Photographing a Pacific Wren in the Redwood Forests of California

During a short visit to the beautiful redwood forests of northern California, I spent a morning photographing a Pacific Wren. My goal with this outing was to capture this tiny bird in its massive habitat and try my best with a few photos to show the scale of the huge forest.

I chose to use my 100-400mm lens mounted to my Nikon Z9. Using the zoom lens was key to allowing me to show off the habitat in the way I wanted. Using this lens also presented some challenges. The main challenge was how dark it was under the canopy of the redwood forest, and with the 100-400mm not being the fastest lens at f/4.5-5.6 I knew I’d be using some slow shutter speeds.

It wasn’t long into my hike that I came across a Pacific Wren. It was however near a parking lot and presented additional challenges with a less-than-ideal background. I spent a few moments with this bird and decided to move on.

Walking through the giant redwoods is so incredible, the sights of course, but also the smells and the sounds. It all felt so alive and fresh and quiet on this particular morning. I heard the haunting call of the Varied Thrush all around me, even though I never saw one of these gorgeous birds. Thankfully it wasn’t long again before I came upon another Pacific Wren, this one was in a much better location too!

At first, the bird started out staying deep in the brush, not allowing me any photos but eventually, it worked its way out into the open. I had noticed an incredible mossy perch right near the path when I first heard this wren singing and thought to myself how great it would be if he went onto that. After spending a bit of time with this bird that’s exactly what happened. It made sense since wrens love to find somewhat open perches to belt out their beautiful song and announce their territory.

When he first moved out onto the perch I was already set to shoot vertical since I knew that would fit the scene better. I zoomed out to almost 100mm and worked the scene to frame the tiny bird against the dark trees in the background so that it would stand out on its little green stage and then he posed perfectly and sang out!

Dealing with the low light, however, gave me two options with my lens choice. I could either go with a more manageable shutter speed and let the ISO go really high or work with a slower shutter speed. I personally almost always go with the slower shutter speed option. I know there are possibilities to reduce noise in post with high ISO photos, but I’ve never liked the final results they produce, especially software plugins such as Topaz Denoise and such, it’s just not my taste. Instead, I choose to work with far slower shutter speeds than most photographers tend to use.

For almost all of the photos I shot during this session, I settled on 1/50 for the shutter speed. This may sound far too low to many of you but in my experience, most students I get to try these slower shutter speeds are surprised at how well they do with them. Of course, this means that some images are soft because of my own camera shake or when the bird moves too fast but if I take enough frames I seem to always get plenty of sharp images to choose from. This allows my ISO to stay lower and I get a cleaner image with generally better color and dynamic range before I do anything in post.

With these photos, for example, the ISO was already at 3,200 so if I only went up to 1/100 I would have been at 6,400 ISO. If I went to a more reasonable shutter speed of say 1/400 my ISO would have been 25,600! At that point even the best noise reduction software would struggle to give accurate detail on such a tiny subject and the color would likely be pretty bad. You can likely see how taking the gamble of 1/50 and taking a lot of frames pays off. Lastly, I’ll add that with the modern stabilization of modern lenses in combination with in-camera stabilization the shutter speeds can get really low even when hand-held like I was.

Since I had the zoom lens with me I of course zoomed into 400mm and took some nice close-up portraits of this adorable bird on his mossy stage. That is one of my favorite things about shooting a 100-400mm lens. On one end you can get a truly telephoto smooth background bird photo and on the other end, you can be far wider and include a lot of habitat. All without having to move one bit. It’s such a versatile lens and the main reason it’s become one of my favorite to use over the past year.

After this outing, I had a chance to go back to the same bird a bit later in the day, and during my second outing, I chose to bring my 24-70mm lens with me to go even wider. This time I was able to fully show off the amazing redwood forest habitat that this Pacific Wren lived in.

This entire shoot was one that I recorded for my behind-the-scenes lessons that I share for free.

In the video, you can see through my viewfinder along with me as I shoot as well as a wide-angle view of the scene so you can see what the habitat looks like. I narrate the video telling you exactly what I’m doing as I’m doing it. It’s like being in a workshop with me remotely!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into how I approach a shoot like this and if you are interested you can also see how I edit the photos in the post-processing video.

This allows you to see the entire process from capture to finished image! Don’t miss many more free lessons all available at with new lessons coming out every month.

About the author: Ray Hennessy is a nature and wildlife photographer. You can find more of his work and connect with him on his website.