In an earlier post I listed some basic photography techniques for birders: get close and low, take many pictures, avoid over-exposure by checking photos frequently, and focus on the bird’s eye. I also made the distinction between photo-birding, the use of a camera to help with bird ID’s, and bird photography, the goal of which is to obtain the “perfect” photo. In this post I’ll list the basic DSLR camera settings that I have found most useful for bird photography. Remember, like many of you, I am relatively new to this hobby and these are all evolving techniques. Some have been recommended to me by other photographers, and some learned in the field by trial and error. For those new to DSLR its time to move away from automatic mode and test your wings with some semi-automatic and manual settings. Relax, its easier than you think. What can go wrong? You’re not wasting film. I use Canon equipment, but Nikon and other vendors have similar settings, albeit with different names.
Shoot in AV Mode- (A Mode for Nikon) This aperture priority mode accomplishes several goals critical to bird photography. It allows you to select the depth of the field (DOF) that will be in focus, and also automatically selects the appropriate shutter speed. Most think that bird pictures are more pleasing when the bird is in focus and the foreground and background are pleasantly blurred or out of focus (a narrow depth of field). The blurry background is referred to as bokeh and its pleasing appearance is an innate function of your lens’s ability to handle out-of-focus points of light–some are better than others with this. In AV Mode I put the F-stop as low as it goes, narrowing the DOF to its minimum. The DOF is also determined by the focal length of the lens you are using (longer or telephoto lenses have a narrower DOF) and the distance from the camera to the subject (closer subjects will have a narrower DOF). The low F-stop opens the aperture wide, allowing the most light to strike the image sensor, which in turn gives you a fast shutter speed. If you desire a wider DOF, say in shooting a flock of birds that you want in focus, just increase the F-stop, but beware as this will slow your shutter speed.
Shutter Speed- Luckily in AV Mode the shutter speed is automatically kept as fast as possible for the chosen aperture or F-stop. Birds usually are not good at posing for your pictures, so you will usually need a shutter speed at least 1/500 second, and even up to 1/1000 or faster for twitching birds or birds in flight. If you notice that your shutter speeds are slower than this while shooting in AV Mode, just increase your ISO. If your lens is not image stabilized the faster speeds also minimizes unsharpness due to camera shake.
ISO- In the field, after putting your camera in AV Mode and setting the F-stop wide open, the ISO is one of only two additional settings you’ll need to adjust, depending on lighting. The ISO controls the light sensitivity of the camera’s sensor and is equivalent to the ASA of film in the pre-digital age. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the detector, and the faster the shutter speed. So while birding, when you leave the brightly lit field and go into the dimmer forest, just turn up the ISO. You can try a practice exposure in the woods just to be sure the speed is 1/500 or faster; if not, just crank up the ISO some more. You may ask, why not just keep the ISO high at all times? In photography, as in life, everything is a trade-off. Higher ISO settings result in a grainy image. Generally, to get a sharp image you should try to keep the ISO as low possible but still obtain a fast enough exposure to freeze the bird. You’ll find that the newer digital cameras allow much higher ISO settings before graininess becomes an issue. I usually start the day at an ISO of 400, but can go up to several thousand with the Canon 7DII camera.
Exposure Compensation- Prominently displayed on your camera screen or menu you’ll see the adjustable scale of exposure compensation, incremental by thirds into positive and negative ranges. This is the other lighting adjustment that you will often need to change, increasing or subtracting light in the exposure depending on natural sunlight, bird color, etc. I would suggest shooting with neutral or zero compensation initially and checking and adjusting from there as needed. You’ll find that when shooting a white bird in bright light you’ll need to adjust well into the negative range, and the opposite for a dark or black bird. This fine tuning will become second nature in time. Remember its better to be under than overexposed. Underexposures can usually be salvaged by post-processing, but over-exposed pixels are gone forever.
Focus- Your lens probably has a settings for manual and auto-focusing. I use auto focus almost exclusively. Your camera allows you to choose the focus points, ranging from a single central point to various arrays of points. While birding I use the center point and aim for the bird’s eye. This seems to work well, even with birds in flight, but occasionally I’ll choose multiple focus points in that situation.
So in summary, when you start your day birding, put your camera in AV Mode, open up the F-stop to its widest, set the ISO at 400, put exposure compensation at neutral, set the lens to auto focus, choose the single center focus point, and fire away. These are my basic settings. Today’s cameras allow many more adjustments, but my philosophy has been to stick with the basics first, learn them, get comfortable with your camera, and slowly add the fine tuning later. In a later post I’ll discuss composition, post-processing, and image storage. Good luck, the birds await.