The Beginner's Guide and Easiest Secret for Sharper Photos of Birds

October 14, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

Sometimes the Thursday post comes up quickly so what should we talk about today?  Fear not!  I have something to talk about and it is in line with my recent flurry of posts on learning how to get to manual mode in 7 days.

Trust me, seven days is not enough to make you comfortable shooting in manual mode.  My devious internal goal of learning how to get to manual in seven days was to prove that you can do this.  It is not as hard as you may think.   It just takes practice.

In this blog post, I am covering what I do when I go to one of my favorite locations to shoot photos of Bald Eagles, or even my own backyard with hopes to capture a photo of a Pileated Woodpecker in flight.

There is a lot I do.  More than you may think.   Let's take a trip through my brain of my adventures.

First I try to plan my trip.  Several days before or at least the night before I gather my equipment, place my batteries on the charger, and format my media cards.  What lenses should I bring?  This one is simple:  The longest lens you have and possibly an extender for the camera.  I have a 1.4x extender and a 150-600mm lens making it a 610-840mm lens.  However, that really increases the difficulty in getting a sharp photo with no camera shake.  Even if your lens is 70-200mm without an extension you need a tripod to help with controlling/minimizing camera shake.

With me so far?

  • Batteries Charging (extras if you have them)
  • Memory cards formatted (extras if you have them)
  • Longest lens
  • Extender if you have one
  • Tripod if you have one

I haven't even left the house yet.  Next, I start thinking through the settings that I want to use.  Should I use shutter priority, aperture priority, or full manual?  I use two of these three modes:  Shutter priority or full manual.  The reason I use one of those two modes is to ensure I have the fastest shutter speed possible.  I will start with the shutter speed at 1/1000 of a second and try to get faster shutter speeds if the light conditions allow.  Birds are fast and I will let you into the secret here:  faster shutter speeds are the key component to get sharp images of fast-moving subjects.  Birds are very fast, so 1/1000 is my starting point, but I would rather be at 1/2000 of a second and am okay with even faster speeds.  If all your bird photos are blurry, check your shutter speed.

Wow!  Is that what I just said?  1/1000.   1/2000.  Yes, I want it to be fast.  So, how can I get that speed and still have properly exposed photos?  Let's make another list.

  • I need a bright day, so night photography of birds probably will not work for the photos I want to capture.
  • To get this faster shutter speed I need to be in manual mode or shutter priority
  • I want to position myself such that the sun is hopefully shining on the fronts side of the birds (harsh light is great for bird photos).

I still haven't left for the photoshoot yet.  I am still thinking.   The next task can be done with an app, but works best by visiting the site and observing the light.  I recommend revisiting the same locations many times so you learn how the light is hitting the trees or landscape to plan where you need to place your self for the best light on the birds.  Just so you know:  The birds won't coopertate.

Using Shutter priority or manual mode depends on the environment that I will be taking photos.  If there is a lot of changes in light as you pan across the scene then manual mode is harder to make the needed adjustments to get the right exposure.  My backyard does not have much sky area that will be in my photos, so manual mode works well there.  But at a preserve where the area is more wide open and will have more opportunities for the birds to fly past a blue sky and then back to trees as a background will have a lot of changes in light conditions.  In those cases, I prefer shutter priority and let the camera control both aperture and ISO.  A bonus secret here:  When I do use manual mode, I leave the ISO in auto to help me with my adjustments or if not in auto, I set it to a very high ISO to maximize the light.  Some photographers may cringe at this next statement, but I will say it anyway.  If I use a manual ISO I will start at 1600 or 3200.  I would rather have a photo with a little noise than a blurry photo.

You heard that right.  I use shutter priority and sometimes use manual mode.

Next?  Yea, at this point I am still at home.  So let's fill the backpack and head to the shoot location.  Get your fully charged batteries and make sure you have several memory cards.  The extra memory cards are needed in case a card fails in your camera.  A single 16GB memory card is probably more than enough until it fails.  So, bring extras.

Another list to pack the bag.  Some of the items are not for the camera

  • Camera with memory card and battery installed
  • The camera already set to 1/1000 shutter speed
  • Extra memory card(s) and battery(ies) in the backpack
  • Lint-free cloths to wipe lenses
  • BUG SPRAY  (Sorry for all caps)
  • Tripod
  • Fully charged cell phone
  • Tell your family where you will be and the expected time to return

Now I am ready to leave to have a fun and successful trip

This blog is actually rather short and there is much more to think about that I didn't cover.  For example: Have you tried to photograph a fast-moving subject using a tripod?  Yea....... get ready for some "fails."   You will miss many photos using the tripod and maybe that is a future blog post:  "How to use a tripod with fast-moving subjects."  Here is the short answer:  either ditch the tripod and do the photoshoot hand-held and increase the starting shutter speed to 1/2000 or use the tripod and choose two or three spots where you expect the birds to land and only shoot photos in those few locations/spots.   The biggest challenge with the tripod trying to adjust both the direction of the camera and the shutter speed at the same time.  Trust me here, you will swing and miss a lot.  That's okay. Practice.

Had enough for now?  Me too.  I may stay on this topic for a few more blog posts and even do some videos on making these choices.   So, make sure you come back for more.




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