I would like to know how to correct for the problem of capturing moving (or even stationary) birds amid foliage.

Too often I end up with a blur even when I use a fast shutter under bright sunlight.

I don't want the look of shallow depth of field for zoomed-in images, but it tends to be the case that if there is too much complexity to the scene (branches), focus becomes uneven. I want to achieve better focus —— or to control for depth of field —— in such conditions but even at the end of the zoom where the aperture is small I'm not achieving focus uniformity.

I have an 18-55mm VR and 55-200mm ED Nikkor kit lens paired to a Nikon D3300. It seems like I have the most problem using the 55-200mm ED lens. For almost all types of shooting I select center-point AF or I use Sports mode if there is adequate light and I expect the subject to move. However, keeping even a stationary subject in the center of the frame doesn't guarantee that I can get it to focus where I wish. My understanding is that the Nikon D3300 has only one cross link AF point. How much of a factor could this be, if any, to focusing on the correct target in a complex scene?

With my current telephoto lens, it seems as if when I zoom in (or near) 200mm I can't achieve adequate focus, even at the center of the frame, unless I am within a shorter distance than I would expect —— less than 14' —— even in full sun (not backlit). By contrast, I can use a super zoom point & shoot camera at greater distances with less blur.

How can I tell if the settings I am using are to blame —— I often make use of Sports mode for birds in bright light —— as opposed to whether or not image stabilization or some other aspect of the lens is faulty? Finally, can I improve upon my success rate by investing in another lens? If so what should I look for?

  • \$\begingroup\$ I tried to attach sample photos. They didn't upload. \$\endgroup\$
    – Lynnd
    Commented Apr 7, 2015 at 0:25

4 Answers 4


As a bird photographer (I was founder of the bird photography group on G+) I have to say that photographing birds is hard. The areas around birds tend to be clutters (leaves, branches, etc) and this can confuse the autofocus. Light is normally marginal so you need the large apertures, which narrows depth of field, so any auto focus mistake kills the image. Or because the light is weak, you simply can't get a fast enough shutter speed so you can't freeze movement.

With 40,000 images under my belt, it's not uncommon for me to throw out a large chunk of a shoot away because of technical flaws, often AF misfires. So it's not just you. One big difference between your images and the images you see online is that the people posting them online delete their bad images -- not that they don't take them.

Different lenses can help in some ways (wider aperture for faster shutter speeds, fast AF) but there aren't any magic cookies. What helps is going out and shooting, practicing to learn your gear, studying birds to know their behavior, learning out to find birds in flattering light, patience to be able to wait those three hours for that 45 seconds when everything lines up just how you want -- and then being able to catch the shot and not lose it.

You need to learn your gear. You need to learn how the AF works and why it doesn't, how to adjust the autofocus controls and your shooting so that the AF does what you want it to -- as I like to say it, you have to put in the time (and failed images) to learn how to make the camera give you the image you want and not the image it feels like giving you.

You will want to upgrade your lenses, but you should practice with the ones you have until you understand how to take the best shots you can with them -- because until you do, better lenses won't make you a significantly better photographer, just one with more expensive gear. I always tell people not to buy new gear until you can explain WHY the thing you want to buy will solve a problem for you or fill a gap your current gear struggles to solve. Too many people buy into the marketing hype of "better gear will make me a good photographer", when in fact, while better gear may hide some of your mistakes, they'll likely cause other problems, too, and you need to know how to solve them.

Be aware that if you get serious about bird photography, you'll be talking about fairly significant gear -- 400mm is a practical minimum, not 200mm. Birds are small, and birds fly away, so the lure of big fast glass gets serious.

Take lots of shots. Study the failures and understand why they failed. Often, it's because the AF focussed on something else in the frame (like a branch, or the chest of the bird and not the eye) because that's what you told it to do. So you need to learn the AF system so you can tell it what to do and get the results you want.

there's no shortcut around that. it takes time, practice, throwing away images, and studying how the camera works so you're in charge. More gear, faster gear and expensive gear won't do any of that for you.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ meant to add this in -- if the bird is in foliage, standard AF will fail more often than not. You want to learn how to switch onto spot AF and set the spot to the appropriate point (often not the center of the screen) to minimize this problem -- but branches have a great ability to find a way to convince AF to focus on them.... sometimes only manual focus will get the job done. \$\endgroup\$
    – chuqui
    Commented Apr 7, 2015 at 6:41

When you use a larger sensored camera, you're going to be working with a thinner depth of field either due to using a longer lens, or from being closer to the subject to get the same framing. The reason the Fuji and Nikon bridge cameras don't have as much trouble focusing is that with a smaller 1/2.3"-format sensor and a superzoom lens that has 500mm or so equivalence (while actually remaining only a 100mm lens on a sensor with a 5x crop factor), you have a lot more DoF to work with, so more stuff stays in focus at the same time in any shot.

