The best camera settings for bird photography

The best camera settings for bird photography

During my bird photography workshops and tours, the question I get asked most often is, “Hey Rick, what’s your f-stop?” Basically, photographers ask me for my camera settings: ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

I answer with a smile: “What is your creative vision?

I’m sharing this because the answers to both questions are equally important: a photographer must have the best camera settings to get the best in-camera image, and a photographer must have a creative vision to make a good photo.

The first step to a good shot is getting it right in the camera. Let me share with you some proven suggestions.

Exposure Triangle: Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO all affect your camera’s image. I don’t usually shoot at wide apertures, which means I select the widest aperture even when I want to blur the background. I usually stop by one or two stops because if my focus is a bit off, or I want more depth of field (like when shooting more than one bird in a single frame), the more small aperture will provide greater depth of field in my frame. I also carefully select my shutter speed, either to “freeze” the action (usually setting a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second) or to add some blur to the scene ( experimenting with shutter speeds of 1/100th to 1/15th of a second and sometimes even more). And when I think of ISO, I always try to shoot at the lowest possible ISO setting (which might be ISO 10,000 in pre-dawn light) to get the best image. clean as possible, which allows me to crop for the cleanest (least noise) shot.

When it comes to choosing between manual mode, aperture priority, or shutter priority, here’s what I suggest: use whatever mode works for you. Many of my friends and I choose aperture priority mode, but some friends choose manual mode. But here’s the thing: if you consider that there really is only ONE correct exposure, you can get there using any mode.

See also  Third place at the BirdWatching Photography Awards 2022!

Focus: Simply put, if the bird’s eye isn’t sharp and well-lit, you and I have missed the shot. To get the most light in the eyes, the best vantage point is to shoot with the sun behind you. To focus on a fast-moving bird, you need to set your camera to focus tracking, which follows the subject until the moment of exposure. Some newer cameras, like the Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6, offer animal tracking, which as a wildlife photographer I believe is one of the biggest advancements in recent camera development history. cameras.

However, even with Animal Tracking, your AF setting (focus area and number of focus points) must be set correctly. If you’re going somewhere for serious bird photography, I suggest reviewing all AF settings before you leave home.

Light: Birds in flight are among the most difficult subjects to photograph, not only because of the fast action, but also because some birds have light and dark feathers, such as the bald eagle. To ensure correct exposure, set your camera’s overexposure alert (which displays overexposed areas of a frame in “winks”) and check your camera’s histogram to make sure you don’t have no peak on the right. You’ll probably need to take a few test shots to get it right. Just keep in mind that opening shadows in Photoshop and Lightroom is easier than recovering overexposed highlights.

Lenses: I know many professional bird photographers who use prime telephoto lenses for the purpose of getting close-ups of different birds. Me? I use telephoto zooms, which are more flexible, meaning you can shoot birds at different distances from the same spot. My favorite lens for bird and wildlife photography is the Canon RF100-500mm IS lens. For higher subject magnification, I add a 1.4x teleconverter, giving me a maximum focal length of 700mm. Yes, when you use a teleconverter the light reaching the image sensor is reduced, which means you’re shooting at a slower shutter speed…unless you increase the ISO, which I do. I’d rather get a sharp photo with some noise than a blurry photo with little noise.

See also  2021 Bird Portrait Contest Third Place: Piping Plovers

Frame rate: A bird’s gesture, wing position, head angle, and expression are key to good bird photography. To capture subtle differences in gestures, set your camera to the highest possible frame rate. Serious professional bird photographers choose a camera with very high frame rates.

Bosque del Apache at sunriseSUNRISE AT THE BOSQUE DEL APACHE: This photo was taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a 24-105mm lens set to 1/500th of a second, f/5.0, ISO 640. Photo by Rick Sammon

Creative visualization and atmosphere creation

All of that technical stuff is good to know, but it’s also essential to understand that the most important element of any photo is the mood and feel that the photo conveys – and that goes for close-up photos and shots alike. wide angle view. You achieve this goal with your creative vision.

Light and color can help set the mood, which is why bird photographers like to shoot in the early morning and late afternoon. Gestures can help create a feeling, and here’s a quick tip: wings up or wings down.

The background also affects the mood of a bird photograph. A clear blue sky can be nice, but a photograph of a bird flying low over water lit by a golden setting sun has more ambience.

One last general tip for bird photography: in addition to taking full frame, very close shots of birds, also take wide angle shots that show the bird or birds in their surroundings. These images can convey more of a story and sense of place than a close-up photograph.

Good luck with your bird photography. I’m rooting for you!

This article first appeared in the “Photographing Birds” section of the July/August 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

The Best Mirrorless Cameras for Bird Photography

The best cameras for bird photography