Want to set up your own bird photography default settings? In my post the other day, “Backyard Bird Photos: Basic Tips”, I mentioned that I wasn’t happy with the automatic Bird watching mode of my Nikon Coolpix p900 and instead created my own group of default settings for bird photography. If your camera lets you set things like ISO, focus and metering options, aperture or shutter speed settings, etc., you can probably tweak them to improve your bird photos too. Even if you have a different camera, the settings I’m sharing in this post should give you ideas for how you might set it up to work best for you.
Ideally, either a camera could automatically create the picture we have in mind when we press the button or we would have plenty of time to think about the shot and set up the camera to take that perfect picture. The reality is that a camera can’t read our minds so, while it may create a well exposed picture for you, it still may not be the picture you were aiming to take. And in the real world, birds often pop up unexpectedly, giving you only seconds sometimes to take the picture. Having a default group of settings for bird photography is really helpful. If your camera allows it, try ditching the fully automatic modes and make some settings choices yourself.
This post has got a lot of camera speak in it so here is a very quick terms overview. If you already know this stuff, skip over it to the “My Bird Photography Camera Settings” section below it.
ISO: The light sensitivity of the camera sensor. Every time you double the ISO number, you double the light available for the picture. The lower the ISO, the more light is needed to create a good exposure. Low ISOs are typically used for bright conditions, like a bird out in the sunshine. Bumping up the ISO to higher numbers lets the camera take well-exposed pictures in lower light conditions, like a bird in the shade or on a darker day.
Shutter Speed: How fast the camera shutter opens and closes to take the picture, measured in seconds or fractions of a second. Every time you half the shutter speed, you double the light available to the camera for the picture. A fast shutter speed is open for less time and so lets in less light. It is quicker and can stop action, something that is useful when a bird is moving quickly. A slow shutter speed stays open longer and lets in more light. It takes longer and can blur action, something that you might use creatively to show the movement of a bird. If the shutter speed gets very slow (say longer than 1/60 of a second), it becomes difficult to hold the camera still enough to take a sharp un-blurred picture without using a tripod.
Aperture: How big the opening inside the lens is that lets in the light to take the picture. Every time you increase the aperture opening by a full stop, you double the light available for the picture. A wider, more open aperture (set to a lower number f/stop) lets in more light and can also create a shallower depth of field in the finished picture. So a shot of a bird with a shallow depth of field might show that crisply focused bird highlighted on a blurred, less distracting background. A narrower, more closed down aperture (set to a higher number f/stop) lets in less light and can create a deeper depth of field in the finished picture. You might use a higher f/stop if you want a more detailed background behind the bird or are taking a wider landscape shot.
Notice that all three, (ISO, shutter speed and aperture), effect the light available to make the picture and they all work in combination to create a good (or a bad) exposure. Depending on your camera, you may have these options to set them:
Auto and Special Scene Modes: Your camera makes the decisions on the ISO, shutter speed and aperture.
Program Mode: Your camera makes these decisions but might offer alternative aperture/shutter speed combinations that should also create a good exposure. You pick the ISO yourself or set it to automatic.
Manual Mode: You make all these decisions yourself.
Shutter Priority Mode: You choose the shutter speed and let the camera pick the aperture. You pick the ISO yourself or set it to automatic.
Aperture Priority Mode: You choose the aperture and let the camera pick the shutter speede. You pick the ISO yourself or set it to automatic.
If you are interested in learning more about all of this and how it works to take a picture, I’ve included links to places where you can learn more online at the end of the post.
My Bird Photography Camera Settings
In building my own group of bird photography settings, I started by looking at what my camera’s Bird watching mode was doing and took the settings I liked. Where something wasn’t working for me, I tried them a different way. Then I saved my preferred settings to my camera’s User Settings mode. While I may tweak settings for particular photos, this is where I start.
Note: My photos to this point are mostly stationary birds or birds moving around on on a surface rather than in flight, which is a whole other level of bird photography. Also keep in mind that your camera may have different settings names so you’ll need to check your manual for equivalents.
Continuous Shooting: One thing that I like about my camera’s Bird watching mode is that it sets the camera to Continuous Shooting instead of Single. Birds are often in constant motion. Even if the bird is mostly sitting in one spot, their heads are often moving which can cause you to wind up with a photo of an in-focus bird with a blur in place of a head. Setting the camera to Continuous instead of Single gives you more chances of catching the bird without the blur.
My particular camera has quite a few options for Continuous shooting, as yours may as well. Which one to pick? Spending some time with my camera manual revealed that some settings effect other settings in ways that you might not expect. For example, the Continuous setting that I use is called “Continuous H”. This means that every time you fully press down the shutter release button, it should take seven shots per second. So you might expect that when I take a picture of that bird in the tree that I’d wind up with seven photos on the camera. Nope. Because I also set my camera to the “Fine” quality setting instead of “Normal,” I instead get two or three photos of that bird, something you will only discover the reason for by digging through the manual. (Note: If you continue to hold the button down, it will take another set of shots, etc. so I actually can go beyond those two or three shots.)
