How to Master Migrant Warbler Photography

Warblers aren't the most cooperative subjects, but they are one of the most beautiful and addictive. Follow this advice to best capture the elusive birds.

Photographically, migrant warblers are among the most difficult avian subjects. They are quite small and easily hide among leaves, often in dark shadows. They flit about in the tops of tall trees, frantically chasing insects, and rarely sit still for more than a second. Having several seconds with a cooperative individual, posing in the open, is a relative eternity in warbler photography.

Living just 10 miles from Magee Marsh—one of the best places in the United States to photograph migrant warblers—has given me ample opportunity to fine-tune the craft of warbler photography over the past 20 years. Despite the inherent challenges, there are a few tricks and tips I have learned along the way that will help you get the best possible shots.     

Locate Your Subject

Weather conditions play a key role in the success of any warbler photographer. Dry, still, and warm conditions generally result in warblers remaining in the tops of large trees, where they are pretty much impossible to photograph. While tough on migrants, storms, strong winds, and unseasonably cold temperatures can be a blessing in disguise for photographic opportunities. Overnight storms can cause fallouts where shortly after sunrise birds can be found low to the ground. They are exhausted and hungry and pay little attention to people at these times. Strong winds will cause warblers to move out of the upper canopy to the more sheltered, leeward side of the woods where they can be more easily photographed.

Whenever seeking migrant warblers I like to start each morning working the east-facing edge of the woods to put the sun behind me (though an east wind may quickly force me into the woods as the birds are rarely on the windward side). I may detect a subtle change in how a branch is moving, or catch a blur out of the corner of my eye. Maybe a song or chip note will reveal a bird’s presence. Once spotted, locating the tiny warbler in a viewfinder is easier said than done. If you find yourself struggling, zoom out, back up, or switch to a wider focal length lens. 

Capture the Action

Next, track the bird using manual focus to avoid focus searching. Relying too heavily on auto focus will cause your camera to constantly search out background leaves or a foreground twig leaving you unprepared at the decisive moment. Only activate auto focus the instant before taking the picture. If the bird happens to pause, you can take the opportunity to fine-tune your composition, but it is far better to crop for composition later than it is to miss the shot completely. When a warbler is fairly large in the frame, the composition created by placing the center auto focus sensor on the eye will often work quite well, but be careful not to clip the toes or the tip of the tail. 

To add extra interest to your photos, try capturing the birds “in the act.”  A Canada Warbler with a large insect may beat the bug into submission. A preening Northern Parula may sit in the same spot for several minutes, allowing you to capture it picking at its back or breast feathers or scratching its head with its foot. At the end of any good preening session, any warbler is likely to perform a wing stretch for the camera. Watch carefully and you might just find a Worm-eating, Golden-winged, or Blue-winged Warbler picking a meal from last season’s dried and curled leaves.

A Word on Gear

The equipment you use is a matter of personal preference. Most often, I use a tripod-mounted 500mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter, but when confined to a boardwalk or where the habitat is at arm’s length from the trail I more often use a handheld 400mm lens. When hand holding it might be necessary to use a higher ISO to achieve a faster shutter speed to offset camera movements. Tucking your triceps into your chest and supporting the lens with your left hand near the lens hood will help you stay as steady as possible. 

It is best to use whatever exposure mode is most familiar to you. Keep in mind that faster shutter speeds can lead to a better keeper rate. With today’s stabilized lenses, photographers can often get away with amazingly slow shutter speeds, but while stabilization does wonders to dampen camera movement it does nothing to control blurs caused by fast-flitting subjects. A shutter speed of 1/500th of a second is a good start, but in darker conditions you will have to balance your need for speed with how high an ISO you are willing to use.

The Right Way to Use Flash

Flash can reduce shadows on sunny days or add a sparkle to your image when working in the shade or on cloudy days. In daylight conditions when flash is used as a fill-in light source, a natural-looking image can be obtained without causing undue harm to your subject by using the flash at a greatly reduced power. The flash duration, or length of time the flash is on, is approximately 1/1000th of a second at full power while the duration can be 1/20,000th of a second or even faster when using fill flash. In daylight conditions, the light is so subtle that I often cannot tell if the flash is aimed correctly without boosting the flash output for a test shot. 

Whether or not you decide to use flash is also a matter of personal preference, but I do encourage everyone to read Flash Photography and the Visual Systems of Birds and Animals for a better understanding of the subject. Clearly full-power flash of nocturnal subjects such as owls should be avoided, and it is wise to not use flash on baby birds in the nest, as you do not want to cause premature fledging. Currently I use flash less often due to the improved high ISO performance of modern digital cameras. With good exposures and sound-processing techniques, a flash provides little advantage on bright overcast days.  

To properly use your flash as a fill source in a manner that is unlikely to startle your subject, simply make a correct exposure for the ambient light conditions while setting the flash compensation to the lowest setting (-3 in most cases). To get the most from your flash, consider using it with an off-camera cord, mounting it on a bracket above the lens. Attach a plastic magnifying “Better Beamer” lens in front of the flash head to concentrate the beam and use an external battery pack to increase flash recycle rates and allow more flash exposures with rapid frame rates.

Considering all of the difficulties, why would anyone want to photograph warblers? For many bird photographers the answer is obvious: Warblers are a diverse set of beautiful birds with a great variety of incredibly vibrant colors. On a really good day, it is not unusual to see 20 species of warblers at a warbler hotspot. After creating one great image, you too might become addicted to trying to capture photos of these tiny but magnificent birds.

Award-winning photographer Brian Zwiebel is co-owner and guide at Sabrewing Nature Tours. He has been photographing migrant warblers for more than 20 years and his images have been internationally published in various books and magazines.