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