6 Tips For Photographing Shorebirds

Sanderling / Photo by Steve Berardi

Sanderling / Photo by Steve Berardi

We’ve talked a lot about photographing birds here on PN: how to photograph them in flight, how to photograph perched birds, and even a few tips for photographing hummingbirds. But, we haven’t talked a whole lot about shorebirds specifically, so I thought it’d be good to share a few tips for photographing these types of birds:

#1 – Get down low to the ground

The single most important thing to do when photographing shorebirds is to get down to their level. This usually means lying down on the ground, so it’s helpful to bring a towel or something to lie down on. Photographing the birds at their eye level does two things: it makes the image more intimate and it usually results in a better background (because from this low angle, the background will usually be farther away).

#2 – Watch out for harsh shadows

Ideally, you want the bird front lit by the sun (so the sun would be directly behind you as you’re looking towards the bird). This helps you avoid lens flares and harsh shadows that can hide the subtle details of your subject.

#3 – Wait until the bird is parallel to your camera

If you’re looking for a sharp profile of the bird, then it’s helpful to wait until the bird is parallel to your camera. You only get one geometrical plane of super sharp focus, so waiting until the bird is in this plane will ensure you get the sharpest shot possible. But, remember not to get too obsessed with sharpness if it goes against the composition you’re looking for.

#4 – Snap a lot of photos

Anytime you’re photographing wildlife, it’s helpful to snap a lot of photos because wildlife has a habit of constantly moving ;) So, snapping a bunch of shots will ensure you photograph the bird when it was standing still in the pose you’re trying to capture.

#5 – Wait for the birds to come to you

The secret to getting close shots of shorebirds is to wait for them to come to you. If you try to approach them (even super slowly), you’ll almost always just scare them away. Instead, let the birds get comfortable with your presence by lying still on the ground. Eventually, they’ll come super close! Sometimes even too close!

#6 – Bring something to rest your camera on

Since you’ll be lying down on the ground, it gets tiring to hold up your camera for so long. So, one thing that helps is if you bring something to rest your camera on so you can comfortably lie down and look through your viewfinder at the same time. This could be something as simple as a cardboard box, or personally I like to use a GorillaPod so I can quickly adjust the height if I need to.

What did I miss?

If you have another tip for photographing shorebirds, then please share it with us by leaving a comment below. Thanks! :)

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, software engineer, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of southern California.


  1. You’ve summed up all the important tips for photographing shore birds, Steve. I would also add to #2 to catch the glint in the eye too! I think that it adds a little more life to an image.

  2. In preparedness I like to shoot at a minimum of 1/250th in the event the bird decides to stretch his wings or take flight. This would also enable a wide aperture which would blur the background better.

  3. What perfect timing! The sanderlings are working their way up the northern Calif. coast as I type. I’ve spent the last two evenings photographing them at Stone Lagoon in Redwood National & State Park. LOVE your posting and suggestions.

    I’d only add to watch the flock (or individual) behavior so you can anticipate the perfect moment. In the case of the sanderlings, my presence didn’t bother them, but sounds did. So I sat near their feeding area and they came within 8 feet of me. If a big sound, they flew off to a piece of driftwood about 20 yards away…then flew back to where I was when they’d settled.

    Second…1/250th works well with larger birds and slower wing patterns. As the bird is smaller, adjust your shutterspeed accordingly. I first shot with 1/250th for these sanderlings and every single image was blurred when in flight. The next afternoon I tried with 1/1000th. That was the perfect speed for these quick moving birds….

  4. Kathleen Hardy says:

    Having spent many happy days photographing shore birds in Sarasota, Florida-(a bird photographer’s paradise), I can’t imagine shooting without an articulating (or tilt and swivel) live LCD screen on the back of my camera. This screen gives me the freedom to shoot at the birds’ level without having to crouch down and ruin my back and knees. Also the screen allows you to lift your camera up high to get closer to birds in trees, roof tops etc. The good news is that you can find this screen on many quality SLRs and other format cameras. Thanks for all the great tips.

  5. Colin Burt says:

    I live by the beach and am down there most days. If one lies down on the sand on a towel as suggested be aware that on dry fine sand if the wind blows at all , there will be fine sand flying past your expensive toy. Have a piece of plastic – a square of shower curtain works fine – and be very careful indeed to keep it sand free so that you can throw it over your gear in a second if necessary. Then get up, go somewhere, and shake it very clean indeed before using again. Better yet, only lie down on damp sand, gravel, or rock ! Or keep your camera in a waterproof ,so sand proof , shell .

  6. Paul Harding says:

    while resting and while shooting, i use the tried and true, ballhead mounted in a cake pan to keep the camera rig a few inches above the muck. it does get tiring in the wrists otherwise.

  7. I fully agree with the shutter speed Jill. I mentioned that 1/250th is the minimum which can work for such birds as herons (see my heron posting on my website). There is nothing wrong with having a little blur on the outer wings as it suggests movement while still keeping the body in crist detail.

  8. Thanks everyone for sharing your great tips!

  9. Very nice tips. Another kind of photos is to shoot at the end of the day, with the birds back lighted. The silhouette looks beautiful against the colors of the sky and sunset reflected in the water.

  10. Wally Scanlin says:

    Their are some very good tips however I would add that with the Sun being behind you you should also take note of the wind direction as many birds take off into the wind . Knowing this will enable you to get great photos of birds expanding their wings just before they take off ,showing the colour of the wings under side.
    Wally Australia

  11. Brian in Whitby says:

    A couple of years ago, I spent a delightful evening on the sand dune beach of Kouchibouguac National Park In New Brunswick. The sun bathers had gone and the golden hour was fast approaching. I went nearly to the end of the beach tht was open to the public and sat down near the shore with with my camera. The shore birds, including the rare piping plover, came running along the shore exploiting the small crustaceans that had been ignored all day because of the busy sun bathers and swimmers on the beach. I waited for the poses I want and shot away.
    Unfortunately, my 55-250 mm lens was just a bit too short and a bit too slow for hand holding under those light conditions. The next time I will take my new Sigma 150 – 500 mm lens AND a tripod! I don’t yet have a solution for photographing birds during the purple hour. They were still active.

  12. An informative post.
    Birds must be the most difficult things to photograph! Especially in nature reserves where you are not allowed to leave your vehicle. No getting down on the ground there.
    Lots of time and patience needed while you wait for the birds come to you.

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