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The Art of Photographing Birds

Lesson 5 of 22

Field Trip 1


The Art of Photographing Birds

Lesson 5 of 22

Field Trip 1


Lesson Info

Field Trip 1

the nuts and bolts. We're not quite done with it because throughout the course will come back to specific cameras and lenses and how we use them. But, um, I think some of you may get a little bit antsy by now and wonder if we're ever going to go into the field. So let's do that. We're going to go to this place. This is the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge. It's part of a system of federal wildlife refugees in the state of California in the Central Valley, and it attracts huge numbers of migratory waterfowl that come in from the Arctic, and they spend their winters in the mild weather of California. I've been going there from many years, and it is like being a kid in a candy store cause there are so many birds and the refugees are really set up to make it easy for visitors and four photographers to get a front row seat on the action. Here you can see a big gathering of snow geese, and this is made from a viewing platform. This is as easy as can be, and we're going to take you on a first ...

field trip into the refuge and we're starting out before dawn. Are you ready? Let's do it. This morning the ended up chasing light. We got out of better bid late. And by the time he got to the refuge, there was already a tinge of light on the eastern horizon. Were driving into the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge before dawn. And the conditions are perfect. There's ground mist, and above that I can see the first light of dawn spilling over. It is liquid light mixed with water. It's perfect. And all we have to do is find some birds. But I know there are out there. Can this Are you ready? All right, now there's not a lot of light, so we're gonna crank up the I s so and built our modern cameras. That shouldn't be any problem. So you can increase it all the way to 6400. And if you need mawr, do it because it's better to get on image with a little bit of grain than no image with no grain. Give me a sense of your shutter speed. 6 40 at f 4. and at which I s 0 we're in business. Yeah, yeah, that's fast enough. So what? You could consider when there's that much light is moved the aperture to F eight or perhaps even f 11 because that will give you more depth of field again. It's not just about the birds. It's about the birds in the landscape. When I first come to a stop, I do not switch off the engines. I'm gonna give continuity. I'm gonna let the birds get used to me here. And then I think, OK, we can do something here. Then I switch off the engine. All right, well, there they go. Now we've got a car full that long lenses. But for this situation, I prefer a shorter lengths. Have got a 72 200 that enables me to framed Ah, coots those black dots here in the foreground. They're anchoring my composition. And then there's more birds dotting the pumped in the middle ground. And then I'm looking at the trees on the horizon and then above it. We have that wonderful dawn sky. Now there's one thing that I'm trying to keep out of the composition and that is that yet trail because I don't think that belongs in my scene here. Okay. I did my first couple of shots, and I'm gonna see what it looks like. I'm checking my history. Graham. That looks pretty good. I just want to make sure that I'm not making any mistakes. You know, sometimes you start early in the morning that inherited settings from last night. And when you get excited by seeing the light, you forget to look at the technical aspect. So when when I look to the left, then I see another ingredient there. That's the the hills of the Sutter Buttes, which are really beautiful, but not enough birds. I think we need to move on a little bit. We've got more birds, but they're all in a distance. So I need to zoom out more or less at ah 1 50 now. And my settings are to 50th of a second at F eight. And that is that, um, I s 03 20. So we've got a lot of lights. Let me double check. Ah, gorgeous. It's a vertical scene and the lightest perfect. The clouds are reflected in the water, and we have some birds in the distance, and those birds are kind of just luring the viewer into the distance where the trees are shrouded in morning mist. Absolutely gorgeous. I'm gonna bring in this other lens. It's a 200 or 500. I'm taking off the the lens suit because I don't need it in this low light. Putting a being back on the window. That gives me more stability and plopping the camera on it. I've got a 200 to mounted now. Oh, that's the one. That's the lens. Candice, you got your 100 to 425. Banker, you went to the 500. Okay. Ah, So adjusting the settings here, I'm going to to 50th and now closing the aperture down to 11. And that's just me and I eso off and I'm going to shut it down even further to f because then even the reeds in the foreground will the within my depth of field, That's it. Ok, I'm focusing about 1/3 into the scene. Coastal. Give me the maximum depth of field at any aperture. Okay, Quick check here. Oh, Mama Mia. Receive it. I'm seeing Candace. Uh, so we're looking straight towards where the sound is going to be rising. And now there's ducks flying over the Sutter Buttes. That is also very nice, because there's no wind upon this, just a mirror, not the same gorgeous orange. But I like that blue of the hills and there, some birds flying above it. This is a great first stop. We found the Overlook perfect morning light reflecting into the water, and then we just waited for birds to move into the scene. Whether they're swimming or whether they're flying, they animate the landscape. You choose a shutter speed that is above 200 of a second, so you captured a bird sharp. But really, you