Point and Shoot for Warblers

No matter what camera and lens you use, it simply does not get any better than this Chestnut-sided Warbler with the Nikon P900 Point and Shoot Superzoom!

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. 🙂

Lots of eyes on the boardwalk at Magee Marsh in OH

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.

Framing Assist button on the Canon SX50HS
Framing Assist button on the Canon SX50HS

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.

A panel of continuous shots of a Yellow Warbler bathing.
A panel of continuous shots of a Yellow Warbler bathing.

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!

Bay-brested Warbler, Magee Marsh, Nikon P900
Magnolia Warbler, Magee Marsh OH, Nikon P900

13 thoughts on “Point and Shoot for Warblers”

  1. How are your images so good? In mine (with the Sony Hx400v) the bird only takes up about a fifth, and is never that detailed. They are always taken at ISO 1600 or above because that, with a shutter speed of 1/500 is the lowest I can get. Any tips?

    1. The key is always light and closeness. My warblers are taken at anything from 10 (Sony HX400v) to 25 (Nikon P900) feet. You have to be that close to fill frame, even with 1200mm-2000mm equivalent. A place like Magee Marsh in Ohio makes getting that close possible. And good light is essential for detail. I did find that the Sony often pushed ISO higher than I liked…but got the shot. The Nikon P series seems to have a more efficient sensor…using lower ISOs for equivalent exposures. All I can say is be patient, get close, and wait for good light. 🙂

  2. Hi Steve

    I found this article of yours very illuminating and filled in a few holes for me.

    I own the Canon SX101S which has the 20X optical Zoom and by extension [Digital } I can get to 80X. On the odd occasion I either use a bean bag on top of the car or I drag out my trusty Slik. This is the only way I can get a decent image. The Mono-Pole is useful but mainly at the 20X. Which brings me to my main complaint with the Canon and that is the Macro function which does not work despite Attention by Canon. It works ok in MF though. A software glitch they presume.

    My interest is Macro. subjects, anything small but analysis of printed circuit boards are highest. Which brings me back to some comparisons you made re the NIKON P900 and the older Canon SX. I have seen the TV marketing adds down here in Hobart [Tasmania Australia ] demonstrating the P900. The ad is annoying, a cackling female and a idiot male support.

    What I found interesting was the fact that it was Wi-Fi compatible. It did not show this feature in the Demonstration. My question here is ? is Wi-Fi a gimmick or is it a useful function. Could I control the camera via my iPad or Laptop?

    What are your recommendation’s for this camera and my usage. Is there another camera along the features of the NIKON that might better suit me.

    Your advice appreciated because we no longer have any High Street Camera shops now in Hobart. Only the big chain stores who are happy to drop the box in your trolley but cannot answer a basic question on the product.

    Regards

    Alan W

    1. Wifi on the P900 is pretty well implemented and there is a control app for iPhone. I don’t have it and have not used it, so I can’t comment on its usability. Macro on the P900 is decent. Very close focus at 24mm, and useful macro out to about 100mm, but if that is your primary interest, then you do not need the long zoom of the P900. You would get the same results with the P610 at macro distances…for a lot less $$ and in a much smaller package. The best macro implementation I have seen is on the Canon SX60. True macro 24mm to over 200mm for a great range of working distances. Hope this helps.

  3. Hello,
    I have the sx50 and have taken great shots with it. What I dont like is the the evf and the grip on the camera. I find it very hard to hold. How is the grip of the P9000 compared to the sx50 and the evf? I take pictures of my kids sports both inside and outside and love the ability of the the long zoom. So Im looking for better EVF, ergonomics and hopefully better low light.
    Love your reviews,
    Thanks
    Michele

    1. The P900 is much bigger than the SX50 so the grip is completely different. It is the size of a full sized DSLR. The P610, and the new B700 are the size of the SX50 but have a better grip. The EVF in all of the Nikons is far superior to the SX50.

  4. Thanks Steve!
    I find the sx50 is just so small to hold Im constantly trying to find a good hand hold. Im not against a larger camera just one with a deeper grip I suppose. Glad to hear the view finder is better!! I have used the canon 7D mark 2 and love it but not willing to invest in the zoom lenes lol. So my hunt for a replacement to the Sx50 continues. What is your thoughts on low light shooting with p900?
    Thanks again,
    Michele

  5. Dear Steve,

    Thanks alot for such a wonderful, informative article… you have guided for the real, practical issues on the field…

    Just one query regarding Auto Focus – what would you recommend AF-single or AF-continuous?

    Regards;

    Pankaj

      1. It really depends on your camera and how auto focus works. Many cameras are really in a kind of continuous Auto focus by default in that they are continously pre-focusing so that when you get the camera up to your eye you can at least see something in focus. Generally the actual focus setting only controls what happens after you half press the shutter. Single AF locks on once and holds. Continuous continues to attempt to refine focus, generally sticking to the same focus sensor, but sometimes switching back and forth so that the image kind of shimmers, and you do not really know where focus will settle when you press the shutter fully. I find that disconcerting. 🙂

  6. Dear Steve,

    I have now used the P900 for 10 months and it is really an amazing camera. I just saw your blog and your lovely focused bird shoots. Then I were thinking if you ever noticed a problem with manual focus. I tested to take some moon pictures in manual mode, manual focus and without using vibration reduction, of course used a tripod. The weird thing is that when I zoomed in nearly to max and adjusted the focus I could see very clear focus of the moon for a short time, less than 1 sec, but then it was gone and left me in a state that was not blurry but not clear either. Really annoying.

    Perhaps manual focus is out of scope taking pictures of fast moving birds but hope someone out there could have some experience in this behaviour.

    Regards
    Christer

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