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  • Writer's picturePaul Anderson

Mastering Bird Photography: Optimal Camera Settings for Stunning Shots.

Updated: Jun 20, 2023



Bird photography is a challenging and rewarding genre of photography that requires patience, skill, and the right equipment. One of the most important aspects of capturing stunning images of birds in the wild is understanding and mastering your camera settings. In this blog post, we will focus on the best camera settings for bird photography, specifically manual mode shooting; fast shutter speeds, shallow depth of field, auto-iso, and the use of back button autofocus.


The importance of shooting in manual mode When it comes to bird photography, shooting in manual mode is essential for achieving the best results. In manual mode, you have complete control over aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, which allows you to fine-tune your settings to match the lighting and movement of the birds you are photographing. Aperture controls the amount of light that enters the camera, shutter speed controls the amount of time the camera's sensor is exposed to light, and ISO controls the camera's sensitivity to light. When used together in manual mode, these settings can help you achieve the perfect balance of light and sharpness for your bird photos.


Shutter speed is one of the most important settings in bird photography, as it controls the amount of time the camera's sensor is exposed to light. A fast shutter speed is essential for freezing the motion of birds and preventing motion blur.

When photographing birds in flight, it's recommended to use a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second or higher. This will freeze the motion of the birds and give you crisp, sharp images. For example, if a bird is flying at a fast speed, you may need to use a shutter speed of 1/2000th or 1/4000th of a second to freeze the motion completely.

For perching birds, you can use slightly slower shutter speeds of 1/500th or 1/250th of a second, but it's still important to use fast shutter speeds to minimize motion blur. For example, if a bird is sitting on a branch and not moving much, you can use a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second to capture a sharp image.

It's also important to note that the shutter speed you use will also depend on the lighting conditions. In low light situations, you may need to use a slower shutter speed in order to let more light into the camera. However, be aware that doing so may increase the risk of motion blur. In such cases, you can use a higher ISO or wider aperture to compensate for the slower shutter speed.


Two Asian Glossy Starlings perched on a tree in Borneo
Asian Glossy Starlings (Fast Shutter 1/1500 sec.)

Depth of field (DOF) is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in a photograph that appear to be in sharp focus. In bird photography, the goal is often to isolate the bird from the background by using a shallow depth of field. This can be achieved by using a small aperture, also known as a high f-stop number (e.g. f/16, f/22). When you use a small aperture, the aperture blades close down, creating a small opening that allows less light to enter the camera. This results in a larger depth of field, meaning that more of the image will be in focus. By contrast, when you use a large aperture (e.g. f/2.8, f/4), the aperture blades open up, creating a large opening that allows more light to enter the camera. This results in a shallow depth of field, meaning that less of the image will be in focus. In bird photography, a shallow depth of field is often desirable because it allows you to isolate the bird from the background, making it stand out more. When the bird is in focus, and the background is out of focus, it creates a separation between the bird and the background, making the bird pop out in the image. This is why using a small aperture is important to get a smooth out of focus background. However, it's important to note that the aperture you use will also depend on the lighting conditions. In low light situations, you may need to use a larger aperture in order to let more light into the camera. But still, try to use the smallest aperture possible that allows you to get a good image while keeping the background out of focus. In summary, depth of field is an important aspect of bird photography as it allows you to isolate the bird from the background. By using a small aperture, also known as a high f-stop number, you can achieve a shallow depth of field, making the background out of focus and the bird stand out in the image. Always take into account the lighting conditions and adjust your aperture accordingly. Experiment with different aperture settings to find the best settings for your particular situation.


A close up of a Common King Fisher on a branch in Thailand, with a very shallow depth of field f/4
Common King Fisher (DOF F/4)

a Beautiful Blue-throated Flycatcher on a branch with a shallow Depth of Field F/6.7
Blue-throated Flycatcher (DOF F/6.7)

Auto-ISO is a feature that allows the camera to automatically adjust the ISO setting in order to achieve a properly exposed image. This can be particularly useful in bird photography, where lighting conditions can change rapidly and unpredictably. When shooting in manual mode, you have complete control over aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. However, in some situations, it may be difficult to achieve a properly exposed image using manual settings alone. This is where auto-ISO can come in handy. By enabling auto-ISO, you can set a minimum and maximum ISO value and a minimum shutter speed. The camera will then automatically adjust the ISO within those parameters to achieve the correct exposure. This allows you to maintain control over the aperture and shutter speed while still ensuring that the image is properly exposed. For example, if you're photographing birds in flight and the lighting conditions change, you can set a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second and a maximum ISO value of 800. The camera will then automatically adjust the ISO as needed to ensure that the shutter speed stays above 1/1000th of a second and the ISO doesn't exceed 800. It's important to note that while auto-ISO can be a useful tool, it should be used in conjunction with manual settings, not as a replacement. It's always good to have an understanding of the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO and to use your camera's metering system to evaluate the exposure. In summary, auto-ISO is a useful feature that allows you to maintain control over aperture and shutter speed while still ensuring that the image is properly exposed. It can be particularly useful in bird photography where lighting conditions can change rapidly. Always use it in conjunction with manual settings and understand the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO to achieve the best results.


Back button autofocus is a technique that allows you to separate the autofocus function from the shutter button. This technique provides greater control over focus points, allowing you to quickly and accurately focus on specific parts of the bird, such as the eye. It also allows you to lock focus on a bird and then recompose your shot without losing focus. Back button autofocus is particularly useful for bird photography, as it allows you to track the movement of the birds and keep them in focus as they fly or perch. Most modern cameras have multiple autofocus (AF) modes and focus points. The most common types of autofocus modes include:

  • Single autofocus (AF-S): The camera focuses on a single point and locks the focus. This mode is useful for stationary subjects such as perching birds.

  • Continuous autofocus (AF-C): The camera continually adjusts the focus as the subject moves. This mode is useful for moving subjects such as birds in flight.

  • Automatic autofocus (AF-A): The camera automatically switches between AF-S and AF-C depending on the subject's movement. This mode is useful for situations where you're not sure if the subject will be stationary or moving.

Additionally, most cameras also have multiple focus points, which allow you to select a specific point in the frame for the camera to focus on. Some cameras even have advanced autofocus features like 3D tracking, which uses multiple focus points to track a subject as it moves through the frame. This is particularly useful for photographing birds in flight. It's also important to note that some cameras have advanced autofocus options like Eye-AF, which specifically focuses on the eyes of the subject. This is a great option for bird photography as it makes sure that the bird's eyes are always in focus, and it's a critical aspect of the image.

In conclusion, bird photography is a challenging and rewarding genre of photography that requires patience, skill, and the right equipment. By mastering manual mode shooting, fast shutter speeds, back button autofocus, depth of field, and auto-ISO settings, you can achieve stunning images of birds in the wild.

Understanding the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and ISO and how to use them effectively is crucial in bird photography. Use a small aperture, also known as a high f-stop number, to achieve a shallow depth of field, making the background out of focus and the bird stand out in the image. And use auto-ISO in conjunction with manual settings to maintain control over aperture and shutter speed while still ensuring that the image is properly exposed.

Remember to experiment with different settings and techniques, and don't be afraid to make mistakes – that's how we learn and improve. And always take into account the ethics of wildlife photography and how to minimize your impact on the animals you photograph.


If you want to learn more about bird photography, I am available for private one-on-one training sessions where we can go over any questions you may have and work on your photography skills together. You can contact me through my website or social media for more information.


Paul Anderson

www.paulandersonphoto.com

instagram @paulanderson_photography







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