Photographing Small Birds Handheld

This article shares a selection of twenty-two new photographs of small birds. It also discusses a number of tips for photographing small birds handheld. All of the images in this article were captured handheld during a single photo session that lasted about two hours. The photographs are presented as 100% captures without any cropping done to them.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/320, ISO-2500, subject distance 6.5 metres

Research local habitat.

It can be frustrating to go out with a camera to photograph birds, then not find any. Doing some research on local birding habitat will help ensure that your time is well spent. A few quick internet searches will often provide some good local recommendations for bird watching and bird photography. Photographing small birds handheld in public parks and nature reserves usually works well, as the birds can be more acclimatized to people.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-3200, subject distance 3.7 metres

Dress Appropriately.

You don’t have to rush out and buy a bunch of camouflage clothing to blend in better with habitat. You can wear darker, earth tone colours…  browns, greens and dark grey. Solid coloured clothing without patterns works well. Wear other gear as appropriate, i.e. waterproof shoes, photographer’s gloves, and headgear.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/320, ISO-3200, subject distance 4.8 metres

Know your camera gear.

Make sure you understand your camera gear thoroughly. This includes various metering modes and how to switch quickly to manual focus if needed. Some photographers like to adjust white balance between shade and sunlight settings. You should also be familiar with the minimum focusing distance of your lens when it is fully extended. If you use a long telephoto prime or zoom that has a long minimum focusing distance, remember to bring some extension tubes with you. These will help shorten the minimum focusing distance of your lens and allow you to get closer to small birds.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/320, ISO-5000, subject distance 2.2 metres

Preset a sample exposure.

Before heading along the trail do a sample exposure and get your camera set-up so its ready to go. You never know when a bird image opportunity may appear, so its best to be ready in advance.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-2000, subject distance 5.7 metres

Walk and move slowly.

Photographing small birds handheld can be a challenge as small birds can be very skittish. Make sure you walk and move slowly so you can keep the motion noise you make to a minimum.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/500, ISO-3200, subject distance 2.9 metres

Carry your camera at mid-chest height.

When photographing small birds handheld, it is important to have your camera at a comfortable height, but also one that makes it easy to bring it up to your eye, or to compose from the rear screen.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-4000, subject distance 3.4 metres

Listen and stop.

You will often hear small birds long before you actually see them. Once you hear birds chirping, stop and slowly look around. Key in on spotting movements on branches, along the ground and on various plants and foliage. Some bird photographers use bird call apps on their cell phones to attract birds to them. This is a personal decision.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-3200, subject distance 4.7 metres

Approach birds slowly, and on an angle.

If you see a bird you want to photograph that is too far away, approach it slowly. Rather than walking directly towards it, choose an angle that draws you closer. If you approach directly, the bird may perceive that your movements are directed towards it and leave. Hunching over to make your body shape smaller can also be helpful. Stop approaching if the bird begins to look nervous or agitated. Wait for it to settle before resuming your approach.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-2500, subject distance 3.7 metres

Watch bird movements.

Birds are creatures of habit. Watching bird movements can help you determine a good shooting angle and anticipate their future movements. It is common that certain branches are favourite perching sites for specific birds. Often individual birds will return time and time again to the same perch.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/320, ISO-4000, subject distance 1.7 metres

Settle in at your preferred shooting distance.

Once you are in the company of some birds, move slowly until you have a good shooting angle and you are at, or close to, your preferred shooting distance. Then remain quiet and stationary. It may take the birds some time to get used to your presence.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-1600, subject distance 2.7 metres

Keep your head tilted down while you observe.

Making direct eye contact with a bird can sometimes cause it to  become alarmed and leave. Keep your head tilted down while you observe the bird and prepare to capture your photograph.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO-2500, subject distance 2.8 metres

Bring your camera up to your eye, before you look directly at the bird.

Slowly bring your camera up to your eye, or position the rear screen of your camera in front of your face. Then continue the slow movement until you have the bird framed in your photograph. This will shield your direct gaze from the bird.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/500, ISO-3200, subject distance 2.9 metres

Be patient and still.

Often birds will venture closer and closer to you as they become more comfortable with your presence. This makes photographing small birds handheld much easier and more enjoyable. Remaining still and patient often results in being able to photograph small birds at very close distances (check the EXIF data in this article). On a few occasions when I’ve remained very still, I’ve had birds land on the lens of my camera or on my hat. They likely perceived me to be part of the habitat. A few years ago I had one chickadee hover and stare at me about a half-metre (~18 inches) from my face. It was probably trying to figure out what I was.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-2500, subject distance 3.3 metres

Use silent shutter.

