Photo Shoot: Misadventures in bird photography

Photo Shoot: Misadventures in bird photography

Photographing birds is a skill I work on but never perfect.

Last week a pair of birding misadventures made that abundantly clear. The hot weather settled in and a slow news day gave a rare morning to experiment.

There is a hummingbird feeder in our front yard that provides endless entertainment and a literal bird’s eye view from the bedroom. So loaded down with technology I set out to use everything in the photo tool box to get a great image of the fast-moving tiny birds. I uncrated the wonderful but extremely heavy giant old Nikon telephoto lens and set it up on the front stoop, slightly shielded from the feeder’s view. Next, a flash was needed to light up the foreground, which was backlit. The short flash duration I thought would also help stop the bird’s wing in flight. Once the camera position was set, I locked it down on a tripod, rigged a remote trigger to the flash and a second remote to fire the camera via a cellphone. The flash position was moved several times and finally had to be brought under the porch overhang as it kept overheating in the sun.

A ruby throated hummingbird takes the heat in stride as it wings in to a feeder in Barnstable.

Camera, long lens, wireless camera trigger and flash trigger, and a remote, are all in standby mode waiting for the arrival of a hummingbird in Barnstable.

Now the best part, I could sit in the air-conditioned bedroom and fire the camera remotely when a bird arrived, and several subjects soon appeared. This was too easy. Going out to check on the first images, there was a bird, but only the feeder was in focus and the 1/500 of a second shutter did not stop its wing motion.

It was time to retool.

First, I bumped up the shutter speed to 1/4000. Next, it was time to abandon the air-conditioned inside. I needed to be on camera and manually focus when the bird came to feed as the depth of focus was only about two inches. The long hot waiting game began. It took about an hour but a couple of images worked, even at such a high shutter speed there is still a bit of wing blur. Noontime approached, the light got bad and it was lunchtime, so it was a wrap.

That evening there was breaking bird news, a mountain plover was drawing big crowds at Long Beach in Centerville to see a bird usually found in the western great plains of the U.S.

Early the next morning the jumbo lens was back in action as I headed out down the beach. Thankfully I met a pair of seasoned birders heading home; they had walked the entire area, three miles their GPS said, and no sign of the newest plover on Cape.

Talking with a beachgoer in the parking she spoke the words we dread, “You should have been here yesterday.” She told me how the plover had spent a lot of time wandering around in front of her beach towel. Well, maybe next time, but enough birding for one week.

Steve Heaslip is a Times staff photographer. Contact him at

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This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Photo Shoot: Misadventures in bird photography