Photographing Birds with an iPhone: Leave the 600mm Lens at Home?

iPhone illustration depicting a bird in flight

One of the world’s most famous photography seminars takes place every December, when hundreds of photographers flock to the small town of Socorro, New Mexico, to document the migration of some 20,000 birds on their way to Mexico.

Can I take it out using only the iPhone?

Photographers with cameras on tripods outside at night

Serious shutter bugs bring giant lenses with focal lengths of 400mm and above, along with huge DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, extenders, most powerful tripods, you name it, business. And they don’t play. They arrive as early as 4:30 a.m. at the Bosque Del Apache Nature Reserve to secure a prime birding spot.

I had the small iPhone 13 Pro (but the Max version!).

I’ve seen great work showcased online by professionals like Rick Simon and Scott Bourne from Bosque, and I’ve noticed that the best shots have always been those of a variety of flocks of birds darting across the sky. Can I definitely take this on my iPhone 12mm ultra-wide lens for still photos and video? (I had two iPhones, 12 Pro Max too.)

The benefit of shooting on the iPhone was less than carrying equipment, only a phone, tripod, and smartphone tripod adapter, with a camera that video quality changed perceptions of a mobile camera’s ability. The iPhone produces beautiful time-lapse videos. It’s not as sharp as my Sony, but there’s a lot of work to be done and it’s easy to share moments online afterwards.

While other photographers were shooting off their preview screens and congratulating themselves on a great job, I could click two buttons and make my social media work right away, over the phone.

And I co-hosted a podcast about the joys of iPhone photography, so if I can’t walk the talk, who can?

Birds take off at sunrise in the Bosque Del Apache Nature Reserve
Morning “explosion” of the famous Bosque bird

Filming my first day confirmed that I was right. I got the wide shot I dreamed of, as if the birds were flying right after sunrise over the water to head to another part of the park. Could this be better on my Sony device?

Bosque Del Apache Nature Reserve

With the 77mm telephoto on the iPhone 13 Pro Max, I couldn’t compete with the “pro” results at the seminars on my left and right, but I can get a little closer to what I would have gotten a year ago with the 65mm iPhone 12 Pro.

Birds in a pond in the Bosque Del Apache Nature Reserve

iPhone wasn’t enough to photograph birds

However, I have to be honest. The experience did not last long. By midday, on my first day at the Bourne workshop, I missed getting those real close-ups and reached for my bag for the Sony RX10 IV, a 24mm to 600mm compact lens camera.

Crane in the Bosque Del Apache Nature Reserve

A bird in flight in the Bosque Del Apache Nature Reserve

A bird in flight in the Bosque Del Apache Nature Reserve

Tips for photographing birds with a smartphone

For starters, your smartphone will likely have an ultra-wide-angle lens, which is great for capturing flocks of birds in flight.

The trick is that you want to be able to move quickly and take multiple shots of the birds, which will freeze the action. To do this, access the volume button on your phone, which enables you to go into burst mode, take many, many shots at once, and gives you a better likelihood of getting a sharp picture of the bird in flight.

You can also use your feet to take a close-up, walk slowly, so as not to frighten the bird, and do your best with the zoom you have.

Seagull walking on the wall by the water
Shot with iPhone 8
Close-up of seagulls
Shot on Sony RX10IV

At the end of the photography seminar, the two cameras went hand in hand. Sony for close-ups, the tripod-mounted iPhone was either recording long shots or available for the fastest videos.

Sure, you can attend a photo seminar using just your iPhone and get great shots, videos and time-lapse videos. But if you want to get those super close-ups of birds in flight, you’ll have to carry equipment.


About the author: Jefferson Graham is a Los Angeles-area writer/photographer and host of the travel photography streaming television series Photowalks. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. This article was also published here.

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