4. Photographing Birds – The Cold Hard Truth

4 June 2019, Tuesday

Author: Rick Budai from Wild Artistic

Birds are difficult to photograph at the best of times. In most cases, it is their call that alludes us to their presence. We hear the call, then frantically scour the surrounding bush for a glimpse of the bird itself. In addition, most birds are fast moving, shy, and more often than not, very well camouflaged.

As photographers, we also have to contend with making the right exposure decisions.

Is my shutter speed fast enough?
Which direction is the light coming from?
What aperture do I need? etc etc

For any aspiring bird photographer, this can seem a little daunting. The secret behind every successful photograph is preparation. Forget about all the aspects we can't control. Instead, rather concentrate on the aspects that you can control.... like camera settings.

Technical Settings for Photographing Birds

The seven key elements to any successful bird photographs are:

  • Shooting Mode
  • Aperture
  • Shutter Speed
  • ISO
  • Drive Mode
  • Focus Mode
  • Focus

Yes, I know, I can already hear some of you asking... "Aren't those key elements a factor for every photograph, irrespective of the subject?" Absolutely! However, dialing in the correct settings to match your vision can be a little trickier. When photographing birds you should first start with a clear idea of how you want to capture your subject. Do you simply want to capture a portrait of your subject? Do you want to separate the bird from its environment? Or is the environment a compositional element? Do you want to capture the bird in flight?

All of these questions need to be answered in order to adjust the correct settings on your camera.

Different Types of Shots - Different Settings when Photographing Birds

When photographing birds my initial standard setting is as follows:

  • Shooting Mode - Shutter Priority
  • Aperture - Camera automatically selects aperture based on my shutter speed.
  • Shutter speed - 1/1250
  • ISO (Auto) - Camera automatically selects ISO to allow 1/1250 shutter speed.
  • Continuous drive / burst mode
  • Focus mode AI Servo (Canon)
  • Back Button Focus
  • AF Area Mode - Zone selection or any of the expanded area focus selection.

These are my base settings which I have configured as a Custom Shooting Mode. From there, I can quickly make the necessary adjustments to my settings to match my vision for the photograph.

Photographing Birds In Flight

For crisp sharp images that capture a bird in flight:

  • Shooting Mode - Shutter priority or Manual mode
  • Shutter speed - depends on the subject, but anything between 1/1250 and 1/2000 is usually sufficient.
  • Aperture - Wide open to allow a faster shutter speed.
  • ISO - This depends on the quality of available light, but usually start at around 800 ISO. (Or as low as possible that will allow me to shoot at 1/2000)
  • Continuous / burst mode in AI Servo (continuous focus) with back button focus.
  • AF Area Mode - Multi-point expanded focus area or Zone selection.

Sometimes, when photographing birds in flight I may opt for a more creative shot. For example, introducing some 'wing' blur. For this type of shot I normally adjust my settings the following way:

  • Shutter priority
  • Shutter speed anywhere between 1/60 - 1/200
  • Aperture - Set on Auto (shutter priority)
  • ISO - Auto.
  • Continuous / burst mode in AI Servo (continuous focus) with back button focus
  • AF Area Mode - Multi-point expanded focus area or Zone selection.

Bird Portraits

Firstly, you have to decide whether you are shooting a typical portrait, or an environmental portrait.

Aperture priority mode/ Manual - If I want to isolate the main subject from the foreground and background, I use a wide aperture of f.5/6 or lower. If, on the other hand, the environment is an integral part of the composition then I select a narrower aperture f/11.

Shutter Speed - Although in aperture priority, it is still important to maintain a fast enough shutter speed to maintain sharpness -
ISO needs to be higher when shooting at lower aperture values. I generally set my ISO to Auto.

Continuous / burst mode in AI Servo (continuous focus) with back button focus.

AF Area Mode - Always try to focus on the eye. The AF points selected will depend on the subject, and distance to your subject.

...And then there's Animal Behaviour....

Along with applying the correct settings to your camera, the aim is then to capture those special moments that depict animal behaviour. A knowledgeable guide with intimate knowledge of the bush will not only place you in the perfect position to capture those moments, but also give some invaluable insight into the subject's behaviour. All of this combined will set you up with a greater chance of success.

In Closing.......

Photographing birds is not easy. Although they may be around us most of the time, being able to capture their most intimate moments, requires skill, patience and luck.

To do so, we need to be prepared and give ourselves the best chance to come away with some memorable shots.

Other Topics covered in our Wildlife Photography Tips and Techniques Include.

1. Pre Focus Technique

2. Custom Shooting Modes

3. Back Button Focus


Leave a Reply