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How to Get a Great Slow Shutter Shot of Wild Birds

Birds are so unpredictable that we don't usually associate “bird photography” with “slow shutter”. However, a slow shutter can help you to make your bird photos look more dynamic. Here’s how to do it. (Reported by Gaku Tozuka)

Wild ducks by river

EOS 7D Mark II/ FL: 700mm (equivalent to 1,120mm in 35mm format)/ EF500mm f/4L IS II USM + EXTENDER EF1.4 ×III/ Shutter-priority AE (f/22, 1/8 sec, EV+1.0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto


You don’t always have to photograph birds with a fast shutter speed

Photographers are often advised to use a fast shutter speed as to prevent camera shake (see Camera Basics #2: Shutter Speed), even to the extent of increasing ISO speed if lighting conditions require it. But this is not a hard and fast rule, even for bird photography. There are some scenes where you might want to use a slow shutter speed.

One useful concept to remember is this: Motion emphasizes stillness, and vice versa.

When a scene has both dynamic elements (e.g. a fast-flowing river) and still elements (e.g. birds at rest), you can use them to accentuate each other for more impact. One way to do so is to use a slow shutter speed to emphasize motion.

Let's look at how it can be done, using the above shot of mandarin ducks at a busy river as an example.


How to get the perfect shot

1. Find the shutter speed with the right balance

The slower the shutter speed, the smoother the river flow will look—and the more likely it is that your “still” element, the birds, will also move and be blurred out.

To find the right shutter speed, closely observe the birds. In this scene, the mandarin ducks were resting and not moving much, which means you can afford to set a slightly slower shutter speed.


2. Choose the appropriate AF settings

It helps to be familiar with the different AF modes. For this scene, I chose Single-point Spot AF area selection mode, which allows pinpoint focusing. I wanted to include as much of the flowing river in the composition as possible, so I created space at the top and positioned the pair of male and female birds at the centre.

AF point overlay

My AF settings
AF operation: One-Shot AF
Drive mode: Single shooting
AF area selection mode: Single-point Spot AF
AF Configuration Tool: Case 1


3. Take precautions to reduce camera shake

Slow shutter photography increases the chances of camera shake. This is further amplified when you use a super-telephoto lens. To reduce camera shake, you can:
- Use a tripod
- Use Live View shooting to prevent “mirror shock”
- Release your shutter with a remote switch/the 2-second self-timer function

2-second timer

To set the 2-second self-timer, press the Drive mode selection button. Select the icon indicated.


4. Use continuous shooting

Although the birds that you are trying to photograph may be resting, they still might fly away without warning. In the failed shot below, the duck that was the main subject in the first image flew away.

wild birds (no continuous shooting)

EOS 7D Mark II/ EL: 700mm (equivalent to 1,120mm in 35mm format)/ EF500mm f/4L IS II USM + EXTENDER EF1.4 ×III/ Shutter-priority AE (f/22, 1/8 sec, EV+1.0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto

To avoid missing a shot, use continuous shooting—even with a slow shutter speed. You might even manage to capture minute movements and get interesting candid shots! For best results, use a remote switch.


For detailed tutorials on bird photography, check out the following articles:
[Part 1] Capturing Birds Gliding in the Sky
[Part 2] Capturing Dynamic Shots of Birds in the Sky
[Part 3] Capturing the Moment the Bird Takes Flight

Here are other articles that explore the idea of contrasting stillness with motion:
Sports Photography: How to Emphasize Speed by Contrasting Stillness with Motion
One Location, Two Looks: Abstract Nightscapes – Tranquillity vs. Vibrancy

You might also be interested in:
Wildlife Photography: 3 Techniques from Professional Photographers
EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM: An Excellent Lens for Beginners in Bird Photography


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Gaku Tozuka

Gaku Tozuka

Born in 1966 in Aichi, Tozuka developed an interest in photography when he was in the third year of high school, and started to capture natural landscapes as well as wildlife animals. At the age of 20, he became absorbed in photographing wild birds after accidentally capturing a woodpecker in his photo. He has released a large number of works in media such as magazines, bulletins, books, calendars and TV commercials.