds, and detailed close-ups for your best bird photos yet.

Whether you are a beginner or intermediate bird photographer, craft better photos of birds with tips and insight from a National Geographic photographer with three decades of experience capturing wildlife across the globe.


  • Beginners new to bird photography

  • Intermediate bird photographers

  • Experienced photographers new to capturing birds

  • Beginner wildlife photographers


Frans Lanting has spent more than three decades traveling the world capturing nature and wildlife. For the wildlife photographer, birds often capture his attention, from penguins and endangered species to birds common to North America. Frans worked as a photographer-in-residence with National Geographic, a position that opened rare opportunities for photographing little known species. His nature photography has also appeared in his own books and exhibitions. Born in the Netherlands, he moved to the U.S. to study environmental planning before embarking on his photography career.


  1. Introduction

    See how Frans went from a boring bird snapshot to intimate images of birds. Meet the instructor and learn what to expect during the course, including an overview of the different types of bird photography from flying birds to close-ups of feathered friends.

  2. Introduction to Location Shoot

    Jump right into the on-site lessons with this quick intro lesson. Learn the three essentials you need to photograph birds.

  3. Camera and Lenses

    Getting up close to birds often requires long lenses and heavy tripods to stabilize them -- but other shots are better with a wide angle lens. See the best lenses for photographing birds, like the 600mm focal length or a 180-400mm super telephoto lens. Find handy accessories for when you can't hand-hold that long lens. Learn about camera gear from telephoto converters to tripods in this lesson, from high-end pro gear to more budget-friendly alternatives

  4. DSLR vs Mirrorless

    Frans shoots with Nikon, but says brand isn't the biggest thing to consider when working with gear. And while DSLRs may be the more traditional option, mirrorless has some perks too, like the smaller size. Weigh the pros and cons of both systems in this lesson.

  5. Field Trip 1

    Visit a national wildlife refuge with Frans and go behind the scenes with a professional bird photographer. Gain bird photography tips from choosing an ISO and using aperture to control the depth of field. See the process from evaluating the gear to seeing the composition.

  6. Getting Close To Birds

    Some birds aren't skittish around people, but most of the time, wild birds are cautious around people. Master strategies to get close to the birds for better photos, from blending with the surroundings to using a blind.

  7. Camera Settings

    Nail the camera settings for bird photography, from the file settings to metering and frame rate or burst mode. Understand the modes on the camera, like aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual mode.

  8. Settings For Creativity

    Pinpoint the best shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for capturing images of birds. Learn creative techniques to freeze birds in flight with a fast shutter for sharp images or at slow speeds to create creative blur. Work with aperture to control depth of field. Then, pick up creative techniques for composition.

  9. Point of View

    While the bird may be the star of the photograph, the background and foreground matter too. In this lesson, Frans explains how to use perspective to go from snapshots to great bird photos that draw the eye.

  10. Bird Portraits

    Bird photography is a subset of wildlife photography, but treat the genre like a portrait, and you'll capture stunning images that stand out. In this lesson, Frans explains how to create an intimate bird portrait by considering perspective, background, and more.

  11. Birds in Flocks

    While a portrait of a single bird is stunning, flocks of birds create excellent photo opportunities too. In this on-site lesson, learn to look for patterns created by groups of birds.

  12. Birds in Flight

    Capturing flying birds is much different than photographing birds at rest. Learn where to set your exposure settings to capture birds in flight. Gain tips on capturing birds in action as Frans continues the shoot at the wildlife preserve.

  13. Field Trip 2

    After the morning shoot, return back to the wildlife refuge in the late afternoon for more opportunities to capture birds. In this behind-the-scenes video, gain additional insight from exposure to composition. Gain specifics like learning how to properly expose white birds like the egret.

  14. Behavior

    A bird photographer that doesn't understand bird behavior is like a sports photographer that doesn't understand the rules of the game. Dive into bird behavior basics to help you better anticipate the bird's actions and how they interact with other birds.

  15. Birds in Landscapes

    Opposite of the bird portrait, bird landscapes show the bird in its natural environment to tell a story. Find inspiration from Frans' images and tips for including the landscape in bird photography. Gain insight from questions from students like you, including tips for photographing elusive bald eagles and other endangered birds.

  16. Field Trip at Sunset

    Take a final field trip back to the refuge at the end of the day. Build the skills to work with limited light at different angles. Work with tricky scenarios, such as high-contrast scenes.

  17. Impressions

    Using a slow shutter speed on birds in flight creates a look similar to an impressionist painting. In this lesson, Frans shares tips for getting that look and finding a shutter speed that's just right.

  18. Qualities of Light

    In this quick primer, Frans explains how different types of light influences bird photography. Learn to work with backlight, front light, sidelight, flat light, and spotlight and the different looks the types of light create.

  19. Birds as Designs

    Continuing the dive beyond the obvious bird photo, learn how to spot the designs created by birds. Develop an eye for bird patterns, using close-ups and beyond.

  20. Birds and People

    Mixing birds and people in the same shot helps create a sense of scale or tell a story. Learn how to mix people and birds, like how Frans used photography to tell a story about birds and plastic pollution.

  21. Locations

    Where do you find birds to photograph? In this lesson, learn where to find hotspots to photograph birds. You don't even have to go far -- something as simple as a bird feeder in your backyard can create plenty of photo opportunities. Then, gain insight into travel bird photography.

  22. Student Critique

    Gain specific tips to improve your bird photography using Frans' critiques of work from students like you. Build an eye for better photographs by learning to see potential improvements, both that you could make as you shoot and adjustments in post-processing.


Carl Bergstrom

I was privileged to be in the studio audience for Frans Lanting's Art of Photographing Birds course, and it was amazing. The morning was a perfectly pitched lesson on the technical aspects of bird photography, intermixed with Frans's own photographs and excellent videos of him working in the field. The afternoon focused more on bird behavior, composition, and artistry, and was even more delightful. If you know Lanting's photography you already know about his ability to find unusual perspectives on the world. What really shone through in the class was his love for wildlife and especially for birds. His knowledge of natural history is as amazing as his photography, and I loved the message that to take great photographs of birds, one needs to understand them and their behaviors. I've admired Lanting as a photographer for decades. Today I learned that he is an equally talented teacher. I'll be purchasing all of his CreativeLive courses. Thank you, Carl Bergstrom

Marie Gessle

Amazing class! Mr Lanting is charming and full of knowledge about birds and of course photography. In every moment of this course you can see his great passion and love for these flying creatures. The course is full of tips for photographers who want to start capturing moments of birds life. Awesome!!!

André Audet

Great class, very inspiring. Packed with great tips and beautiful imagery. Frans is a great instructor. I enjoyed watching this class a lot, and will watch it again!