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.


2 thoughts on “Photography Tips for Birders Part 2 Shooting Modes Beginner”

  1. Yea! Some tips for my new camera. But I’ll be shooting beagles, not birds. Boogie is pretty calm, but Pearl is a wiggle-butt. Settings to play with!

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