3 Warbler Photography Tips for a Better Shot this Spring

Warblers are some of the most exquisite examples of colors in nature. We’ve decided to share our best warbler photography tips for anyone looking to capture images like the ones in this post. They are hands-down our favorite birds to photograph, and also one of the most challenging.

Warbler photography tips
A Black-throated blue warbler

In the beginning, we were often disappointed to review that most of our photos showed some level of motion blur, or were out of focus completely. Warblers are lighting fast, and demand the absolute best out of your camera for a clear shot. If you get it right, you’ll be rewarded with a portrait of some of the most stunningly colorful animals on Earth.

All it takes is one incredibly sharp shot of these colorful songbirds to get hooked. You’ll be able to appreciate nature on a higher level by getting a glimpse into the lives of these creatures. This will be the motivation you need to push your skills forward and learn what it takes for the perfect shot.

Warbler Photography Tips

Over the years, we’ve learned what it takes for a great warbler photograph through trial and error. There are a few simple camera settings and best practices in the field to remember for consistent results. In this post, we’ll give you our best advice on how to capture an incredible photo of these beautiful little songbirds.

Migrating warblers at Point Pelee
Us in search of Warblers at Point Pelee in 2017

This year will be our fifth year in a row traveling to Point Pelee National Park to put ourselves right in the middle of the annual spring songbird migration. This means 4 jam-packed days of excitement and bird photography as the annual songbird migration takes place. It means shooting for an entire day, from dusk until dawn with a nice long lunch break in between.

Photographing warblers during Spring Migration (Video)

If you’d like to see us in action, have a look at one of our adventures in bird photography at Point Pelee. In this video, we capture some beautiful warblers, including a beautiful Cape may warbler for the first time!


 

First things first, we need to mention the photography gear we use for bird photography. The cameras and lenses we use were built for this very type of wildlife photography. Meaning, they are fast, lightweight and responsive. A DSLR camera for bird photography needs to have a fast and reliable shutter speed. A mid-range telephoto lens that does not require a tripod is also best because it offers you complete freedom to move around and get into the action.

Ashley shoots with a Canon EOS 7D Mk II, and a Canon EF 400mm F/5.6L Lens. Trevor shoots with a Canon EOS 7D, and a Canon EF 300mm F/4L Lens. View our complete list of bird photography gear.

Canon 7D Mk II
Ashley shoots with a Canon EOS 7D Mk II

Tip 1: The Right Camera Settings

The main thing to remember is that warblers are extremely fast. They never stop longer than a few seconds, and most of the time, they don’t even do that! During the annual spring migration in early May, they are frantically foraging for insects to eat. They need to fuel up for their long journey North.

When it comes to warblers, expect brief and hectic photo sessions. If it’s a busy park full of birders hoping to add another species to their list, expect crowds around certain species. In the case of Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, we often have to (respectfully) establish our position to not lose out on a photo.

Below, you will find the camera settings we suggest, based on our experiences shooting migrating warblers over the past 5 years. If you have any tips you’d like to share about photographing warblers, please feel free to leave a comment on this post.

warbler photography
Warblers are some of the most colorful songbirds in the world (Black-throated Green warbler)

Camera Mode:

We advise that you use Aperture Priority (AV) mode because the camera will quickly adapt to the changing lighting conditions. Warblers move so fast, you will not have time to adjust your manual settings on the fly. Often times, these birds will hop in and out of the sunlight. This can make for a frustrating experience if you’re not prepared for it.

Most professional photographers will recommend manual mode for complete control, but we have found that Av produces more reliable results for our style of shooting. The photographers who plan ahead and wait for birds to enter an ideal location (adequate lighting, non-distracting background) can produce some incredible results as the shooting conditions are more controlled. I guess you could say our style is a little more reactionary.

Chestnut-sided warbler
Chestnut-sided warbler

Focus Mode:

Common yellowthroat warbler
Common yellowthroat

Leaves, sticks, and branches will all obstruct your view, so, you’ll need to be nimble and alert. Despite the potentially frustrating scenarios involved with using autofocus in this setting, we swear by it. Yes, manual focus allows you to really isolate the bird through a dense area, but we find that it’s just not fast enough to keep up. Instead, practice your autofocus skills by reapplying the mode as using the shutter release as needed.

If the warbler you’re following is in a particularly busy area of branches and twigs that will throw-off your cameras autofocus function, try switching to manual temporarily. You can also try to get ahead of the bird, and do your best to predict where they’re headed. If an area opens up with a less distracting and well-lit background, set up shop there.

