Photography Tips for Birders Part 3:Shooting Tips for Advanced Users

Mourning Dove, ISO 250, f 5.6, 1/1250th second

Last time I spoke to the Beginning camera user, in this post I’d like to give some tips for Advanced SLR users on shooting birds. Birds are a wonderful wildlife subject, since regardless of where you live there are probably birds around. They may not be brightly colored exotic birds, but you have birds and home is a great place to practice.

When shooting any kind of wildlife, I prefer shooting in Aperture Priority. This allows me to maximize my shutter speed based on current lighting by adjusting the aperture setting. I find manual mode to be too slow, however if you have light that is not changing on the subject then manual is fine. However, I often find myself in situations where the bird is moving around from shade to sunlight too quickly for manual mode. I rarely use shutter priority unless I’m trying for a blur technique. Shutter priority can get you into trouble in low lighting or when you have changing light. As a bird moves from sunlight to shade you may no longer be able to use the 1/500th you had it set to. If you don’t pay close attention the image will go dark and you’ll get home with a bunch of underexposed images. Instead I use aperture priority so I can adjust the aperture to get the fastest possible shutter speed for the light I have.

I start with an ISO setting of 400. Current SLR cameras have good quality at ISO 400 and this helps to get a fast shutter speed. For birds I want at least 1/125th second when they are posing. If I’m shooting flight at least 1/500th of a second.   I set my aperture to 5.6 to start. If I need to increase shutter speed I’ll open up if possible. Once aperture is maxed out you will need to increase ISO. A sharp grainy image is always preferable to a blurry or slightly out of focus shot, unless of course you are trying some blur technique. Current cameras do well at 800 and 1600. I try to avoid anything higher. If you need to use something higher you probably don’t have good light anyway, so identification shots are all you should shoot for.

Gold Finch, ISO 400, f5.6, 1/500th second

Continuous Shooting mode set to AI servo on Canons or AFC on Nikons helps the camera focus on moving targets. You will also need to take a lot of images to get a few good ones. Birds move a lot, so don’t be conservative with taking images, fire away!

White Balance setting depends on the lighting. Auto most of the time though.

These are the settings I start with: Aperture priority set to 5.6, ISO 400, continuous shooting and AI servo/AFC, white balance auto. Take a few shots and see what you are getting. I’m looking for a minimum 1/125th shutter speed for a perched bird. They move their little heads around a lot. Adjust settings as needed. Faster is always better, while too slow is problematic, especially during flight. I rarely go over F8 and then only when I’m trying to get more than one bird sharp in the image. So have fun, go practice on your boring hometown birds and you’ll be ready when you go to someplace cool like Costa Rica!

Jacobin Hummingbird 1/500th second, ISO 800, f 5.6

Photography Tips for Birders Part 2 Shooting Modes Beginner

Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow

So you now have a camera, how can you get the most out of it? Well take my Discover Digital Photography class at PVCC of course! Next class starts end of January 2013. Until then I’ll give you a few tips.

Most cameras have a full auto mode, this is a fine place to start, but it does not allow you to control key features. The camera makes all of the decisions for you. There are several situations where you can help the camera do better. Auto mode usually does not allow you access to the controls discussed below, so you need to shoot in the Program mode. To set Program mode find the dial on the top of the camera or on a menu on a Point and Shoot with no dial.

Shooting Mode Dial

First thing you may want to adjust is the ISO setting. ISO determines how sensitive the sensor is to light. You want higher ISO settings in lower light. Why? When photographing birds they do not hold still. They are busy active critters. So you need to make sure you have a fast enough shutter speed to get a sharp image. Who wants a blurry bird anyway?

So what is shutter speed you ask? One of the settings the camera uses to create a picture is shutter speed, this is set automatically in Auto and Program modes. This is how long the shutter opens to allow light in through the lens to make an impression on the sensor. It also makes the classic clicking noise when the camera takes the picture.

A slow shutter speed like 1/15th of a second or slower may create a blurry image because either you are hand holding the camera or the subject is not still. If you have a moving subject, like a bird or child, you need at least 1/125th of a second or you may get motion blur.

Since you are beginners shoot for a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second or higher. You’ll get sharper images. Ambient light controls how fast a shutter speed you can get. So a bright sunny day gives faster speeds than predawn. I will discuss lighting in more detail in a further post. Increasing the ISO will tell the camera to set a faster shutter speed. For a start set the ISO to 400.

DSLR Quick Control Screen
Point & Shoot View Screen


Beware at higher ISO settings the image may become grainy and lose quality. Especially a problem on P&S cameras.

So crack open the manual to find where to set the ISO on your camera AND you need to know where the shutter speed reading is on the camera. Shutter speed is displayed when you press the shutter button down part way while looking at your subject. It’s displayed in the viewfinder or on P&S cameras the view panel on the back of the camera. Or come take my class and I’ll point it all out to you :).

