Capturing images of landing birds is harder than one would think. I assumed by simply focusing the camera on a branch and hammering the shutter down as a bird approaches that branch, I’d be getting more results than I’d know what to do with. I found after reviewing the first group of images, I had nothing worth keeping. How did this happen!? Let’s take a closer look at some of the problems we face with this type of photography.
The first thing you will notice when reviewing images (given the example above) is the branch will be sharp but the bird is almost always slightly out-of-focus. More often than not, this is because even when shooting in a burst mode at 6-8 frames per second (fps), a lot can happen during the “time in between” the shutter is actually clicking. This “time in between” gets longer as your fps is lower. If you are shooting at close to a wide open aperture (ex. f4-f5.6 on a telephoto lens) and your shutter snaps at the point when the bird is still 6 inches from the branch, that is far enough outside your depth-of-field range so the bird ends up out-of-focus. This is a big problem.
One example on how to help with this problem is to make your depth of field larger (larger f-stop #). By doing this and focusing on a point just behind the branch, you increase your chances of ALSO having the landing bird in focus. Most SLRs/D-SLRs have a depth-of-field preview button located at the side of where the lens connects. You can quickly press and hold that button, look through your viewfinder, and see what all will be in focus. Keep in mind, however, with this technique your shutter speeds will slow down as you stop down the aperture.
Another way to remedy this is to monitor where your birds are typically flying in from to land on your perch. You can position yourself so the bird is flying in from the side to land on the perch. By doing this, the bird will be in your depth-of-field for a longer point in time when it’s landing. This will give you more sharp results but the bad side to this is you end up with all side-view shots of landing birds. This is a good way to start but if you’re able to get birds flying towards you, you will end up with much more dramatic results. The illustration below shows what I mean. Notice the Blue Jay coming in from the left is in the depth-of-field range longer than the Gray Jay coming in from more behind the perch. The Blue Jay example will give you more images that are sharp but they aren’t as dramatic as seeing more of the wings fanned out on the Gray Jay. The Gray Jay yields less results that are sharp but it’s worth the time and effort.
When photographing landing birds, shutter speed is extremely important. My goal is usually to get at least 1200th of a second. Having said that, if you are in low light or extremely shaded or cloudy conditions this will be hard to obtain. One way to get faster shutter speeds is to change your aperture to wide open or close to it. Keep in mind your depth-of-field will get smaller so even though you’re getting faster shutter speeds, you will start to notice LESS sharp results from making your depth-of-field smaller. One thing I will do in good lighting is to shoot in Aperture Priority (Canon), stop down my aperture to say f9-f11, and bump up my ISO to 400-800 (check out Lesson 3 on High ISO). As you do these changes, you will notice your shutter speeds getting faster and faster. This isn’t magic, its basic principles of exposure. Lesson 4 will go back to basics to explain some simple exposure principles.
We’ve talked about the more technical side of this style of shooting so let’s go into some easier tips to try. When shooting landing birds, to maximize your chances try to funnel the birds to a specific perch. One thing I do is hang feeders (if you’re after feeder birds) near the perch you want them to land on. I will even put seed right on the perch. DON’T FORGET ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND!!! This is something so many aspiring photographers don’t think about until it’s too late. Pick a perch that gets birds but also look behind the perch and ensure your background is how you’d like it. I prefer to get blurred backgrounds that make my subject POP so pine boughs 10-20ft behind your perch will yield nicely blurred backgrounds. In some cases, making your own perches and mounting them exactly where you want can be helpful. Bottom line, put the time and effort in and it will be worth it. Also try to position yourself hidden but with a clear view of the perch with the sun more behind you. The sun behind you will give you front-lit results and that lighting will maximize your shutter speeds. Remember, FAST FAST FAST!
Let’s go over the “TOP 5″ summary points to take away from this lesson:
1) Shoot in the fastest burst mode available on your camera
2) Strive for shutter speeds over 1000th of a second.
3) Increase your depth-of-field by stopping down (f9-f11 in good lighting)
4) Increase ISO to 400+ in lower lighting situations
5) Set up perches to maximize results
Stay tuned for Lesson 3 where we’ll get back to basics and look at applying the principles of exposure to nature photography.