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.


A Flash for Christmas

Students often ask me what accessories they should get for their camera. There are so many things to choose from and your budget is the limit. So I ask you, do you love to photograph friends and family? Do you do a lot of shooting indoors? If so I highly recommend an off camera flash. One that sits in the hot shoe on top of the camera. The hot shoe is present on all SLR type cameras and some Point and Shoots. The skinny little ‘fit in your pocket’ point and shoots do not have them.



So what will an off camera flash do for you? It will greatly improve the quality of the flash light on your subjects. The on camera flash is poorly placed for good photography. It is right over the lens and results in flat frontal light and red eye. When you create a portrait, it is preferable to have the light coming from an angle to create soft contouring shadows on the subjects face. Straight on light flattens out the subject and reduces depth in the final image.

Direct Flash, harsh deer in the headlights look
Flash bounced off wall for softer side lighting with contouring shadows












Red eye is caused by light reflecting off the back of our eyes. Pets have yellow and green eyes, except Siamese cats that also have red eyes, (this is your useless fun fact from the veterinarian side of me). So using a flash directly in someone’s face usually results in red eye. Yes, you can try to correct this on the computer later, but turning red eyes of doom into black eyes of doom often isn’t any better.An off camera flash can help eliminate this.

Red or Green Eye from Direct Flash


Off camera flash units have a head that swivels. You can mount it to the top of the camera and then point it at a white wall or ceiling to bounce the light (beware of the color of the wall or ceiling as this is the color you will reflect if you bounce light). This creates a diffused soft light and changes the direction to give more pleasing results than the direct on flash.

If you are outdoors you will have to point the flash at the subject since there is nothing to bounce off of. However, many of the newer flash units have a wireless feature that communicates with the camera, so you can take it off the camera and hold it at a different angle than the camera. This allows you to move the angle of the light around your subject to get the best effect on the face and eliminate red eye. This requires you to use a tripod to hold the camera or have an assistant to hold/position the flash if you are hand holding the camera. You can use this technique indoors as well.

The other option is to use a diffuser over the flash to soften and diffuse the light so it is not so harsh. I highly recommend the diffusers made by Gary Fong. They work great, are collapsible and affordable. They create a warm diffuse light on the subject. I’ve used one for years! I use it all the time, whether I am bouncing the light or using it directly on the subject.


Which flash to get? Make sure to get one that is compatible with your camera. I suggest the same brand as your camera and make sure it has a movable head to point up or sideways. The wireless feature is nice but you can also get a cord to use if off of the hot shoe. Regardless your use of the flash will improve greatly by using an off camera unit and bouncing the light with a Fong diffuser. If you want to move your flash/portrait photography forward this is a great start and there is lots of room to grow!

Flash Bounced off Ceiling - soft light, no red eye
Flash Bounced off ceiling, soft light

Ambient Light and Shutter Speed

The amount of ambient light you have greatly affects the shutter speeds you can achieve. A bright sunny day has lots of light so it is possible to get a shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second. A cloudy day may only let you get up to 1/1000th of a second. A cloudy day under the trees offers even less light.  Even on a sunny day shooting indoors is still a lot less light than outdoors. You must pay attention to the shutter speeds you get as the light changes. As you move from daylight to shade you get less light.

Sunny Day ISO 100, 1/1500th second
Bright Cloudy ISO 400, 1/800th













Indoors sunny day, ISO 1600, 1/160th second










So if you are trying to photograph your toddler moving around like a maniac outdoors will give you more light and faster shutter speeds than indoors. Indoors on a sunny/bright day is better than trying to capture it indoors with artificial lighting at night. Flash can help but only to a point. Most flash units top out at 1/200th of a second.

Indoors sunny day, ISO 1600, 1/160th second
Outdoors bright cloudy, ISO 100, 1/320th second















You can adjust the ISO to get faster shutter speeds in low light, however realize that you lose quality with the increased grain. Regardless a sharp grainy image is preferable to a blurry image. Click on the image below to see the grain. Please note I am using a 5D Mark II Canon that has very good quality at ISO 6400. Cameras vary widely with ISO quality based on model, cost and age. Next time we’ll talk about blurring action with shutter speeds.

Indoors artificial light no flash, ISO 6400, 1/320th second

Setting the right Shutter Speed – part 2 – Hand Holding

Many people hand hold the camera to take photographs. This is fine but it is critical that you have a minimum shutter speed for you to  acquire a sharp image. What is this speed? For a normal lens (24-100mm) and a normal person it’s about 1/60 of a second. Some people are steadier and others more shaky.

Portrait at 1/60 of a second










If you have an image stabilized or vibration reduction lens then you might be able to get consistently sharp images at 1/15 of a second.

