Photography - Knowledge

Camera Settings for Bird photography: A Beginners' Guide

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We all love to shoot –some of us love to shoot raw emotions, some love to capture natural moments. Then there are people who love to shoot the birds. While capturing the colourful feathered friends seems like a cup of tea with a canon sx50 or a high-end canon 7d mark ii, it is not as simple as it seems. With the dawn of new technology, there is a plethora of high-end DSLRs and each offering numerous quirky settings. The camera settings for bird photography play a crucial role and we are here to offer you the quick guide to excel in photography. Unlike nature, there is no retaking possible. You just have to click at the perfect time and bang on!

Birds fighting
A pair of Crane in Rough Motion (source)

Various workshops are held by photographers to teach you the bird photography tips and techniques; here you can learn the bird photography tips and tricks while sitting at home. Just follow these steps and enjoy some wonderful shots. We assure, these settings have been thoroughly tested in the field of bird photography and the results came out best as ever.

And since we are talking about wildlife photography, check out the gears to click comfortably in the wild.



Camera Setting Tips for Bird Photography

For all bird lovers who have just stepped into the world of bird photography with their DSLRs, here's a list of go-to bird photography tips.

Shoot in Raw

So far you might have wondered why there is the unspoken rule among the professional photographers about clicking their image in RAW format. Here is why. RAW is the native file format used in the DSLRs, while JPEG format is a compressed one containing less information, fewer details (in picture quality), more noise and relatively poor colour scheme. Same goes with the new sRaw format where the size is smaller than RAW, quality is much like RAW but the information is lacking in the best camera for beginners.

Learn more on image format- RAW vs JPEG

But RAW format also takes much more space than that of JPEG. So if you are running out of low space on your memory card or just want to save space on your memory card, then you should go with JPEG format. SLRs like Canon sx50 supports only JPEG formats.

Again RAW files can retain the perfect quality, can be modified with white balance, shadow and highlighting, color and contrast and much more while the JPEG files are much harder to work on.

RAW Camera settings for Canon - RAW + Fine JPEG

RAW Camera settings for Nikon - RAW + Fine JPEG Basic

Raw camera settings
Raw Camera Settings

Auto White Balance (AWB)

Keeping in mind that the birds are not still objects, rather agile creatures that spring up very often, you need to change the White Balance in camera settings for bird photography accordingly. Now how can you adjust White Balance each time you take a shot where the light changes drastically? To get the favourable result, hence it is better to stick to AWB or Auto White Balance. The new-age best cameras for beginners have the awesome AWB settings that can give you the right colours, almost in every situation. Most of the time, your camera itself will choose the correct white balance for you.

- AWB Settings for Canon DSLRs - AWB Auto

- AWB Settings for Nikon DSLRs - AUTO1

Semi-Automatic Modes: Aperture Priority / Shutter Priority

While photographing birds, using full ‘Auto’ or semi-auto mode like ‘P’ gives you control over your camera settings for bird photography to ensure great results.

Semi-automated modes
Semi-Automatic Modes
  • Aperture Priority (Av)

When you want more control of depth-of-field while photographing static or calm birds with your best camera for bird photography, this setting ‘locks in' the aperture used. The exposure and ISO are set by the camera itself in this mode. If the exposure still does not look good, you can use the Exposure Compensation or EC that allows you to direct the camera how bright or dark you want your images. Shutter speed plays a great role in this mode.

  • Shutter Priority (Tv)

In case you are shooting an action, this is the camera settings for birds in flight. Unlike the Av mode, here the camera sets the aperture, based on your preferable shutter speed and ISO. You need to set the shutter speed to the slowest, ISO to the highest and EC according to the preferable brightness. It is most useful in dimly lighted conditions.

  • Manual Mode (M)

When you want control over both shutter speed and aperture. After you have found your initial parameters, you will see that you don’t need to make huge adjustments. Shooting a number of birds with similar plumages or all under same brightness needs to be done in Manual Mode.

SA Mode in Canon 7D mark ii settings for bird photography- Av and Tv

SA Mode in Nikon camera settings for bird photography- A and S

Do check the guide on shooting with a shallow depth of field.

ISO – Exposure

Although Noise depends on a photographing birds equipment, you can also reduce noise by setting your ISO to Auto. Using higher ISO on cropped sensors as in Canon 7D Mark II, 70D, Nikon D500, D7200 etc can result in a lot of noise totally killing the quality. So bird photography tips for beginners is to set the ISO in Auto range with setting the maximum sensitivity to 800 proves fruitful. As for the full-frame cameras like Canon 1DX, 5D Mark III, Nikon D4, D810 etc you can set the maximum sensitivity to 1600 or even 1600 according to noise levels. Full stop ISO (100,200,400,800,1600) will be less noisy than the between-full-stop values (125,160,250,320,500,640,1250).

ISO exposure
Reduce Noise by Setting Your ISO to Auto

ETTR (Exposing To The Right) in-camera settings for bird photography helps you to squeeze out the maximum amount of light so that you don't have to touch up in Post Processing. Darkening images is much better than lightening. There is also a new quirk BETTR i.e. Bird Exposed To The Right that omits any highlights that are not the part of the bird but somehow hindering the overall highlights. But all these have exceptions regarding background colours, brightness level etc.

