This article shares some approaches that people can use to help improve their results when photographing small perched birds handheld.
We need to keep in mind that every camera format comes with advantages and disadvantages depending on the needs of a particular photographer. This article is not intended to recommend any particular camera format over another.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
Be aware of depth-of-field
It is important to note that a camera’s sensor size does not directly affect depth of field. Rather it is the focal length of the lens, the aperture and the distance to the subject that are determining factors. Regardless of the camera equipment used, a photographer needs to understand how their gear will perform given these three parameters.
For our comparison we’ll use a full frame lens focal length (or equivalent) of 600 mm, an aperture of f/6.3 with a subject distance of 10 metres (~32.8 feet).
- Using a full frame camera with a 600 mm focal length lens would create a depth-of-field of 9.4 centimetres (~3.7 inches) with approximately half of the depth-of-field before and half after the point of focus.
- Using an APS-C camera with a 400 mm focal length lens (efov 600 mm) would create a depth-of-field of 14.2 centimetres (~5.6 inches) with approximately half of the depth-of-field before and half after the point of focus.
- Using a M4/3 camera with a 300 mm focal length lens (efov 600 mm) would create a depth-of-field of 19.3 centimetres (~7.6 inches) with approximately half of the depth-of-field before and half after the point of focus.
- Using a 1″ sensor camera with a 222.2 mm focal length (efov 600 mm) would create a depth-of-field of 27.67 centimetres (~10.9 inches) with approximately half the depth-of-field before and half after the point of focus.
To achieve the same depth-of-field as a 300 mm lens (efov 600 mm) shot at f/6.3 with a M4/3 camera, a photographer using a 600 mm lens on a full frame camera would need to stop it down to f/13. A shorter focal length lens will always have more depth of field than a longer focal length lens when shot at the same aperture, regardless of the camera format.
Use a single AF point on the eye of the bird
When we consider how narrow the depth of field can be when using a long telephoto focal length it is easy to understand why precise focusing is so important when photographing small birds. This is especially true in situations where a bird may be angled towards, or away from, a photographer. Placing an auto-focus point on the belly or shoulder of a bird rather than its eye may put the bird’s eye or beak out of focus.
Using a cluster of auto-focus points on a small perched bird can be problematic since a photographer doesn’t necessarily have precise control of where their camera will acquire focus on the subject bird.
Take advantage of new technologies if available to you
As artificial intelligence is integrated in more cameras it will play an increasingly important role in helping photographers create good, sharp images when photographing small perched birds. For example my E-M1X’s Bird Detection AI does a great job acquiring focus on the eye of a subject bird and tracking with it.
Choose shutter speed over ISO value
Using a lower ISO and having more dynamic range and colour depth in your photograph is of no value if the subject bird in your image is blurry or out of focus because the shutter speed used was not fast enough.
Know your handheld shutter speed limit
Photographing small perched birds can be a challenge since small birds tend to be more fidgety than larger ones. Using very slow shutter speeds is often not practical with small birds. For those times when a photographer may have the opportunity to use a slower shutter speed it is critical that they know their handheld shutter speed limit given the focal length they are using.
Use silent shutter
Small birds can be skittish and take flight quickly when startled. If you camera has silent shutter capability it is always a good idea to use this feature.
Use continuous auto focus and capture short runs of C-AF images
Even a modest upper body swaying movement by a photographer towards, or away from, a small subject bird after they have acquired focus on it, can put it partially out of focus. Using continuous auto-focus and capturing short runs of C-AF images can increase the likelihood of getting good, in-focus photographs.
Watch for catch light
Photographing small perched birds with catch light in one or both eyes can really bring life to an image. There may be occasions where the catch light in the eye of a bird with dark plumage around its eyes may need to be accentuated in post. Rather than just lighten shadows, it can be more effective to first add black, then lift shadows. I find that this can often look better to my eye than doing a spot adjustment.
Be careful with sharpening in post
It can be tempting to go overboard with sharpening in post in an attempt to bring out details on the head and feathers of a subject bird. Edge acuity can be enhanced without needing to apply an overabundance of sharpening. Working with highlight, shadow, black, white, contrast, and micro-contrast sliders can often have better and more pleasing impact than using sharpening.
Shoot at eye level whenever possible
We create more intense feelings of intimacy and involvement with subject birds when we photograph them at eye level. Sometimes this can involve holding our cameras at close to ground level and using a flip or articulating screen.
Avoid foreground elements that create visual confusion
Shooting through a maze of twigs and branches is a recipe for failure when photographing small perched birds. This is especially true if the eye of the bird is obstructed. It is far better to select subjects that are not obstructed by foreground elements, even if backgrounds are busy.
There may be occasions when foreground elements can be used to help frame a subject bird. As long as the head and eye of the bird are not obstructed this can be an effective composition technique to add a feeling of depth to an image.
Be aware of your handheld technique
Good handheld technique is a key factor in being able to capture good, in-focus images of small perched birds. An earlier article provides some guidelines to improving handheld technique.
Accept responsibility for your results
It is quite common for photographers, especially those who are new to bird photography, to blame their camera gear when they do not achieve their desired results when photographing small perched birds handheld.
There is no such thing as a ‘bad’ modern camera… and over the years lenses have also improved significantly in terms of their design and quality. There is some small possibility that a photographer may have a poor performing copy of a lens. It is far more likely that a photographer’s technique is responsible for the results they are achieving.
Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear and technology as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. Crops are noted as appropriate.
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