You are looking for bird photography but don’t know where to start? This article will provide a breakdown of the basics. Based on my years of experience as an avid bird photographer, I share my top shooting modes, exposure settings and autofocus settings. These are the tried-and-true methods that virtually guarantee extraordinary outcomes. You’ll have a solid understanding of the best settings for bird photography and be able to take stunning, sharp images of birds.
- For the best-quality photos, shoot in RAW format
The RAW file contains all data captured by your camera’s sensor. RAW files are the most efficient way to use your camera’s full capacity. JPEG formats, on the contrary, compress the data to reduce its size. It basically throws away some data.
RAW shooting (as opposed JPEG) has many practical advantages.
- During the post-processing stage, you can choose your white equilibrium settings
- Detail can be recovered in the shadows and highlights of your images
- Editing color and contrast can be done with maximum flexibility
- RAW is the only way to go if you are serious about bird photography and want to get the best photos. If you find
- RAW daunting or are not ready to process RAW images yet, you can switch to RAW+JPEG. This will allow you to create high-quality RAW images and shareable JPEGs. Does that make sense?
- For the best colors, use the Auto White Balance setting
Your photos may appear unpleasantly blue under certain lighting conditions. However, photos that are lit in other conditions will look shockingly yellow. These unwanted colors can be corrected by your camera’s white balancecapabilities to create neutralphotos. However, white balance has a problem: It must be adjusted each time the light changes. This is difficult, especially when you are photographing moving birds. Auto White Balance does not require any input from the photographer. It will adjust automatically as the lighting changes. The AWB setting on newer cameras does a great job of getting colors correct – and if Auto White Balance fails to achieve great results, you can reset the WB in post processing (as long you are shooting in RAW).
- For the best exposures, use Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority
Many beginner bird photographers set their cameras to Auto mode. The problem is that you don’t have any control over the exposure (i.e. the brightness and detail of your images), or key variables like shutter speed and aperture. Set your camera to Shutter Priority mode instead. These modes are easy to use and offer enough control to produce amazing results. Personally, I recommend that you use the Aperture Priority mode (Av/A). This setting allows you to select the aperture and the camera the shutter speed. Your aperture has two effects on every image. Once you have set your aperture your camera will automatically choose a shutterspeed to achieve a perfect exposure. This technique works in most cases. However, blurred birds can occur when you are shooting in low lighting. In low-light situations, Shutter Priority mode (TV/S/S) is recommended. You can adjust the shutter speed to freeze or blur the action, while the camera selects the aperture to achieve the perfect exposure.
- For low-noise photos, use the Auto ISO setting
Bird photography requires fast shutter speeds in order to freeze the action. This is why ISOs are higher. Higher ISOs can cause noise, especially with APS-C cameras. Bird photographers will often start with a low ISO and then increase it as needed. Technically, this works. However, it can take some time to adjust ISO and you will often miss great shots while fiddling with your settings. This is why I suggest a three-step alternative. Your camera will keep its lowest ISO setting, and only increase it. Your ISO settings can be adjusted at any time, so you don’t need to adjust them mid-action. However, noise will not affect your images and they will still look sharp and well exposed. That is the best maximum ISO benchmark? High-ISO capabilities improve all the time. ISO 1600 is a good APSC setting while ISO 3200 can be used to achieve a reasonable full frame maximum.
- Combine Auto ISO with the minimum shutter speed
Many cameras let you choose the minimum shutter speed. This allows you to set the Auto ISO mode to the lowest setting. Make sure that your camera mode is set up to Aperture Priority! This allows you to have the best of both. Auto ISO can be used to correct exposure problems. You can set the minimum shutter speed at the lowest value that will guarantee sharp photos. If you set the minimum shutter speed at 1/1000s, the camera will attempt to choose the lowest ISO value possible to meet your requirements (while still achieving a perfect exposure). Important to remember, however, is that if there isn’t enough light in the scene to allow your camera to achieve its maximum ISO shutter speed, the shutter speed will be reduced to its minimum. Keep an eye on shutter speed and consider whether it is worth sacrificing shutter speed, aperture or ISO for tough situations.
- For accurate exposures, use the Evaluative/Matrix mode
The metering system of your camera evaluates the scene and determines the appropriate exposure value for a detailed photo. You can change the metering mode to tell your camera which parts of the scene are prioritized when it meters. Spot metering uses a circle in the middle of the scene to determine exposure. Center-weighted mode prioritizes the central portion of the scene. Spot metering is the best method for bird photography, according to common belief. It has many limitations, which I disagree with. I suggest you instead use the Evaluative Metering mode of your camera (also known Matrix mode). Your camera will use complex algorithms to determine the correct exposure value when you set it to Evaluative Metering. Yes, Evaluative Metering isn’t perfect. It is smarter than most other metering modes and can be combined with exposure compensation (described in the next section) to achieve consistently exceptional exposures.
- To compensate for exposure, you can use exposure compensation
Exposure compensation allows you to adjust the exposure in either direction. The positive (or +) tells the camera to intentionally overexpose an image. While the negative (or -), tells the camera to deliberately underexpose it. You can get good exposures by using Evaluative Metering. However, your camera’s metering system uses algorithms that render the scene as neutral gray. Not all subjects need to look gray. Egrets are white while crows have black eyes. Exposure compensation is a great option. To prevent your camera trying to “gray”, you will need to adjust your exposure compensation if your subject is very dark. To prevent your camera’s “graying” of the subject and to capture a too-dark subject, dial in some positive exposure compensation.
- The histogram can be your best friend. Learn how to use it
The histogram shows you the relative brightness of the various tones within the scene. The histogram is far more accurate than the LCD monitor in evaluating exposure. LCD brightness and ambient light can make it appear that a photo has been over- or underexposed. However, the histogram gives you an exact reading of the exposure. If the graph is tilted toward the right-hand side (as shown in the example), it is likely that your image is too exposed. If your image is skewed to the left, as this shows, it may be underexposed. The histogram should not touch the leftmost edge (underexposure), nor the rightmost edge. This will ensure that you capture all details necessary for perfect exposure. However, the histogram should not always look like a bell curve. Imagine an egret flying in front of a tree stand. The histogram will have likely two pillars: the one that points to the left would represent the trees and the other that points to the right would indicate the birds. Although it isn’t perfectly curved, it is a great exposure.
- To prevent clipping, enable the highlight indicators
Another useful tip for bird photography is the highlight indicator. The blinkies highlight indicator is widely used to indicate areas that are too exposed in an image. You’ll see flash at them if you expose too many parts of your shot. The circled areas on the photo actually blink! (Though note that the circles themselves are for the purposes of illustration.) As I mentioned in the previous section it is difficult to tell if an image has been overexposed just by looking at its LCD monitor. Instead, use the histogram. However, it is important to check for blinkies so that you don’t cut any highlights.
- Learn how to use the AE/AF Lock and the AF-ON button
The shutter button must be half-pressed to lock focus. This mode is great for perched birds. However, AF-C mode continuously regains focus and is better for all other situations. Although it may seem daunting, it is actually quite simple. You are decouplingthe camera’s autofocus function from its shutter button. When you press the shutter button your camera fires off an image, and when the AF-ON button is pressed your camera autofocuses. This will allow you to shoot in AF/C mode at all times. To acquire focus on a stationary subject, press the AF ON button and then release. Once the focus is locked, you can press the shutter button until your heart desires. For a perching subject, press to focus, then let go. The back-button focusing technique will keep the bird sharp.
If your subject is moving, hold the AF ON button and fire shots with the shutter. Did you get it?