Resplendent Quetzal in the Oak forests of Costa Rica. Photo by Eduardo Libby

Rainforest Birds in Flight Photography

Photographing rain forest birds is a completely different business than shooting water birds on a sunny beach where you get to easily picture birds in flight at high shutter speeds. Inside a dark forest, well… you easily reach the limits of current technology.

If you’ve ever done bird photography you will know that your shutter speed has to be at least 1/250s to prevent perched bird’s body movements. Also, unless you are very close to your bird friend, your fanciest telephoto lens will have a teleconverter attached so your aperture will be f/4 or f/5.6. This adds up to setting ISO speeds around the 3200 mark. Sorry pixel-peepers: this is the nature of the beast.

Recently, I wrote a post about doing rainforest bird photography with a micro four thirds camera. In this format I don’t dare to go above ISO 1600 as feather detail is lost when the bird is small in the frame (most understory birds are at most tanager-sized). The math was inescapable: use 1/125s or even 1/60s and pray a lot.


Resplendent Quetzal. Photo by Eduardo Libby
My first Quetzal picture. Made in 2002 with the “blazingly fast” Provia ISO 400 film.


Seven years ago, in the Nikon D7000 era, I was very interested in photographing the beautiful Resplendent Quetzal in the Costa Rican cloud forest. This, for a change, is a large bird, with a body size larger than a Robin’s and a very long tail. I addition, some birds are tolerant enough of birders and photographers that they will go about their feeding and nesting even with people ten or twenty meters away: good enough for a 300 mm lens on my camera.

Armed with a 300 f.2.8 lens I did my math: If I set my ISO speed to 3200 I should be able to shoot at 1/1000s… barely enough for a bird in flight shot and in the ISO limit for reasonable feather detail. Now, there was this really nice bird nesting at Cerro de la Muerte and I pictured in my mind the Quetzal arriving or leaving its nest in glorious flight…

More easily said than done: you don’t get more than a split second to react as the bird flies form a perch a few meters away to its tree-hole nest or jumps from the nest to fly away or perch in a different branch… and it doesn’t tell you when.

I am not a person to brag about how hard it was to get a shot. I tell you all this so you will realize that prefocusing was the only way to go: The Nikon D7000 tracking in poor light was not even close to what was needed to follow this bird. So I prefocused about two meters away from the nest and tried to time my shooting so I would get the bird as it passed this point.

Did it work? I missed a lot of photos of course but I got a sharp one, …at 3200 ISO, 1/1000s and f/2.8… barely enough!

Resplendent Quetzal. Photo by Eduardo Libby
A male Resplendent Quetzal in the Oak forests of Costa Rica. The bird had just taken-off from the nest, visible above its head. Click here to see more photos on my website.

4 thoughts on “Rainforest Birds in Flight Photography”

  1. I have done it also. I prefocus at the nest entrance. I was almos perpendicular to the posible Quetzal trajectory. I lost some shots but get some ones good. As you did it is more dificult in front of the bird, good job👍👍


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