The tools and process for great songbird photography

Getting tack sharp images of songbirds is a challenge because they never sit still.  Even when perched they constantly move their heads.  See this video:

Distance is critical for songbird photography because they are small and flighty.  And speed is your friend – shutter speed, lens speed, ISO, and your reaction speed.

Below is the hardware that will give you perfect images of songbirds because it gives you the necessary distance and speed.

Camera Body:  A camera with a higher frame rate or frames per second (fps) is best. For example, the Canon 7D Mark 2 at 10 fps will capture more sharp images of warblers than the Canon 5D Mark 2 at 7 fps. Especially under lower lighting conditions and resulting in slower shutter speeds. Warblers constantly move their heads but they move with little jerky movements, their head coming to a stop point every so often. So I take a burst of 4-8 images when the head position is near correct – at perfect profile or between profile and about 45 degrees toward me, even if the bird is moving its head. With a higher frame rate I have more chances of getting an image that catches a stop point in the bird’s movement, and thus a perfectly sharp image, even at quite low shutter speeds.

Lens:  I recommend at least the equivalent of a 400mm lens for songbirds the size of a Robin, and at least the equivalent of a 600mm lens for warblers and similar sized songbirds (brown creeper, kinglets). Some DSLR bodies have a smaller sensor which provides a crop factor. For example, a Canon 7D Mark 2 has a crop factor of 1.6x. So a 500mm lens combined with a 7D Mark2 is the equivalent of an 800mm lens. A Canon 5D Mark4 has a full-sized sensor so a 1.4x tele-extender could be added to a 500mm lens to make a 700mm combination, which is effective for fast-moving warblers.  Image-stabilized lenses are always preferred because they reduce user vibration. An image-stabilized F4 600mm lens is ideal. Or an image-stabilized F4 500mm lens combined with a 1.4x tele-extender (with a full-frame camera).  Aspirationally you should be moving toward this equipment if you have a passion for small songbird photography.

Tripod: I use and recommend a very sturdy tripod (that handles the big glass) for songbird photography. If I try hand-held my shoulders get tired, even with very light equipment. The situations where the best songbird photography can be done require waiting for the birds to work their way around trees and shrubs to an open perch. That can take a while – many minutes at times. Resting my hands on the top of my lens on tripod with my eye just above the viewfinder gives my shoulders a break and I can fully concentrate on using my eyes to locate the bird, anticipate its arrival to an open perch, and make a slight swing movement to pre-focus on or near that perch, and hopefully capture the opportunity. If I hold a camera near my eye for several minutes (even if it is very light) to avoid making a lot of movement, so the bird feels confident to go to an open perch, my arms would be shaking when it gets there, and I would not get a sharp image. If I hold my camera and arms at my side and wait until the bird arrives at the open perch, and then raise the camera to my eye, the bird will almost always immediately fly away because of my large movement.

Tripod Head: I use and recommend a very sturdy gimbal-type tripod head. The camera and lens combination will be balanced in this tripod head and move smoothly. I tighten the knobs slightly so the rig moves smoothly but comes to a stop point as I focus on a songbird. A ball head can be used but I cannot use it nearly as efficiently or precisely.

I have had the benefit of using the top 3 brands of photography equipment- Canon, Nikon, and Sony. By using those brands (guided by the recommendations above) you set yourself up for the best possibility of capturing excellent songbird images.  Your budget may not allow this today, so you must decide if this is a passion.  You need the big glass.

Below are a few case examples:

Male Mourning Warbler. Canon 7D Mark 2 + Canon 600mm F4 IS lens; ISO 640; F6.3; 1/400 sec; Evaluative metering,  no exposure compensation.   This bird took a pose and came to a stop point at a profile position for less than 1/2 second.  I put the focusing point on its neck and fired a burst of 5 shots.  Only one caught a perfectly sharp image.

Male Blackburnian Warbler.  Canon 7D Mark 2 + Canon 600mm F4 IS lens; ISO 400; F7.1; 1/400 sec; Evaluative metering, -1 stop exposure compensation. This bird briefly turned its head across its body and came to a stop point with its beak slightly angled toward me.  A burst caught the stop point.

Male Northern Parula.  Canon 7D Mark 2 + Canon 600mm F4 IS lens; ISO 400; F5.6; 1/320 sec; Evaluative metering, -2/3 stop exposure compensation.  Sometimes a songbird can come to a stop point looking directly at you.

Time to set up: Setting up your camera and lens for songbird photography must be done in order to maximize your chance of capturing an opportunity with the same results as the images above.  Set-up is complicated, but everything gets easier afterward.

The lens settings are much less complicated so I will go through them first. I recommend an image-stabilized lens (“vibration reduction” with Nikon), but a lens without image stabilization can be used – shutter speeds will have to be higher (and ISO, most likely) and technique stricter. Make sure to have image stabilization turned on and the mode for adjusting to movement turned on (IS2 with Canon), and auto-focus turned on. Make sure the setting for the closest possible focusing distance is chosen. Note that with some older cameras and lenses an extension tube may be necessary to allow for close focusing on warblers. If the camera/lens(/tele-extender?) combo cannot focus on a warbler when it is half frame you need an extension tube. Generally, a 12mm extension tube is sufficient. A 25mm extension tube can hinder auto-focusing speed.

Different cameras have different menu options and different exterior button options (dial, joystick, etc). You must refer to your camera’s manual to make adjustments.  Make sure the quality for images is set to RAW – highest quality. Make sure you have the ability to adjust ISO manually. Set the camera on continuous auto-focusing and the highest frame rate of continuous high-speed shooting. Make sure the option to use only one focusing point is selected. You will be using it in the center of the frame most of the time. But you should have the camera set up to allow you to move the focusing point easily – for the occasional very cooperative subject, and making a nicer composition with it. Enable highlight alert or showing of flashing highlights. Set the camera to automatic white balance – all color adjustments will be done in Photoshop. Enable manual adjustment of exposure compensation in increments of 1/3 stop, and set up a dial to easily use for exposure compensation. Set your camera on Aperture Priority mode. Set up another dial to allow you to easily adjust the aperture in 1/3 stop increments.

At this point, your equipment is ready to do songbird photography.

In PART 2 I will go over adjusting the ISO, aperture, and exposure compensation – based on lighting conditions, background, and songbird highlights. This will be done before the bird arrives at an open perch, so you concentrate 100% on seeing the bird within vegetation and anticipating its arrival to an open perch and reacting.

Oftentimes songbirds (especially warblers) seem to come out of nowhere and perch at a great open perch that is somewhere in front of you, but you only have 1-2 seconds to gain focus and shoot. Here, your speed – your ability to point the camera quickly and precisely at a bird (with good technique) and gain focus, is very important for success. Here is a video to show you how to hone your ability to do this with good technique:

The first thing I do with workshop clients is to make sure their camera and lens are set up properly (and their back-ups):

Note: I enjoy sharing tips and tools I have gained from over 20 years of experience photographing birds and observing bird behavior, as well as learning the effects of weather patterns on birds during that time.  I hope to encourage other bird photographers and offer advantages, as well as inspire them to take their skill set to another level.  In doing so I believe they can deepen their connection with nature while seeing it in its raw form.