Green-tailed Towhee As An Example Of Why I Prefer Fast Shutter Speeds

Overall I gain more than I lose when I use relatively fast shutter speeds for birds.


1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

I photographed this Green-tailed Towhee two weeks ago in the Wasatch Mountains as it jumped from one perch to another. Even though the image was cropped to less than half of the original I thought it was a fun photo, partly because I’ve always been a sucker for action shots.

But I was disappointed that the right foot is so soft from motion blur (it isn’t a depth of field issue). In most situations a shutter speed of 1/2500 sec is fast enough even for little birds unless they take off or pull a stunt like this. But it’s stunts like this that I’m often after and I think the softness of the foot detracts significantly from the image. Normally in this situation I’d be at 1/3200 sec or even a little higher so for me this was a mistake since I had plenty of light to achieve it.

Folks are often surprised at my high shutter speeds for perched birds but you never know when something exciting is going to happen and little birds are quick! I should also confess that for me another part of the equation is that I have essential tremors and that makes my hands shake at certain times. It goes without saying that shaking doesn’t go hand in hand with sharp photos, especially at the long focal lengths I typically use for birds.




30 comments to Green-tailed Towhee As An Example Of Why I Prefer Fast Shutter Speeds

  • Alice Beckcom

    I’ve not seen many action shots of birds [at least I can’t remember if I did]. I enjoy the position of the legs/feet and the thrust of that right foot. I like others did not notice the blur of the right foot.
    Thanks again, Teacher, for sharing your vast knowledge base. We are a lucky group of people.

  • Late to the party (despite it still being early here). I am a happy snapper not a photographer but can certainly attest to the added difficulties (and bad words) that recalcitrant hands can bring.
    And yes, learning you also suffer added to the respect and awe I have for your photographs.
    I belong to the ‘a little motion blur’ is fine camp, but that may be self serving and I do respect your persistence.

  • Cool shot! I like that the foot is blurry but still well defined. And I always enjoy seeing new bird foot and leg postures. So neat how the toes are spread on the back foot – even with the branch there, all the claws are visible!

  • Ron, I love this action image despite the soft foot, but how are newer bird photographers (like me) to know whether this softness is due to shutter speed or aperture? I would have assumed that 1/2,500 sec. would surely be adequate to freeze a bird’s foot movement. Also, I’ve noticed that you only use the Canon 1.4X III teleconverter and yet Arthur Morris (author of the Birds As Art Blog and renowned bird photographer) regularly says that Canon’s 2X III teleconverter produce excellent results when coupled with the newest versions of their lenses–like your 500mm II. Have you had a chance to experiment with the 2X III TC? If so, do you have any recommendations? I have a Canon 1.4X (first iteration) TC and Canon’s older 100-400mm lens and have not been happy with the results when I use this TC–even following AF micro adjustment. Thank you so much for all you do to help your readers enjoy birding and become better bird photographer. Producing a daily blog with wonderful images is a huge undertaking!

    • “whether this softness is due to shutter speed or aperture?”

      Ron, the right foot is no closer to us than the bird’s right shoulder. There’s enough depth of field to get that shoulder sharp (and the rest of the bird is sharp) so there’s enough DOF for the right foot to be sharp too. The bird is moving fast and the foot is moving even faster in the same direction because it’s quickly being brought forward – combined that’s enough speed for it to be soft from motion blur. Also, the nearly vertical perch is sharp so (based on DOF) the foot should be too.

      I used the version III 2x on my older version of the 500mm and didn’t like it so I sold it. I haven’t used it with the newer 500, largely because I think the effective 1120mm I’m shooting at now is the best compromise for birds I regularly shoot.

      And for what it’s worth, to say I’m not an Arthur Morris fan is a huge understatement but that’s another story. Or two…

  • Patty Chadwick

    Nice action shot of a pretty little toupe-wearing redhead…it amazes me how they can land on and grasp almost vertical twigs…(although I not a photogeek myself, I enjoy the comments of others who are— about what they’ve learned from you…kind of like the admiration and respect you feel for a colleague that teaches a different subject than you do and does it very, very well)

    • “kind of like the admiration and respect you feel for a colleague that teaches a different subject than you do and does it very, very well”

      Thanks Patty. During my free period I used to sit in on classes of excellent teachers (Sue Southam – English, Gordon Moore – Art and a few others) just to learn “stuff” not in my specialty (or have things I learned decades ago reinforced).

