At the recent Biggest Week in Birding on the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio, I had the opportunity to teach two sessions of Point and Shoot for Warblers. Most photographers would agree that there are no more difficult birds to shoot than our wood warblers. They are fast. They are active. And they feed, during migration, deep in the spring foliage, from eye-level to canopy top. If they were not so bright and beautiful they might no be worth the effort. But they are…bright and beautiful, and though they might present a challenge…definitely worth the effort.
On the other hand, there is no better place to practice warbler photography than the boardwalk at Magee Marsh, in the Crane Creek Recreation Area along the Erie shore. The boardwalk provides easy access to many acres of wet forest and marsh, ideal habitat for migrating warblers as they feed up before crossing Lake Erie on the way north. The warblers so busy feeding that they are relatively oblivious to the humans on the boardwalk, even humans with tripods and long lenses. Then too, since there are literally thousands of pairs of birder’s eyes on the boardwalk each day, it seems unlikely that any warbler gets through Magee without being seen, and pointed out to others. That makes the photographer’s job easier. You just have to point your camera where everyone else is looking. 🙂
For those of us who have chosen Point and Shoot superzooms, the challenge might seem greater due to the supposed “limitations” of our cameras. However, I suspect, based on my own and others’ experiences, that a proficient Point and Shooter, using a light weight, portable, flexible superzoom, can bring back as many satisfying images of warblers as anyone, if not more. And the best Point and Shoot warbler shots are every bit as good as the best shots from a full-sized DSLR and long lens. Every bit!
I had two sessions to refine the set of points, based on my own experience at Magee Marsh over the past 6 years, that might help the Point and Shooter to catch warblers. This is the distillation:
1) Finding the Bird. Use your eye-level electronic viewfinder, not the LCD on the back of the camera. This gives you a better chance of finding and keeping the bird in view as it moves thorough the foliage, and, since the camera is braced on your face, and a natural extension of your head, it gives you a steadier shot when you do shoot. While EVFs on Superzooms still are not great, the most recent Superzooms (Nikon P series and Canon SX60HS) have the best EVFs, and getting pretty good…I was generally able to easily find and track a warbler with the EVF on the Nikon P900, even in dense foliage…something that was not true a superzoom generation ago.
2) Holding the camera. Hold the camera with your left hand under, and loosely cradling, the barrel around the zoom. Your left elbow should be directly under the camera. Raise your right arm high enough to reach the grip on the right side of the camera. Wrap your fingers loosely around the grip…do not pinch it between fingers…really wrap it with four fingers of your right hand…with your shutter finger extended up over the shutter button and resting lightly on it. Now turn one third, left shoulder forward, toward the bird, with your left elbow tucked in to your body. You are not facing the bird head on, you are turned so your left shoulder is pointed almost at the bird, and that elbow is supported by your body. (It is the same stance a rifle shooter users.) Your eye is at the EVF, ideally with the camera contacting both your brow and your nose. Your left arm supports the camera. Your right arm and hand simply steady the camera, and operate controls. Everything should be relaxed. Note how the hat brim shades the EVF in the photos above. I highly recommend a broad-brimmed hat for warbler or any other kind of shooting that involves the EVD (Do not rest your hand or fingers on the part of the zoom that moves. Eventually the zoom will retract unexpectedly when the “power down” limit is reached, and you will get the flesh of your fingers caught between the zoom barrel and its housing. Not good for fingers or the motor that powers your zoom!)
3) Focus and shooting. When you find the bird, you will half press the shutter to establish focus and exposure. Yes you will! You will not jam the shutter button down and hope for the best…you will half press the shutter. And then, if the bird allows, you will wait for the moment of stillness between breaths to shoot. Yes I know, we are talking about warblers, and wait is not a word warblers understand…but believe me, your keeper rate will improve if you can learn to only press the shutter when the camera is already focused and the bird is in sight. You can jam the shutter down 1000 times and get 1000 blurry images of departing warbler butts, or you can develop your skill and patience, wait for the camera to focus, and only take an image when everything is right…and you will still take 400 images…and 50-100 of them will be sharp and satisfying.
4) Steadying the shot. Remember you are not a tripod! You will never keep the camera perfectly still. You are an extension of the cameras image stabilization system. The best you can do is to develop a sense for the still spot, when everything is lined up, and it is time to shoot.