If your camera has a silent shutter mode, use it. This will reduce the risk of the sound of your camera’s shutter scaring the birds away as you capture your images.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-4000, subject distance 4.5 metres

Use a single auto-focus point.

Often small birds are perched on trees or bushes with lots of potential distractions for your camera’s auto focusing system. Using a single auto-focus point allows you to place it on your subject bird. I typically have my single auto-focus point half way across my frame, about 1/3 from the top edge. This allows me to grab an initial image immediately. Even if the single auto-focus point is on a small bird’s neck or body, rather than on its eye, the depth-of-field is typically deep enough to get a good initial capture.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-4000, subject distance 3.2 metres

The eyes have it.

Small birds tend to move about constantly, with only momentary pauses. After grabbing a quick, initial image, you can always move your auto-focus point on to the bird’s eye if you have time. Another option is to preset your auto-focus point based on where you think the bird’s head will be in your composition.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-4000, subject distance 4.1 metres

Choose subjects at eye level.

Using sharp angles either shooting up or down at birds typically does not produce very pleasing images. Photographing subjects at, or near eye level, creates more intimate and natural looking images. If you need to crouch down to capture your image… do it slowly.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-3200, subject distance 1.9 metres

Practice eye/hand coordination.

Small birds tend to be very active and skittish. As a result they often fly from branch to branch, or jump from one perch to another. To capture photographs you’ll have to work very quickly in terms of finding the bird in your viewfinder (or on the rear screen of your camera), framing your image, and pressing your shutter release.  A good amount of eye/hand coordination is needed. Frequent practice pays dividends.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-2000, subject distance 4.7 metres

Choose shutter speed over ISO.

Make sure you use a fast enough shutter speed to capture a good, clear, in-focus image. It’s better to work in post with some noise caused by a higher ISO setting, than to have an unusable, blurred image.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-4000, subject distance 2.9 metres

Be careful with backgrounds and obstructions.

Whenever possible choose a shooting angle that will give you a reasonably smooth, obstruction free background. Always watch for foreground obstructions such as branches and leaves. Try to compose your photographs with uncluttered backgrounds if possible, and no foreground obstructions blocking the view of your subject bird. Especially its head. Having branches and other similar elements in your photographs can add context if well positioned.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/320, ISO-3200, subject distance 4.8 metres

Fill as much of your frame as possible.

You will get the most amount of detail and impact when photographing small birds handheld if you avoid cropping your images. Setting an objective of not cropping any photographs will encourage you to be patient and wait for small birds to move in closer to you. Photographing small birds handheld presents some unique challenges. Using a few simple techniques can improve results and make the experience more enjoyable.

Technical Note:
Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process and are displayed as 100% captures without any cropping done to them.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-3200, subject distance 3.9 metres

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6 thoughts on “Photographing Small Birds Handheld”

  1. that’s all really good advice

    regarding clothing…

    hunters wear international orange and still manage to get close
    I have found stillness and patience trumps color most often
    however noisy fabrics swishing as you move alert everything to your presence…soft cottons, wools or even fleece will give you an edge

    speaking of noise..pishing can bring a bird around from the back side of a tree, mouse squeakers as well
    predator calls will bring corvids and raptors close
    I can do a pretty fair barred owl or gobble when I need turkeys to cooperate

    when I learned to hunt it was from old, really old, men who had fed themselves and their families through some really tough times
    their advice was fundamentally yours

    I’ve always considered wildlife photography to be catch and release hunting…the same essential skillset

    oh, one last thing…humans tend to focus too much on the visual
    especially on what is in front of them
    stop and use all of your senses in 360 degree arc
    more than once the change in perspective has netted an unexpected image
    the bird you didn’t see as you walked by
    the deer you didn’t smell
    the coyote or hawk stalking you to see what you flush

  2. Tom,

    As expected, another wonderful set of feathered friends captured by you.

    Without meaning to, I’ve been heeding a lot of the things you wrote in here though I think the most important one is the meditative “Be still and patient.” Birding/birdwatching gives one a very important exercise in acquiring patience. If I may add one or two things to your list, they would be “Have fun” (no sense trying to get up so early in the morning or staying near sunset in some wooded place if you’re not having fun connecting with nature) and “Bring liniment for your stiff neck” (No explanation needed LOL).

    Cheers,
    Oggie
    http://www.lagalog.com

    1. Thanks for adding a couple of points Oggie!

      Since I’ve been shooting with small, light camera gear for quite a while ‘bring liniment’ would not even enter into my consciousness.

      Tom

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