      • Patty Chadwick

        Didn’t think it was possible, but you just bumped up my like and respect for YOU another notch!!!

        • Laura Culley

          What Patty said! She’s getting in the habit of saying what I wanted to say but got distracted and didn’t!

  • Laura Culley

    You know that I’m NOT a photographer. I’m lucky to get a decent snapshot. My hands shake, too, albeit for different reasons (and I’m so sorry you’re dealing with that.). I can’t trust them to do much of anything, and holding a camera (binoculars, tools, raptors, etc.) steady with the stream of RA mechanical damage from my shoulder to my hands is well nigh impossible–even if the weight of the camera/binoculars is in the negligible region for most everybody else. So if I were a photographer, I’d choose the fastest possible shutter speed while knowing absolutely nothing about how it would affect the rest of the photographic equation. I need the camera (binocs, tools, etc.) to do the majority of the work. Raptors/birds are excluded from that idea. They might, or might not, cooperate with anything I want to do. It’s their choice, they move faster than lightning and I’m not in charge of that–not my job on this spinning rock.
    Now, all that said, you had to point out the “soft” right foot. I’d never have noticed it. To my eyes, I see the teeny, tiny, negligible bit of action (similar to that of a speeding race car but MUCH cooler!) as a plus. To me, it speaks of the reality of the situation and I’m a big fan of reality. Also to my (old) eyes, the SLIGHT (negligible) blur adds to the charm of the overall photo. It’s a positive, not a negative. Once again, we disagree on the quibbling. But that’s OK. You’re the photographer in search of absolute perfection and I’m not. But I GET your quest for perfection 😉

    • Laura, there are other folks in your camp too. Some don’t mind motion blur (of wings etc) at all as long as the head’s sharp because it implies natural movement. It’s usually not my preference though…

  • Marty K

    Ditto everyone’s comments! 🙂

    The song “Steppin’ Out” popped into my head when I saw the image; except it’s now “Steppin’ out with my Towhee.” 😉

    For those of you who want to brave the Earworm of the Day:

    • I don’t remember that song very well, Marty – just a dim memory when I watched the clip so hopefully the earworm won’t survive very long… 🙂

  • Susan Stone

    This is definitely a great shot, even with the soft right foot. I didn’t even see that until I read what you wrote, because I was so taken with the idea that you got the bird moving to another perch.

  • I, for one, enjoy your teaching posts (I think you already know that.) I’m not a photographer, but I learn and that’s a good thing.

  • Joanne OBrien

    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed this photo – blurry foot or no! You caught the athleticism of bird. And of course I love learning the technical details involved in the wonderful but difficult work of bird photography!

  • Sharon Constant

    It’s still beautiful…and I echo Dick’s and Judy’s comments about shutter speed/ISO/DOF. Myself, I almost never get it exactly right. As I’m bumbling with settings in the hope of getting a better image, I miss the action shot… but I keep trying and your teachings are always in my mind.

  • Judy Gusick

    The fast shutter speeds have also been a lesson for me even if the trade off is ISO and DOF at times – much better odds of catching the action. Cool photo even with the right foot a bit blurry. 🙂 The spotted Towhees had a banner year here for chick production. We have a dozen or so running around the yard and feeders at present:)

    • “much better odds of catching the action”

      Exactly, Judy. If all you’re after is pretty pictures of stationary birds they’re not always necessary but…

  • Dick Harlow

    I have you to thank for now keeping my camera between moderate to high shutter speeds. I have found it to be one of the best pieces of advice, and it was all due to your posts and your images!! Never say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. VBG!

    • Thanks for that feedback, Dick. Sometimes I think I harp too much about fast shutter speeds on my blog but I’m convinced that for birds they’re often (though not always) a key ingredient for success.

      • Dick Harlow

        As you know I take a few images of butterflies and other natural history events, besides birds and I can tell you from my experience the higher shutter speeds with the cameras today prevent a lot of culled pictures purely on fuzzy of too soft because of motion blur. So, from my selfish point of view your images and posts have drilled into my thick brain the necessity of high shutter speeds. Many Many Thanks!