Photographing Small Birds Using Extension Tubes

A few days ago I took a break from a number of projects on which I’m working, by visiting Bird Kingdom in Niagara Falls Canada. It was a marginal day at best. The sky was overcast with rain falling. This later turned to a light snow, making the indoor shooting conditions at Bird Kingdom dark and difficult. This article discusses photographing small birds using extension tubes. This topic will be included in my upcoming bird photography eBook.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 90 mm, efov 243 mm, f/5.6, 1/40, ISO-3200. 10 mm extension tube used

Anticipating that the conditions would be quite poor, I decided to shoot with a Nikon 1 J5. This camera has better dynamic range and colour depth than my other Nikon 1 bodies. As such, I felt I would get better image quality when compared to using a V2 or V3 when shooting at higher ISO’s.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 110 mm, efov 297 mm, f/5.6, 1/80, ISO-3200. 10 mm extension tube used

There was no question that the Nikkor 30-110 mm would be my lens of choice. It is small, light and easy to handle in cramped quarters. It also is quite a sharp lens. Anticipating that the lighting would be dark at Bird Kingdom I chose to shoot with a 10 mm extension tube. This would shorten my minimum focusing distance to some degree, but not give me too much of a light-loss penalty.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 74 mm, efov 200 mm, f/5.6, 1/40, ISO-3200. 10 mm extension tube used

In an attempt to maintain as much image quality as possible, I set my Nikon 1 J5 to ISO-3200 and shot in Aperture Priority. I let my shutter speed float according to lighting conditions.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 72 mm, efov 194 mm, f/5.6, 1/40, ISO-3200. 10 mm extension tube used

I began by enabling the Touch Screen Controls on my J5 and tried a few photographs. I quickly turned these controls off as I found the auto-focus and shutter release was not as responsive as I wanted. It was also very awkward to use the camera in this manner as I had to shoot one-handed a number of times.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 110 mm, efov 297 mm, f/5.6, 1/60, ISO-3200. 10 mm extension tube used

Photographing small birds is always a challenging task as they tend to be quite animated and jumpy. I found that I was most successful when I anticipated a bird’s position, then preset my single Auto-Focus point to where I wanted the head of the bird to be in my photographs.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 74 mm, efov 200 mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-3200. 10 mm extension tube used

When shooting small birds in a captive environment where they are free-flying, it is often necessary to move branches and other obstructions in order to capture an image. Obviously this needs to be done quite slowly and deliberately as not to alarm the birds.

To capture many of my images I needed to slowly extend my right arm past tree branches in order to get close enough to the subject bird. Presetting my single Auto-Focus was critical for this type of shooting.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 110 mm, efov 297 mm, f/5.6, 1/80, ISO-3200. 10 mm extension tube used

I looked for specific composition opportunities where I could minimize the effects of a busy background if possible. Some images worked better than others in this regard.

Although not planned, I was able to capture some images that will be incorporated into my upcoming bird photography eBook… including the last image in this article.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 83 mm, efov 224 mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-3200. 10 mm extension tube used

Technical Note:
All of the images in this article were captured during a 48 minute period, shooting hand-held in available light. All photographs are displayed as 100% captures without any cropping done to them at all. All images in this article were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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2 thoughts on “Photographing Small Birds Using Extension Tubes”

    1. Hi Joni,

      The birds have been acclimatized to people over time. Some of the birds are less skittish than others and if you approach them very slowly it is possible to get fairly close before they dart off. The Blue-Gray Tanagers typically don’t let people get very close to them. For some reason one individual bird seemed as interested in studying me, as I did it.

      Tom

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