How to take better photos at a distance

I have been taking pictures of birds from a distance, using a camera with high optical zoom. I’ve noticed that my photos don’t look great, it appears blurry and grainy, and yet I don’t think it’s either motion blur or high-ISO induced noise. For example, here is my picture of a kestrel:
Compare that with a default taxon photo for kestrels:

The second photo looks a lot sharper. There’s lots of technical information for both photos, but which ones are the most important?

I know about the big three: shutter speed (exposure), aperture (f number), and ISO. Since I don’t have much motion blur (at least for the head of the bird), I think my comparatively slower shutter is fine. My f-number is 6.3, not far from 8 of the second photo. My ISO is 80 whereas the second photo is 800, so I’m expecting much less grain rather than more. Any advice on taking better photos?

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Focal length of the lens likely contributes more than anything if your image is cropped. Looks like you’re using a point-and-shoot camera which just can’t compete with the mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera used to take the other photo (even my DSLR can’t compete with a mirrorless).


Thanks, do you mind elaborating on why that might be the case? What makes mirrorless cameras better?

And yes my image was cropped in post-processing. If you look at the original size of both photos, the bird takes up about the same number of pixels, so I thought they should be comparable resolution-wise.

My photo’s focal length is 129mm, the 35mm equivalent is 720mm. Not sure what I can do about that since the bird was far away.

I’m not exactly sure what you mean here. Your image is 808 x 808 pixels. The other image is 2560 x 1707 pixels.

This is kinda my point. You can certainly make improvements to your technique for better images, but I wouldn’t be disheartened by comparing your images to someone using professional-grade equipment. A $300 camera just won’t be able to compete with a $2,000+ camera as long as the person behind it knows how to use it.


A lot of the answers to your questions will depend on the specific camera and settings you are using. I would recommend finding a target (stationary) that mimics the distance and conditions (handheld vs. tripod, light level, etc.) you normally shoot in, and then systematically varying your settings to find what works best. I would guess the ISO 80 is too low myself and bump that up, but you may find differently!

On a side note, learning to brace the camera against a stationary object (even if you don’t have a tripod) can really help long distance photos.

You can also check for various correction settings on your camera like vibration reduction and similar.


I know a number of birders who carry monopods. I tried using one a couple of years ago for dragonflies. I also have a hiking staff with a camera thread on top. It’s worth the effort especially if you use a quick-release attachment. I suppose you could even get a ballhead. Now, you can’t always use one if the bird is above you but, it really helps in a lot of situations. I found that, after a little bit of practice, I could quickly set up to take a photo.


Here I meant the bird takes about the same amount of pixels - especially if you just look at the head of the bird. The other image has more pixels but much of it is empty sky.

I suppose I’m looking for two things here, and I’m grateful for advice on either. First is looking for ways I can improve my technique. Second is about the hardware, e.g. what feature of the 2000$ camera makes it good? Is it the sensor size? Aperture? Processor? Quality of the glass in the lens?

I try to do that when it’s practical, but in my understanding, that would primarily reduce motion blur, and won’t help with other factors?

your camera has a relatively small 1/2.3in. sensor. that’s going to be your main limiting factor for getting really sharp images. (your comparison image comes from a camera that has a full-frame sensor, which has 30+ times the surface area as your sensor.)

in this case, your ISO is 80 and your shutter speed is 1/250 second. if you want less blurry, you should bump up ISO and prioritize a faster shutter speed, if you can. it might end up grainier, but tradeoffs…


What matters most is whether your photo is clear enough to distinguish your organism from similar species, for identification purposes. Some species can clearly be identified even from a slightly blurred photo, which seems to be the case with yours.

It’s okay for iNat purposes to not have professional-quality photos, but having better photos is, of course, an admirable goal - one which I share.

I have a really nice “mirrorless” camera and good lens, but usually I don’t have it with me when I see the birds I would most like to photograph. (It’s heavy to lug around) Or I do have it with me, but I am not quick enough at getting it focused, especially for birds in flight. Or I have it with me, and nothing interesting appears.

I find a monopod useful if I am just watching for birds that come and go from a favorite tree, but I would find it cumbersome for tracking birds in the sky.

I know this is not actually advice…


The reciprocal rule in photography suggests that to avoid camera shake and achieve a sharp photo when handholding a camera, the shutter speed should be at least the reciprocal of the effective focal length of the lens. This means if you’re using a lens (or a camera with a fixed lens) with a 35mm equivalent focal length, your shutter speed should be at least the same as that focal length to minimize the risk of blur from hand shake.

