This is for all you bird photography enthusiasts out there. If you are not up to speed, head on over to PART 1 first, and I’ll see you back here in 10.
Right – let’s get started, shall we? In this 2nd edition of my series on improving your bird photography, I will take a look at shutter speeds and aperture selections, as well as which mode you should shoot in for specific scenarios.
I will work from the assumption that you at least have a basic idea of the interrelated nature of shutter speed, aperture and ISO.
Your settings will be largely determined by the size/type of bird, and the type of shot you are looking for.
First off, keep in mind that there will generally be 2 types of images you are creating with bird photography (with various variations of each):
- The first main type will be portraits (with the idea of capturing a specific mood or some finer details of the bird). When it comes to portraits, you can get away with a slower shutter speed, but if you really want a sharp shot, you will need to adhere to basic principles like sticking to at least 1/focal-length for your shutter speed, or preferably higher.
- While the second will be action photos (this being birds taking off, landing, in flight, fighting, courting, whatever else than just sitting on a twig). For these shots you typically want very fast shutter speeds, but this can be determined by whether you are looking for motion/panned, blur shots or crisp, sharp shots with everything nice and defined.
Okay, so if you’ve seen a few birds in your life you’ll know they come in all shapes and sizes. I’m not just talking about ostriches and finches, but all the various sizes of birds in between. For the bigger type birds (think herons, eagles, storks etc) you will have a challenge of getting enough depth-of-field (DOF) so that enough of the bird is sharp.
This is also affected by your distance to your subject and the specific camera/lens combo you are using, so by no means is my advice here meant to be absolutely binding to all situations. In general, for most biggish birds you can safely bet on an aperture of somewhere between f5.6 and f8 to get the whole bird sharp, whether that’s for shooting in flight action or perched portraits.
If you have multiple big birds in the frame in relative proximity of the area you are focusing on, you may need to up that to about f11, or even go shallower if you want to make sure that all the birds except your main subject remain out of focus.
This Spotted Eagle Owl chick was photographed with a 500mm lens, at an aperture setting of f8:
For in-flight photos, you can normally get away with slow-ish shutter speeds as most big birds don’t fly that swiftly.
Depending on size/species of bird, you can nail the images at anything from 1/500 to 1/2000 shutter speeds.
Obviously, for panned/motion blur photos you will need to set it much slower (think 1/100 or even 1/20).
This Goliath Heron was photographed using a 500mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter, at an aperture of f8 and shutter speed setting of 1/1600:
Smaller birds present a different challenge in that they’re harder to track through the viewfinder, and they move like little jetplanes most of the time. When shooting portraits of the smaller birds, DOF generally isn’t a problem and you can go nice and shallow and open up your lens aperture wide for a nice creamy bokeh and background blur.
Small birds don’t usually allow us too close (except if you’re in a well-placed hide) so you can pretty much go as wide as your lens can go. I’d recommend at least f4 most of the time though, even if you have a lens with an f2.8 maximum aperture. I also try to stick to even deeper DOF settings for these smaller birds, as they tend to move so fast and you can have them leave your plane of critical focus very easily, especially if you are shooting at too shallow an aperture setting.
This Carmine Bee-eater was photographed with a 200-400mm lens at an aperture of f4:
When photographing small birds in flight, I would recommend going for shutter speeds of between 1/2000 and as high as 1/8000 (for the really fast ones like Malachite Kingfishers). A safe bet would be 1/3200 or 1/4000 for most medium to small birds. Obviously this comes at a tradeoff of ISO if you want to stick to an aperture of f8 or higher, so I’d drop to f5.6 if the light isn’t the best.
This Magpie Shrike was photographed using a 500mm lens at an aperture of f5.6 and a shutter speed setting of 1/3200:
Which mode to shoot in?
This question gets asked a lot, and there really is no straight-forward answer. I cut my teeth using the aperture priority and shutter priority modes on my various cameras while learning the ins and outs of bird photography. In most cases when the light is good, aperture priority should be good enough.
This mode allows you to determine the aperture (and resulting DOF) you want from the resulting photograph. You also fix the ISO setting based on the light available, and the camera then adjusts the shutter speed to get you the desired exposure for the shot you want. In the shutter priority mode, the roles are reversed and you choose the shutter speed you want while the camera selects an appropriate aperture setting.
In cases where you want to make sure you get enough of the subject in focus – use aperture priority. In cases where you want to make sure you get a sharp shot with a high shutter speed (or a blurred shot with an extremely low shutter speed) – use shutter priority. I currently prefer shooting in manual mode with auto ISO, which allows me to select both the aperture and shutter speed I desire, and allows the camera to choose an appropriate ISO setting based on the available light.
If your camera allows this to be set up, then I would highly recommend it – provided you can adjust your exposure compensation/bias (EV) to help the camera use the ISO to achieve the desired exposure. I shoot Nikon and my cameras allows EV to toggle auto ISO adjustments, but I know Canon cameras don’t allow you to manipulate auto ISO using EV (except for the 1Dx with the new firmware upgrade).
There you have it. I hope this edition of my series has been helpful to you. Next week we will look at nailing the exposure for the specific background you are faced with, using your exposure compensation (EV) or bias effectively, as well as how to properly exposure various plumage colour combinations on birds.
That is, if I find time to write one every week (which is currently the plan). If you have any specific questions regarding the stuff highlighted in this post, please feel free to post a comment underneath this post and I will do my best to answer them!
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