Making sharp photos of birds is not an accident. It is the result of learning what works in the variety of situations we bird photographers find ourselves in. Birds are a challenging subject. You have to find them first and they are not always cooperative. They sometimes move too fast and hide in the bushes. We have set ourselves up for the ultimate challenge in bird photography: Birds in Flight and Birds on Water.
Below, I have listed some of the major things that you need to consider when trying to take sharp photos of birds. This is written for the DSLR owner no matter what quality kit you have. It assumes you have moved away from full automatic and have some knowledge of how to adjust the various settings that a modern DSLR has.
One note before I begin: We often get hung up on pixel quality rather than picture quality. Often enough, the photo that tells a good story, piques our interest, or involves us emotionally isnt the sharpest one. Getting sharp pictures is a craft. Getting pictures that move us is art. Doing both is genius.
1. Control what your camera focuses on and whether it will continue to focus if the bird moves.
One rule of thumb is that you should always focus on the birds eye. Other parts of the bird can be out of focus and the picture will be acceptable but if the eye is blurry, the picture is worthless. If you cant get on the eye, then focus on some part of the bird that is at the same distance as the eye. Restrict your Auto Focus system to a single AF sensor or just a few closely spaced sensors. If the bird is stationary, set your camera to focus only once when you half press the shutter. Place the AF point on the eye or head, half press the shutter button to focus, recompose the picture and then take the shot. If the bird is moving, then your camera should be set to tracking focus. That means it will continually focus as the bird moves closer or farther away as long as you have the shutter button half pressed. Keep the focus point on the bird as it moves, half press the shutter button to achieve focus, and take your pictures.
Sometimes Auto Focus is not possible like when I am using a 2X tele-converter. To photograph inactive birds use Live View on your LCD. On many DSLRs you can zoom in on the live view image and, using manual focus, fine tune the image.
2. Stabilize the camera.
While I firmly recommend hand holding for Birds in Flight, there are times when the use of a tripod or monopod is necessary i.e. shooting from a hide or blind or if you know you will be stationary. For more information on shooting BIFs see my previous sticky post http://www.uglyhedgehog.com/t-88437-1.html
Out in the field, a tripod can be a hindrance but there often are trees, fences walls etc that can be used to help stabilize the camera. If you are hand holding and shooting stationary or slow moving birds turn on Image Stabilization, especially in low light, if your lens is so equipped. If you are shooting BIFs, turn it off. IS cannot cope with the gross movements that are necessary to track a BIF and it is my experience that it will interfere with focus acquisition. Some lenses have a panning mode that might be helpful if you have birds that are flying perfectly horizontally past you. Panning mode tells the lens to ignore motion in either the horizontal or vertical axis. If you are tracking a bird that is flying in a diagonal or even an erratic direction, which axis should the lens ignore? The system becomes confused and either stops working or the image jumps around. Either way, the result can be a blurred image. Usually, we turn off IS when we are tripod mounted but, with long lenses in gusty winds, IS can be helpful.
3. Use a fast shutter speed.
Whenever we cant use a tripod or Image Stabilization we need to compensate with a short shutter duration. The rule of thumb that says you can shoot hand held at a shutter duration of 1 over the focal length goes out the window with Birds in Flight. You are contending with BOTH camera movement AND subject movement. I regularly shoot my 500mm at 1/2000 and still find blurred wingtips!
4. Use DOF to your advantage.
Long lenses have little depth of field so accurate placement of the focus point is essential. With a 500mm lens, a bird at 50 ft shot at f/4 will have only 6 of DOF. At f/8 that becomes 11 and f/16 gives you 21 ½. As the bird gets closer, DOF shrinks even more. At 15 feet the 500mm has only 5/8 at f/4! At f/16 this is still only 6. From a practical standpoint, that means that it may be impossible to get even two birds together in focus unless they are at the same distance from the camera. Thankfully, when we are shooting BIFs at normal distances of 60-70 feet and mid range apertures, we have enough DOF to get all but the wingtips in focus of the larger birds. (As a technical side note, the usual rule of thumb that DOF extend 1/3 in front and 2/3 behind the focus point does not apply to long lenses. The split is nearly 50-50.)
5. Work within the limitations of your camera and lens
What is the maximum ISO that you can use and still get acceptable noise levels? It varies from camera model to camera model. You may need to do some experimenting to understand just how far you can go. Is your lens less sharp when used at its maximum aperture? Does your zoom lens loose definition when used at maximum focal length? Knowing the answers to these questions can help you avoid fuzzy images.
Photographing birds always seems to have us pushing the limits of our technology. Understanding what contributes to sharpness can help us make knowledgeable tradeoffs in our settings and return home with that calendar shot!