5) Focus your EVF. Even after sharing that with both groups at the beginning of our field sessions, I caught many folks in the workshops still using the LCD…holding the cameras out away from their face and body. When I quizzed them, they admitted that they found the EVF difficult to impossible to use. It soon became apparent that most of them had never adjusted the diopter setting on the EVF. Somewhere, on or near the housing for the EVF, there will be a little wheel or slider that allows you to focus the EVF for your eyes. This is critical for those who wear glasses, and important for those who do not. With your eye to the EVF, turn the wheel or slide the slider until the letters and numbers and lines in the EVF are as sharp as you can get them. Pay no attention to the scene itself. Just to the display features. Once the display is in sharp focus, half press the shutter so the camera auto-focuses, and now your scene should be sharp. You should only have to see the focus wheel once, then just let the camera do the focusing. And you should now find the EVF much more fun to use. 🙂
6) Focus Area. When Superzooms come from the maker they are preset to use “wide area” or “multi-spot” focus. Some are set for “target finding focus.” That means that the camera tries to determine what is important in the scene and focus on that. Most superzooms are programmed to look for, in order of preference, a) a face, b) the closest high contrast object or subject, and c) the closest bright/colorful high contrast object or subject. In all superzooms this is the default focus setting in Auto Mode. And it works pretty well, getting focus right about 70% of the time.
However, we are shooting birds and wildlife…or warblers in this case…and, without resorting to manual focus, we want more control over what the camera chooses to focus on.
If we set the camera to Program Mode instead of Auto, we can change the setting for the “focus area”, and force the camera to focus where we want it to. (By the way, Program Mode does all the auto settings that Auto does, but gives you the option of setting some of them yourself, while the camera still takes care of the rest…it is the mode you should be using for birds and wildlife.) Go to your menu and find “focus area” (or something similar). Generally there are several choices for focus area. It might be as simple as “face priority” vs. “standard” or there might be additional choices like Manual (spot), Manual (normal), Manual (wide), Subject Tracking, Target Finding, etc. In general, for warblers, you are looking for the smallest area setting. When the camera is not in multi or face priority, it is generally possible to move the focus area you set around the screen with the “up, down, right, left” push areas on the control wheel on the back of the camera. You will be keeping it in the center of the field, but making it small enough to put it on the bird and no where else. On Canon and Sony cameras there is a second setting to change the size of the focus area, once you choose the movable area option. Consult your manual. On Nikon cameras you make the size choice right in the “focus area” menu. (Note: you may find that the next to smallest focus area works better than “spot” focus for birds. Sometimes the smallest area does not contain enough information at high zoom settings to establish reliable focus.)
The following shots demonstrate the all but miraculous ability of today’s superzooms to auto focus in super difficult situations.
7) Focus technique. Once you focus area setting is set to small, you will attempt to put the little square on the bird, not on some element of the foreground or background. It does not matter much which part of the bird, as long as you include some portion of the body. In my experience, there is still a lot of intelligence built into the auto focus of a superzoom, even when you have it set to a small area. The camera will focus through low contrast foreground foliage and even twigs, if the bird is bright or high contrast enough, and takes up enough of the frame. This is especially true if an eye is showing. The auto focus of Point and Shoot cameras is keyed very tightly to the presence of an eye in the frame. The hardest thing to focus on is a low contrast, or totally backlit bird…like a Grey Catbird sitting against the sky, for instance.
Never give up on your focus after a single half-press. If it does not catch focus, or focuses on something other than the bird, release the shutter button and half press again. And again. And again. Eventually it might catch. Then too, with low contrast birds, it might be necessary to give the camera a hint as to the distance, so it does not have to hunt through its whole focus range. Swing the camera and find a high contrast object at about the same distance as the bird. Half press to establish focus. Release and swing back to the bird. The next half press should lock focus. 🙂
8) Exposure. Just as you can change the focus area in Program Mode, you can also change the area the camera uses to establish the exposure. The default is Multi-Area Metering, where the camera takes exposure readings from many areas of the scene and then computes the best exposure it can. With birds and wildlife, we often do not care about the background or foreground as long as the critter is correctly exposed. Therefore, open your menu and find the setting for Exposure Mode. For feeding warblers in foliage, either “center” or “spot” generally works best. Spot will be more accurate on the bird itself, but center may give you the best overall exposure.
