Category Archives: Nuthatches

Photographing a Red Breasted Nuthatch Against A Dark Background

Photographing a Red Breasted Nuthatch

I search out Red Breasted Nuthatches when I’m birding. Tiny, gregarious, and bold birds, they seem to always pause, like they are formulating a plan before they rush off. Gives me that moment I need to get a focus fix. Last summer, we had a pair that stayed in our yard to nest. So far this Spring, we have spotted two of these nuthatches. Sadly, they seem to be only passing through.

Photo of Red Breasted Nuthatch
Red Breasted Nuthatch
on Oversized Perch
With Dark Background
Taken With Flash Enhancement
ISO 400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Collecting Perches

I often venture out into the woods to collect moss and lichen coated pieces of deadwood, drag them back to our property, prop them up near the library windows and hope the birds will use them as a perch. It’s not hard to strategically arrange these perches against the forest of trees that surround our yard.  Sometimes, I have to twist and turn the camera and tripod (left, right, up, down) to build the perfect vantage point from which to shoot.

This photo shoot took place in early evening under a cloud covered sky. Ambient light provided some illumination to the perch, but very little into the woods beyond. (As the season progresses and the trees fill with leaves, less and less sun penetrates these woods.)

As I was lugging this burly piece of deadwood, it occurred to me that it was oversized for most of the birds in the yard- and might cause the perching bird image to appear unbalanced in the frame.  I used it anyway because I liked its character…. the texture, color, shape, peeling sides, notches and curves. Plus its very heftiness would give it some stability in the wind.

Red Breasted Nuthatch
Red Breasted Nuthatch
More Light Creeped in.
Some Indistinct Green Hues Blend With
the Dark Brown.
ISO400; f/9; 1/250 Second

Movement Caused By the Wind

Birds don’t seem to mind the swinging copper, aluminum, bamboo and wood chimes in our yard that resonate with the wind. This music portends that the camera will likely record swirling background patterns caused by movement within the distant woods and perhaps even little blotches of white and pink from the airborne blossom petals. This evening, I would just have to hope for a spot of calm when a bird alighted on my new perch.

Methods and Observations

  • While a cluttered natural environment does give a sense of place, it also tends to distract the viewer from the bird and its perch. I was aiming for less distraction…a plain darkish background, no swirls or fancy colors, no playful bokeh, no indication of the twigs and branches protruding out.
  • The subtleties of lighting (i.e. shadows and details) on your subject are much more apparent against a plain, dark background. For this shoot, I set the flashgun to Manual “M” so I could more efficiently control the light intensity and properly expose the subject but not the background. The most efficient way to darken an image background is by experimenting with the factors that you can control: 1) Flash intensity….The stronger the flash blast, the more likely the light will travel past the subject. 2) Subject and background distance….the wider the distance between the subject and the flash the farther light will have to travel;  and 3) Aperture setting….if the camera is set to a tight aperture, the light will fall off more quickly. It’s a balancing act.
  • Since birds are often tiny and distant, they don’t come within the normal range of a flash. For most of my birding adventures, I attach a fresnel flash extender on the flashgun to create more of a spotlight effect. NOTE: Without the extender, the light blast will spread wide, bounce and scatter depending on what’s in its path and the proximity of the subject.
  • The ambient light illuminated the perch as much as 2 stops more than the wooded background. I used the DOF button to see how much darker the background would appear compared to the subject. The more I tightened the aperture, the less the ambient light creeped in. I then played with the flash intensity, trying to control background exposure…. figuring out how much ambient light to record to produce a brown background.
  • My 500mm lens naturally creates a separation between the subject and its background. The longer the focal length, the more the angle of view is diminished.
  • I set the camera to partial metering, so exposure settings would not take into account the darker background.
  • After taking dozens of photos of a barren perch trying to get the light right, I sat back to wait for a bird to complete the picture. It did not take long for this Red Breasted Nuthatch to give me an opportunity to test out the exposure.

A Compelling Moment

Mixing up the exposure parameters in order to capture a compelling moment takes time. Doing this in-camera – not in post processing – is more desirable and rewarding.

NOTE: If you are looking for a nature photographer who is very skillful creating black backgrounds for his images, check out Joel Sartre, National Geographic photographer.


