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What Camera Will Give Me Good Bird Pictures?
So You Want to Photograph Fast Tiny Birds
A Simple Question Without a Simple Answer
The above question has been asked over and over on social media sites by people that want to take pictures and are having a tough time. This question was mentioned recently in search of the perfect camera to take pictures of hummingbirds.
Someone jokingly said, “A little bitty camera with a big-ass lens.”
Some people are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to make rocket fast glib comments like that. Comedy aside, the real answer to the question is that any camera will give you good pictures IF you understand how it works and use the settings right. (P) for program or (A) for automatic are not the answer to perfect pictures.
This subject reminds me of a joke about car shifting. Being challenged at a stoplight by a Corvette, the Camero driver put his car in (D) for drag-race. When the corvette was threatening to pass him, he put the car into (R) for race.
Working a camera is sort of the same way. You have to know how things work. Even with constant devoted use of the computerized analytics inside a smart camera, you will still have problems with bad focus, bad lighting and motion blur. I wish that wasn’t true, but nope, sorry . . . it doesn’t work that way.
There are many very good detailed tutorials for understanding cameras. This is not going to be one of them. I will be explaining the simple down and dirty facts about how good pictures are made by paying attention to three different types of settings on the camera. I include tutorial videos to give more detailed visual explanations. Photo jargon will be avoided as much as possible. What I have to say can be used with any camera that allows you to manipulate settings, usually a Digital SLR camera.
Photoshop is NOT THAT Magical
"There are computer programs for fixing picture boo boos," some of you are saying as you read this. "You can make anything look better with Photoshop, right?" Mmmm, yes and no.
Image correcting programs are great tools. I use them myself. But they won’t help if you have created a silhouette while taking a picture facing into the sun. They won’t make bad blurry shots sharp again either. You really do need to get it right in the camera, or at least mostly right. You always want to start with a good image when using these programs. It works about the same as applying make-up. A little enhances; too much looks . . . well, made-up.
The ISO Setting
ISO, in old school film terms, meant the film’s sensitivity to light. A number was on the packages from 25 to 1600. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the film. For digital cameras it speaks of the light sensitivity of the image sensors in the camera. Image sensors have a native or base ISO where the maker intended the best images to be had. Early DSLRs had a native ISO of 100 and later cameras tend to work best at ISO 200. Moving the ISO selection past the 100 or 200 position doesn’t change the sensitivity of the sensors, it amplifies the data the camera can produce.
- 100-200 is for bright daylight conditions
- 400-800 is for shaded and semi dark conditions
- 1600 and up are for very dark conditions
The higher you push the ISO up, the more noise or grain you will see in your picture too. To keep the ISO value low, you will need to add light by using a flash. You can also use these high ISO settings in good daylight conditions to increase light intensity allowing faster shutter speeds.
The Aperture Setting
This setting is all about focus – the focus of the light coming into the camera. There is a variable opening in the lens called an aperture. When light is strong, the opening can be small which creates a tightly focused beam of light hitting the camera sensors. If the light is weak (your subject area dark) the aperture has to be opened up to allow enough light in to make the image. Unfortunately, this causes the light to be less intense, less focused. So, you get a shorter and shorter area of sharp focus around your subject which is referred to in photography as the depth of field. Apertures are related as F/stops or a part of the focal length of your lens.
- F/Stops of 16 or higher have very sharp focus and a large area of the image in focus. Landscape photographers use these high settings to give good focus to a large area. Use a high f/stop and you can have everything from the distant horizon to a tree in the foreground in sharp focus.
- F/Stops of 8 or 11 give a medium size area of focus, which can be three to four feet in front of or behind your subject. These are my go to apertures for most people portrait work. Distant background objects are blurred enough to keep from being distracting.
- F/Stops of 5.6 or lower can give very artistic soft focus pictures or disappointingly fuzzy pictures depending on what you are doing. If I took a picture of a turkey standing in front of me using settings this low, the beak might be in sharp focus, but the tail might end up fuzzy. Think inches instead of feet for your in focus area, especially if you are using a telephoto lens at its higher magnification ranges. For birds, I’m using 200 – 420mm magnification.
Another way this can cause problems is if you didn’t set your focus sensor on the right area of the picture. If a leaf should get in the way of a bird in a bush, the leaf will be in sharp focus, but the bird won’t. Using too low an F/stop with small subjects that move fast, such as birds, is a quick road to disappointment unless you become very good at spot metering (using one focus point to pinpoint your focus area.)
There are times when using low apertures are exactly what you want. This is how you can blur out the background so only the subject is in focus. This is how I get peak-a-boo shots of birds where what is in front or behind the bird is soft while the bird is sharp. Such tight focus effects work best with a sitting still bird. A moving bird is more apt to leave your area of focus.
Shutter Speeds Explained
The Shutter Setting
If the aperture is all about focus, the shutter speed is all about motion or manipulating how much motion the camera sees. The shutter controls how long the camera allows light to strike the sensors. The longer the time, the more likely the camera records movement. Shutter speeds are related as a portion of a second.
