With an overwhelming number of settings on the new DSLRs, it becomes increasingly hectic to know which ones to use. Then it takes an incredibly steep learning curve to understand how these settings work. It is much worse for a bird photographer, isn’t it? Bird photography is extremely challenging and a wrong setting might mean ruined photographs. It took several years for me to identify, practice, and stick to some of the key settings for bird photography.
Let me assure you that these settings are not reached in a philosophical way. They are tried and tested methods of achieving extraordinary results. These settings are the ones I teach to my photography workshop students as the first step towards making better bird photographs.
Set it and forget it
The key to making successful bird photographs is to select the settings and forget about them. Yes! Forget about them. Have only one or two variables so that you can focus primarily on making great bird photographs. Which is the art of photography.
In this article, I will give you 10 must-use camera settings that will help you improve your bird photography. These tips will relieve you of the persisting tension of changing the settings when the action unfolds. Remember, there are no retakes in bird photography. You have to be ready before the action unfolds.
So, let’s jump right in to find out how you can improve your bird photography with these 10 settings.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Please note that it’s not possible to give every step (for every camera) to configure a particular setting. I have given only just a few steps to show you the setting I have described. This is due to the constraint of space and the medium used.
1. Shoot in RAW format
Always shoot in RAW format. If you have never used RAW, then make it a point to use it right now. Pick up your DSLR and set the Image Quality as RAW. Another option is to use RAW + Fine JPEG (or Basic JPEG) if you are unsure that you can handle a RAW file immediately. But, one day you may have to start working with RAW files. So, why not start shooting RAW from this day forward.
RAW Camera Settings for Canon DSLRs:
RAW Camera Settings for Nikon DSLRs:
A RAW file holds all the data that your Camera Sensor captures. This means you are utilizing the sensor’s complete capacity. JPEG format, on the other hand, is an image compression standard. It compresses the data to reduce the size of the file, by throwing some of the data away. You don’t want to lose what your sensor captured, right?
Some of the key advantages of using RAW files are:
- You can modify your White Balance settings during the post-processing stage.
- The highest dynamic range that the sensor is capable of is stored in a RAW file. More data means more detail in both the shadow and highlight regions of your images.
- You can bring back phenomenal detail in the shadow regions in the post-processing stage.
- You can work on getting the perfect contrast and color in your image.
- And much more.
Have you switched to RAW format yet?
2. Use the Auto White Balance (AWB) Setting
The Auto White Balance (AWB) setting is a boon to every digital photographer. This is especially true for bird photographers. Imagine setting the white balance every time the light changes. On top of that, birds are constantly moving which means it’s almost impossible to set the white balance on the fly.
Even if you say, you can set the White Balance, remember that the light is changing throughout the day. Choosing just one standard white balance might yield wrong colors. Instead, the AWB setting will keep adjusting as the light changes. With newer DSLRs, the AWB setting does a tremendous job of getting the right colors, almost every time. Most often, it’s not necessary to change the white balance settings that the camera chooses for you.
So, use RAW format, set your camera on AWB mode, and then forget about it.
Auto White Balance Settings for Canon DSLRs:
Auto White Balance Settings for Nikon DSLRs:
Important Tip: If you use RAW format, you have complete control over the white balance during the post-processing stage. You can set it to any value you want. Tweak it to get the right colors.
3. Use semi-automatic modes like Av/A or Tv/S
It’s a common tendency to shoot in Auto mode as a novice bird photographer. But, you’ll have no control over the resulting exposure. Instead, start using the semi-automatic modes.
They are extremely simple to use and will give you incredible results. Start with the Aperture Priority (Av/A) mode. Most of the pros use this mode, including me. It allows you to choose the aperture (which will define the resulting depth of field), while the camera chooses the shutter speed for you. Combined with the Auto ISO setting (discussed next), it’ll ease your tension of worrying about the right settings.
