For the Birds (part 2)

Morkel Erasmus All Authors, Morkel 24 Comments

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
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Big Birds

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:


 Small Birds

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!

Morkel Erasmus

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Comments 24

  1. Anja Denker

    Thanks for the blog Morkel – very informative and well-written!! Greatly appreciated – your time, input and sharing of knowledge!!


  2. Judy Lawrenson

    Thanks for these post Morkel. What are your ISO settings when taking these shots? I sometimes find grain a problem. How do I get rid of this without spending too much on other programs?


    1. Morkel Erasmus

      Hi Judy! I will touch on ISO in the next episode, but as usual always try and go for the lowest ISO that is possible given your chosen aperture/SS combo for the “feel” of the shot and the light available. Most modern cameras can perform decently at least up to ISO-1600 so don’t be afraid to crank it up if need be.

  3. Farzad

    Hi Morkel and many thanks for the knowledge you’re sharing.

    As I see here we are almost never going to shoot wide open so we can get the whole thing sharp, does that mean that it’s a waste of money to buy a fast lens ? I mean if a slower lens can give the sharpness and acceptable focus speed then the widest aperture should not be a concern.

    Thanks again and Good Luck!

    1. Morkel Erasmus

      Hey Farzad – I can see WHY you would think/ask that, but remember the “faster” lens will provide you with faster autofocus (AF) acquisition, better AF tracking and generally a sharper image even if you have to stop down a stop or two for proper DOF. Many people use a lens like the Canon 400mm f5.6 L to great effect on birds so I will never shoot down the slower lenses, but again that lens is quite fast compared to something like the Sigma 150-500mm.

  4. Deb Weston

    Great blog and very helpful to me. I will have it in my head when I go out tomorrow looking for Mountain Bluebirds. My question is this: I have the option to use a single focus point, an expanded area of focus points or zone focus points where the camera decides. If you have any advice on this I’ll be very grateful.

    1. Morkel Erasmus

      Hi Deb! I will touch on focus points and AF modes in one of the next episodes, but you need to use what you are comfortable with. I would always recommend the AF expansion mode where you select a given point and the camera is able to expand that to any of the AF points immediately surrounding your chosen point. That way you can track the action/flight better, and if you slip up the camera can compensate. If you choose too big an area for compensation, the AF can jump all over the viewfinder and you may miss your shot. Hope it makes sense?

  5. Karine Radcliffe

    Congratulations on your terrific site Morkel!! I am a keen bird photographer, but fairly new at this whole photography thing. I understand and actually already use the settings you are suggesting. I use a Nikon D7000 and have so far left my Auto ISO on the OFF setting!! I understand the principle of the Auto ISO but at the risk of sounding a complete fool, I don’t understand what you mean by being able to ” adjust the EV to toggle the auto ISO for the desired exposure”. I would appreciate your feedback on this one, we are off to the Kgalagadi in April and anything that will help me, is a bonus!!!
    Thank you so much
    Karine Radcliffe (Australia)

    1. Post
      Morkel Erasmus

      Hi Karine. Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you are liking these posts.
      Let me try to explain it better: Usually, when shooting Aperture or Shutter priority, you can use your EV setting (exposure bias/compensation – this is usually the button with the +/- on and is toggled when you press the button and scroll one of the selection wheels left or right) to adjust how the camera will meter for the particular shot/situation you are in. Setting it to +0.3 means you are telling the camera to overexpose by a third of a full stop of light. If you are shooting in Aperture priority, with a fixed ISO, your camera compensates for this exposure using the variable available to it – shutter speed. It will then choose a slightly slower shutter speed to achieve the +0.3 overexposure. Likewise for underexposing. Now, when shooting like I do in manual mode, where I personally select the aperture and shutter speed I ideally want for the shooting situation I am in, you can still use your EV adjustments if auto-ISO is enabled, and the camera will adjust your exposure by adjusting the ISO setting. Does it make sense? I will also explain this in the next post of the series…

  6. Karine Radcliffe

    Thank you so much Morkel, this is all clear to me now!! Went outside and shot a few random pics on M with Auto ISO and dialling in a few + and – EV’s and could see how it all works. It is quite simple really, don’t know why I could not work that out for myself…..aaarggh!!!!
    Thank you so much for your time

  7. Leonie Gilchrist

    Thank you for your informative blog. So clear and easy to understand. And your photos are brilliant. An inspiration. Keep up the good work.

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