Best ISO settings for bird photography in Canon 7D will be Auto in range of 100 to 6400 (Minimum Shutter speed settings 1/125)

ISO settings in Nikon DSLRs will be Auto with ISO Sensitivity Control ON ranging from 400 to 1600 (Minimum Shutter speed settings 1/1600)

Metering Mode

Metering modes in camera settings
Metering Modes in Nikon and Canon

Metering involves how much light is entering through the lens (TTL). The best metering modes for bird photography simply instruct camera how to read the light levels.

  • Matrix/ Evaluative

Matrix in Nikon and Evaluative in Canon uses almost full sensor when the bird is part of the scene. The problem in this is that you need to overexpose or underexpose the rest of the scene to highlight the subject bird and in many cases either the bird becomes too dark or the background becomes dull.

  • Center-weighted

Considers 3-5% of your image frame and large central region of the frame is used to collect the majority of metering information. It best works when the light is harsh or variable and your subject bird is almost fitting the frame.

  • Spot-Metering

Uses a little part of the frame. It is used when the light is tricky and the bird is very small in the frame. It can often show faint luminance around your subject.

Shutter Speed

The shutter speed depends on the stability of the subject. If the bird is calmly sitting on a perch, or captive birds or less-moving i.e. stationary, your shutter speed should be in the range of 1/160 to 1/150. Similarly, if you are going to ‘freeze' the wink movements of a bird taking off or in flight or preening or mating, your shutter speed will increase to 1/2000 to 1/5000.

shutter speed bird photography
Just Before its Flight

Slower shutter speeds like 1/1600 can be used in case of fairly larger species such as pelican, geese, falcon, kite, hawk, peacock etc. These birds, having slower paced wing movements, give your best camera for bird photography enough time to capture their patterned wings.

Get more details on shutter speed photography element.

Aperture (f-Stop)

Aperture (f-stop)
Aperture (f-stop)

An aperture lets in more light into the frame per unit time resulting in brighter images. This is the diaphragm or the iris as in our eyes and can be opened or closed to varying sizes according to the settings. This camera settings for bird photography is relative to Shutter Speed. If the shutter opens and closes quickly, less light enters the frame resulting in darker images and vice versa.

It is a fact that a slight change in the parameters won't give a much-changed result. For example, if you turn your aperture from f/6 to f/5.1, and increase shutter speed by one unit, you will find no change as the larger aperture (smaller f-stop) was counterbalanced by the increase in shutter speed.

All you need to do is to find a number of combinations of ISO, F-stop and Shutter Speed in camera settings for birds in flight in different light conditions. And the biggest challenge lies in finding the perfect combinations as high ISO makes the image noisy, low Shutter Speed reduces the sharpness of the image and creates motion blur.

Autofocus Mode

Autofocus Mode
How to Set Autofocus Mode

One of the biggest challenges while photographing birds is changing between On-Shot Autofocus (AF-S) mode and Servo or continuous (AF-C) mode. For non-moving birds, you should go with AF-S while for action shots, you need to select AF-C mode. Some cameras have the AF-C button on the rear of the camera body. In this case, you just have to wait for the perfect moment and press shutter.

When you are using Back-button focusing (while the bird is perched and you want the take-off shot), set the shutter button only to take photos and not focus. Instead of half-pressing the shutter, you can use the AF-ON button to autofocus automatically. When you release the AF-ON button, it will automatically lock the autofocus and work as AF-S.

In Canon camera settings for bird photography, you need to select AF-ON: AF start and in case of Nikon cameras, select f3 (Assign AE-L/AF-L Button).

Drive Mode

Drive mode on camera
Select Continuous Drive Mode to Shoot in a Sequence

The Drive mode indicates how many photos the camera will take as you hold-release shutter and press it again. In single-frame drive mode, the camera will take only one photo even if you keep on pressing the shutter. In order to take another photo, you need to release the button halfway. It is best for calmly perched birds.

But when you are shooting a sequence i.e. an action, you need to select Continuous Drive Mode in your camera settings for bird photography. It often referred to as spray-and-pray while the single drive mode is known as snipping. Combined with Servo AF mode, Snipping can also be used in action shots.

Histogram and Highlight Indicator

Histogram indicator
Gather Your Image Info from its Histogram

Without relying on your LCD monitor, check the Histogram of an image as it gives the clear-cut exposure reading. It is actually a graphic representation of whether your picture is properly exposed, overexposed or underexposed. If the graph is skewed towards the right, your image is overexposed, if towards the left then underexposed.

The Highlight Indicator or Blinkies in camera settings for bird photography indicates any overexposed area in your image even if it is hard to find in the histogram. You will see red blinkers in the overexposed areas if you enable Highlight Indicator or Blinkies in your settings.

In Canon Cameras, the blinkies show up on the first screen and in case of Nikon, you have to check RGB highlights Screen.

Canon – Highlight Alert > Enable

Nikon –Playback Display Options > Additional Photo Info > Highlight

There are also a few other secondary settings you can take into account such as Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization, HDR, Exposure Compensation, Exposure Bracketing, Post Processing etc while photographing. But these are relative to the above-mentioned settings, not all but one with the others. So overall, if you are following the primary steps rightly, you are on the right path.

Bird Photography
Catch the Perfect Moment to Create Visual Magic (source)

Bird Photography needs extreme patience and dedication apart from the camera settings. So follow the rules according to the action, perch and light conditions. It is only a matter of fractions of seconds and you can either capture the perfect shot or miss the perfect moment. Practise with varied settings and varied conditions and in no time you will acquire your favourable parameters. Show respect to the birds and have a fabulous shooting!