Your D3300's sensor is much larger, so your lens is longer (although it has less "reach" than the superzooms, because you've only got a 1.5x crop factor, vs. a 5x one) and your depth of field is thinner, so you need more focusing accuracy. Since you're trying to focus through foliage, the camera may be getting confused as to what you want in focus (i.e., where the AF point is placed). You also do need to realize that the little box in the viewfinder is not always accurate as to the size and orientation of the corresponding AF sensor.

I hate to say it, but if stopping down (using a smaller aperture setting/higher f-number) can't be done through lack of light, you may actually want to attempt using manual focus in this type of situation, if the bird is holding still and perched long enough for you to do this. I run into this time of situation at zoos when shooting through glass and fences--the camera keeps trying to focus on the glass or the fence. In your situation, the camera may be trying to focus on the branches and not the birds.

I'm not certain a different lens would yield a better result, although a longer lens might help you fill the frame more easily from a farther subject distance.


I have a D3300 that I use for bird photography paired with an old Nikon 300mm 4.5AIs this lens forces me to shoot in all manual mode but once you learn the camera this is no big deal. Your milage may vary but I'll discuss some of the settings I use and provide some sample images I shot.

I shoot a lot of my birds on the beach so sunlight is never an issue and I'm often at f11, around sunset time I'll bring it back to f8 or f5.6. I can freeze motion quite nicely between 1/500 and 1/1000 but on the shutter and you don't need to go much faster than that (although I have enough light I often do). I can get away with ISO as low as 200 if there is enough sunlight.

My number one piece of advice is to not use auto focus and learn how to manually focus the lens. In my experience the D3300 is a great camera but leaves a bit to be desired in terms of af speed (compared to some of the fancy stuff out there). I also find that by not using auto focus I can get 3-5 shots off while a bird is moving and generally one is in focus as the bird moves across/towards the focal plane. This has yielded better results for me than waiting for the autofocus to hunt and inevitably miss the shot. You may find yourself with a lot of out of focus shots when you go to look back through them but you will also have some really nice ones.

If you want a big depth of field you can step it up to a higher F-stop but you need the right light to do that. If you are shooting in the woods this may not always be possible and you may have to sacrifice some depth of field to get a nicer looking shot.

VR is a great feature on these lenses but you may want to try a monopod and shutting the VR off. If you are using a tripod/monopod and have VR on that can cause issues. The truth is that at 1/200 you don't need a tripod to stabilize your shot. I prefer one because I tend to sit out for long periods of time when I shoot and it's more comfortable since it supports the camera for me.

Put the time in and practice. I started shooting birds 3 summers ago at the beach and have been going every summer weekend since. In a given weekend I spend 3-4 hours shooting just birds usually between the hours of 5-7pm here on the east coast that's when the light gets really nice. I have taken close to 20,000 exposures as of the end of this past summer of which maybe 50 are really good and 3 have actually been framed and are hanging up places. You will learn how the birds move and where to find them, this will help you set up a shot before it happens which is more important than any equipment you can own.

Here are some samples of stuff I have shot using the above described method. All of these photos are selections from a group of usually 3-5 shots of which most were out of focus. Unfortunately with the manual lens I can't see the F-stop data but it's most likely f11 or f8.

ISO 200 1/800 enter image description here

ISO 400 1/2500 enter image description here

ISO 200 1/640 enter image description here


Back in the days when the Earth was cooling and I was in high school we never had these problems. Focusing on wildlife in the trees was very simple - look at it, turn the ring until the creature was in focus, press the button.

So if the autofocus system can't make up it's mind just flip the switch on the side of the lens and do it the old-fashioned way.

Have a look at National Geographic from the previous century. Wildlife photography that can often be described as Iconic. And mostly manual-focus. Also check the interviews with the photographers - they very frequently comment that the all-singing-all-dancing $10,000 DSLR quit for good after 5 days in the Congo, but this K-1000 they've had since 1978 is still working. And it doesn't even need batteries.


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