If you are unable to get the required shutter speed, in the case of low light, choose Shutter Priority (Tv/S) mode. It allows you to select the shutter speed (which helps you to either freeze the action or blur it), while the camera chooses the aperture for you. Combined it with the Auto ISO setting (discussed next) for ease of use.
Semi-automatic Camera Settings for Canon DSLRs:
Semi-automatic Camera Settings for Nikon DSLRs:
If anyone has told you that you should use Manual Mode to get the best bird photographs, forget about their advice. It’s not about which mode you use, it’s about how you use it. Forget about these petty talks. Instead, concentrate on making your life easier by using a semi-automatic setting. You’ll thank me, for sure.
4. Use the Auto ISO setting
The Auto ISO setting, if used properly, can solve a lot of problems in bird photography. Most often, you need higher shutter speeds to freeze the action in bird photography. This means you must use higher ISOs. Using higher ISOs, especially on the cropped sensors (like Canon 70D, 7DMarkII, Nikon D500, D7200, etc.), can result in a lot of noise, yielding an unusable photograph.
Most often you would have to work with ISO in the 400-800 range. Instead of setting the ISO to be at 400 or 800, it’s wise to set it to Auto ISO and select the Maximum Sensitivity to be 800. If you are using a full-frame camera (like Canon 1DX, 5DMark3, Nikon D4, D810, etc.), you can set the maximum sensitivity to ISO 1600 (or even 3200 depending on noise levels).
Auto ISO Settings for Canon DSLRs:
Auto ISO Settings for Nikon DSLRs:
When you use Auto ISO instead of using a static ISO, you are allowing the camera to decide the ISO based on the changing light. Cameras are designed to keep the ISO value as low as possible, at all times.
Say you are working during the early morning when the light level is lower. The camera may start with ISO 800. But, as the light gets brighter and brighter, the ISO values will be smaller and smaller to compensate for the excess light. This means, your photographs will be much cleaner.
5. Use Auto ISO Combined With Minimum Shutter Speed
Many DSLRs allow you to choose the Minimum Shutter Speed in Auto ISO mode. This will ensure that the camera chooses the lowest possible ISO to achieve the Minimum Shutter Speed value. This gives you the best of both worlds. For instance, if you set the Minimum Shutter Speed to be 1/1000th of a second, the camera will alway try to select the lowest possible ISO value to meet your requirement.
NOTE: If there is not enough light in the scene to achieve the required shutter speed despite choosing the maximum ISO, then the shutter speed will drop. So, keep an eye on the resulting shutter speeds.
Auto ISO and Minimum Shutter Speed Settings for Canon DSLRs:
Auto ISO and Minimum Shutter Speed Settings for Nikon DSLRs:
Whenever you are unable to meet the minimum shutter speed that you need, just switch to normal ISO mode and set it to a higher value. But, I don’t recommend higher than ISO 800 on cropped sensors as the results will be too noisy and unusable. There are a few exceptions like the Nikon D500 and Canon 7D Mark II DSLRs that seem to work fine at higher ISOs. My suggestion: Test it. See how far you can push the ISO on your camera before the result looks too noisy.
6. Use the Evaluative/Matrix Metering Mode
The Evaluative (for Canon) and Matrix (for Nikon) options are default metering modes. But there’s a common belief that Spot Metering works best for bird photography. Although it’s true to an extent, it has too many limitations. It’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss it here.
While Spot Metering mode considers just 3-5% of your image frame, Evaluative/Matrix metering mode considers many aspects such as; the subject in focus, other objects in the frame, the background, and uses a weighting system to arrive at the right exposure value. It’s more intelligent than Spot and Center-weighted metering.
When you combine the Exposure Compensation technique (discussed next) with Evaluative/Matrix metering mode, you can get perfect exposures. With recent DSLRs, I have seen that the default metering modes give the best results in the majority of situations. They are sufficient if the dynamic range of your camera is high enough.