Some of the other Continuous shooting options can take 60 or 120 shots per second. That might sound good, but because handling that many shots so quickly uses a lot of resources, the camera knocks down the final picture size to make it work. I also discovered in the manual that if I choose any Continuous shooting option other than “Continuous H” or “Continuous L” then the camera overrides any manual ISO settings I am using and instead sets the ISO to Auto. I want the biggest, best quality picture I can get, so I try to set it for the highest number of continuous shots that won’t impact picture size and quality. The moral of the story is to read the manual. Sigh.
ISO: The ISO setting on a digital camera determines the light sensitivity of the camera’s sensor, basically how much light the camera requires for a good exposure. A high ISO can get you pictures in low light without using a really slow shutter speed and a tripod. Sounds good right? But you need to play with your camera and see how the pictures look at various ISO settings. Higher ISO settings can get very noisy and ugly. Where that happens is different on every camera.
In automatic camera settings like my camera’s Bird watching mode, the camera is set to Auto ISO which means the camera chooses the ISO, setting it to anything between 100 and 1600 as it sees fit. I try to keep my ISO levels as low as possible, so I’ve been manually setting my camera to a low 200 ISO as a default for bird photos when the light is good and bumping it up to 400 when the light isn’t as good or the bird is in shade.
Playing around with my camera the other day, I found that you can alternatively limit the automatic ISO to between 100 and 400 or between 100 and 800. I’ve been playing with the 100 to 400 option to see if this will result in good exposure in either bright sunlight or light shade without having to manually change the ISO each time the light changes. I like that these more limited auto ISO options at least keep it out of the highest, noisier ISO levels and it does make shooting in a mix of bright sun and shade easier. I’m still testing this to decide if I like the way the camera handles it.
The moral here is to test your camera in a variety of light conditions at different ISO levels. Try taking the same shot multiple times, setting the ISO to 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, etc. Upload the photos to a computer so you can look at it on the larger screen and view it at 100% size. At some point, as the ISO gets higher and higher, you are going to start seeing soft edges and noise. Testing in this way will give you a feel for what ISO level will create a good picture of that bird in bright sunlight and what ISO level might work better for shade and what ISO levels you want to avoid on your particular camera. Then check your camera manual to find out what ISO options it offers you. Play around with them and see what works best for you.
Function Button: In my camera, to change the ISO, you normally have to go through a deep series of menus, slowing you down. But, it does have a function button (Fn) that you can set to get you straight to a menu you use often, making it much quicker. I’ve set my function button to give me quick access to the ISO menu so I can swap it more quickly.
Spot Focus: My camera’s Bird watching mode has this clever thing where it will try to automatically figure out where the bird is in the picture and focus on it. It sounds good but, like most things done automatically, I find that it doesn’t always magically focus where I want it to focus. It worked okay if the bird was out by itself. But birds are often found in trees and bushes in between branches and leaves. Sometimes only part of a bird is visible or sometimes there are several birds right next to each other. I was having problems with the camera sometimes not finding anything at all to focus on (with the camera stuck in an endless vain cycle of trying to focus) or focusing on the branches. It was frustrating.
So in putting together my own group of user settings, I instead turned the auto focus (AF) area mode to Spot instead of Normal and found that this makes a huge difference. I think it works much better for me because I am often trying to take a picture of a small bird within a larger scene. When the camera tries to find the focus based on a wider area, it is more likely to get confused. When I use Spot focus, I can put the dot on my camera’s screen or viewfinder where I want the camera to focus; it’s more precise and I am more likely to successfully focus on the bird rather than on a branch or nothing. I try to put the spot on one of the bird’s eyes if possible because that is usually the most important area to have in focus.
Look to see what options your camera offers for setting the focus. Go out somewhere where you know you can see a lot of birds and try out the different focus options. See if you find an option that makes it easier to more quickly and accurately focus on the bird. You may find that a narrower focus option is helpful in taking pictures of a single bird but might like a wider focus for a group of birds in the distance. Experiment and see what works for you with your camera.
Aperture Priority Settings: In using my other camera (a Nikon D40X, an older entry-level DSLR,), I have come to like Aperture Priority mode. When in this mode, you set the depth of field that you think will work best for the picture you want to create (by setting the f/stop.) The camera then picks a shutter speed that it thinks will work best to give you a good exposure when combined with that aperture. You can set the ISO level manually or let the camera do it automatically. For many situations this is a great way to shoot. It is less complicated than full manual mode but gives you more control than full automatic modes.
The camera I am using for bird photography is the Nikon Coolpix p900. It is a “Bridge” super zoom camera and not a DSLR, but it does offer many settings like a DSLR, and so I can use its Aperture Priority mode. This camera’s biggest feature though is its super zoom lens. While you can certainly use the camera with the lens not zoomed out, practically speaking, if you are doing bird photography, the camera lens is going to be zoomed out to some extent most of the time.