Photographing the Red Breasted Nuthatch and Upgrading Firmware

Photographing the Red Breasted Nuthatch

This Red Breasted Nuthatch is a compact cutie with his short tail, barrel chest, and stub neck. He is considerably smaller than his cousin, the White Breasted Nuthatch but is highly vocal, and thus stands out in a crowd. The blueish gray male sports a cinnamon breast, a bold blue or black cap, a sharp black line through both eyes, and two white stripes under and over his eyes. His long, sharp bill is used to excavate the tiny crannies in the tree trunks for hidden insects.

Navigating with their heads pointing up, sideways, or down, Red Breasted Nuthatches are bold and acrobatic in their dealings with other birds at the fountain. They are however, not so aggressive as to dare to compete for a nest box (in our yard) with the tinier but more aggressive House Wrens.

Photo of Rose Breasted Nuthatch
Rose Breasted Nuthatch
ISO1600; f/9; 1/250 second

A Surprise Find

Red Breasted Nuthatches were a surprise find in our yard….. we have not seen them since I photographed them last in late 2013. As a species, they are unpredictably irruptive in their travels. NOTE: “An irruption is a dramatic, irregular migration of a large numbers of birds to areas where they aren’t typically found, possibly at a great distance from their normal ranges.”

When these little birds do come, they display very little fear around humans and are a treat to photograph. Like hummers, they zoom in around the camera to get a better look at me. I’m hoping the food supply around us is sufficient to keep them here all winter.

Keeping the Camera Current

While I sit behind the camera watching for birds, I often peruse the endless photography resources on the web for news, rumors, announcements, and inspiration. It doesn’t take long to come across information about the newest firmware upgrades available for DSLR cameras.

Modern DSLR cameras are basically sophisticated computers, especially pro grade cameras. Camera manufacturers respond to customer input and complaints by researching and developing software enhancements, new camera features and bug fixes having to do with improving camera functionality. (Image processing, auto focus, camera lockup, battery draining, etc.)

Rose Breasted Nuthatch
Rose Breasted Nuthatch
500 mm lens with tele-extender.
ISO1000; f/8; 1/250 Second

My First DSLR Firmware Update

My first foray with updating the firmware in my DSLR camera came two years ago. It had to do with enhancing the autofocus mechanism when a tele-extender was attached to a lens. I did eventually download the update, but only after I spent some time researching the benefits that this particular fix was suppose to provide. I also checked various Canon user on-line resources to make sure that other photographers did not experience unintended problems with this particular update.

Some Background Information on this update:

In order for a photographer to see optimally through the viewfinder, she needs light. In order for the camera and lens to accurately auto focus, they need light. When preparing to take a photo, the len is always set to its widest aperture to get the most light for auto focus purposes. It immediately and automatically stops down to the aperture needed for correct exposure when the shutter is released.

One of the disadvantages of attaching a tele-extender to a lens is that the len’s maximum aperture becomes smaller and light transmission through the lens is reduced. Example: My 500mm lens 4.0 L II lens with a 2x extender attached would lose 2 full aperture stops; so its widest aperture would be reduced from f/4 to f/8. That is a significant loss of light, so much so that autofocus may be unable to work at maximum capacity.

Firmware Fix:

Per Canon’s technical specifications, this firmware upgrade allowed “the central AF point to act as a cross-type point when working with lens/teleconverter combinations that give a maximum aperture of F8. This option effectively expands the size of the AF detection area to enhance autofocus performance with subjects that are small in the frame and difficult to track, such as small animals and birds in flight.”

Essentially, the firmware upgraded my camera’s microcomputer so that auto focus was able to work better with less light at the (tele-extender) max aperture of f/8. Pretty important fix for a bird photographer who uses 2.0 tele extenders.

Downloading Firmware

Firmware does not automatically download to your camera (like it may do on your internet connected computer and smart phone), but it’s an easy process. To find out if firmware (major or minor) is available for your camera, surf to the manufacturer’s website and search for firmware specific to your camera’s make and model.

Before you download any firmware:

1) Determine if the update is relevant for the kind of photography you do; and

2) Check to be sure that other photographers have had no technical problems with the upgrade.

