Bird Photography Camera Settings

One of the pastimes that many photographers enjoy is bird photography, both birds-in-flight and perched birds. How one chooses to use a camera is a personal decision and there isn’t a single ‘best way’ of doing things. This article outlines some bird photography camera settings that folks may consider.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/6.3, 1/5, ISO-1100

Before getting into this article it is important to remember the Exposure Triangle. Getting a good exposure with a camera involves the coordination of three factors: shutter speed, aperture and ISO setting. Whenever we change one of those factors it can affect the other two.

Camera modes
Most people who photograph birds would avoid using their cameras in a full ‘auto’ mode or a semi-automatic mode like ‘P’. This makes good sense since taking more control of your camera’s settings helps to ensure successful results when photographing birds.

When I’m out photographing birds I often meet other people enjoying this activity. Frequently I ask them what camera mode they are using. Most often people tell me they are using Shutter Priority (S on your camera’s mode dial). This is especially true for birds-in-flight. The second most common mode is Manual (M on your camera’s mode dial), followed by Aperture Priority (A on your camera’s mode dial).

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/250, ISO-1400

Shutter Priority is typically used when a photographer wants more control of their shutter speed in order to ‘freeze’ the movement of a bird-in-flight or perhaps a bird that is constantly moving when preening or feeding. This setting allows you to ‘lock in’ your shutter speed.

Manual mode is used when a photographer wants control of both shutter speed and aperture. Folks who use a Manual setting will often set their ISO as well when photographing perched birds where the lighting is constant. Birds-in-flight can be more difficult due to changing lighting conditions and in this case an ISO range is often used in combination with Manual settings. ISO ranges tend to vary by camera model. Manual ‘locks in’ both shutter speed and aperture settings.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 228.9mm, efov 618mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-500

Aperture priority is typically used when a photographer wants more control of depth-of-field with the bird image. This can be useful when photographing fairly static birds when in a blind, or when photographing very calm, captive birds. This setting ‘locks in’ the aperture used.

Shutter Speed
The shutter speed that a photographer chooses will depend on the amount and speed of movement of the subject bird. For example, a perched bird that is fairly static can often be successfully captured with shutter speeds in the 1/160 to 1/500 range. Slower shutter speeds are certainly possible but these are often reserved for captive birds that are calmer, more stationary, and acclimatized to people, like the specimen in the photograph below, and the first image in the body of this article.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 110mm, efov 297mm, f/5.6, 1/30, ISO-3200

To ‘freeze’ the wing movements of birds-in-flight faster shutter speeds will be used. Often shutter speeds of 1/2000 or faster are used for this type of photography.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 258mm, efov 695mm, f/8, 1/2000, ISO-450

Hummingbirds, swallows and other birds with extremely fast wing movements will require even faster shutter speeds such as 1/5000 and sometimes even faster.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/5000 sec, ISO-1800

To ‘freeze’ the motion of a bird feeding, which is often a bit of a frenzied activity, you may also choose to shoot at a fairly fast shutter speed as seen in the image below.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 228.9mm, efov 618mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-6400

If I would have used a slower shutter speed I would not have been able to get the bird’s open beak to appear sharp in the image. I decided to trade-off some image quality shooting at ISO-6400 in order to ‘freeze’ the bird’s motion using 1/2000 shutter speed.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 228.9mm, efov 618mm, f/8, 1/1600, ISO-800

Somewhat slower shutter speeds (e.g. 1/1600) can be used for larger birds such as geese and pelicans which have slower paced wing movements.

Metering
The metering options available and terminology vary by camera model. It is always advisable to read your camera’s manual to understand what metering options are available and what recommendations the manufacturer makes about when to use them.

