Smartphone capturing a bird in a tree | Carol Roll

by Claire Jackson

Every year, I marvel at the artistry of the Audubon Photography Award winners. I can only dream of getting a shot like Jack Zhi’s White-tailed Kite and its fledgling.

Taking pictures can be a great way to engage with the natural world, but many of us don’t have the time or expensive equipment for a serious pursuit of wildlife photography. Many of us can pull out our smartphones and hope for the best, though.

Smartphone cameras have their limitations, especially when turned toward highly-mobile, often-camouflaged creatures who prefer to keep their distance. To wit:


Bad Bird Photo Exhibit A: Barred Owl

With an echoing hoot, this Barred Owl seemed to apparate in a shady grove of trees alongside my path in the Arboretum. In the dim light, I struggled to even find the bird in my viewfinder, hence its tangential placement on the far left of the frame. While cropping helped a bit, my rookie use of the camera’s (non)zoom function blurred the pixels. Bummer.

Bird lovers don’t want to disturb birds for the sake of getting close for a photograph. There are tricks, though, for getting better pictures and spiffing them up in editing. And if you still don’t succeed, reinvent your bad bird photo as art, or as a bird identification tool. Or—put your camera away and enjoy the moment.

Planning for a Better Photograph

The easiest way to improve your smartphone photography game is to spend money on it. Some of the latest smartphone models feature multiple lenses, including a telephoto lens, as well as a Portrait mode that creates a depth-of-field effect. For those who aren’t ready to upgrade to a more expensive phone, an aftermarket lens can give you the telephoto capability that earlier smartphones lack, allowing you to properly zoom in on birds without blurring pixels.

Alternatively, you can use binoculars or a spotting scope in tandem with your smartphone. Here’s a fun YouTube how-to video. You can buy various harnesses to make the process easier.

A Few Basics

There’s still hope for those of us wandering around with only our unadorned, earlier-model phones. Given the wide range of smartphones readers might have, I chose a few basics from this helpful article from the national Audubon website (your mileage may vary):

    • Clean your lens with a soft cloth. This is basic camera hygiene, along the lines of “getting the most out of what you have.”
    • Hold the smartphone with both hands. This cuts down on blur-inducing movement.
    • Use the autofocus lock. In the camera function, press and hold the yellow autofocus box until the ‘AE/AF Lock’ banner appears. This should give you more control over depth of field, allowing you to bring the bird into more focus. (This article goes into more detail; with the latest iPhone models, you can use Portrait mode.)
    • Adjust exposure. Tap on the screen until a little yellow sun appears next to the autofocus box; use your finger to move it up or down to lighten or darken. (This option remains when in autofocus.) It works best for backlit shots.
    • Don’t zoom. Zooming in just blurs your bird. Instead, get a similar effect using the cropping function while editing.

Editing After the Shot

Smartphones come with various editing functions, and there are many editing apps out there that offer even more features. Snapseed is my favorite: it’s free, easy to navigate, and available on iOS and Android. Here’s a great blog post about navigating Snapseed. 

Bad Bird Photo Exhibit B: Anna’s Hummingbird

I took this photo of an Anna’s Hummingbird at my backyard feeder. The sunlight created a neat effect with the bird’s wings, but it also backlit the bird’s body, shadowing color and detail.

On my smartphone, I cropped out the migraine-inducing sun, bringing the bird closer, and added a filter to soften the light.

Independently, in Snapseed, I fiddled with “Tune Image” and “Tonal Contrast,” but didn’t have a lot of luck in terms of the bird itself; sometimes there’s only so much you can do. So, I capitalized on the light effects and applied a black and white filter, then purposely blurred the background to create a depth-of-field effect (also known as Portrait mode).

Original Image

Softened light and cropped

Black and white and Portrait mode

What’s That Bird?

Maybe your bird photo isn’t Instagram material. But, if you’re not sure about the species, your photo might be perfect for the bird identification app Merlin.

Bad Bird Photo Exhibit C: Brown Pelican

I took this photograph in Seaside, Oregon. Despite the distance and backlighting, Merlin correctly identified the birds as Brown Pelicans. The app allows you to scroll through images and species information to confirm the identification.

Make Some Art

After the pelicans, I took a few shots of a gull on a dilapidated roof. I liked the overall effect of the photograph, but the harsh sunlight, angle, and distance washed out many of the bird’s features.

The gull’s dark coloring seemed unusual, but I’m not well-schooled in gull identification, so I checked Merlin. Bad smartphone photos can confuse Merlin, too, especially birds without a distinct profile, like Brown Pelicans or Great Blue Herons. The app offered a few gull possibilities, including a Heerman Gull and Grey Gull, along with a Black-crowned Night Heron, which I could easily eliminate. I’m still not sure, but I learned a lot about gulls in the process.


Bad Bird Photo Exhibit D: Gull

Below is the gull photo before and after applying Snapseed effects.


Finished with Merlin, I played with the aesthetics of my bad bird photo using Snapseed’s more artistic functions. I layered several filters, including Glamour Glow, Vintage, and Drama, then added a black frame.

There were many more ways to go, including the possibility of adding text and a Double Exposure function that allows you to overlay one photo onto another. It’s not Picasso, but…hmm…next time, bird cubism!


Or … Leave the Phone in Your Pocket

Jack Zhi, the photographer mentioned above, spent three years getting to know White-tailed Kite behavior before even attempting to photograph it. It’s wonderful to be able to share in the benefits of the time he spent. And, I’ve tried to get a taste of that immersion myself by resisting the smartphone urge. 

On a recent walk, I noticed a Brown Creeper spiral its way up a thick-trunked cedar. I didn’t have my binoculars, but recognized its shape, color, and behavior from past observations. My smartphone would not have distinguished between the bird’s mottled brown feathers and the bark—the camouflage being the point. Within a few seconds, it had “swoop-dropped” (my word) to the ground, disappearing in the brush. If I’d been messing with my phone, I would have missed all of it.

A few yards up the path, a family of Bushtits flitted from branch to branch, foraging and calling to one another, so I stopped and watched for a while. One flew to a nearby branch and cocked its gray-brown head down at me, seeming to check me out. Enveloped in the warm smell of ripe blackberries, I stood in what seemed an infinite moment—punctuated only by the birds’ soft chittering, the leafy rustle of their twitches and leaps. Maybe this kind of experience is the best we amateurs can hope for—and I’d say that’s quite a lot.

About Claire Jackson
I’m a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle. I became a member in 2015, inspired by Brown Pelicans diving into the Pacific Ocean at sunset. To borrow from Blake, every bird is an “immense world of delight,” offering both refuge and a reminder of a universe beyond my human concerns. 

Explore other articles in this issue of EarthCare Northwest

Disability and Bird Photography 

by Monique McClure

Out a friend’s window, from her car, on a scooter, and at her doorstep are some of the many ways Monique McClure enjoys watching and photographing birds. As someone with a disability, she explains how she came to love birds, and how greater accessibility in the outdoors is something we can all consider and support.

Birds of the Skagit

Photos by Protik Hossain, Soo Baus, Mick Thompson, Melissa Hafting, Bev Bowe, and Glenn Nelson 

The Skagit Valley draws photographers from all over the world, but fall is a special time specifically for bird photographers. Explore these beautiful images captured by local photographers in this region known for its species diversity. 

Ethics in Bird and Wildlife Photography

By Kamriell Welty

Local wildlife photographer Kamriell Welty shares her experiences capturing beautiful bird images while respecting and protecting wildlife and the land, and educating others on ways to minimize impact to her subjects.