In-the-field decision making

In this article I cover my thoughts and planning when confronted with a variety of conditions and opportunities during songbird photography. I share why I might change settings, why I took specific gambles,  why I didn’t do certain things, how the bird’s behavior changed my approach, and why and how I was very selective in my approach at times.

Most often songbirds I encounter and attempt to photograph are in trees or bushes I determined to be suitable in the lightning conditions at the time.  Why are they suitable? Because they offer many nice perches and backgrounds capable of yielding nice composition images. I try not to take images when the bird is partially covered by vegetation, but in some circumstances if the feet are covered it is fine.  When I clearly identify an excellent perch near a target bird I will never take a lot of images and risk running the buffer out before the bird gets to the perch, and possibly find that when it gets there I cannot shoot or can only shoot 1 or 2 images per second.  Once it gets there I will not take too many images of the bird while it is not ideally posed, saving my buffer capacity for a head turn and body position that best reveals the bird’s patterns and colors. Of course, cameras and CF cards with the highest buffer capacity affect judgment here. Note that when a bird is perched I try to center the focusing point on its neck or front shoulder.

Sometimes in the early morning a tree with many nice perches at different levels has some high perches in full sun and some low perches in shade, and a flock of songbirds moving within the tree at all levels.  In these circumstances I always set my camera up for the shady perches, which means using ISO 800 or greater, in order to have enough shutter speed, and I start with -2/3 exposure compensation for a neutral background.  If a great opportunity occurs in a sunny location I move only 1 variable – exposure compensation.  There is usually not enough time to also move ISO and/or aperture.  The resulting shutter speed will be much higher than necessary, but warblers usually do not allow enough time for the adjustment. A similar scenario is when I set up in the morning or evening and there are clouds that block the sun every so often. I set up for the cloudy conditions.

Male Northern Parula; ISO 400; F5.6; 1/100 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3.  This image was taken before good noise reduction software existed and I used a full frame camera with significant noise above ISO 400. Today I would use a much higher ISO.  But the image serves as an example of shooting a warbler at low shutter speeds.  This bird foraged very deliberately during a very cold morning, its movements much slower than normal, so I gambled I might get a sharp image.  I put more tension on the knobs of my gimbal-style head (Whimberly head), cradled the 600mm lens with my arm over it and leaned on the lens at the balance point and held the camera tightly to my face – all of this to dampen vibration (with image stabilization on), while letting me move the lens/camera combo.  My percentage of sharp images was not good, but the bird allowed me to fire a lot of shots, and its time spent at head position stop points was longer than usual. With the same behavior, because of cold conditions, and much less light, I can now use ISO 1600 and the same shutter speed (1/100 sec) with a full sized sensor DSLR (full frame).

Male Blackburnian Warbler in Spruce Cones; ISO 320; F6.3; 1/1000 sec; Exposure compensation -1/3.  The brightness of the cones affected exposure, and I reduced their brightness in post processing somewhat. This image was also taken on a very cold morning, and the west wind was blocked by forest, so the eastern edge of that forest at a clearing was a good calm place for small songbirds to forage while warming themselves. The warmth of the sun also lets the insect prey of warblers be more active in that location. This scenario often happens in May in northerly forests. The bird was still cold and moved very deliberately. Noticing potential for vertical oriented compositions I took the gamble that one would work out.

Male Nashville Warbler; ISO 800; F8.0; 1/800 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3.  I had enough light to use ISO 400 but this bird was hyperactive (typical for this species), so I used a higher ISO to get a higher shutter speed.  Note that a I used -2/3 exposure compensation because this bird’s eye-ring is a highlight that would surely blow out otherwise.

The following 2 images are examples of times when I waited until the bird turned its head across its body before taking images, because it would result in a nicer composition. Note that I do this when the bird’s chest is facing mostly forward. They have been cropped slightly but I shot with the pictured composition in mind.  I almost always allow for a slight crop, which allows more freedom for composition.

Male Indigo Bunting; ISO 800; F7.1; 1/400 sec; Exposure compensation -1/3.  I saw that the leave cluster to the upper right (even though slightly blurred) would be a nice compositional element and I wanted to have the bird facing to the right.  I could not use that element if the bird were facing the other way.

Male Scarlet Tanager; ISO 1000; F6.3; 1/200 sec; Exposure compensation -1/3.  Very similar situation to that above.  The compositional element here is the patch of green moss.

Male Cape May Warbler with Spruce Budworm; ISO 400; F8.0; 1/640 sec; Exposure compensation -1.  I took a few images with this bird’s head turned the other way but then waited for the better composition with the head turn. Ideally I would get the beak turned enough that the hanging worm would be against the green background and not the bird’s neck – luckily the bird turned far enough.

Sometimes songbirds land on a perch with their body facing the wrong way – they need to flip their feet and body around and face the other way for the best composition (in my opinion), where their body and head position point at compositional elements.  In each of the next 8 cases I waited for that flip. Warblers are constantly flipping around like this.

Male Blackburnain Warbler; ISO 400; F7.1; 1/1600 sec; Exposure compensation -1. While standing in the same spot (with its head facing right) this bird flipped and faced the other way, completely changing its feet position, but staying in the same spot, for a nicer composition – compositional elements (bird and cedar leaves) juxtaposed. I saw the possibility, waited for the flip, then fired a burst when the bird’s head position was good.

