Lesson 104: Bird Photography Tips, or When Not to Use an iPhone

In Lesson 26, we looked at trying to get wildlife photographs with an iPhone.  Specifically of a Great Blue Heron hanging out by a bike path.  Today, I am sharing a few images from a recent river cruise in a wildlife preserve during Sandhill Crane migration.

All of the images in this post were taken with a DSLR.  In fact, I used two different DSLRs, each with a telephoto lens to take these images.  If your an iPhoneographer, I’m sorry, but here are the reasons why I left my iPhone in my pocket:

  1. Focusing while tracking a bird in flight with the iPhone may be possible, but if it is, I haven’t mastered it.  While I’ve gotten good images of a bird flying directly toward me with the iPhone, I’ve not been able to get images worth keeping of a bird flying across the field of view.
  2. The super-wide lens on the iPhone means that unless you can get within a few feet of a bird, you’ll end up with tiny bird spots instead of recognizable birds.
  3. The timing of when you click and when the image is made can be quite delayed in the iPhone–not ideal for a moving subject.
  4. Getting the exposure right for a small bird in a big sky is trickier than what can be accomplished quickly on the iPhone and speed is imperative when shooting moving birds from a moving boat.
  5. The resolution is too low to do a lot of cropping, which number 2 makes necessary.

So now you know why I didn’t use my iPhone.  Here are a few tips for photographing birds with a DSLR:

  1. Unless you’re going to be very close to large birds (like in our Raptography workshop), use the longest lens you own.
  2. If your lens has Image Stabilization, turn it on and select the type for panning (IS 2 for Canon, Active for Nikon).
  3. Use the continuous focusing setting on your camera (your camera will keep focusing as long as you keep the shutter button half pressed) in AI Servo mode for Canon or AF-C for Nikon.
  4. If you have tracking settings, set a choice that will stay with the subject and not refocus on new subjects entering the frame.
  5. If you can pick how many focus selection points are used, try using 8.  If you can’t keep up with a bird in flight or if you’re on a boat that’s bouncing a lot, you might want to expand to more.
  6. If your camera allows you to manually select one focus point but still uses the additional points when tracking motion, manually select the center focus point.  In all cameras, the center selection point has the best focusing sensitivity (although in some cameras, other selection points do as well).  For most people, using the center focus selection point also makes panning more intuitive.
  7. Panning with birds takes eye-hand coordination and becomes more difficult for your brain to adjust to when you’re on a moving vehicle (like a boat), so start practicing as soon as anything flies your way even if it’s not exciting.  Better to get bad shots of crows than when the elusive Whooping Crane suddenly appears on the scene.

Your Assignment:  For iPhoneographers, I’d love to see your bird images!  If you’ve managed to get a bird photo you’re proud of with your iPhone, please post it on our Facebook page:  facebook.com/snapgreatphotos!

For other shooters, get out and try these settings on robins and pigeons before you go on a birding excursion.  Everyone has different preferences and different camera features, so you may find different settings work better for you.

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