Best artistic blur techniques for bird photography

If you are more on the creative side than the documentary side, you surely have tried to create some artistic blurs along your bird photography adventure. Here are a few tips that I found most useful in this endeavor!

Which shutter speed for blurs in bird photography?

While the answer to this depends on the speed of your subject, I would advise anywhere between anywhere from 1/15s to 1/60s for birds in flight photography. Use a slower shutter speed when the light is very low or when the subject is fairly slow. The slower you go and the stronger the blur will be, making it harder to render anything sharp. Typically, I will work in shutter speed priority during low light conditions, whether a bit before sunrise or a bit after sunset.

Pan Blur_Florida Bird Photography

“Twiligt Blur” or Florida Birds in flight – Sarasota Bay, Florida
ISO 640 | f/4 | 1/20 sec. | Manual mode | AI servo rear focusing
This photograph was created with the Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II USM lens and the Canon EOS 5D mark III.

The image above was created a couple of minutes before sunrise, during one of those rare times when the pink from the near sunrise reflects beautifully in the water. I am still not sure why the reflection on the water gave out a more orange tone, but I love the result! In fact, this is my best selling creation 🙂

Which panning technique to use?

Yes, that is right… You need to pan your camera at the same speed that the subject is flying by in order to have a chance of having some body parts more sharply rendered. It is all about practice here… And this how you may have a decently sharp head with blurry wings!

Artistic Blur_Bald Eagle Photography

Bald Eagle fishing during a snow storm – South of Anchorage, Alaska
ISO 100 | f/8 | 1/25 sec. | Manual mode | AI servo rear focusing
This photograph was created with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM lens at 200mm and the Canon EOS 1DX mark II.

The Bald Eagle with a fish in its talents above was created during the 2017 Alaska Bald Eagle Tour. You may want to pan in the direction in which your subject is going. In this case, it is a slightly upward diagonal panning motion. I am really proud of the sharp head here!! It was heavily snowing and I had been trying to create an image with streaks of snow for a strongly movement oriented composition.

Other blurs?

Zoom Blur_Bird photography

Tricolored in breeding plumage – Orlando, Florida
ISO 50 | f/29 | 1/30 sec. | Manual mode | AI servo rear focusing
This photograph was created with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II USM lens coupled with a 1.4x extender at 250mm and the Canon EOS 5D mark III.

The idea is to stay motionless (no panning!), and create the blur effect while zooming in or zooming out. I find this easier to do while zooming out. Make sure your point of focus is dead center in your image though. The blur streaks will mechanically go out or towards the center. If you want the point of focus of center, as in the image above, you will need to crop appropriately in post production.

Ah yes… another type of blur is to keep your camera still, while having the birds passing by. This looks especially good if you have non moving environmental elements in your composition.

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Steven

Pleasing blurs, or something to do when there is nothing to do

The sky is overcast and there are no wildlife subjects in sight… What to do? It might seem like one of those times you wished you had stayed warm inside (or cool if you live in Florida!). Not so fast! When there is nothing to do, I try to think outside the box and look for artistic blurs. During our last Polar Bear safari in the Churchill area, one afternoon did not leverage many photographic opportunities. The sky was overcast, it was very windy and there were no bears in sight…

Mastodon Flowers, Hudson Bay, Canada

Artistic blur of Mastodon flowers in the wind in the Churchill area, Seal River, Hudson Bay, Canada.
ISO 50 | f/36 | 1/2 sec. | Tv mode | AI servo rear focusing
This photograph was created with the Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II USM lens (Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II USM review) coupled with the 1.4x extender, the Canon EOS 5D mark III handheld. Have a look at the equipment I typically carry with me.

A good technique to achieve pleasing blurs is to work on Tv mode, where you set the shutter speed! I knew that 1/2 second was what I needed with the heavy wind blowing the tall Mastodon flowers (which can be used to make delicious salads by the way). I lowered the ISO to 50 and the camera figure out the aperture. Abracadabra and boom!! After a few try outs I obtained a few creations which pleased me.

Mastodon Flowers blur

Artistic blur of Mastodon flowers in the wind in the Churchill area, Seal River, Hudson Bay, Canada.
ISO 50 | f/36 | 1/2 sec. | Tv mode | AI servo rear focusing
This photograph was created with the Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II USM lens (Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II USM review) coupled with the 1.4x extender, the Canon EOS 5D mark III handheld. Have a look at the equipment I typically carry with me.

The creation above is a vertical capture. I added a slight side to side panning movement to give the effect I wanted.

Botswana and the Victoria Falls instructional photography workshop / $9,800 / limit 6 people / Sep 2014:

Come along with me to the BOTSWANA & VICTORIA FALLS PHOTOGRAPHY TOUR next September 2014! THE FIRST THREE REGISTRANTS WILL BENEFIT FROM A $500 DISCOUNT! There is an additional discount for accompanying spouses.
Nxai Pan - Botswana

Spoonbills and shorebirds instructional photography workshop / $980 / limit 5 people / Mar 2014:

Don’t miss this great Roseate Spoonbill & shorebirds photography opportunity! This 3 day workshop will include three boat rides, with two to the Alafia Banks rookery and one to Dit Dot Dash. Alafia Banks is the very best spot in the state of Florida to photograph Roseate Spoonbills in flight. The rest of the time will be spent at the Fort Desoto Park.
Fort Desoto wildlife photography tour

Support our blog by following our links for your purchases. It comes at no extra cost to you and it helps keeping this photography blog lively!

Steven

Secrets for attractive blurs

Attractive blurs can be quite challenging to achieve. The goal is often either to give a feeling of movement or just to reach an artistic creation. The following birdscape was created before sunrise at Alafia Banks:

Birdscape of Crows blur

Silhouette blur of Crows taking off before sunrise – Alafia Banks rookery, Florida.

ISO 640 | f/4.5 | 1/? | Tv Mode w/ evaluative metering +1 EV | AI servo focus

This photograph was created with the Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II USM lens and the Canon EOS 5D mark III handheld. Have a look at the equipment I typically carry with me.

The next photograph is a blur of a Double-crested Cormorant, also created pre-sunrise. Why are both images created before Sunrise? Blurs are typically created in low light ambiance. Before sunrise and after sunset are ideal times.

Blur of a Double crested Cormorant

Silhouette blur of Double-crested Cormorant before sunrise – Alafia Banks rookery, Florida.

ISO 800 | f/4 | 1/? | Tv Mode w/ evaluative metering +1 2/3 EV | AI servo focus

This photograph was created with the Canon 600mm f/4 L IS II USM lens and the Canon EOS 5D mark III handheld. Have a look at the equipment I typically carry with me.

The key to creating a blur is the shutter speed. Only a slow shutter speed will give the ghosting effect. I usually aim somewhere between 1/15 and 1/30 of a second. To do so, select Tv mode and dial a shutter speed in that range. The other trick is to set the ISO in auto. For the Canon 5D mark III and the 1D X, you can manually select the maximum ISO speed (3200 for instance) in the “ISO speed settings” menu / “ISO speed range”.

Another point of action is whether to pan with the subject or not. Panning means to follow the subject while pressing the shutter all the way down, while not panning would be to keep the camera still. Not panning will create a bigger ghosting effect. In the first photograph, I half panned, while I panned the best I could in the second one. The Cormorant came out less blurred and gives a very nice feeling of speed.

Can you guess which shutter speed I used for each photograph?

 

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Steven