Once you are comfortable that this technical fix is right for you, click the link to download it to your computer and copy the file to the camera’s compact flash memory card. (NOTE: Specific instructions for downloading and installing Canon Firmware Updates can be found at this link.)

I have always treated my DSLR cameras with kid gloves – and am intent on keeping them operating optimally so they are available when and where I need them for bird photography. It’s the smart thing to do, especially with such pricy equipment.


Photo of Red Breasted Nuthatch

Photographing Nuthatches in Autumn

Capturing Autumn Foliage

I recently received a beautiful bird feeder from a dear friend, just in time for me to work on incorporating this year’s stunning Autumn foliage as a background in my bird photographs.

We feed the birds. The feeders we have in our yard are mostly squirrel proof, table top feeders with aluminum baffles intended to keep the squirrels off. We also put out squirrel-proof hanging feeders, made of plastic and aluminum, that hold tons of birdseed and are weight adjustable for small song birds. They are also chew proof, dishwasher safe, and warranteed forever. Both types are useful, stand up to the weather, and do a modest job of keeping away the squirrels and raccoons.

Why not photograph birds from these feeders?  Because, despite all of their attributes, these feeders are devoid of charm and consequently add nothing to the art of bird photography. With this gift, I now have a bird feeder that adds something special to a bird photograph.

Photographing Birds That Frequent Feeders

For this shoot, I decided to focus my camera on the white breasted nuthatch and the red breasted nuthatch.

Feeder birds reliably come to the feeders. They are fearless in that they really don’t care if a camera, tripod and photographer are near the feeder, as long as they are provided with plenty of food. I was able to set up the scene by hanging a beautiful bird feeder in a place that guaranteed:  1) optimal light, 2) close proximity,  3) a vibrant Autumn-colored backdrop, and 4) my comfort.      😎

Managing Bokeh

The vibrant fall colors were stunning in our front yard this year. I set up my tripod fairly close to my new feeder. The sun was at my back and the new feeder and the best color in our yard was in front of me. I strategically placed the feeder a good distance from the back drop so I could better manage the bokeh. In addition, I broke off most of the little, pointy twigs that I saw through my viewfinder and removed any debris on the trees that would detract from the scene I was trying to create. I could see that the bokeh was going to be beautiful even before I took the first shot. See this post for more on camera settings for optimal backgrounds.

The Birds Will Come

It was just minutes before the usual feeder birds (nuthatches, chickadees, and titmice) got use to me sitting on my stool behind my camera and came to the feeder. The birds that frequent our feeders know me for the most part, but are still watchful, especially when it comes time to refill the feeders.

Photo of Red Breasted Nuthatch
Red Breasted Nuthatch
ISO 2000; f/7.1; 1/2500 Second
Photograph of Red Breasted Nuthatch
Typical Feeding Behavior For Red Breasted Nuthatches – Grab and Go
ISO 5000; f/7.1; 1/2000 Second

Two Kinds of Nuthatches

Before this photo shoot, I had not noticed that two kinds of nuthatches visit our feeders – the red breasted nuthatch and the white breasted nuthatch. The red-breasted is smaller with a chestnut colored breast and a black line of feathers running through both eyes and stretching to the bird’s shoulders. We see fewer of these nuthatches at the feeders during the winter months because they often migrate. The white breasted nuthatch is a larger bird with a black strip on top of his head. White breasted nuthatches can be seen all winter long.

Both types of nuthatches move fast and furious. They are interesting to observe because, when they are feeding and otherwise flitting about, they don’t seem to care which end is up.

Photo of White Breasted Nuthatch
White Breasted Nuthatch – Fall Colors May Be Vibrant, But Plumage is Quite Faded This Time of Year
ISO 1600; f/7.1; 1/2000 Second

The beautiful autumn colors are glorious and really dominate the photos. The birds’ feathers are quite muted or molted this time of year.

Below, I’ve included a photo of the white breasted nuthatch with its spring plumage.

Photo of White Breasted Nuthatch
White Breasted Nuthatch- Taken with Bright Spring Plumage
ISO 1000; f/2.8; 1/1600 Second

Thank you, Margi!

The nuthatches and I are very grateful for this beautiful outdoor bird feeder.  I plan to keep it full of seed all winter long.