A Beginners Guide To Photographing Small Birds
Small bird species
There are many small and medium-sized native bird species in Aotearoa New Zealand, both native, as well as introduced. Manaaki Whenua has a great resource available to help you visually identify the various species in your backyard, as well as recordings of their calls so you can identify them by sound too…
The small native species often encountered in backyards are:
Riroriro (Grey Warbler)
Slightly larger native species sometimes seen in gardens are:
Learning about different bird species
It’s useful to know a bit about the birds you’re intending to photograph. Being aware of the types of food they eat helps you to guess where you’re more likely to find them. Pīwakawaka (fantail) and Riroriro (grey warbler) are entirely insectivorous (only eat insects) so are commonly seen flitting around shrubs and trees trying to find bugs to eat. They rarely sit still and often go deep into a bush, so patience is key! Tūī, Korimako (bellbird) and the tiny Tauhou (waxeye/silvereye) are big fans of nectar from flower nectar and small berries. Flowering and fruiting shrubs and trees are frequently visited by these birds. Introduced finches eat seeds and often spend time on the ground foraging.
There are two key pieces of gear you need to photograph birds: a camera body and a telephoto lens. Some wildlife photographers use a tripod, which can be handy if you have a branch that birds frequently land on in your backyard. Canon and Nikon’s entry-level DSLR cameras often come with a telephoto lens like a 55-250mm or a 70-300mm. This is more than enough zoom to crank out some awesome bird images! If you already have a DSLR but want to invest in a longer telephoto lens without shelling out top dollar, Sigma and Tamron both offer great 150-600mm lenses that provide excellent zoom, ideal for filling the frame with the tiny birds you’re photographing. If you’re wanting a more in-depth guide into the different types of lenses suited for bird photography, click here!
My camera of choice is the Fujifilm X-T3 mirrorless camera. I love it because it’s light, intuitive to use and has a high frame rate of up to 30fps (frames per second) which is perfect for photographing fast-moving birds. It also has a crop sensor, also known as APS-C or Micro 4/3rds, which increases the magnification of your telephoto lens. A crop sensor camera is a great choice if wildlife photography is your main focus, due to the magnification it provides.
The lenses I use are:
Fujifilm XF 50-140mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR (76-213mm – 35mm equivalent)
Fujifilm XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR (152-609mm – 35mm equivalent)
I use the Peak Design Slide Camera Strap when birding because it’s extremely comfortable and allows me to photograph for hours.
If you’re new to taking photos on a DSLR or mirrorless camera, automatic mode is the best place to start. There’s no shame in using auto mode! Photographing birds should always be a fun activity that brings you joy, not frustration. Entry-level cameras often have a ‘sport’ mode, which enables you to take a burst of photos at a higher frame rate. This can be a good mode to select for bird photography. If your camera and/or lens has in-built image stabilisation, turn it on. This helps reduce camera-shake and prevents your images from turning out blurry.
Learning about aperture, ISO, and shutter speed and how they affect each other is hugely important in photography. If you’re a beginner, there are plenty of YouTube tutorials on the topic that is super helpful.
Aperture Priority Mode
Aperture priority mode is a favourite shooting mode among bird photographers. This mode means you manually set the aperture (f-stop) and the camera automatically sets the shutter speed and ISO. I typically shoot with my aperture ‘wide open’. Confusingly, the maximum aperture is the lowest number e.g., f/2.8 or f/4.5 that your lens can shoot at. Shooting at these f-stops mean your images will have a shallow depth of field, which means the background is soft and blurred out or filled with bokeh. This setting is particularly common in ‘bird portraits’ where the bird is perching and fills the frame for instance.
Essentially, it’s a close-up, allowing the viewer to see a great deal of detail in the bird. Increasing your f-stop to f/11 however, means more of the image will be in focus. This is great if you want to show more of the bird’s habitat in the shot and give the bird some environmental context.
A fast shutter speed, such as 1/1000th of a second or even faster is ideal for photographing tiny birds. They are constantly on the move, and a shutter speed that is too slow is going to result in a lot of blurry bird photos, also known as ‘blurds’! Shutter speed is of course dependent on how much light there is in the scene, but try to get it as fast as you can without crushing the ISO. The more light there is in a scene, the faster the shutter speed can be. Sometimes, you can get a really sharp shot with a slow shutter speed if the bird isn’t moving fast.
There’s a basic rule of thumb with ISO. The higher you push the ISO, the greater the level of noise (grain) there will be in your image. This can cause there to be less detail, and your subject to look a bit fuzzy. I typically try to keep my ISO as low as possible and try not to push it over ISO 1000. It’s all a matter of trial and error, so play around and see what your camera can handle!
One of the most crucial elements to a good photograph of a bird is getting one of their eyes in focus. This should be the eye closest to the camera. I use a small single focus point, which I move around with my camera’s focus lever (joystick) to position it on the bird’s eye. For instance, this obviously works best on a bird that is relatively still, like if it is perched for a few moments. Continuous focus tracking is best for bird photography, as it is designed for tracking a moving subject.
For birds that are moving quickly, such as those in flight, I sometimes switch to ‘zone’ focus tracking. This has a focus grid allowing for a broader, less specific focus on the subject. This means the eye may not be 100% crisp, but most of the bird will be in focus.
On my Fujifilm X-T3, I typically set my frame rate to the continuous high speed of 11 frames per second. When photographing flying birds, I sometimes crank that up to 30 frames per second, because the camera can handle it and why not! A high frame rate per second is advantageous to bird photography given how fast tiny birds can move. Colloquially known as the ‘spray and pray’ method, it increases your chances of getting at least one shot in focus. It does mean there’s a bit of clean-up at the other end though when you have to delete lots of blurry shots. But if you’ve got one great shot out of it, it makes it worth it.
Lastly, I want to give a mention of the ethics of photographing birds. The welfare of the bird you’re photographing should come before the shot you’re hoping to capture. Sugar-water and fruit are great but don’t put out food for them (our native birds don’t respond well to human food!). In addition, don’t use pre-recorded bird calls to entice them or deliberately cause them to take flight or run away, even if you’re tempted.
Give them space, watch from a distance, learn about the birds to better predict their movements, and allow them to behave naturally. Having patience is one of the most essential skills when it comes to taking photographs of birds and it makes getting a great shot more rewarding!
Thanks for reading, good luck with photographing birds and if you have any questions, flick me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.