When zoomed out, the lens is longer and that means it pulls in less light and the available apertures choices are reduced. So for example, with the camera lens un-zoomed, I can choose apertures between 2.8 and 8.0 f/stops. When it is zoomed all the way out, I’m limited to apertures between 6.5 and 8.0. So while I do use Aperture Priority mode with this camera, I find that when taking bird photos, the aperture is usually very limited by the zoom. Most of the photos on this blog have been taken with this camera with the lens all the way or most of the way zoomed out.
For bird photography, I do usually try to keep the aperture as open as possible, so I’ll usually try to set it to the lowest f/stop number possible when the camera lens is un-zoomed. When it zooms out, it continues to give me the lowest f/stop the lens can do at whatever the zoom length. The reason I do this is that if the f/stop is set to 8.0 and I’ve limited the ISO to 100 to 400, then the shutter speed can get slower than I like. I’d rather set it as wide as possible to give me a little extra shutter speed room so there is less chance I’ll shake the camera since I don’t use a tripod with this camera.
Play around with your camera’s modes and see how you like shooting best in different situations. Try out different apertures (f/stops) on the same subject and see how the finished picture changes. Keep what you learn in mind when you choose apertures for future photographs.
Optional vs Digital Zoom: Digital zoom lens often are sold by touting their zoom lengths. Often you’ll see them described two ways: optical zoom and digital zoom. Optical zoom numbers reflect the actual physical reach of the lens and what it can see clearly. Digital zoom takes that optically zoomed picture and crops it down so that what is in the center of what the camera sees is magnified and it appears that you are getting more reach.
I turn off digital zoom in my Coolpix p900 camera for two reasons. First, the camera isn’t really reaching further; it is just using digital techniques to make it seem that way. If someone is going to crop my picture, it is going to be me using photo editing software and not the camera doing it automatically. Second, I’ve found that this camera’s lens sometimes gets stuck when fully extended with digital zoom turned on and you have to power the camera off and back on to unstick it and that is a pain.
Other Settings: There are all kinds of other possible settings on my camera. For example, you can change the mode for metering light from the default Matrix to Center-weighted or Spot. I experimented a little with Spot but thought it tended to over-expose my pictures (possibly because of the spot I was choosing which was the same as the focus spot) so I went back to Matrix.
You can also set the picture quality. (I like “Fine.”) If I could choose RAW files I would, but my camera will unfortunately only do JPEG. You can bump the exposure up or down if you don’t like the exposure the camera is giving you. You can set the picture size (its pixel dimensions.) Your particular camera might let you do more or less. Read about the various possibilities in your manual or on your camera manufacturer’s website and play around with them to see which ones might also be useful in bird photography.
Want to Learn More Online?
In this post I’ve shared how I do things. While I’ve been taking photos for many years with a DSLR camera, I am still an amateur photographer. I’ve only been using this particular camera to take bird photos for about five months, although I do it every day. There are many, many people who know much more about this stuff than I do and can explain it better and in more detail. Understanding how your camera works can make a huge difference in the quality of the pictures you take and so it is worth the time to learn it. Here are a few spots online that I think you’ll find helpful.
* Ben Long’s video classes on Lynda.com are excellent. I’ve taken many of them over the years. You might try his “Fundamentals of Photography: Exposure” online class to learn more about ISO, shutter speeds, aperture and how they work together to make photographs. Lynda.com is a membership site but if you have never had a membership and want to try it out, they offer a free ten day unlimited trial membership. You can learn a lot in ten days! You can alternatively get monthly or yearly memberships.
*Matthew Cole has a very informative article on his personal website called “A Tedious Explanation of Depth of Field” that gets into what those f/stop and shutter speed numbers really mean to the depth of field in your photo. Don’t let the article title put you off; it is well written to turn the mystery of these things into something understandable. Matthew has another good article called “A Tedious Explanation of the f/stop.” Again, it breaks the subject down in an understandable way.
* Photography Life has a great article on “How to Photograph Birds.” Even if your budget doesn’t extend to some of the higher end camera equipment mentioned in the article, and you are using something more modest like I am, there is some good info here. This site also has some good equipment reviews.
* Mike Atkinson’s Bird Photography site has a great multi-part tutorial including a section on “Basic Field Techniques“ for taking photos of wild birds in the field. It is full of helpful tips.
* Bill Majoros offers a very in-depth (and free) online book, “Secrets of Digital Photography, Tools and Techniques“ that has a wealth of information. (I’m still working my way through this one.)
* Be sure to check out the website of your camera’s manufacturer. They often will have pdf versions of camera manuals available which are often make it easier to search for particular topics than using a print manual. The manufacturer may also offer other learning materials, including articles and videos, about their cameras and/or photography in general on their sites.
* If you are interested in getting the Nikon Coolpix p900 camera that I use for most of the photos on this blog, you can find it on Amazon.
Many birders find themselves getting sucked into bird photography. It can be useful in helping ID and/or document bird sightings and can also be creatively satisfying. You’ll need a camera and lens with a long reach and you’ll need to spend lots of time taking pictures of birds to get better at it. Sounds like fun, right?
Update: Also see Photographing Birds at Magee Marsh: Nikon Coolpix p900
Update: Also see Backyard Bird Photos: Basic Tips
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