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I'm shooting birds with my Canon 1200D and 55-250mm lens.

I know this is not ideal lens and focal length for bird photography. But I am new to this field and before investing on expensive equipment, I would like be more thorough with the craft.

So to the scenario now. Often when I'm shooting birds with my 55-250mm, they are so far away that they appear as tiny dots in my viewfinder. Often little larger than the focus points.

Now my question is, in my frame if the bird is only slightly bigger than one of the focus points (and the rest of frame is say trees and forest), can I use that focus point to accurately focus on the bird and get a reasonably sharp image of the bird?

I have obviously faced this in the field, and the results are not so impressive. So that led me to wonder - if these focus points are designed to focus on that area of the frame - then technically I should be able to get a sharp focus on that object.

But I don't, is it because I need lot more practice, or is it fundamentally not possible?

  • To clarify: I'm not trying to shoot birds in flight, but birds perched on trees. – ecthiender Nov 29 '16 at 11:40
  • Sounds like a wiseass comment, but true: you need to learn how to get closer to your subject. (assuming you don't buy a 1000mm lens :-) ). And use manual focus. I do some bird photog: it takes a lot of patience. – Carl Witthoft Nov 29 '16 at 13:05
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You're going to have a very tough time shooting far-away birds with that setup. Capturing birds-in-flight is one of the most challenging forms of photography there is in terms of gear limitations and photographer skill. In addition to photographic skill the photographer must also practice excellent fieldcraft to get as close as possible to the subjects.

You might be better served to find other subject matter that will be more within the capability of the gear you have and learn how to use it on subjects that will allow you to learn progressively and see more of the differences in your capabilities as you improve. Depending on where you live, go to a park and shoot the animals that will allow you to get closer to them. Hang out near an airport and photograph the planes taking off and landing. Shoot your friends' and family's pets and children at get togethers.

With pretty much any modern AF system the areas of actual sensitivity are larger than the little markers for each AF point that you see in your viewfinder. The good news is that each one covers a larger area than you think. The bad news is that each one covers a larger area than you think. If your target is very small but there is an area of even greater contrast within the area of sensitivity, the camera will almost certainly focus on the area of greater contrast. For a look at how this works out practically when shooting, see this entry from Andre's Blog. For a look at how AF accuracy can vary from shot to shot, see this entry from Roger Cicala's blog at lensrentals.com.

The EOS Rebel T5/1200D has a very basic AF system. For action you're probably going to be limited to the center cross-type point only as it will perform faster and more accurately than the others. The EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 in it's various versions is a fairly slow lens - both in terms of maximum aperture that limits what shutter speeds you can use in less than optimal light and in terms of AF speed.

The AF systems of cameras more optimized for action shooting are so much more sophisticated and configurable that moving from a basic AF system like the 1200D's to one like the 80D's or the 7D Mark II's is going to be a little like learning to drive in a Hyundai Accent with an automatic transmission and then moving to a Corvette with 6 speed manual. Yes, the skills you learn on the 1200D will be needed with the advanced camera. But a lot of other knowledge and skill that the 1200D does not require you to have (or allow you to use if you already have it) will also be needed to control the more advanced tool set.

  • Hi Michael, great answer! So basically your point is - upgrade to gear with better AF/more reach; or stick to subjects reachable by the 55-250. It would have been great if the question was also specifically answered. Is it possible to have a sharp focus on a subject which is only slightly bigger than the center cross-type AF point; and using that AF point to focus. Thanks nonetheless for your detailed answer. Really appreciate it! – ecthiender Nov 29 '16 at 11:36
  • All you want to know about focus points, how large an area they actually cover, and how they act is covered in great detail at the stack exchange question linked to in the body of the answer, but I'll add a bit about that here as well. – Michael C Nov 29 '16 at 11:40
  • Thanks! Also, just to clarify, I'm not trying to shoot birds in flight, but birds perched on trees. – ecthiender Nov 29 '16 at 11:41
  • You're still fighting the surrounding limbs and branches providing more contrast to the AF system than the birds. – Michael C Nov 29 '16 at 11:49
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    Yup! True. Now I get it. "The good news is that each one covers a larger area than you think. The bad news is that each one covers a larger area than you think" - this made it more clear. I think I understand now why my focus wouldn't work! This is so counterintuitive. I would have always thought that was exact area of sensitivity is what is shown by the marker. – ecthiender Nov 29 '16 at 11:53
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One of the reasons I enjoy photographing birds is the combination of technical challenges and general accessibility of subject matter. In general, encountering technical challenges gives me better intuitions about how to use my camera to get the shots I can and to think about how to get the shots I can't. Because I may find them out my back door, in an urban landscape, or out in a nature preserve, having birds among my standard subjects provides plenty of opportunity to practice and learn.

Anyway, I have and use a kit lens of similar specification. At long zooms it struggles irrespective of subject. This is, as Michael pointed out, due to the lack of available light at f5.6. One thing I've learned from pursuing technically challenging subjects is that autofocus is there to help me get the shots I want.

If it's not doing that job, I turn autofocus off and focus manually. In general that's my rule for any feature that starts with "auto". The closer I get to shooting at the limits of the camera, the more "auto" features I turn off. Camera designers build automatic modes to make photographing 'common scenes' easier. I'll admit that 'common scenes' is a bit slippery: professional cameras are designed to support a wider array of common scenes than consumer oriented cameras [at the consumer end of the spectrum, the design tends to optimize good snapshots].

Anyway, two items of advice:

  1. Obviously, turn off autofocus and focus manually when autofocus isn't working.
  2. Shoot with a one or two stops smaller aperture [higher f-stop number, f8 or f11 over 5.6] to increase the depth of focus. This will increase the range of distances over which the subject will be in acceptable focus and often improve the sharpness of the optics. Compensate with some combination of ISO and shutter speed [shooting in manual mode makes this simpler].

Using a smaller aperture trades sharpness for some 'pleasing bokeh' I suppose...but a kit zoom wide open at long range will still be more dependent on choice of background than depth of field. The sky or foliage distant beyond the subject will work well in either case and foliage just beyond the subject will be about the same at long zoom.

  • Thanks ben! Great answer! And thanks for the advice. I think makes sense. I also tend switch to manual focus if autofocus doesn't work. But I suck at manually focussing a sharp image that too at long zoom. Need to practice more I guess. The aperture advice is new to me and interesting. I'll try it out! Thanks again! – ecthiender Nov 29 '16 at 18:38

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