Exposure Compensation is another useful feature on the camera. This controls how light or how dark the image comes out. If you are shooting a bird against a white sky, (which I don’t recommend, but it may be your only chance to get the shot), the image will come out too dark. The bird will be very dark and the sky will be greyish. The bird is dark because he is back lit and the picture is dark because of the sky. In this case you need to adjust the exposure compensation to +1 or +2 to get the bird to come out. The sky may become too bright, but the bird is the primary subject, so adjust the setting to the plus side until the bird lightens up enough. The minus side makes the image darker. Probably not needed very often for birding. Remember to set the meter back to 0 when you are done with your bird against the sky. IF the bird is against a blue sky with good light on him you do not need to do this.

Back lit Bird too dark, underexposure
Back lit Bird properly exposed, +2 exposure compensation


In auto mode the camera decides when to use the flash, so if it’s dark out then the flash will fire. I doubt your bird subject is within 10 feet so the flash is entirely ineffective. For example, when you watch a concert you constantly see the flashes on cameras going off in the audience. The built-in on-camera flash has an effective range of 10′ so all you do is illuminate the people in the row seated in front of you. Birds are usually well beyond 10′ from you up in a tree, the flash will not help. By shooting in Program mode on a DSLR camera the flash will not fire unless you pop it up. On P&S cameras you need to turn the flash off by using the lightning bolt button to change the flash mode. I never use flash for bird photography.

Point & Shoot Viewscreen - Flash Off & Exposure Compensation


I highly recommend continuous shooting for bird photography. They are wily critters and you need to take a lot of shots to get a few good ones. So find the controls for continuous shooting and set it there.

Continuous Shooting Symbol


In summary, use the Program mode, keep the flash turned off, set the ISO to 400 to start and adjust up from there if the shutter speed is below 1/125th. For flying birds you need at least 1/500th of a second. Keep the exposure compensation set to 0 unless shooting a back lit bird against a pale sky. Also adjust as needed if the image looks too dark or light. If this freaks you out, then try Sports/Action mode on the camera dial, it will help with the above settings except exposure compensation.

Next time I’ll discuss settings for advanced DSLR users.


Photography Tips for Birders Part 1 Equipment

Carolina Wren

I am giving a talk to the Monticello Bird Club next week and thought I would share the information in my talk over a few blog posts. Many birders would like to capture images of the birds they see. They are out weekly, sometimes daily looking for birds, so the opportunity to capture shots is great. They also head out early in the morning, this is a great time for good light, if it isn’t a cloudy or rainy day!

Maybe you want to capture images for ID or maybe you want to get some good shots to print or use in presentations. Whatever the reason, I hope this series will help you get better bird images.


Many birders already have scopes, so one option is to buy a camera and attach it to the scope. Essentially the scope acts as the lens and gives you good magnification. You can even stack the camera lens/zoom on top of the scope to get even more magnification! The better the quality of your scope the better quality images you can get.

There are 2 main types of cameras, point and shoot or DSLR. Point and shoot (P&S) cameras are smaller and cheaper. There are a number on the market compatible with a scope. Make sure you use a P&S with a short zoom of 3-4x, the longer zooms will create problems with vignetting (black corners in the view/image). You use stepping rings to attach the camera to the scope along with a digital camera adapter. You will need to do some research to find what works best for you and the scope you have.

DSLR cameras are larger and more expensive. You can get a good entry level camera for $500-800, so it’s not astronomical. There are obviously much more expensive cameras available as well, it all depends on what you want to do with the camera outside of birding. The advantage of a DSLR camera is much better quality of image, especially at higher ISO settings (I will expand on this in Part 2). They also focus faster and give you more control over settings.

You can attach the DSLR body directly to the scope using a T2 mount and digital camera adapter or attach it to a lens using stepping rings and a digital camera adapter. The lens must have threads for the stepping ring to attach to.

There is a lot of information on the internet regarding digiscoping, just google the name. A few websites I found helpful were:  – a British bird enthusiast – good basic info but written in 2006 so recommendations are outdated. – from the guy who started digiscoping, has a list of scope/camera combos


There are Binoculars with a camera built in. This makes for a portable compact package and seems like the best option for ID photos. There is not a lot of control and image quality is probably on par with a P&S camera. I haven’t tried this personally, so you’ll need to read reviews to see if this is for you.   Bushnell is one brand reviewed in Bird Watchers Digest :


Immature Black Skimmer

The final equipment option is a DSLR camera with traditional lens. This will most likely be the most expensive route, but will give you the higher quality images and more control. However, you will not get the reach/magnification you can get from a scope.

To photograph birds you need at least a 400mm lens.  I use this when I travel as it is smaller than my big lens. Bigger lenses give you more reach, but cost more; 500mm, 600mm, 300-800 and 1200mm are available sizes. You can also use teleconverters of 1.4x and 2x for more reach at a cheaper price, but they only work on certain lenses. A 1.4x on a 400mm = a reach of 560mm while a 2x on a 400mm -= a reach of 800mm. There is some loss of image quality, especially with the 2x. Make sure to read reviews prior to purchase.

When not flying for travel, I use a Sigma 300-800mm lens on a Gitzo tripod with Cobra head on my Canon 1DMark III. This setup runs around $13K, so it’s not cheap, but I’m a photographer first and birder second.

In part 2 we’ll look at some camera settings to use to get good images.