want to extend your depth of field, and you do that by decreasing your aperture, making it smaller. And that creates more detail in the image. In a situation where you don't know what's gonna happen next. That's when zoom lenses are your best friend. I had a 72 200 and I had a 200 or 500 next to me in the passenger seat, and that enabled me to quickly adapt to changing circumstances and the long fixed focal length lenses they were in the trunk. I never touched him this morning. Now we just moved up by about 100 feet. But we have a different foreground. See the still stare that are foraging soon as the sun comes up. You know, we have so much light that I can set my aperture for F which gives me a maximum depth of field. And now my shutter speed goes to 200 of a second. And my eye eso is 1600. So I'm in a safe range, and I know that everything in my frame will be tack sharp. See, the sun is blown out a little bit, so I'm going to apply a little bit of exposure compensation. So I'm gonna decrease the exposure by 1/3 of a stop. But I'm not sure that'll do me much help because the sun will rapidly increase in strengthen its impossible to balance that with the rest of the landscape, which is still shrouded in morning mist. I'm going to the softer light to the left. Now, Candace, you see that sound this gorgeous? But it's too overpowering. It overpowers everything else in the scene. So there two solutions one is to go to a shorter lens because then I make the sun smaller in machine. So with this 72 200 if I open it up to 70 millimeters, then it's a landscape again instead of the sun. And no, I'm seeing the stilts on the left ho. That's very nice of them there. They've turned around, and now they're coming back. Another walking back into the sweet spot. So now the sun is all the way in the right of the frame. And the stilts that speckled formation. They're the real subject. And there to counterpoint to the rising sun. Just checking. Yes, this is good. You know, the jet trails I could do without him, but there they are. Look at all these planes flying. Okay, I'd better work rhythm instead of ignoring them. We're wishing they were in there. This is morning rush hour out of San Francisco Airport, and there's a least 8 to 10 jet trail, so it's actually a pattern in the morning sky. After all, we live in the 21st century, right? So? So if you want to do without him, then you have to use a much longer and oh, look at the black parts coming now in the sky there. Boom, boom, boom, boom. So my release moat is continues, but not at the highest speed. Because otherwise I'd rattle off 20 frames in a matter of two seconds. And who needs that, Right? Just because you can it doesn't mean you have to. I want to be a bit more discriminating. This is a rush. We've only been here for 20 minutes and oh, I'm so excited. Oh, look at all the birds. They're looking him wheeling. This is like a scene from prehistoric California. So now we need a shutter speed of 1000 of a second, because I'm using the this 200 or 500 handheld. So 12 50th of a second at F 22. That's 5000 I s O. But there are so many birds, so many birds from decreasing the is a little bit to 2500 and against me, F 20. Yet through all I want to be sure that if there's any birds passing by closer, that they're also contained by my depth of field. Okay? I have to re orient a vehicle. 00 my God! Oh, my God! Let to move that the move. They're flying faster. Moon Oh, I'm available. Thousands of snow geese air coming back to the refuge. They're filling this guy and I'm looking for patterns The V formations, the longer lines that to see some of them come faster. Moon makes it really unusual. I was just thinking off, orienting myself with the light to start looking for some portrait of birds. And then we saw the snow geese come back. In fact, I heard him before I saw them that cackling. Then we saw these thousands of birds. And fortunately I have my 200 or 500 ready to go. It's in these situations where the unpredictable can happen any moment. That zoom lenses are better than having a fixed focal implants. So 200 or 570 to 200. They were the best lenses for this morning. Boo. I had tears in my eyes. No matter where you are and what you do, you want to be sensitive to the changing light. Early morning, I look into into the eastern horizon. And then when the sun rises and it begins to illuminate the landscape color appears, and now I'm looking with the light the way it's hitting the sedges here, and we're beginning to see colors in the birds. It's a classic view. No, that was of Rush, wasn't it? Did I give you a feeling of what it's like to be out there and you can hear me think? Yes, I am constantly assessing and reassessing the options, and it's good to remember what I said at the very beginning for chasing light and then you head out first thing in the morning. That is literally what you do. I mean, there isn't a lot of light. You've got to make the most of what you have. So all these long lenses that I showed you and have a talk was talking about gear. You know, they're really difficult to apply when you don't have a lot of light. So that's why I changed to the shorter telephoto lenses and that magic light on Lee last for half a Knauer. And once the sun is above the horizon, when there's more light, then we can start orienting in a different direction, the son in the back, and then you can start looking for individual birds. So that's the That's the strategy. That's three idea behind the madness that you saw here. So let me reiterate a couple of other things that came to mind that I thought their useful to to emphasize over in this car. And I should mention again that in these federal wildlife refuge is your The two roads are set up to accommodate people who move or on the refuge by vehicle. And you're really not