Let the camera determine exposure. As I have often pointed out, the exposure systems in these modern Point and Shoot Superzooms are amazingly accurate, and generally keep exposures within the bounds set by the camera’s abilities. Use Auto ISO, Auto White Balance, etc, and let the camera set both shutter speed and aperture. The only exception is if your camera consistently gives you lower shutter speeds than the image stabilization can handle…resulting in a lot of blurry images due to camera motion. In that case you may have to switch to shutter preferred and set the minimum shutter speed you are comfortable hand holding. You will still let the camera set everything else 🙂
9) Finding the bird, part 2. The problem with warblers, as mentioned above, is that they move and they bury themselves in foliage. That makes it very difficult to find them at the high magnifications available with today’s superzooms. There are two solutions.
a) especially on your first attempts, you may have more success if you do not use the long end of the zoom. 🙂 Keep to 600-1000mm or so, and the warblers will be much easier to find and keep in view. You may have to crop the images after to get the scale you want, but that is better than not getting the images at all. With feeding warbles, especially in places like Magee Marsh, 1000mm is often plenty anyway, as the birds are feeding within 20 feet of your face.
b) if you camera has it, use the “framing assist” button or function. This is generally a button on the zoom barrel that, when pressed, auto zooms to zoom out to a wider view, while indicating in the finder what area your zoomed in view will cover. Releasing the button automatically returns your zoom to the longer setting. “Frame assist”, find the bird, get it in the indicated smaller area, release button, shoot.
Even if your camera does not have a framing assist function (sometimes called the “zoom back” button), you can accomplish much the same thing by manually zooming back to find the bird, centering it, and then zooming in for the shot.
Finally, when the bird moves out of the frame…do not try to find it by swinging the camera around at high zoom. Take the camera away from your eye. Locate the bird. Then reframe, using framing assist again if necessary.
10) Continuous Shooting. You will have much more success with warblers, or any other active subject, if you take bursts of 3-5 images rather than single shots. Bursts simply improve the odds of getting a sharp image…and they give the bird a chance to rearrange itself into a more attractive pose. You would be surprised how often that happens as you shoot your burst. Most Superzooms have at least two continuous shooting modes: high speed burst, and standard or low speed continuous. High Speed burst is the one they advertise, as it takes 7 to 10 images at 10 frames per second or more with a single press of the shutter button. Impressive! And practically useless for the bird or wildlife photographer. What you end up with is too often 7 to 10 identical images. There is not enough time for the subject to do anything between shots. Then too, the camera takes all the shots and stores them to a “buffer” (special memory location). It then stops everything else and processes and writers those images to the card before you can continue to shoot. Awkward. It can take from 30 seconds to 7 seconds to write to card…and that is 7 to 30 seconds when your camera is essentially a brick.
Slow speed continuous, on the other hand, on most cameras, takes between 2 and 3 frames per second, and stores many more images in the buffer before it has to dump to card. The slower speed gives the bird (or bear) time to rearrange itself, so you get unique shots, and you can generally shoot off several bursts of 3-5 images before the camera takes a processing and writing break. Most of the time you will not be aware of the pause since it happens when you are not shooting anyway.
The Canon SX60HS is an exception. It shoots 6 fps, continuously, without pausing for writing to the the card…though it does slow down significantly if you overwork the shutter button.
You can generally find the Continuous shooting settings in the regular camera menu…though High Speed Burst is sometimes hidden in the Scene Modes.
11) Keep trying. (And yes, it does go to 11 🙂 It always takes me several days at Magee Marsh to get my warbler eye in, and retrain my body for the challenge. Do not give up the first day you attempt warblers. Keep at it. Shoot a lot. If you keep 300 out of 3000 warbler shots, you will be doing very well indeed. Do not worry about the shots you missed…even of the best birds. The missed shots are gone. Just keep shooting and be really, really happy with the shots you do get. The more you shoot, the better you will get at it and the more keepers you will take home. Remember, having worked with all kinds of photographers, and having seen the work of many others, I can honestly tell you that your best Point and Shoot Superzoom warblers and their best long-lens warblers will be very similar…in most cases, not distinguishable at all…and you are likely, due to the compact size, portability, and flexibility of the the superzoom, to come back with way more satisfying images than the long lens crowd.
Be happy! Be a happy Point and Shooter. Be warbler happy!