Focusing on the Bird

Yellow-breasted Chat_FCRP7w-EPC-CO_LAH_3270

Why wouldn’t the camera focus on the bird?!

I was trying to finally get a decent picture of a Yellow-breasted Chat. They’re not all that common in this part of the country, and I was thrilled to find one. In fact, we’d been hearing it call since we’d arrived at one of my favorite birding spots. But where was it?

After much searching (my ears aren’t very good at recognizing direction), we finally found the noisy bird sitting in a bare treetop, far overhead. It was in plain view, if you discounted the multitude of leafless twigs surrounding it. Praying it would stay put long enough for me to grab the shot, I aimed my lens and partly depressed my shutter button to activate the autofocus.

The camera obediently focused… on the tree.

Yellow-breasted Chat_FCRP7w-EPC-CO_LAH_3286-001

I tried again, slightly adjusting my aim to make sure I was targeting the bird, not the branches.

No luck.

My camera’s focus point (the little square that indicates where I’m focusing) was larger than the part of the bird I was trying to focus on.

Yellow-breasted Chat_FCRP7w-EPC-CO_LAH_3291At this point, I had a choice. I could forego the shot—not an acceptable option. I could try to get closer—not possible when the distance was mostly vertical! I could wait for the bird to move—a gamble I wasn’t willing to take. (Note that it did finally pick a more open spot, as shown at left, but it could have easily flown away.) I could use manual focus to override the camera. Or I could pull out a trick that has worked for me in the past.

Why not opt for manual focus? Yes, it involves adjusting the camera so it doesn’t insist on re-taking control (in my case, it’s a simple switch on the side of the camera body), but that’s not hard to do. Then I could simply use the focus ring on the lens and to get a sharp photo, the way photographers did it before we had autofocus. However, I choose not to do this because, at this point in my life, my eyesight just isn’t good enough. What looks fine in the viewfinder turns out fuzzy on my computer screen. I rely on the camera for a sharp shot.

So how do I make the camera work for me?

First, I make sure I’m set for spot focus. I want my subject to be sharp, and for this type of shot, I really don’t care about the rest of the scene. In fact, I want the background to blur, eliminating distractions. I use spot focus most of the time, the exception being when I’m trying to find a flying bird against a plain background (such as the sky).

Next, I look for a larger object the same distance from my camera as the bird I’m trying to photograph. If I’m unsure about the distances involved, I may adjust my aperture to slightly increase my depth of field, giving me more leeway. (My default mode is aperture priority.)

Then I focus on the substitute object, lock in the focus by pushing the shutter button halfway down, and re-aim my lens at the bird.

And… click. Bird in focus!

Yellow-breasted Chat_FCRP7w-EPC-CO_LAH_3285-001

The answer to last week’s quiz is Blue Grosbeak.

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