Your Sony DSC-HX60 is equipped with a 1/2.3" sensor, which is a common size for compact cameras. The crop factor for a 1/2.3" sensor is approximately 5.62. This means that to get the 35mm equivalent focal length, we multiply the actual focal length by the crop factor.

35mm equivalent focal length = Actual focal length × Crop factor

Substituting the given focal length of 129mm and the crop factor for a 1/2.3" sensor:

35mm equivalent focal length = 129mm × 5.62

Given the 35mm equivalent focal length of approximately 725mm for the Sony DSC-HX60, as calculated earlier, the reciprocal rule would suggest a minimum shutter speed of 1/725 seconds to avoid blur caused by camera shake.

However, the metadata you provided mentions a shutter speed of 1/250 seconds. This is slower than what the reciprocal rule suggests for a 725mm equivalent focal length, which could indeed contribute to the blurriness of the photo due to camera shake.

Simply put, if your focal length is 50mm then your shutter speed should be a minimum of 1/50th of a second.
If your focal length is 200mm then your shutter speed should be a minimum of 1/200th of a second
If your focal length is 500mm then your shutter speed should be a minimum of 1/500th of a second
and so on…


seems like hand shake would be influenced by all sorts of factors like stabilization and technique. there might be some blurriness from hand shake in the photo, but i’m guessing the blurriness issue the original poster probably cares about most is the motion blur in the wings. do you have a shutter speed formula for that?

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Thanks, I haven’t heard this rule before but it sounds reasonably easy to implement, I’ll give it a try.

What’s annoying about the point-and-shoot cameras is that they don’t display mm, only the zoom level, so that’s one more multiplication I need to do in my head.

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Your question is a good one. And it would be great if more people took some time to study the answers. (And I’m not even an Identifier!)

First, I don’t really agree that it all comes down to camera quality, or power. Today’s small sensor cameras are very capable and let’s not forget that they have more resolution than the digital pro DSLRs of only, what 15 years ago?

But another area you might want to consider is post processing. I buy my camera now based on my software and skills as much as I do anything else. Why? Sure. Cost is a BIG factor for this pensioner. But also, so is the camera size/weight and ‘PF’ – preciousness factor.

Small sensors are generally much lighter than DSLRs and even when they’re not, they can pack a tremendous amount more zoom into their closed lens system. And that’s the preciousness factor too: with no option to change the lens, using a small sensor bridge camera means you never need to worry about changing lenses and exposing camera guts to the winds of chance with an in-field lens change. (Winds that often include sand, pollen, and other airborne particles)

Lighter/one-lens bridge cameras are just more opportunistic when it comes to grab and go, as well as easier to keep an eye on and less tempting to any would-be thiefs. And, if you ever encounter accidental disaster (‘Oops, where did that cliff come from?’), replacement is not going to kill your photo career based on finances.

Back to software.
I took your original image JPG, and ran it through some standard steps I use in a lot of my photo rehab and here’s the results:

The nice thing about software is it’s not that ‘tied’ to your camera model. Old, new, bridge, DSLR, jpg, RAW – a lot of it just works. And many good editors, some even free, some work on your phone.

I think I would have appended your question with:
“… without motion blur.” because so many of the other answers here attacked that side of it. Yes, the shutter speed is critical and all other factors have to take the back seat to it – but so is focus tracking, whether it exists or not in your camera. ESPECIALLY true for BIF (Birds in Flight) shots.

The simple answer to shutter is ‘as high as you can get away with’. And to that end, this is where RAW as an option truly comes into play. Why? Because RAW post-processing allows you to shoot in that apparently ‘horribly noisy’ high-ISO range and remove most of the noise and recover detail!

Plus, RAW editing can even often retrieve blown out highlight areas and deep shadow detail that you thought was just lost completely – judging by the camera preview.

I use MOSTLY a small sensor, superzoom (Nikon P950) for birds and/or insect macro (another big advantage if you carry a little Raynox macro clip-on in your back pocket). Here’s some samples (all handheld) from that cam that are pretty typical for me these days:

BIF, actually a single frame from a short 4k video clip with manual shutter speed set to 1/2000s (within the 1/30s frame). This is another ‘hack’ that works for me, also with quick bugs: you get 30 frames per second of shooting and you’re more likely to get ‘something’ decent.


