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

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