allowed to get out of your car. As soon as you do that, the bird spook and they're gone. And you destroyed the situation for yourself and for everybody else. So we're using the cars, is moving blinds, and I'm gonna talk a little bit more about that later on. So in case you're wondering, why didn't you get out of the Carvel? You can't, and you shouldn't. Um ah, I'm gonna talk a little bit more about hissed a grams and how important it is to check them periodically. And I'm sure we'll get some questions about that. And the being back will talk more about that as well. How practical that ISS as a as a tool. Well, let me just get it out there because I started off using being backs before they were being backs have is just using an old sock and filling of the dean's thes days. You have these really nifty beam backs that drape around the car door, and I used in that lightweight filler. I fill him up before I go abroad, and then I'm ready to go. Or you can fill him up locally. That sand orbit, anything else that serves the purpose. The most important thing that I hope you took away from this video is don't get stuck in a rut. You keep assessing your options, you know, gauge, delight. Look around you even while you're doing things. And especially during these critical times at dawn and dusk, when things change so quickly, you do not want to do the same thing constantly unless you really have no interesting any other perspective on the birds There are in front of you. Um, one thing I refer to that also briefly camera shake will deal more with that later on. Camera shake is not the same as motion blur motion blur. You can use creatively. Camera shake is a bad thing that comes from either you not having the camera stable on the car door or on a tripod, and your shutter speed is too slow. We'll get into more details about that later on. Ah, the other thing that is important to check periodically. Then things are so exciting. It is really easy to lose track of your depth of field. And you started in some of the images that I made, and also Candace shelled some images to where the depth of field didn't quite cover the birds in the foreground. We were too excited by what we were seeing on the horizon. So do take yourself out of the experience from time to time and look back at the images that you just made. Now back to the audience. Yes, First of all, I just want to say that people are absolutely loving. This combination of being able Teoh interact with you here live as well a see you in the field. So we're thrilled that so many of you are also saying how much your enthusiasm love for birds is coming through. So super awesome, so happy to have so many of you online. The questions air coming through like mad. Ah, lot of them again or things we're gonna cover about our you're using Auto, I s O. Or you may come to that will come to that. A lot of questions about that exposure compensation, but a couple questions that were specifically about what we just saw. And, um, one of them waas, um when you were focused when you when the moon was in the shot and there's the birds and the moon, are you focusing on the moon? Are you ah, trying to get those birds in motion? How do you deal with focus at that point? You know, that's a really good question. Um, yeah, we'll talk more about auto focus and the the different kinds of autofocus settings that exist in your cameras on autofocus works really well in high contrast situations and with subjects that are close up. And in this case, you're the birds for Clyde distant, and the moon is kind of monochromatic. It blends in with the sky a little bit. So in a situation there, you're seeing the lengths not being locked in constantly on your subject. You may want to consider moving it into manual focus because in this case, everything was at infinity. But here's another thing you can do. Give yourself that margin of safety. Just because you're subject you think is that infinity The birds are actually a little bit closer. So actually close my aperture down. Then you could see that in the settings that I apply their My aperture, I believe, is at F 11 or so some Ah, let's see questions in the studio. Yes, please. Looks like you use a bean bag. And in addition, sometimes you use amount that goes on your glass. Any preference or particular situation use you would use one over the other. Um, I use the being back is the most yo compact, cheapest thing that I can recommend if you want a photograph from cars. So you know the other thing. I uses this car door mount that goes by the, uh, the other cumbersome named Grew for. In part, it was designed 20 years ago. The makers gone out of business, but you can still find him on eBay, and perhaps you can repeat the name of it in the chat room for people who are interested in finding one But there's other makers of window mounts now, and what I like to do is have both options. Yet Window Mound can. If girls like this on the car door, and then if you want to be really quick, you put the being back on top of it. But if you want to be really stable, and if you want to do precise compositions, then I use a dovetail that connects with my monocle. And then I have a rock steady platform, so I use both of them, actually. Great. Awesome. Uh, let's see. Are you going to talk about filters? People were wondering if you are using any filters on the lens for those sunrise. A simple question. Simple answer. In those early morning hours, there's no need for filters. Polarizer is only come into play when you've got a lot of reflected light coming off the water. And typically that doesn't happen until later in the morning, and certainly not venue shooting into the sun or when the light is behind you polarize er's are applicable at a 90 degree angle to do some

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!