At a minimum most cameras would provide three basic options based on how much of the camera’s sensor is used to assess the exposure required to capture your image. For example ‘matrix’ uses all/most of the sensor, ‘centre-weighted’ uses a chunk of the sensor in the middle of the frame, and ‘spot’ typically only uses a very small section of the sensor.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 191.8mm, efov 517.9mm, f/5.6, 1/80, ISO-3200

Here are some simple, general guidelines…
Use matrix (whole sensor) when the bird is a part of the scene, or when you are shooting in fairly tight and you want a good, balanced exposure across the frame. The image above was captured using matrix metering.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/160, ISO-1250

Use centre-weighted when the light is more variable or a bit harsh and you want to get a good exposure on a bird that is fairly large in the frame but does not fill it completely. The image above was captured using centre-weighted average metering since I wanted to get a good, balanced exposure on the bird, but also wanted the background to stay dark to add contrast and drama to the image.

Use spot metering when the lighting is very tricky or the subject bird is quite small in the frame. An example of tricky lighting could be a bird that is back-lit. I very seldom use spot metering since I typically do not photograph birds that are very small in the frame or back-lit.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/125, ISO-1400

Camera models can perform differently so some experimentation with metering with your particular gear is highly recommended. Some photographers use centre-weighted average for all of their bird images with good results.

Here are two similar images, the first was captured using matrix metering, and the second using centre-weighted matrix metering.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 277.8mm, efov 750mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-320
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/8, 1/2000, ISO-640

As you can see in the samples above, depending on the subject and lighting there sometimes is not a huge difference in results between matrix and centre-weighted.

Auto-Focusing
There are a myriad of auto-focusing settings and terminologies depending on the camera model used which can add a lot of confusion. Again, reading your camera’s manual is recommended so you can understand the specific capabilities of your model. There are basically two situations that you will need to deal with when photographing birds: perched/reasonably stationary, and birds-in-flight.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234.5mm, efov 633.2 mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-720

Most photographers would use AF-C (continuous auto-focus) when capturing images of birds-in-flight, as well as ‘subject tracking’. The combination of these two settings allows your camera to lock on the flying bird and continually adjust auto-focus on it as it is moving.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO-640

There is no problem using AF-C for perched birds. That setting was used to capture the image above.

Depending on your camera model you may choose to use AF-S or single point auto-focus. This typically allows you to move that single auto-focus point away from the centre of the frame. This can be helpful if you want to position the subject bird on one side of the frame, without the need for you to use ‘focus and recompose’ technique.

Some camera bodies will allow you to activate AF-C (continuous auto-focus) with a ‘back button’ on the rear of your camera body. This will trigger the AF-C to engage without you having to continually depress the shutter to maintain focus on your subject. This allows you to wait for the precise moment you want to press the shutter.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 228.9mm, efov 618mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-720

Frame Rate
Depending on your camera model it may allow you to shoot in bursts of images while using AF-C (continuous auto-focus) and subject tracking rather than just capturing individual frames. This can be handy when capturing birds-in-flight or birds taking off/landing as an assortment of wing positions can be photographed. Some experimentation using different frame rates with various bird species can be instructive as the fastest frame rate isn’t necessarily the best one to use because of rhythmic motion.

Vibration Reduction/Image Stabilization
Many digital camera bodies and/or lenses have vibration reduction/image stabilization technology built into them. A range of settings is often available so reading your camera/lens manual is important. Generally speaking you will need to use vibration reduction/image stabilization when shooting at slower shutter speeds in order to help eliminate motion blur in your photos caused by your own body movement. Vibration reduction/image stabilization will not correct a blurry image captured at too slow of a shutter speed given the movement of the subject bird.

At faster shutter speeds (e.g. 1/1600 or higher) there is no reason to use vibration reduction/image stabilization, although many photographers do engage it at faster shutter speeds.

I hope this discussion of some of the basic camera settings used for bird photography has been helpful.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234.5mm, efov 633.2mm, f/5.6, 1/800, ISO-360

Technical Note:
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held in available light using either a Nikon 1 V3 or V2 with the 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens, or a Nikon 1 J5 with 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 zoom. All images were created from RAW files using my standard process of OpticsPro 11, CS6, and Nik Suite.

