As anyone who has birded during spring or fall migration knows, warbler photography is HARD! These birds don’t sit still. When the birds aren’t on their long flights, they are frantically eating to replenish their energy! This means they spend their time flitting among branches and leaves trying to catch insects. At best you may get 20 seconds of them perching out in the open for you to take your shot. At best!
So how do you stand a chance of getting any type of decent shot? These are my warbler photography tips:
Camera First, Binoculars Second
I can’t tell you how many great warbler photographs I’ve missed because I made the mistake of checking what the bird was in my binoculars first. You don’t have time for that! Yes, this can mean you end up with a lot of pictures of Yellow-rumped Warblers (very common here), but if it means getting a great shot of a Wilson’s then it’s worth it. If the warbler is perched out in the open, take a picture first and then worry about identifying it later. Good warbler photography means turning some of your birder instincts off!
Finding the Warbler in your Viewfinder
Half the battle with warbler photography is being able to actually find the bird in your viewfinder. But it’s right there, why can’t I see it with my camera? Super frustrating! I try to quickly see what branch formations are near where the bird is, something unique that I’ll be able to see through my viewfinder. I’ll then get a sense of where the bird is in relation to these features – e.g. just to the left, 45° below etc. I’ll then point the camera at bigger or unique features and move it along the branches until I have the bird.
Secondly, if you’re using a superzoom camera I recommend using the “frame assist” button. When you’re taking photographs at full zoom, it’s very difficult to find birds in the viewfinder. If you push the frame assist button down and hold it, the camera will zoom out so you can see more of the area, and when you’ve found the bird, release the button and the camera will zoom back out. Not every camera will have this feature, but try to zoom out a bit to give yourself more of a chance of actually finding the bird.
Taking one picture at a time isn’t an option for warbler photography. This isn’t the type of photography where you have time to compose the perfect shot. You are throwing everything you have against the wall and hoping that something sticks.
In practice this means using your camera’s continuous burst mode. When you press down and hold the shutter button using this mode, your camera will keep taking photographs until you release the button. When I get home and look at my pictures I will often have 30+ bad shots and only one keeper. But I wouldn’t have even one good shot if I hadn’t taken so many!
It’s important to consider how many frames per second (fps) a camera can take before buying one. Some of the higher end DSLR’s can shoot 12fps, whereas my Canon SX50 shoots about 2.2 fps and my Nikon D7200 shoots 6 fps. The slower the fps, the more of a challenge it is to get good warbler shots.
Keep that Shutter Speed High
As we know, warblers don’t sit still. I recommend keeping your shutter speed at or above 1/1000 so that you will be able to freeze the action and get a focused shot. If your shutter speed isn’t high enough then you will get blurry shots unless you are really lucky and catch the bird during a still moment.
Keeping the speed high can be difficult as warblers are often found in darker areas under tree canopies and in low thick brush. Try to keep it as high as you can for the given situation. If you’re using shutter priority mode (my recommended setting for superzooms), exposure compensation + will be your friend here. In darker areas, I will use +3 exposure compensation so that I don’t have to lower my shutter speed too much.
This goes hand in hand with shutter speed. Ideally you want to find warblers in full or slightly diffused sunlight. The worst is if they are on the ground under a dark shrub – you have to deal with branches getting in the way of your focus and dark lighting conditions.
If you go birding in the early morning when it’s cooler and there are more shaded areas, then warblers will often be in the small sunlit areas as that’s where the insects are. This is perfect. Pay attention to which direction the sun is shining from and see if you can find warblers feeding on insects in the sunlight.
For people like me who don’t generally go birding before 10am, it can already be so warm and the sun so high that there aren’t distinctive sunlit areas. Everywhere is in the bright sun or in the complete shade. My strategy is once I’ve found a flock of warblers, I figure out which direction they are moving and I will get ahead of them and then cut them off in a place where the sun is at my back.
You have to move into more favourable lighting conditions rather than just accepting the conditions where you are standing.
Warbler Photography Tips: Practice, Practice, Practice
Warbler photography is hard. There’s no question about it.
I can take 50 shots of branches and leaves and never actually get a decent shot of the warbler I’m going for. Rather than giving up, I go back the next day and hope things turn out better.
If you go back enough times, you will get lucky. A beautiful Magnolia will perch on a branch in the sunlight right in front of you and stay there long enough for you to focus and get 5 great shots. All that practice on branches and unsuccessful shots means you’ll get it right when it counts!