Drive Mode:

The high-speed continuous shooting mode on your DSLR camera was made for warblers. When our subject finally lands on the perfect perch in the sunlight, we typically fire off anywhere from 10-30 shots (or more). This allows us to capture a range of focus points and various poses from the bird. However, your cameras buffer rate will be put to the test. Our Canon 7D bodies have been exceptionally reliable in this regard – meaning we rarely miss shots because the camera can’t keep up.

The obvious danger with this technique is filling up your memory card too quickly. We always start the day with a full 32GB CF card and keep an extra empty card on hard. The Canon EOS 7D Mk II has dual memory card slots, so it’s never an issue for Ashley.

Blue-winged warbler
Blue-winged warbler

Tip 2: Focus your attention on the right species

I should clarify what I mean by “the right” species. As a general rule of thumb, we devote our attention to the warbler that we see the least often. For example, last spring we finally found a Prothonotary warbler after 4 years of birding at Point Pelee during the early spring. A Black-throated blue warbler is a stunningly beautiful bird, but as long as the Prothonotary was around, he had our full attention.

In the excitement and chaos of an active bird photography session, it’s easy to get caught up in trying to capture as many different species of warblers as possible. The problem is, certain birds show up a lot more often than others, and you may not see the more elusive ones again for years! This is a mistake we have made in the past. One example that comes to mind is moving on from a Blackpoll warbler after a few shots in 2013. “We’ll try again later”… well, later never happened, and we haven’t seen a Blackpoll warbler since.

Blackpoll warbler
The elusive Blackpoll warbler

You’ll get plenty more opportunities to capture that perfect Yellow warbler shot in the future, so always make the less-common species a priority. This is not always so obvious in the beginning, as you may not know which species are more common than others. This, of course, will depend on where you are observing warblers. It may take a few years of birding to start noticing particular trends.

Here is a list of warblers that get our blood pumping:

  • Hooded warbler
  • Prothonotary warbler
  • Cape-may warbler
  • Northern parula
  • Golden-winged warbler
  • Blackpoll warbler
  • Cerulean warbler
  • Mourning warbler
  • Canada warbler
bird photo composition
Blue-winged warbler

Your list will be different than ours because a lot of this excitement has to do with our previous experiences (or lack thereof) with these birds. A warbler that excites one photographer may not earn the attention of another. Some species, however, seem to capture the attention of anyone within earshot, such as the Cerulean warbler (which we have yet to photograph!).

The best birds usually draw a crowd for a reason, so take notice. We have made the mistake of giving up our chase, with the idea of returning to this species at a later time. Guess what, for many of those species, we haven’t seen them since!

Tip 3: Find the bird in your viewfinder quickly

Funny enough, one of the most difficult aspects of photographing warblers is actually finding them in the viewfinder of your camera. Because they like to hop around in varying densities of foliage, they often disappear for a short period of time into the brush. You’d be surprised at the number of times you look through your camera and completely lose sight of your subject.

The best advice we can give you is to use an obvious detail in the surrounding landscape to get you started. A unique shape of a tree branch, a distinct bark texture, anything that’s easy to point out quickly through the viewfinder. First, use your naked eye to map out the general distance the warbler is away from this feature. Then, find your “landmark” feature in the viewfinder, and scan in the direction you noted before bringing the camera to your eye.

Cape may warbler
Cape may warbler

As we mentioned in our post about shooting birds in flight, keeping both eyes open can be a helpful strategy to track your subject. Due to the long focal length of a telephoto lens, it’s easy to lose track of your warbler. This is a situation where having a crowd of fellow birders and photographers around can be a good thing! With more eyeballs tracking the bird, you stand a better chance of spotting it with as a group.

No matter what, always keep the well-being and safety of the bird in mind. Be respectful of these amazing little creatures, and enjoy them from a distance. By doing so, you’ll capture the natural behavior and beauty of these amazing little songbirds.

Final thoughts

Don’t get discouraged if you miss out on a few photo opportunities because you lose track of the bird. This is par for the course in when shooting warblers, it happens. Anything that is that small and that quick is going to be tough to follow through a long lens!  But guess what, when you do finally capture that image you were hoping for, it makes the moment that much sweeter.

To see how we decide which photos to edit in Photoshop, have our look at our video:

Bird Photography Tutorial: How to Select Your Best Photo

 

Helpful Resources:

Migrating Warblers

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