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28 thoughts on “Bird Photography Camera Settings”

  1. Nice article!

    A late question: I’m interested in your further thoughts about the V3 (fellow owner) and use of Subject tracking and the AE-L/AF-L button for shooting birds in flight. In my limited use of subject tracking, the implementation seems a bit awkward for active subjects like birds, or is that due to my lack of practice? And is it feasible to combine AF-C, subject tracking and the AE-L/AE-F button? Or is that just making things too complicated for active bird photography? Thanks.

    1. Hi John,
      I don’t use the AE-L/AE-F button at all when photographing birds in flight or anything else for that matter. I find it too small and finicky…but that could just be me.
      Tom

  2. Tom your work is incredible.
    I have some great Nikon glass, what I don’t have is the awesome frame rate and the huge crop factor of the N1’s.
    I am torn on which model J5, V3 or rumored J6.
    I have son the plays baseball I really want to catch that bat on ball moment.
    Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Laurence,

      If you need an EVF along with DSLR-like handling the V3 would be the better choice….it also has a deeper buffer than the J5. If you are looking for image quality and can live without an EVF the J5 would be the camera to choose. I recently wrote an article to try to help folks decide on Nikon 1 bodies…here is a link for you: http://tomstirrphotography.com/choosing-nikon-1-body

      If you are looking to capture the ‘precise moment’ when your son is at bat a Nikon 1 body like the V3 or J5 can do better than 20fps. You can also shoot in full resolution at 30fps or 60fps. The challenge is that the first frame sets focus for the balance of the run. Since your son would be in a stationary position you could like get some incredible shots. I did some experimentation with this feature photographing a gull taking off from the surface of the water: http://tomstirrphotography.com/gull-airborne-60fps

      I’m glad you enjoyed the images!

      Tom

  3. Is the J5 LCD screen bright enough in brightlight for you to see it and is it any different than the V3? Thanks again for your quick reply

    1. Hi Gerry,

      I’ve only had my V3 for a few weeks and I’ve never used the rear screen to compose an image. I guess that’s because I bought the V3 specifically for birds-in-flight and other similar types of images where an EVF is essential. The rear screen on the J5 is quite good and has more overall movement than is possible with the V3 from what I can see playing with both cameras. In terms of very bright sunlight, you may still get glare on the rear screen which can make it difficult to see. Since I am ‘follicly challenged’ I always go out with a wide brimmed hat when shooting outdoors. In a pinch I simply use my hat to shade the rear screen of the J5 and shoot with one hand. This actually works surprisingly well.

      Tom

  4. Wow, that is a lot of info packed into one article and it reminds me of the time (a very long time ago) before I even owned a camera and I kept trying to learn about how to use one from Library books. Talk about being totally confused! I am glad that once I got a camera in my hands that all that reading started to make a bit of sense to me.

    I love your bird photography and am in total awe about what you can do with these little cameras!

  5. Thanks for the article and stunning images. I’ll be looking forward to testing birds in flight when the weather gets better 🙂

    Regarding the image processing, didn’t you at some point have an article on Photography Life with full examples on how you are using the different tools?

    Thanks again.

    1. You’re welcome Anders – glad you liked them! There is likely more information on my photography blog under “Post Processing” than there is material that I’ve written on this subject on Photography Life.
      Tom

  6. Another good article with great examples of the capabilities of the V3 and CX 70-300.

    (My previous comments were regarding design choices of the V series rather than ability. Thanks for the heads up on this article).

  7. Excellent article! It explains in easy to understand language the essential settings required to successfully photograph birds whether in flight or stationary. I found this article to be very useful and will refer to it often before setting out to photograph birds. Thanks for this fine contribution to the “mechanics” of photography.

  8. You often close your entries with a Technical Note, which states that “All images were created from RAW files using my standard process of OpticsPro 11, CS6, and Nik Suite.” I’d be happy to see an explanation of this “workflow” to show its steps and what role each plays in the final image.

