Migrant warblers are among the most difficult birds to photograph. They chase insects and spend much of their lives in the canopies of tall trees. They hide in the leaves, often in dark shadows. In addition, they are small and rarely sit still for more than a second. Five seconds with a cooperative individual, posing in the open, is a relative eternity in warbler photography. But the reward of capturing a sharp and well lit image of these avian jewels makes the effort all worthwhile.
Of course, all of the above assumes that there are actually warblers present to photograph. Warblers migrate north through the continental United States from late March through early June. They arrive further north as the season progresses, reaching the northern states by early to mid-May. Later in May and into the first week of June the migrant warblers consist mainly of the less vividly marked females. Many photographers overlook the fall warbler migration, which takes place mainly during September and October, but it can be very productive. In fact, some years I have had more success with warblers in the fall than in the spring. Many of the warblers will be in a less vibrant plumage which can make them more difficult to identify. The good news is that some species of warblers will consume the ripening berries during fall migration. It is much easier to photograph a warbler that sits in a low shrub eating berries than it is to photograph one chasing insects through the canopy! Checking local birding resources such as books, rare bird alerts, and discussion forums is a good way to pinpoint the timing of both spring and fall warbler migration in your area.
Weather plays a key role in your success. Dry, still and warm conditions generally result in the birds being near the tops of tall trees, where they are pretty much impossible to photograph. But storms and strong winds can be a blessing in disguise. Overnight storms can cause fallouts where dawn finds the birds low to the ground, exhausted and hungry, thus making them much easier to photograph. Strong winds will typically cause the warblers to remain closer to the ground but the movement of leaves and branches can make it quite difficult to find the birds in the viewfinder. When working in strong winds it is best to concentrate on the leeward side of the woods as the benefits are twofold: birds often concentrate in protected areas and the vegetation will be moving less, making the birds easier to find.
Where should you go to photograph these beautiful migrant warblers? My favorite location, Magee Marsh near Toledo, Ohio, is only a 15-minute drive away. Other well-known warbler hot spots include Point Pelee in Ontario, Canada, Central Park in New York City, and any number of locations along the Gulf coast from Texas to Florida. Any city park can be an oasis among the concrete jungles. The Gulf coast locations represent the first available land that the birds have seen after flying hundreds of miles across the Gulf of Mexico. On good days most any woodlot will do; I have had some success photographing warblers in my own back yard. You will want to check with local birding groups to locate a migrant trap near you.
Let’s consider what equipment you will need to successfully photograph migrant warblers. Common practice is to mount a long telephoto lens on a heavy tripod, add a teleconverter and an extension tube as well as a flash and flash bracket. I use Canon EOS digital cameras mated with a 500mm f/4 image stabilized lens, often with the Canon 1.4x teleconverter which yields a 700mm f/8 equivalent lens. A 25mm extension tube might also be attached to allow a closer focus. I use an off-shoe flash cord so that I can mount my flash on a bracket above the lens. The bracket allows the flash to stay upright when I rotate the lens in the collar to shoot in vertical format. Elevating the flash above the lens axis also reduces steel eye (similar to red eye) in warblers and other songbirds. In addition I use a Better Beamer flash extender, a simple device that holds a plastic fresnel lens in front of the flash head so that the flash output is roughly tripled. Using an external battery pack will help the flash to recycle more quickly allowing for more flash images in a row.
Many photographers have had great success utilizing a much simpler set up. Hand holding a 400mm f/5.6 lens attached to a digital camera body with flash has proven to be just the ticket for greater maneuverability when the warblers are at point blank range flitting through thick vegetation. It is also a viable alternative when working in crowded situations when you are confined to a boardwalk or surrounded by hundreds of birders at one of the well known warbler hot spots.
My favorite technique for photographing warblers involves heading to my local migrant trap during the appropriate season. I first work the edge of the woods from the east to put the morning sun behind me. Moving slowly and quietly is the best way to detect the presence of warblers. Notice how the leaves and branches are moving from any wind that might be present then look for variations in this movement caused by the warblers flitting about. Once a bird is detected, quickly position your tripod while trying to anticipate the bird’s next move…
If a bird is in front of you, attempt to find it in the viewfinder. Follow the bird’s movements using manual focus to keep the bird somewhat focused in the viewfinder. When the bird hits an opening and pauses for a moment, use auto focus to lock onto the bird and press the shutter button. Most of the time you will be lucky to get off a single shot but sometimes the sound of the shutter or the firing of the flash will cause the bird to pause for a moment longer. In these cases you can concern yourself with fine-tuning the composition, changing your exposure or making a soft kissing sound in an attempt to get the bird to give you a perfect head position. Turning the manual focus ring is much easier when working from a tripod. When hand holding you may have better results pumping the auto focus as a means of tracking your subject.
If a warbler is large in the frame, placing the central auto focus sensor on the eye will often provide a nice composition. When birds are at point blank range be careful not to cut off the feet or tail with the edge of the frame. It is imperative to pay special attention to your focus point as depth of field is extremely shallow when working at or near the minimum focus distance of your lens. If the bird is smaller in the frame it is best—if you have time—to use the rule of thirds to place the bird on one of the power points. However, it is far better to shoot the bird in the center of the frame then crop later than it is to miss the shot completely!
On matters of exposure there are a few things to keep in mind. With warblers it is best to photograph them with as fast a shutter speed as possible. I rarely take a warbler photograph at less than 1/100th of a second due to subject movement considerations and I usually work with the aperture at or near wide open. In situations such as dark shade where the ambient lighting calls for slower shutter speeds it is best to increase your ISO to maintain a usable shutter speed.
When using flash I much prefer the results when the flash is used as a subtle fill light. The flash works in harmony with the natural lighting to produce a result that leaves the viewer wondering if flash was used at all. For most situations I simply set the ambient exposure in a manner that avoids over exposing the highlights and set the flash compensation to minus 2 or so. The appropriate amount of minus compensation to use is influenced by a seemingly endless list of variables. Ambient light direction and amount, subject and background tonality, camera manufacturer, flash model number and personal taste all come into play. When used correctly, flash as a fill-in light source will bring a warbler image to life by eliminating distracting shadows and providing a catch light in the eye.
Do keep the tone of your background in mind when photographing warblers regardless of whether you use flash or not. If you are shooting up at a bird you will often have a large amount of sky in the background. If the sky consists of bright clouds your meter will be fooled into severely underexposing your image, especially if the warbler is in the shade. Add light to the exposure recommended by the in-camera meter or increase the amount of flash used. Conversely, when shooting warblers at eye level or lower there is a chance that the background will be in dark shade, appearing nearly black in the viewfinder. In this situation the meter will be fooled into grossly overexposing your image. To avoid “blowing out” your subject, especially those with white and yellow highlights, you will need to reduce the ambient exposure suggested by the camera’s meter.
Considering the challenges, the number of things to remember, why would anyone want to photograph warblers? Simple! They are beautiful birds with incredibly vibrant colors and in spring the woods are alive with their songs. The great variety of species is also a factor. On good days it is not unusual to see 20 species of warblers and a dedicated birder or photographer could see over 30 species in a single spring season. In addition, it only takes one really great opportunity or one great image to keep you coming back for more. So, be sure to make time this spring to head out to your favorite local woods or visit one of the well known migrant hot spots. You just might become addicted to trying to capture these tiny but magnificent birds with your camera.