Just starting bird photography, have some questions about sharpness

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Paul E Cantrell Junior Member • Posts: 44
Just starting bird photography, have some questions about sharpness
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I have 20 years of experience in aerial/portrait/weddings/sports, but wanted to make some nice pictures to hang in our house. Figured I'd give wildlife a try, especially birds.

I regularly shoot with a Nikon D5 and D810. Already had the 200-500 for sports, so I started with that lens, with a 1.4 teleconverter. To tell the truth, shooting at the Plum Island Wildlife Refuge, that still isn't enough reach. Bought a D500 to add the reach of a crop body (and then didn't use the TC on that body). I have a Wimberley on order, but for now I'm hand holding.

I think I'm getting results in line with other people here for birds that are sitting. I've included one of those pictures for reference. This says to me that the lens is nominally sharp and the autofocus is functioning:

D500 200-500 @ 500mm ISO 1600 f/5.6 1/2000 second single focus point selected

I've turned noise reduction off here so that you can see the sensor noise. This image is cropped. In general, when a bird is sitting like this, I'll use single focus point on the eye. The image seems sharp to me, although theres a lot of noise, and the (substantial) crop is causing us to reach the limits of the sensor if you pixel peep. But again, I'm including this to show that I think I'm in the ballpark in this situation.

Birds in flight is whole 'nother thing.

Unfortunately, the birds in flight I've shot up to now have been really far away. So far that by the time I crop there just isn't enough information for a sharp picture. However, yesterday I was in my car when a hawk decided to land nearby. I shot this with the lens at 500mm, on the D500 crop body, and the bird was fairly close. Still, it's cropped to about 5 megapixel:

D500 200-500 @ 500mm ISO 1250 f/5.6 1/2000 second d25 focus area selected

Still, although you can see that it's a hawk, there's no detail in the feathers, eyes, etc. I see a few issues, so I'll try a few things, but I thought people here might have some suggestions to help me get this dialed in a little quicker than I'm likely to all by myself.

First, I think I was expecting (from a review I read) that the D500 would be pretty good from a noise standpoint. I'm used to being able to dial in ISO 25000 on my D5 for sports etc.. ISO 1250 I would generally consider a very mild ISO, but I think I'm seeing a lot of sensor noise. From looking at what some of the other people are using here, I'm thinking I might have to limit the ISO to 640 or so on that body? That's an easy test I can do to see what my limit ISO should be.

I think the focus is the other obvious possible source of softness, especially here where the focus could have hit on the bush instead of the bird, or the wingtip instead of the head. But this image is out of a group of 9, and none of them show any better focus (AF-C Servo Focus was selected). Also, if it was focussing on the wingtip then I'd expect to see sharp feathers on the wingtip at least. I'm not seeing that. So I have a feeling it's not focus issues.

I'm thinking 1/2000 should be plenty fast for a big bird like this, right? The little birds I understand I might need 1/4000 but frankly I can't track them in flight anyway But this guy wasn't moving that quickly, so I think 1/2000 should have been sufficient.

Things I will probably try: I'll probably try stopping down to f/8 to help the lens and the focus system (light permitting). I'll try limiting ISO to 640. I'll try to crop less, but that might entail using the 1.4 TC, which will probably cause some softness issues on it's own.

I was braced against my  car, and VR was active, so I don't think camera shake was a major source of softness. (and yeah, the Wimberley will help, but lugging the tripod around will probably cause a different set of issues).

I'm wondering what everybody else thinks? Am I missing anything?

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Paul Cantrell
http://www.copters.com - helicopter website
http://photos.copters.com - photo website

 Paul E Cantrell's gear list:Paul E Cantrell's gear list
Nikon D3 Nikon D810 Nikon D500 Nikon D5 Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR +2 more
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Nikon 200-500mm F5.6E ED VR Nikon D500
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