How to Shoot (Good) Bird Videos with Your Camera

Do you want to capture a bird's every dip and call? Learn to break in the video mode on your digital camera.

When I meet new photographers I often ask if they are into shooting video. Some are, and others say they have dabbled with video—but the majority tell me that they have rarely given it a try. Many photographers seem intimidated by the prospect of producing video as good as the stills they are accustomed to shooting. The reality is, most cameras today offer capacity to do both beautifully, making the opportunities for bird photographers who want to capture a special moment or unique behavior near limitless.

I began working with cameras as a videographer first, and I’ve learned some important lessons along the way, which I’ve shared while teaching nature videography at Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine. Some of my advice involves equipment; the rest touches on technique. While it might seem at first to have a steep learning curve, once you get started I think you will see that there is nothing too daunting about developing the skills for shooting excellent nature video.

Always use a Tripod

First, and most important, use a tripod. For video, a tripod or ground pod is necessary to give the camera a stable platform for following a subject. Shaky video is unpleasant to watch and can even cause some to feel a bit seasick. I can’t deny that lugging a tripod every time I go out in the field is a burden, but I guarantee it is worth it and will improve the number of sharp still photos you shoot as well. 

Tripods are sometimes sold as a package—sticks (legs) together with a head (articulating camera mount)—or for some different types of heads can be purchased separately. Gimbals and ball heads are popular with photographers; however, the best option for video is a fluid video head. Fluid heads are larger and often heavier, but they offer superb stability and smooth movement that is essential for following moving subjects.

Select a tripod and head that is rated to handle slightly heavier gear than you intend to use. If your camera and lens weigh 12 pounds, use a combo rated for 15 pounds or more.  A good place to start is with the Manfrotto line of video heads. I am also a big fan of video heads made by Sachtler, such as the FSB6 or FSB8, which are heavier and more expensive but offer excellent performance and quality. For some shooting situations, such as working along the beach or a marsh, you’ll want to leave the full tripod behind and using a low-profile setup like a ground pod.

Once you’re set up, try to be as smooth as possible when moving the tripod head and camera to follow the subject. In instances where the subject is static, try going hands-free. After composing the image, adjusting your settings, and hitting record, you can remove your hands from the tripod entirely and capture the action in the frame.  

Learn to Focus Manually​

This is a real challenge for many photographers because modern cameras have such superb, fast, and accurate autofocus for still photos, but focusing manually is an imperative skill to master for video. This will enable you to follow the subject as it moves closer or further away, exiting the plane of focus. There are promising new cameras that offer impressive autofocus, but it cannot be relied on in all shooting situations.

To learn, begin by practicing the action of turning the lens focus barrel and watching the view screen for the area in focus. Get familiar with the mechanics of the lens and the direction you need to turn the barrel as a subject moves forward or backward. With enough practice, these actions will get more and more intuitive and eventually will become instinctive.

I use a mirrorless camera that has an optical viewfinder, which allows me to look through at the image while the camera is recording. This is a key feature for me, as I can see what area of the image is in focus. Most DSLRs on the market today don’t have this function and only allow a view of the rearview screen while recording. So to help focus, many use a loupe, like the Zacuto Z-finder, connected to the rear screen while recording.

Shoot Video in Low (or Bright) Light​

I often shoot video when the light is not good enough for still photos. Camera sensors can often produce a very good image in video mode when an excellent still image would not be as easily achieved. The benchmark for still images these days is sharpness of every detail in the subject. In the early morning or later evening when the light is low, it’s necessary to shoot at higher ISO. But digital noise, a product of using higher ISO, has less impact in video because reduced sharpness is not as observable and detrimental with the subtle motion blur of video.

The same can be true for shooting in midday sun, and so I often opt for video then as well. In bright light, a video image is engineered to represent high dynamic range, with details in the darker, shadowed areas and brighter highlight areas resolving with better detail.

Let the Subject Leave the Frame

Just like the art of a beautifully composed still image, there is an art to constructing a video clip. This aesthetic can be accomplished in many ways, and this tip represents one tactic for concluding a shot. Try to document a behavior or series of behaviors and end by allowing the subject to naturally leave the frame. If you are filming a swimming bird, for example, let your subject naturally exit the direction it is moving, producing a pleasing end-point to the clip. This doesn’t always work out when the subject turns or pauses, but it is certainly worth attempting.

Benjamin Clock is a nature photographer and videographer with a passion for using imagery to aid in conservation of habitat and biodiversity.