Wildlife Photography 101: Quickly Find Birds In Your Camera's Viewfinder Using Telephoto Lenses

Stepping up to a telephoto lens can be a jarring experience for bird photography hopefuls. With such a limited field of view while looking through the camera's viewfinder, how are you ever supposed to find anything?

In the latest video from my budding YouTube channel, I share a few techniques that you can use in the field to scope down these tiny little birds through bigger lenses. Moving the camera and lens about and searching at a leisurely pace for subjects is one thing, but with energetic and bouncy birds out in nature, a fast technique is critical to coming away with the most shots.

While talking technique is one thing, there's no replacement for getting out there and practicing. As I mention in the video, you don't need to wait around for birds or other wildlife to appear to get started with developing your speed skills. You can use any bird-sized object as a stand-in subject and practice your routine of going from a first glance to how fast you can get it sharp in your viewfinder and photograph it.

Do you have any other helpful tips for photographing fast-moving birds? Let us know in the comments below.

Ryan Mense's picture

Ryan Mense is a wildlife cameraperson specializing in birds. Alongside gear reviews and news, Ryan heads selection for the Fstoppers Photo of the Day.

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It might be easier to find them without the lens .. imagine a 1 degree field of view and a fast moving bird.
AF is another problem .. what do recommend on settings ??
This was a 400 mm zoom with 1.4x and cropped like hell. Zooms are most helpfull because you can find them w lower mag and zoom in. But be sure to view without the lenes as much as possible.

Smaller bodies allow say the left eye on the VF and the right looking over the body.

Yes, I'm cursed with left eye dominance so I don't get to enjoy the benefit of my other eye keeping tabs around the side of the camera. I'm wondering what specific camera works for you that you can see over the body with the right eye?

The Panasonic G9 and the Sony A9 work that way.

Whoa that lens is a hefty bit of weaponry. I can only imagine the recoil.

I am very frequently shooting at extreme focal lengths longer than 1200mm (up to 3000mm, and sometimes even more), and there is a brilliant accessory from Nikon to help with finding your subject without zooming out - Nikon Dot Sight DF-M1. Normally, you mount it on a hot shoe, calibrate at the beginning of your session, and enjoy your shooting. For bigger lenses, probably you would need some kind of extender to lift Dot Sight device a bit higher to avoid occlusion of the subject by lens hood. When using dot sight, I mainly use LCD screen simultaneously with Dot Sight, so you have both real scale and zoomed in view simultaneously. If I go a bit wider and decide to go autofocus, then I even fully rely on Dot Sight - sure you do not get perfect framing and have to crop in post then.

Good tricks ;)
I do the same when I hunt with my Kalashni_cow

Great tips, on my Oly with the 300mm + 1.4 TC, working at an equiv 840mm, it can be extremely difficult to find critters. I picked up the Olympus EE-1 recently and it’s helped cut my acquisition times in at least half. https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1116753-REG/olympus_ee_1_dot_sigh...

Yeah, I believe Dot Sight is a way to go - very similar to my Nikon DF-M1. Curious what are the differences. And, as I mentioned above, I am frequently way over 1200mm, so most of other techniques just do not work.

If you have a zoom it's way easier to find them first. Just yesterday I had a job shooting planes coming into EWR and although the shots had the planes filling the frame, I first found them zoomed all the way out. Had I not been able to do that I would not have been able to find most in time to frame them up properly for the shots.

Yes, this is pretty valid for subjects that move more or less consistenly, but for those who move erratically you need faster method that does not involve zoom out-in. Some lenses and superzoom cameras have dedicated "temporary zoom back" button that helps to zoom out by specific factor, stay there while you hold that button, and zoom in back to remembered position once you release. This function primarily intended for exactly situation you described.

On the other hand, some methods described in video do not work for clear-sky or stormy sea situations, as stable reference objects do not exist there.

Good video Ryan! As you already stated, practice is the #1 option for me as well. This shot was done handheld with 750mm equivalent (Nikon 200-500@500mm on a Nikon D7200). And yes, I know. The grey Heron is not a hectic bird.

There are cheaper options for the dot sight out there too. I am also left eye dominant


it already comes with a rail and cold shoe. I personally have the Olympus EE-1. Once it is dialed in it helps a lot. Keeper rate has definitely increased.