Western Tanager | Morongo Valley Bird Safari


W
hen it comes to photographing small birds there are a number of techniques you can use to improve your chances for getting sharp images.  Of all wildlife subjects, birds are at the top of the difficulty list - they are wary, have great vision, never stop moving around, and have a foolproof method of escape, at least from us.
 
1  LONG LENS 
Your first tip is the most obvious, start out using the longest telephoto lens you own.  Bird photography is addictive, and if you don't own a long lens you will soon!  My lens of choice for all wildlife, including birds, is a Nikon 500mm telephoto lens (Nikon). But whatever you have - start there.

2  HIGH SHUTTER-SPEEDS (SS)
Birds are always moving - flying, fighting, changing positions, etc.  If they aren't moving, they are about to move.  You can use your ISO setting to improve SS under lower light conditions.  I almost always am shooting birds at my lenses largest aperture, trying for at least 1/2000 SS.  On brilliant, sunny days even low ISO settings (ISO 200) will achieve that.  When your SS falls below 1/2000 you will be shooting more blurry images. Birds in flight, landing on the water, hunting insects in the air, etc all require maximum high SS.
3  DX-SENSORED CAMERA 
If lighting is not a factor (as in there is plenty of light) and you own both a fx-sensor (full-size sensor) and a dx-sensor (crop-sensored) choose a dx sensored camera body that will add a magnification factor to your lens.  If I use my dx-sensored Nikon D500 and my Nikon 500mm telephoto lens together - then I achieve an actual length of 750mm.  The Nikon dx-sensor has a 1.5x magnification ratio, while Canon dx-sensors have a 1.4x or 1.6x factor.

4  TRIPOD or REST 
Use a tripod to secure your camera.  I know that tripods are slowly falling out of favor with telephoto lenses getting lighter glass, vibration reduction, and new camera bodies ability to shoot at higher iso settings - but use it anyway.  After awhile you will get used to it and the percentage of image keepers will go up. If you use your vehicle as a blind, use a bean bag or a rifle rest.

5  USE A BLIND 
Rarely can you stand in the open and get songbirds to come close enough for great portrait images - that means a blind of some kind. A car is a great blind, or a house porch, or even a deck chair - something you can be immobile in (movement scares birds).

I started with a blind described by John Shaw using a projector stand covered with camo material, then moved on to a Leonard Lee Rue Ultimate 2 blind (more space, shooting windows all around) which I still use on occasions - but now I primarily use my vehicle.  A vehicle allows you to park (if practical) in a way as to provide a perfect angle with the light, which is something every bird sees a million times per day.

6  BIRD FEEDERS
A food source (different types of bird feeders) can attract birds. This could also be a water source, such as a drip from a hose or water source into some kind of containment basin.  This is my preferred method of finding birds.  Once you locate a food or water source, you can be assured of regular bird use.  When I'm shooting in the field I regularly am looking for food sources birds are using - that could be berry bushes, it could be leafy bushes where birds are hunting insects among the leaves, it could be larger bushes that birds are hunting above in the air to capture insects rising out of them.  My favorite bird safari is down to Morongo Valley, CA.  As the morning heats up bugs begin to rise above the honey mesquite bushes creating a bird feeding station for phainopeplas, kingbirds, flycatchers, western bluebirds, and many others.

7  MOTORDRIVE ON HIGH 
Overshoot everything.  You will only have seconds when a bird comes to an area you are shooting in, getting the most images is important to capture all the nuances of body shape, eyes, singing, eating, etc.  A dx-sensored camera also multiplies the vibration inherent in a telephoto lens so overshooting will lead to more tack sharp images.  Good Luck.  If you have a great tip that I haven't mentioned here, send it to me and I will add it to this TIP Page.

8  USE A BIRD RECORDING 
I use the Sibley Bird App in conjunction with a Sony SRS-X11 Bluetooth Speaker which puts out 10 watts of volume.  There are times when this is inappropriate, like during nesting, but the rest of the time this is an ideal way - sometimes the only way - to attract birds to photograph.  The Sibley app for my iPhone is expensive, about $21 (the most expensive App I own), but it has recordings for every bird in North America.  No only that, but species maps, general information about the bird, usually multiple calls, and the ability to loop the calls (most are about 12-15 seconds long) to play 10 times continuously.

Another important feature and use of the speaker is to not place it on your vehicle, but to put it near the preferred shooting location for the birds.  The Bluetooth speaker and phone will stay connected out to about 45-50 feet, some even farther, which allows you to place it carefully, retreat to your blind or vehicle, then play it as needed and photograph the birds that come to it.

Good Luck.  If you have a great tip that I haven't mentioned here, send it to me and I will add it to this TIP Page.
 

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