Male Cape May Warbler in Flowering Maple; ISO 320; F6.3; 1/800 sec; Exposure compensation -1/3.  Same situation as above.  At first the bird faced its body the other way, then flipped its feet and body.  Upon seeing the bird arrive to this perch I moved exposure compensation from -1 to -1/3 because of the bright flowers.  I reduced their glare somewhat in post processing.

Male Yellow-rumped Warbler; ISO 400; F6.3; 1/250 sec; Exposure compensation -1. This bird also flipped its feet and body position, and I took images with it facing to the left, but this head turn image was my favorite.

Philadelphia Vireo; ISO 400; F5.6; 1/400 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3.  Uncropped this image has distracting elements that poke into the frame on the right side. The bird faced them initially.  I waited for it to flip, knowing I would crop out those elements.

Male Black-throated Green Warbler; ISO 400; F6.3; 1/160 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3.  Same situation as above, but the distracting elements were on the left.

Prairie Warbler in Maple Sapling; ISO 400; F6.3; 1/1600 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3.  This bird initially faced to the right. It flipped to give me a preferred composition.

Male Brewster’s Warbler; ISO 400; F8.0; 1/400 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3.  I waited for the flip here but also waited until the bird’s tail tip was above the perch.  It wasn’t initially. The head turn points partially forward and eye contact is good, so I chose this image over the ones where the bird pointed its head to the left.

Male Northern Parula; ISO 500; F6.3; 1/200 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3.   This bird could only face its body and head to the right side of the frame for a nice composition, and I waited for its tail to be uncovered by the cedar leaves on the left side of the frame.

Male Golden-winged Warbler; ISO 400; F7.1; 1/200 sec; Exposure compensation -1.   The best view of this bird (in my opinion) is at eye level or slightly above or below that. And near profile (as pictured) to reveal its golden wing well. I usually do not take images looking up at this bird because the white belly often dominates the view. Other birds with nice wing and back patterns/colors and white bellies are the male Cerulean Warbler and Male Black-throated Blue Warbler. I treat them the same. I usually save my buffer capacity for the right height, body position, and head turn. But they can twist and hang in any position, so I follow them when they are high, and if they happen to approach a nice perch I prepare, in case they take a nice position.

Male Cape May Warbler; ISO 320; F7.1; 1/1250 sec; Exposure compensation -1.  This warbler foraged about 15 feet off the ground while it faced me with its chest. Similar warblers are the male Blackburnian, male Magnolia, and male Black-throated Green – all with nice chest or throat colors and patterns. I take more images of these warblers when they are well above eye level than the birds of the previous example. This bird just tapped the end of a spruce branch and specks of pollen fly in the air. This is typical foraging behavior of a Spruce Budworm specialist. They can probe before coming up with a worm, pluck a worm easily seen, or tap a branch and look to see if a hidden worm wriggles. If so, they quickly pluck it up in their beak. This happens very fast and the bird may eat the worm very soon. I usually start to take a burst just after seeing the tap, and try to keep the focusing point on the bird’s shoulder. When the bird probes I try to wait until the bird pulls the worm up until firing a burst. Once I see a bird foraging for worms I make sure I have a relatively high shutter speed before attempting to capture an image with a worm in its beak. In Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula Spruce Budworm areas Blackburnian, Magnolia, and Black-throated Green all forage like this for Budworms, even though they are not Spruce Budworm specialists. This is likely behavior encountered at the workshop:

Below are 2 short videos showing the feeding behavior. In the 2nd video the Northern Parula is feeding like a Cape May would, capturing and eating 3 worms. It was in an area shared by a Cape May Warbler (heard singing in the video), and could have learned the feeding technique from that bird.

When I captured the following 2 images I was fortunate to time the behavior of the bird. It is easy to run the buffer out if the bird taps and probes and pulls for a while before coming up with a worm. This is where newer cameras and CF cards with high buffer capacity are very helpful.

Male Black-throated Green Warbler; ISO 320; F7.1; 1/1250sec; Exposure compensation -1/3. Seeing the tapping and probing behavior helped me hit the shutter in time to capture this image.

Tennessee Warbler; ISO 400; F5.6; 1/1000 sec; Exposure compensation -1/3. This warbler is a Spruce Budworm specialist, and feeds with the tapping behavior. But Vermivora warblers of the east, including Tennessee, Nashville, Blue-winged, Golden-winged (and hybrids) often forage in low deciduous trees or bushes that are just beginning to leave out in spring. They search growing leave clusters for larva. Upon finding success they will likely search the same tree/bush for more – in case it is infested. If it is, you can have more opportunities to capture a feeding image. This bird worked at the cluster just below its beak and eventually pulled its head up.

When attracting a songbird to a single perch set-up, the background is controlled and setting ISO and exposure compensation well before the bird arrives is easy. But, when I do single perch set-ups the perch is always very close to trees and/or bushes that offer cover and usually – photographic opportunities. There are more opportunities like this during cloudy conditions because you can point the lens in any direction, at a bird within those trees and shrubs, without the possibility of harsh shadows created by full sun. It pays to have your mind open to unexpected possibilities during cloudy conditions. Some of the best opportunities can materialize, with excellent natural composition (even in spots that are not recognizable beforehand). So be prepared with your eyes and your mind – the possibility of having to move exposure compensation exists. With enough practice (as outlined near the end of Part 2) that will be no problem.

In Part 4 I cover post-processing and work flow.