Set up your camera for great bird photos

A blue grosbeak perches at Dos Venadas Ranch, Texas.
A blue grosbeak perches at Dos Venadas Ranch, Texas.

This photograph of a blue grosbeak illustrates just how far camera technology has come in the eight years since I first traveled to the private birding blinds of South Texas. Back then, I was using a Nikon D2x and 200-400mm f/4 zoom lens. I got plenty of good images, but my keeper rate was fairly low, especially as light faded. I also didn’t seem to get the sharpest shots at times and I couldn’t really figure out why, as some shots were tack-sharp. Was it the camera? The lens? Or was it something else about my technique?

Fast-forward to today, and I think I figured out the necessary ingredients for good bird photos. My Nikon D4 not only has a more refined autofocus system (smaller focus points make for more accurate focusing), but the high-ISO performance of today’s cameras lets me shoot with settings that would’ve been nearly impossible in 2006. Consider the EXIF data from this image, which I captured with my Nikon D4, 600mm f/4 AFS G VRII Nikkor and TC-14E teleconverter.

1/2000s f/6.3 ISO 6400

Notice something there? I halved the traditional shutter speed for action (1/1000s) and I was slightly stopped down (with my teleconverter, wide-open is f/5.6).

The Nikon D4, like the D3s I had before it, lets me shoot at high shutter speeds even in fading light, with relative impunity when it comes to ISO and noise. Why is this important? Because as much as we like to think soft images are the result of mis-focusing, mostly what I’ve learned is that the old rule of using 1/1000s as a “fast” shutter speed is just not good enough with today’s digital cameras. On film, you’d be lucky to get conditions that permitted such shutter speeds, but with digital, I say go for it and ISO noise be damned.

Sure, you can certainly adhere to the rule that using the lowest possible ISO gives you the cleanest images and best dynamic range, but I’d rather have a sharp shot with a little grain in it than a soft shot.

Exposure Settings

Going back to my settings for a moment… how did I set up my camera? Consider the normal advice for action photography, which indicates that shutter speed trumps aperture. In that situation, I’d use shutter-priority (Tv for the Canon folk) exposure mode and set a high shutter speed. Unfortunately, what I’ve found in this situation is that unless conditions are very bright, you’ll be shooting with your lens wide-open most of the time. Even my Nikon 600mm lens is slightly sharper when I stop it down slightly. Add a teleconverter, as I did with this shot, and it becomes even more necessary to stop down a tad to improve image sharpness. Therefore, I set my camera to get maximum control. I use manual exposure mode and auto ISO. By setting my camera this way, I can set both the desired shutter speed and aperture (in this case, 1/2000s and f/6.3 with the teleconverter) and let the camera figure out the necessary ISO setting. I use exposure compensation to adjust for dark backgrounds when necessary.

Today’s cameras are so good (including most mid-range DSLRs) at controlling noise that I highly recommend using auto ISO when shooting anything action-related (birds, sports, etc.). The results might impress you. Keep in mind that you don’t need a D4-class camera to get images like this. Many of my workshop participants used slower cameras, including Nikon D7100, D800 and D700 bodies. The advantage of the D4 comes down to faster focus acquisition and faster burst rate, which increases the chances of getting an action shot instead of a static portrait.

Autofocus Settings

One thing about today’s cameras is that they offer lots of different ways to set your focus point. While you might think that using multi-point autofocus (group dynamic modes) might be best for birds, I actually find myself using single-point focus most of the time with continuous-servo mode. Why? Using a single point allows me to focus as precisely as possible on the head of the bird, and not the shoulder. With group focus points, sometimes the camera will think that the body of the bird is “good enough,” and you’ll end up with a soft eye. The other reason for using single-point AF is that it is always the fastest and most responsive focus option, as the camera CPU does not need to process and evaluate AF data from multiple sensor inputs. For flight shots, go ahead and use the grouped focus points, but for perching birds, stick with single-point AF.

While these settings will help, there is still nothing like being able to get close to birds in their natural habitat. Check out my workshops page to get notified of all my photo safaris, including my trip back to Texas in 2015.


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