But you don’t need to go for an ultrazoom bridge to get good results. I took this one last week while pulling a wagon with two two-year-olds, from across the street, and using my old Powershot 540 (bought it used two years ago, for $150):

No, not a BIF, but it shows that low pixel sensors do not mean the same as low quality. Gotta run. Back later if you have any questions.


With your camera, the only way you can improve your photos is to get closer to the bird. Your ISO and Shutter Speed is fine- although you might want to increase your ISO and shutter speed a bit to stop the motion blur. It won’t improve your photo significantly in that situation, however (since the resolution isn’t good anyway).

To photograph bird shots like that with high success rate (i.e. you don’t need to get too close to birds), you want a lens that is at least 500mm, or a very sharp 400mm.
Usually, it is the border where you can resolve the feathers.

Your actual focal length is 129mm, which is just not enough at all.
Bird photography is all about the lens. Sensor comes next.

If you attach the lens that was used to take the beautiful shot to the sensor used in your camera (although it is impossible), you will get a really good resolution.
However, it is a 500mm f/4 lens with 2x teleconverter, which costs more than 10k (you can find a good deal around $3000 used, however older versions are heavier and there’s a risk too).
Smaller sensor size is fine, but shorter lens is not…

A lot of people use the Equivalent focal length, but try to ignore that at first.
There are so many physical limitations (i.e. diffraction, lens sharpness) that makes equivalent focal length useless.

Since I’m Japanese and I’ve tried (or seen sample images of) pretty much all of the birding gears you can possibly get, feel free to ask me for help for getting a good setup. If you can afford minimum of around $500 USD, you can get a decent setup.

I currently use Nikon D500+AF-S 500mm F5.6 PF lens, which is absolutely excellent. It worth the cost, but still, costs quite a bit.

Also, this is an excellent video about budget gear, although missing a few good cheap lenses.


It is as some people can hand hold 1/15th of a second and get a clear crisp shot. I can’t. You could try a technique like pre-focusing where the camera’s focus is manually set to a specific point in anticipation of capturing a fast-moving subject as it passes through that point.

To specifically answer your question, I don’t have a formula for that except to say that in general the bigger the bird the slower the shutter speed. The OP has captured a Eurasian Kestrel. 1/250th is just not fast enough to get a crisp shot of a bird like that. In a case like that I’d open the account with 1/1000th of a second, chimp the screen, and make any adjustments to my settings as needed from there.

You can get away with 1/1000th of a second for big birds in flight like Pelicans. For something like a Pacific Black Duck maybe more like 1600th-2000th of a second will get the job done.

However, it’s not always about freezing motion to get a completely still shot. Sometimes you might want some motion blur to show action I’d emphasise artistic choice as there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to photography.

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i don’t know that it’ll fix blurry and grainy, but for what it’s worth, i think the most important thing for great / interesting photos is great / interesting light. In this case, if your kestrel only appeared for a few seconds, maybe you just took the best possible opportunistic photo, but i think any time you can put yourself in the best position to get good light, whether by taking pictures at certain times of the day or under certain sunlight / cloud conditions or by shooting from certain angles relative to your subject and light source, you’ll end up with better photos in general.

i don’t think there’s a specific rule to achieve the best result, since i think it often just depends on what you’re trying to capture from an artistic perspective and what your camera is capable of, but forget about blur and grain for a moment, and take a look at your kestrel photo, which was taken from the dark side of the bird, and then look at your comparison photo, which captures its bird from the sunlit side of the bird.

it may be worth finding or placing an object in the middle of an open field, and just try taking pictures of the object, field, and sky from different angles, different distances, etc. to see how light affects the resulting photos. come back and repeat with different lighting conditions – on a cloudy day, when the sun is overhead, when the sun is rising, etc.


Your photo is pretty good for the camera you have. You need higher shutter speed for motion shots. You can eliminate a little bit of the shadows easily with most free software on computers.
Huge lenses aren’t a necessity for birds. Check mine out. I use a 300mm lens and have for most of mine on iNat. I do however have a camera with a ,1.5x multiplier so it’s the equivalent of a 450mm. I just have to get closer than people who use the big lenses. I , however, can move through the field much quicker and easier than people lugging around huge heavy lenses and tripods. I handhold for every shot.

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While I don’t think it’s the issue in this particular case (looks like motion blur), one thing that can plague photos taken with long lenses is heat distortion. This is a pretty good breakdown video of the problem. It’s something I often forget about because I like getting low, eye-level shots.