Expert bird photographer Markus Varesvuo shares his top tips on getting the most out of mirrorless cameras for your bird photography.
Bird photography has been Markus’s full-time profession since 2005. He has since received numerous awards in photography competitions for his graceful images, including highly commended in the Bird Behaviour category of Wildlife Photographer of The Year 2022. He has also published several books including the international bestsellers, Handbook of Bird Photography and Birds: Magic Moments and his newest book, which is a collaboration with photographer Jorma Luhta, Snowy Owl. Read on to hear Markus’s tips on focusing, ISO and lenses for mirrorless cameras and to discover more about his new book.
The best mirrorless cameras have both a full frame focusing system and the option to choose animal and eye focus, which I have as default when shooting birds in action. For instance, a flying bird can be anywhere in the viewfinder and the camera will track the moving subject, focusing on the bird. If the subject is close, the camera will focus on the eye and if the subject is further out the camera will focus on the head. The beauty of this is that it is easier to keep the subject in focus against a busy background or as it flies past close and fast. The improvement is most notable when a bird is flying straight towards the camera; now the focus would be on the head whereas in the past it would often get caught by the wings, leaving the head out of focus. In my opinion the best mirrorless camera has a clear advantage even over the top range DSLR cameras.
30 Frames Per Second with Continuous Focus
When photographing a rare or unique situation the rate of frames-per-second is really important. Incredibly much can happen in a second so it is important to capture the split-second moment. The more frames there are in a second the better your chances of capturing the perfect image, where all the elements are right, all the way down to the wingtips. However, a good frame rate is only useful when the camera can keep the object sharp in focus even in demanding situations. The newest mirrorless cameras can take 30 frames per second with continuous focus!
Bold ISO Values
Many photographers are cautious to use high ISO values, and this costs them many missed opportunities. Good picture quality in an unsharp image is pointless. The latest cameras and image editing software have many tools for creating the best out of images, taken with ISO sensitivity 25600 for instance. This is something that was quite unthinkable just a few years ago. Photographing moving objects requires even less light than before, so be bold and go beyond conservative ISO values in low light situations.
Long Lenses in Low Light
It can be tricky to get sharp images when using a long lens in low light. However, in-body sensor stabilizers in mirrorless cameras and image stabilizers in long lenses allow long focal lengths to be used in darker conditions. Also, the fact that these cameras have no mirror means there is no mirror movement or mechanical shutter to cause vibration. This further reduces the risk of blur in your images.
It is even possible, with a steady tripod, to use a 1200-mm-focal length and long exposure of 1/60 sec. Very long focal lengths are good when photographing skittish birds that fly off at the slightest sight or sound. They are also great if you want to really zoom in on details, even with a more confiding bird.
Shooting in Perfect Silence
Silent shutters give mirrorless cameras a significant advantage over DSLRs. Skittish animals are easily spooked with the sounds a DSLR makes. Remote photography with a wide-angle lens at close range is a good example. With a noisy camera, it can be very hard to turn your vision into a picture.
It’s Not All About Fancy Kit
Having the right gear on you at the right time is not always the case. When I was photographing this jack snipe from afar, my 600mm lens and extenders were a brilliant choice for the job. However, the closest this lens can focus to is 4.2 metres. Jack snipes are easy to get really close to as they rely on camouflage until the very last minute and only fly off if you’re about to step on them. So when this bird let me get close the 600mm lens was simply too big. I decided to try my mobile phone camera to capture the bird. The snipe let me crawl to within a metre of it, stay there, compose my image and take several frames. The result was surprisingly good! This is a good example of using the tools you have available, even if that is not the fanciest kit.
My New Book: Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl is a collaboration between photographers Jorma Luhta and Markus Varesvuo.
The book is a story from the open tundra and arctic fells where snow-white owls roam in search of lemmings and voles. The owls stop to nest in Lapland only during the best lemming years, and as suddenly and unpredictably as the birds arrive, they disappear again.
Jorma Luhta has made countless journeys into their northern home and has both with camera and pen captured the life of the white owls. Markus Varesvuo’s encounters with the mythical birds resulted in him capturing alluring pictures telling the owl’s way of life.
Click here to see a sneak preview of some of the images in the book.
If you would like to buy a copy of the Snowy Owl, please email Markus at firstname.lastname@example.org.