Bird Photography Tips: How to Get That Perfect Shot

As many of you who follow our Facebook page may know, since moving to Costa Rica we have become increasingly obsessed with the many beautiful birds the country has to offer. With around 880 species identified here, it’s hard not to start noticing birds all around you.

Like many people who travel to Costa Rica, we decided to invest in a fairly nice digital SLR camera and zoom lens in order to capture the beautiful scenery, wildlife, and especially the birds. It is not quite professional grade but still complicated enough to confuse or intimidate its user (i.e., us). Although we have learned a lot about our camera and its different settings over time, we have to admit that sometimes we just give up and click the auto button. Inspired to get even better shots, and make the best of our technology, we decided to ask a pro for a bit of advice.

Jeffrey Muñoz is a professional Costa Rican photographer and owner of Distinctive Expeditions, a travel company which offers traditional nature tours as well as photography-specific tours. Jeff has been inspiring us for years by posting hundreds of amazing bird pictures on his Facebook page. We asked Jeff if he would share a couple of secrets with us amateurs and this is what he had to say:

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“There are two tips that I would like to share, as a photographer. These are the two most common issues that most of the people who come to Costa Rica will find in the tropics when they want to photograph birds. One is related to the birds specifically and the second is to get better photos inside of the forest as well. I hope these two tips will help you get those great shots that you are looking to get in Costa Rica.” –Jeffrey Muñoz

Tip 1

“One of the biggest challenges for nature photographers is how to photograph birds; most of them never stay steady for more than 5 seconds on a single branch. They keep jumping up and down and all it takes is just one little turn of their head to make them look out of focus. My first tip in photographing birds is to select the AI Servo (Canon) or Continuous Auto Focus (Nikon) function. This feature will keep focusing on the main target when the Auto Focus button is pressed. By doing this, the auto focus system will keep tracking the bird even if it moves. Of course you might need to follow the bird and keep it in your focal point so that if it turns around, you will always get it in focus. Just one more thing, don’t forget to keep the focal point on the bird’s eye to get that great effect of a well-focused subject.” –Jeffrey Muñoz

 

Scarlet Macaws by Jeff Costa Rica Photography

Here’s one of Jeff’s amazing shots. You can see, with this pair of Scarlet Macaws, how the Continuous Focus Mode is very important to getting the shot since these birds are constantly moving. We must admit that upon further investigation, our Focus Mode was set to Auto and not Continuous. Although this has worked a lot of the time, I can’t tell you how many times our camera has taken too long to focus on a moving subject and we have lost the shot. Great tip, Jeff, we’ll be sure to fix our setting now!

 

 

 

 

 

Camera: Canon 5D Mark III

Lens: Canon 300mm f/4 with Extender 1.4 III.
ISO: 1250.
Aperture: f/5.6
Shutter speed: 1/1600 (with tripod)

Tip 2

“My second tip is related to the low light conditions that we might find on an overcast day or even worse, inside the rainforest where most of the light is absorbed by the treetops. As you may know, there is a rule of thumb related to handheld photography to avoid blurred photographs: the shutter speed shouldn’t be less than the size of your lens. For example, if I am shooting with a 400mm lens, my shutter speed shouldn’t be less than 1/400 sec (one-400th of a second). This is to compensate for the shaking from handholding the lens and the camera.

 

“Sometimes to reach this shutter speed we might need to sacrifice the aperture, ISO and exposure, but the biggest issue we might have is related to the ISO. ISO is a great way to increase the sensitivity of the camera sensor by letting it get more light. Don’t forget though that with a high ISO we also gain digital noise in our photos. My best advice for shooting inside the rainforest without pushing the ISO too high and affecting the photos with digital noise is to bring a monopod or even better a tripod. With this technique my shots will always be sharp with a minimum amount of noise. Later, I can eliminate the noise with developing software without making the photo look too soft.” –Jeffrey Muñoz

 

Picture

This is yet another amazing shot from Jeff. Not only is the Resplendent Quetzal one of the most elusive birds in Costa Rica, it is also one of the hardest to photograph. These birds live in the misty cloud forest where low light conditions are almost constant.

This photo shows how you can get a good shot even in low light. By increasing the ISO (here to 2500), Jeff allowed more light to hit the sensor. A higher ISO can also help with the blurriness that can result from hand holding. Because the camera takes the photo quicker, the photo is less affected if you move or the subject moves.

Of course you don’t want to increase the ISO too much because then your photo will have digital noise. That’s why Jeff increased the ISO to a medium level of 2500 and used a tripod to steady the shot.

 

 

Camera: Canon 5D Mark III.
Lens: Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L.
ISO: 2500.
Aperture: f/5.6
Shutter speed: 1/160 (with tripod)

 

We can’t thank Jeff enough for his willingness to share these great tips with us. It’s hard not to get inspired after seeing more of his amazing photos. Since talking with him, we have spent several hours under the trees outside, playing with different ISO settings and chasing the birds. You can follow our bird photography progress on our Facebook page where we post different feathered friends every Friday. And of course, if you are serious about photography and birding, make sure to take one of Jeff’s amazing photo expeditions here in Costa Rica.

Post by: Jennifer Turnbull-Houde & Matthew Houde

 

4 Comments

  1. Guys, thanks for having Jeff provide these tips. I had never heard the hand-held rule of thumb – that makes it a lot easier to remember the minimum shutter speed. Now I need to go find some birds.

    Reply
  2. No problem Greg. There is a lot to learn but it’s all fun when you’re out shooting, right? Happy birding!

    Reply
  3. These are terrific tips. One of the things that is at the top of my list WHENEVER I return to Costa Rica :) is to really get more into the bird watching and wildlife scene. I saw some things while living there but I had the mindset of a 19 year old, so “that’s cool, let’s move on.” I do remember hearing the birds and animals a lot more than ever seeing them!

    Reply
    • The birds and wildlife are so amazing in Costa Rica, Julie. Seeing toucans and monkeys never gets old. Hope you get back to CR soon–with your camera!

      Reply

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