- 1/60 sec. and lower is slow. 1/60 has generally considered the slowest speed that your flash can be used with. This is for objects that aren’t moving. Using such long shutter openings requires a steady camera hand or a steady tripod. 1/60 sec. or slower is also the setting you would want if you want to blur the background of a moving object or show the movement of water. I use 1/50 sec. when I want to make rain streaks.
- 1/125 sec. or faster will do for most snap shots of people moving, but it is not fast enough for some moving objects such as a bird in flight or taking pictures from a moving car. I use 1/200 or 1/250 sec. for most perched bird photography in bright daylight, but if they take off, I’m going to get motion blurs if not using a flash.
- 1/400 sec. or higher is good for moving objects, but will still show some movement depending on the subject. A flying bird is a very fast moving object. Without flash, I have managed to get close to still wings on a hummingbird with this setting. Larger birds don’t beat their wings as fast, so a pelican for example, captured at this speed would likely show no motion at all.
Finding the Best Combinations
Photographers, amateur and professional, spend a lot of time and practice finding those perfect combinations to get the kind of effects they are after. It is a hit and miss trial and error learning experience. You have to cease being passive and actively work at controlling your camera. Even so, camera companies have made this easier than it used to be.
- They made digital cameras. This has made the trial are error aspect of learning photography much less expensive. Now you can take 50 or more pictures of a single subject at multiple settings without spending a fortune.
- They created programmable cameras. While all cameras still require you to choose the right ISO for your lighting conditions, your Digital SLR camera has multiple helps that allow you to manipulate one setting to your purpose while the camera makes sure the others are right. One is aperture priority, another is shutter priority. In either case, the camera will make sure the setting you don’t choose yourself will balance with the one you do chose.
- Some people prefer to concentrate on the aperture setting to insure their focus area. I use shutter priority most of the time to control movement. In the below example settings, know that I’m using shutter priority. The shutter settings will be deliberate while the aperture will be set by the camera. Either way you chose to do it, keep an eye on that other setting to make sure it stays in the right range for what you want to achieve.
How do I get sharp frozen hummingbird wings?
Consider that a hummingbird beats its wings from 12 to 80 times per second depending on how they are maneuvering. Strong daylight alone won’t capture something moving that fast. You need the speed of light coming from a flash to brighten up the bird. This allows the camera to capture just that quick burst of light. The professionals that make tack sharp pictures of hummingbirds with perfectly still wings are using multiple flashes. They are also using settings of f/29 or 32, at 1/200 sec. and ISO 100 using high speed flash image captures of 9 frames per second. Do that through about 50 to 150 shots and you will get a few good ones. Yes, this is fancy camera work, but you can learn to do it too.
Freezing a Hummingbird
High Speed Flash Sample
This image was one of my first attempts at such hummingbird shots. (I had not learned the above information about using tight F/stops when I did this.) I used a single flash unit attached to the camera. I set up my camera on a tripod with a remote shutter attachment so I didn’t have to stand over the camera the whole time. As the hummingbirds came to the flowers, I started hitting the button. My camera was not built to do 9 frames of continuous shooting so I had to try to time my single shots carefully. At ISO 200 and F/5.6 at 1/400 sec. and some luck in timing, I didn’t do too bad.
How do I photograph birds in shady woods?
Low light requires either a flash, a tripod to help keep the camera still through long shutter speeds or those higher ISO settings to raise your shutter speeds. Sometimes the bird sits still for you, but most of the time they don’t. Feel lucky when they do. As I said before, I know that I need a shutter speed of at least 1/200sec. to keep birds from becoming blurs, little ones especially; as they are in constant motion.
I was walking in the woods here in East Texas. We call it the thicket for a reason. My camera registered the bright sunny day with a strong setting of F/16 while in the parking lot as I prepared to go birding. As soon I moved under the trees, however, my aperture value took a nose dive to F/5.6. So what do I do?
- I could have pulled out a flash or used the on-camera flash. The on-camera flash is good for short distances of 5 - 15 feet, while a detachable flash unit is more power output which increases that range. Before using a flash on my subjects, I usually take several test pictures of a tree at 20 feet away, the distance where I expect to be shooting from. Doing this lets me know if my ISO can be kept at the base ISO or if it needs to be a higher. Too strong a flash and you will see washed out birds lacking their vibrant colors. Not enough and your pictures will be dark. I adjust until the test shots look balanced and then go searching for birds.
My Dad used to keep a little fake bird in his pocket to add to abandoned nests in cactus plants years ago. His focus wasn’t on birds so much as the cactus flowers, but this also gave him a small subject to test his flash strength on.