    1. I second this wish. Was planning to ask myself.
      The article above is interesting. Have to test and train the method. I am not a “birder”, but could use some help when hiking and exhorting myself and trying to hold the camera steady and not having time to calm down.
      Regards Robert

    2. Hi Bill and Robert,

      I never do any batch processing of my images as I like to process each one based on its particular needs and since every image has its own unique needs it is difficult to provide a detailed step-by-step process. I do use a common process flow for all of my images which I’m happy to share with you. Since the vast majority of my images are now captured with Nikon 1 J5s I’ll give you a brief summary based on that camera model.

      1) For all of my Nikon 1 files I begin with OpticsPro 11. For J5 images I reduce highlights (often between -10 and -20), apply PRIME noise reduction to each file, and allow OpticsPro to apply its automatic corrections. I use PRIME noise reduction on every Nikon 1 file regardless of the ISO at which an image was captured. I find my Nikon 1 files respond very nicely in OpticsPro as the program makes a lot of lens corrections etc. based on DxO testing. Very recently I have started using the DxO Smart Lighting adjustment, specifically in concert with the Spot Weighted tool, on many of my images including birds. The more I use this feature in OpticsPro the more I like it. For images that have pushed the dynamic range of my Nikon 1 sensors, the Smart Lighting tool allows me to get more details out of overly dark and overly light areas. I have also started using the ClearView adjustment more than in the past. Typically I use this with two types of landscape images…those captured under very bright conditions where some haze exists, and also images taken under dark and gloomy conditions. After these adjustments in OpticsPro I then export a DNG file into CS6.

      2) Most of my adjustments in CS6 are limited to the basic sliders although I do, on occasion, use Curve and/or Hue to adjust colour in an image. I do very few spot corrections to my images. I like to ‘thicken up’ my Nikon 1 files during the early stages of my post processing which makes them look quite strange at various points in the process. For example, I usually ‘double bump’ the highlights, i.e. bring them down in OpticsPro 11, then bring them down even further in CS6. I am usually very aggressive with Highlight and Shadow sliders in CS6 often pushing them to maximum values or close to them. Often it isn’t until the very final adjustments with Levels or Brightness that I bring an image back into balance.

      3) Depending on the image I finish them off in Nik Suite normally with Vivenza 2 and/or Color Efex 4. There are some specific adjustments like Polarization that I really like in Nik Suite. Again, which Nik functions I use depends on the individual image.

      I don’t apply any additional sharpening to my J5 files during my processing. Instead I pay more attention to contrast as well as the black and white sliders to try to bring out edge acuity. Other than the Highlight and Shadow sliders in CS6 where I can be very aggressive, I tend to make smaller adjustments in the three programs mentioned rather than try to do everything in one program. For whatever reason I find this works best for me.

      While all of this may sound complicated I typically don’t spend much time on an image, usually no more than about 3 minutes. Hope this has helped…

      Tom

      1. Many thanks Tom!
        Have to digest and try it with an image or two. I spend usually much (and a I mean much) more time than 3 minutes postprocessing one image, due to recurring consideration how to do this and that. The first print is never the last one. I do not think this will change much, but I am trying to keep it at bay with a (yet to find) standard system. Deviations (or excursions) from this standard system would be better founded and structured. At least I hope so.
        Robert

  9. Thanks for sharing your recent shots and your experiences with your Nikon V3 nice to see you enjoying your new camera I’m hoping this camera one day will go on for bargain prices ha ha. Do you find the sensor that much different than the J5 sensor? At least with the V3 though you have the viewfinder which you probably missed on the J5. I find the J5 a nice camera but it’s a little too small for my big hands as well as the lack of EVF a pain compared to my V1.

    1. Hi Gerry,

      I have noticed a difference between the sensors in the J5 and other Nikon 1 models. Both the dynamic range and colour depth of the J5 are much better than previous Nikon 1 models and quite noticeably so when working with landscape images as well as flower photography for example. My J5 files require less work in post than do those produced by my V2s or V3.

      I actually had very little trouble adapting to the non-EVF J5 and it is my camera of choice for the majority of my still photography needs, other than for birds-in-flight for which I use the V3. My Nikon 1 kit which includes a total of 6 bodies is now evenly split between cameras I use for client video work (three V2s) and my still photography needs (two J5s and one V3).

      Tom

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