Today is another excerpt from text that I am writing about the importance of shutter speed, also known as exposure time, in bird photography. This time I write about the range of 1/250 to 1/500 sec.
The light is coming up and you just entered the point when you can do pretty much anything you want with the camera and can still maintain a minimum shutter speed of 1/250 sec. Congratulations, you have just entered the promised land. Many bird shooters may disagree with the notion but the range of exposure time between 1/250sec an about 1/500sec is the best place to be. You most likely would disagree if you were using a very long lens between 600mm-800mm, or making a lot of birds in flight images. Granted it is easier to shoot at the higher speeds but not essential. With good support and stabilization you can get nice sharp images in this range.
Generally the time of day associated with these slower shutter speed ranges has a softer light, one that will be more flattering to your subject in all ways. If you are in close making portraits you can actually stop down a little bit and let me tell you that even with a 300mm lens at a range of ten or twenty feet you will want to stoop down. If you have the luxury of shooting a lens as fast as f2.8 and are making a small bird portrait wide open you would be struggling to get both the eyes and feet in focus. That is usually a depth of field around a quarter of an inch or less. Because the goal is to get as close as possible the depth of field is going to be very shallow depending on your success, so you are actually punished for achieving the impossible unless of course you have the where-with-all and the ability to stop down to just where you need it.
If it is morning, the birds are waking up and beginning to become active. Like all living creatures birds wake up at varying speeds and there are ones that are sluggish often making great subjects. In the evening birds are looking for that last meal before hunkering down and you will undoubtedly notice a large increase in activity.
Here is the kicker that makes this shooting range the most wonderful time of the day, it is flash. Most likely you are at the upper limit of being able to use a speed light without taxing the gear to the point of not being all that helpful. In a nutshell, most speed lights max out around 1/250sec for syncing to the shutter, some go a little higher and some of the better ones have a hi-speed mode. Hi-speed is simply a series of flash pulses over a longer timeframe hoping to catch the shutter opening rather than actually syncing with the shutter. It is hard on the system and does not work all that well so I avoid it. Using a regular sync speed, adding some flash can work wonders to your bird photography. It is very important for hummingbirds but for other birds it will often be that finishing touch. Adding that extra light will soften harsh shadows and create a better edge contrast and freezes the micro movements all which helps the image to appear sharper. You are best served to use your flash as a fill light so back off on the intensity with at least -1 stop of compensation and add an extender if you are using a long lens.