Shady Sample A
Shady Sample A, With a Flash
Last Spring, I went hunting for migrating birds on the coast as they arrived in Texas after flying across the Gulf of Mexico. I found quite a few. They were resting in dense wood lots. When I say dense, I mean dark. It was a bright sunny day, but under the canopy the light the camera could see decreased drastically. The birds I had been after, warblers, aren’t known for sitting in one place for long. They are quick requiring quick shutter speeds. The best way to do that is with a flash. I set the ISO at 400 going in and the shutter speed at 1/200 sec. The aperture adjusted to F5.6 in shutter priority. Without a flash those pictures would have been pretty dark. I would have lost most of the vibrant colors. Also 1/200 sec. is slow when you are talking about moving birds. As you saw above with the hummingbird, the flash can freeze a moment for the shutter to capture. This was just what I needed with this Magnolia Warbler. The bird stayed on that branch just long enough for me to get three shots. The flash allowed me to capture that last moment right after the bird left its perch.
Shady Sample B
Shady Sample B, Without a Flash
"Mom, come quick!"
That call to action was about a Red-shouldered Hawk in the front yard pine tree at 7 p.m. No time for my usual pre-photo adjustments. It wasn’t dusk yet, but it was close. The hawk was pretty high up in the tree, too high for my on-camera flash to be much use, but not so far that my telephoto couldn’t reach him. A little cropping later would bring him closer. Not thinking about anything but the sudden appearance of a hawk, I took my first quick shot using ISO 200 and 1/200 sec. shutter speed where my camera normally sits for bird shots at my feeder. I checked the back screen and saw a picture resembling a black cat in the dark. Grrr . . . Buck fever strikes again. That's what hunters call the moment when you jump to make a shot without paying attention to what you are doing.
I then quickly changed the ISO to 800 and then again to 1600. There I had decent lighting. The f/stop reading was 6.3. That’s kind of tight focusing, so I spot focused on the beak and happily achieved sharp clear eyes. I didn’t dare change my shutter speed setting lower for fear of the bird moving around too much. Thankfully the bird wasn’t threatened by our presence. He just sat up there as we admired him and finished his snack. The photo op lasted about one minute.
How do I photograph backyard birds at my feeder?
This situation depends on your feeder and yard. If you place your feeders under trees in the shade you may need to use settings such as I mentioned for deep shade. My main feeder and garden are in the middle of a small yard surrounded by tall trees and a two story house to one side. It sits in bright light during the day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. These conditions make for good strong light if you are chasing fluttering birds.
Sunny Sample A
Sunny Sample A
The picture of the hummer in my Black and Blue Salvia was taken under such conditions of overhead bright lighting at about mid-afternoon in June. I was in my bird blind, (in my house shooting through the glass sliding door) so no flash. The ISO was 200 and the shutter was set at 1/200 sec. The F/stop was holding to F/5.6. Had the bird stuck around longer, I could have opened the ISO up to 400 to increase the F/stop for a larger focus area. At 1/400 or 1/500 sec. I would have had crisper wings, but a little blur in the wings leaves the suggestion of movement. I consider a picture worth keeping as long as the beak and eyes are sharp.
Sunny Sample B
Sunny Sample B
This set of pictures were taken in similar conditions in the hummingbird garden at Estero Llano State Park in Mission Texas. Only this time due to the position of the sun, the bird and the surrounding trees, I was required to shoot into the sun. Ouch! This isn’t a good position to be in. This is how silhouettes are made.
Using my detachable flash, I was able to brighten up the shadows somewhat. As both the bright sun and a flash insured strong lighting, I used ISO 200 and a fast shutter speed of 1/400 sec. The fast shutter speed kept the F/stop low at 5.6. Even with using such a high shutter speed, the hummer was flapping for all it was worth, so freezing the wings was rough going. I did catch an up-beat moment that was close enough to perfect for me. There was no difference in settings between these two pictures, just the timing of the shot. Sometimes that makes all the difference.
Check out these sites for on-line photography tutorials and bird photography helps. Some are more advanced that others.
The Digital Photography School - A beginners guide to photography. The page leads to an article with links to 21 basic photography lessons.
The Poor Man's Guide to Bird Photography - Fairly simple. A good starting point for bird shooting basics.
The Secrets of Digital Bird Photography - More advanced. This guy's information is top drawer.
Beyond these helpful hints, anyone wanting to take good pictures of any subject should get out and do it, and do it often. Photography is about practice and experimentation.
- Look over your best pictures in their unmanipulated state and call up the properties to see what settings they were captured at.
- Look to see what the lighting conditions were. Think about how the combination of settings worked under those conditions or could have worked better.
- Before you begin taking pictures always get your ISO right for what you are doing before you do anything else. Then take a few shots and use the preview to choose the best start settings.
- Decide if the lighting is good enough without a flash or if you need a flash.
- Go out and experiment. Deliberately take pictures under certain conditions changing your camera settings to see which gives you the best shot. Record those settings for future reference.
- Take lots of pictures. Celebrate your successes and learn from your mistakes.
© 2015 Sherry Thornburg