Portrait at 1/15 of a second with Image Stabilization











If you are using a large heavy lens, ie a 400mm then the minimum shutter speed needs to be faster. Why? Because the lens/camera combo is heavier and therefore harder to hold steady. A general rule is 1/focal length of the lens. For this example you would at least need a shutter speed of 1/400 of a second.

400mm lens hand held from a kayak, 1/4000 of a second

Use the following exercise to determine the minimum shutter speed you need for each lens you have. The lighter the lens the slower you can hold up to a point.

Exercise: Try photographing a written sign 6 times each at various shutter speeds: 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60

Download the images onto the computer and zoom into 100%. You want at least 5 out of 6 images sharp for you to say you can consistently get a sharp image at that shutter speed. For instance, say you got all 6 sharp at 1/60, 5 sharp at 1/30, 3 sharp at 1/15 and 1 sharp at 1/8. The minimum speed you should ever use while hand holding is 1/30 second to get consistently sharp images from your end.

Getting sharp images also depends on the subject, mentioned in the previous lesson on stopping action, and whether you properly acquired focus on the subject. Depth of field, aperture, also plays a role. We will address them all in subsequent posts. For this lesson find out what the minimum shutter speed is for you for each lens you own.  Check the speed before you take the shot! We’ll talk about how to adjust aperture and ISO to get faster shutter speeds in subsequent posts.

Next time we’ll look at how the ambient light affects the shutter speed you can get.

Setting the right Shutter Speed part 1 – Stopping Action

Shutter speed is one of the main camera settings. It determines how long the shutter is open to allow light in to hit the sensor and give you an exposure for an image. Ambient light plays a big part in how fast or how slow of a shutter speed you can achieve.

As we discuss shutter speed we will look at stopping action, blurring action, hand holding, light and variables such as distance, lenses and ISO. Today we start with stopping action.

It’s important that you have a fast enough shutter speed for the subject you are shooting if you want a sharp image. If the subject is moving and the shutter speed is too slow you will get motion blur. How fast do you need? There are a lot of variables but let’s start with this general guide:

  • Slower than 1/15 second you need a tripod and still life
  • Portrait 1/60 second
  • Walking 1/125 second
  • Person running 1/250 second
  • Horse running 1/500 second
  • Bird flying 1/1000 second and faster

You can never have too fast of a shutter speed to stop action, but you can have too slow. In order to achieve the faster shutter speeds you will need to have adequate ambient light. Stopping action indoors or at dusk/dawn is difficult. We’ll discuss solutions for this when I get to ISO.

Exercise: On a bright sunny or cloudy day, not indoors or near sunrise or sunset, try to stop the action of kids playing soccer for example. Set the camera to shutter priority with an ISO of 400, white balance auto, continuous shooting and shutter speed of 1/250 second to start.

Make sure the camera gives you an aperture reading and that it is not blinking (Canon) or showing HI or LO (Nikon). If so you will get an image that is too bright or too dark, in other words the aperture options and the shutter speed you chose will not work under these lighting conditions.  If it is then you will need to adjust the ISO or find a brighter day.

The aperture setting is irrelevant for the exercise, just that you are getting one. Adjust the shutter speed up to 1/500 and 1/1000 and down to 1/125 second to see the results you get. Check images frequently to see if you are getting sharp images. Make sure to zoom in to see if they are really sharp!

Missing focus on a moving target can also cause blurry images so keep trying. A good action photographer is lucky to get 10% of the images that look good!


Portrait - 1/60 second


Tennis - 1/500 second


Horses galloping - 1/640 second

Selective Focus


iron fence

Selective Focus allows you to make a subject stand out from the background or elements around it. When you press the shutter part way the camera focuses on a point a certain distance away. This depends on where you are focusing and how far away the subject is. This plane of focus is parallel to the plane of the sensor.

If you want the subject to stand out you need to set a low aperture to decrease the depth of field. So f 2.8 has a shallower depth of field than f 8, f16 or anything higher. Depth of field is how far in front of and behind the plane of focus that will be rendered sharp in the image. So if you want the subject to stand out you need a shallow depth of field or low f stop.

One final consideration is how far from the subject you are. The closer you get to the subject the easier it is to decrease the depth of field. So being inches from the subject as opposed to feet or being 5 feet as opposed to 10 feet away, will help decrease the depth of bottles

The example of the iron fence has the focus on the center fence spike with an f stop of 3.2 and I’m relatively close to the subject about 1 foot away.

The next image has the focus on the first wine bottle with f stop of 2.8. This makes it stand out from the others behind it.

The final example uses selective focus to highlight the grapes and then lets the grape picker go blurry but still be recognizable. To achieve this effect I am inches away from the grapes but need a higher f stop of 11 to render enough detail in the background.