Practice, Panic, or Pack It In
You may think of it as the time of the three P’s, “Practice, Panic, or Pack it in” but play your cards right and you just might wiggle your way out of the jam. When the shutter speed falls under the one, one-hundredth of a second mark the first tendency most people have is to push the iso or sensitivity of the camera sensor to compensate. While every year low light capabilities of cameras improves by leaps and bounds i would caution against doing that in general. When the shutter speed drops below 1/100sec it usually only happens at the very end of the day after sunset or very early before sunrise. The scene tends to be dark and to portray the reality of the time our photos will tend to have a lot of blacks and deep dark tones. Bumping the ISO is going to bring in digital noise. Even the best cameras produce noise at higher iso settings and the noise is far more noticeable in shadows and under exposed portions of a photograph. Your chances of getting unusable photos is greatly enhanced under these conditions. Let theses two thoughts always be in the back of your mind. First, know that increasing the sensitivity will not yield a significant change in shutter speed without introducing unmanageable noise and second, there are techniques and best practices that can bring home great photographs. As is always the case in bird photography, there are going to be many, many images that are no good so keep that high frame advance rate just as if you were shooting birds in flight at high noon as you will be shooting them in flight even at shutter speeds below 1/100sec.
Go wide. When it comes to sunrise and set I always make it a practice to have two have two high quality cameras with me. One on a tripod with a long lens and the other sporting a wide lens usually a 17-35mm. The wide lens requires far less shutter speed to make sharp images with the rule of thumb being the minimum shutter speed close to the focal length. For example, a 24mm lens would have a suggested minimum shutter speed of 1/24sec, on a crop sensor Nikon body that gets adjusted to 1/38sec. Throw image stabilization into the mix and that number can fall dramatically depending on how steady your hand is. Don’t worry about stopping down as the wider the focal length the deeper the depth of field, so an aperture of f2.8 at 24mm is quite good. Lazily panning in the direction of flying birds will yield even more interesting results.
Pro Tip: When shooting at sunrise and set the camera white balance to about 7,000k. Images on the camera LCD will look much better and that will help keep you much more excited about shooting in low light 🙂
Embrace the blur. Take that long lens mounted on a tripod and set the shutter speed to the minimum that will yield a sharp background(stationary objects) and wait to see birds flying across the horizon. You can alternate between holding the lens stationary and panning with the BiF’s and if your lens is a zoom type try zooming at the same time. You will get interesting results for sure.
Lastly, you can mount the camera with the wide lens on a tripod or better yet a monopod and get as close as possible to a big bird. Often the larger a bird is the more comfortable they are when a human approaches. This can be true for both wild and domesticated birds. Act slow and take a lot of images and a few of them should be sharp.