2 birds feeding each other on a branch

How I Shoot | Photographing Birds

Staffan Widstrand

Field Craft

If there is one thing that birds and mammals don’t like, it is seeing the silhouette of a human. Lying down, sitting down, hiding behind plants or in a hide, or simply using camouflage netting can help you get closer to your subject. But remember, the most important rule is not to harm the wildlife or their environment; no picture is ever more important than the animals’ health and well-being.

2 colourful birds sitting on a branch

© Staffan Widstrand | Sony α1 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/1000s @ f/2.8, ISO 2000

Cameras and Kit

I currently shoot with a pair of Sony’s flagship Alpha 1 camera and they’re as fast as a Peregrine Falcon, capturing 50-million-pixel images at up to 30fps. I have also previously shot with the Sony Alpha 9 II, which I do sometimes still use. I have my two Alpha 1 cameras set up identically, which I did by using an SD card to copy all the settings from one camera to the other. I then have different lenses on each camera, depending on what I am shooting and my surroundings.

2 herons fighting over a fish in mid air

© Staffan Widstrand | Sony α1 + FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/5000s @ f/3.5, ISO 800

My number one lens for all kinds of wildlife photography, but especially birds, is the FE 600mm f/4 G Master lens. In fact, I never leave home without it. The combination of its high-resolution sensor and the long focal length allows me to capture the smallest of details with ease – this is particularly useful when I am photographing smaller birds.

bird flying low over water with a perfect reflection

© Staffan Widstrand | Sony α9 II + FE 600mm f/4 GM OSS | 1/1250s @ f/4.0, ISO 4000

However, when I am photographing larger birds, such as a hawk, this lens can actually make the subject look too large in the frame. In these situations, I will use the incredibly sharp FE 400mm f/2.8 G Master lens, which also blurs backgrounds beautifully and is great in low light thanks to the large f/2.8 aperture.  Generally, I will have a wider lens on my secondary camera, with an extreme example of this being the FE 12-24mm f/2.8 G Master lens. I use that lens less for wildlife, but also for landscapes that help to add context to the stories I tell and time after time, it produces images that are sharp from corner to corner.

a bird carrying a fish in its talons

© Staffan Widstrand | Sony α9 II + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/3200s @ f/2.8, ISO 800

Then, if I could choose two more Sony lenses, it would be the FE 90mm Macro and the FE 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master lens. This particular lens is a handy ‘all-purpose’ zoom lens and is exceptionally useful if I am very close to larger birds and need to remain unseen, or for when I want to take a photo of a bird within its surroundings. The FE 90mm Macro, which is probably the sharpest lens I’ve ever experienced, is the one I always have in my camera bag. I don’t use it a lot for bird images, but it comes out when I’m looking to shoot textures and patterns and obviously, macro shots too.

a red and a black bird facing each other with their beaks open

© Staffan Widstrand | Sony α1 + FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/2500s @ f/2.8, ISO 640

Camera Settings

It probably comes as no surprise that the number one feature of the Sony Alpha 1 is the AF autofocus tracking. It is incredible to be able to aim somewhere and focus, while having the camera keep track of the subject constantly. While this is a breeze using the Alpha 1, a bird photographer’s next challenge is to keep the subject in the frame.

Depending on the size and type of bird, coupled with how much control I have over the situation, I will use the Single Point AF feature with the smallest tracking spot size. If I sense that the action in front of me could change in a split second – which is naturally always the case with wildlife photography – I will switch to the large-size tracking point to ensure I don’t miss anything. Then, I will shoot in the Wide AF setting for super quick action, like birds flying overhead and with ease, the camera focuses on the closest subject, which for birds in flight is ideal.

majestic blue bird in flight

© Staffan Widstrand | Sony α1 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/2500s @ f/4.5, ISO 800

For me, I also find that the most dramatic looking shots are a result of photographing birds with Animal EyeAF. With the Sony Alpha 1, it is even possible to track a bird’s eye in flight! It is outstanding just how well it works – the end results speak for themselves.

white bird against a rich yellow background

© Staffan Widstrand | Sony α1 + FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/500s @ f/3.2, ISO 800


Backgrounds are an essential part of the picture. When I am shooting from a portable hide, I can position myself in a way that’ll allow me to capture a part of the background I specifically want. If you are walking around and trying to spot things to photograph, you don’t have the same level of control as staying in a well-chosen spot. For example, it can be pretty dull if the sky doesn’t have any special features or colours. So, I always try to get the landscape behind a subject as a background.

Some locations are hazy, and you therefore don’t get the super-strong colours in the foreground. I love bright colours and will often shoot late at night, or early morning during Spring and Summer seasons, to capture some of those perfect conditions for colour enhancement. It can be very risky to be a photographer with the ambition to have colourful pictures, but depending on where you are in the world, those times are often when the birds and light are the most interesting.

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Staffan Widstrand

Staffan Widstrand | Sweden

“I simply love the wild wonders of the natural world and am very attracted by the strikingly beautiful expressions of many different human cultures."

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