Camera Settings for Birds – Photography Tips #11

Health warning

This article contains a lot of technical information about camera settings that will only be of interest to people with relatively modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras. It contains a few amendments from the version published in Volume 69 No. 1 of The Blue Bill, the quarterly journal of the Kingston Field Naturalists.

One of the challenges of working with current DSLR and mirrorless camera bodies is the bewildering variety of options they present. What should one do when faced with the myriad of possibilities embedded in the basic camera controls for ISO, metering, shutter speed, aperture, and autofocus modes, much less the arcane stuff buried in the custom menus (53 options in my particular camera of choice)? Isn’t there a one-size-fits-all choice of settings that will let us get on with the business of photographing birds?

Well, yes and no. Readers of this series will know that I advocate learning how to control the basic functions of the camera, and particularly the big three of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. In the most recent article I also explored the importance of understanding and applying autofocus modes. These are functions that you may need to adjust multiple times over the course of a day out, and in my experience an ability to understand these and balance between them is one of the keys of creating good images.

So there is no single answer that works in all situations. However a quick scan through the internet will turn up a number of articles proposing the “right” settings for bird photography, by which they mean the recommended baseline settings to use most of the time. This is a good approach, and (needless to say!) I have my own recommendations. This article provides a set of good choices for standard settings, and capsule explanations for why these are recommended.

In order to confirm whether they were good ones I decided to test them during two recent birding trips by sticking as closely as possible to my recommended settings throughout the trip. The captions to the images accompanying this article will note the settings used, including any deviations from the recommended ones. A Nikon D850 camera body and a NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens were used throughout.

First things first

Before anything else on a photography expedition:

  • ensure you have a freshly charged battery (carry more than one if you use a mirrorless or bridge camera)
  • check that your lens and eyepiece are clean
  • confirm that your strap is secure
  • insert a clean memory card
  • check your dioptre adjustment. This device adjusts the eyepiece so that it shows a crisp image allowing for the vagaries of your eyesight. It is normally something that you set and forget, but once in a while it needs adjustment either because you accidentally nudged the control wheel, or, sadly, because your eyesight has deteriorated a bit. Focus on an object with well-defined edges, at least 10m away, and look to see whether the image in your viewfinder is crisp and clear. If not, make small adjustments until it is.
Camera settings: dioptre
Dioptre adjustment wheel.

Set and forget – Make these adjustments once and change them by exception

Image file format. Raw. I use 14-bit lossless raw.

To recap article #4 in this series, trust me on this – you won’t be able to consistently get great results with JPEG.

Colour profile. Standard. If the option is available, set sharpening to 4 or 5 to counteract the tendency of digital images to be slightly soft.

The basic option is Standard, but there are also settings for Portrait, Landscape, Vivid, Neutral and Monochrome. In principle you should start out with standard and adjust in post-processing. If you are a Lightroom user be aware that regardless of which setting you choose, Lightroom will ignore it and show you an image in the Adobe colour space, which is more like Neutral. If you prefer your camera’s Standard setting you can go to the Develop module/Profile and choose the profile you want.

Camera mode: Choose one of either shutter priority, aperture priority, or manual and stick with it until you have mastered it.

Programme mode, Shutter priority, aperture priority or manual? See articles #8 and 9 in this series. For the record I use Manual mode exclusively.

High ISO Noise Reduction: Off

Like it says on the tin, this function attempts to reduce noise when creating images at high ISO by applying a de-noising algorithm. High ISO noise is a real problem, but one that is better dealt with in post-production using de-noising software

White balance: Auto, or even better Natural light Auto if this option is available.

If you are shooting in Raw you really don’t need to worry about white balance – you can easily change it during post-processing. So Auto is the way to go. If you shoot JPEG then you might want to explore how to adjust white balance in specific situations.

Monitor mode: Highlight display

You can set the LCD monitor on your camera to show a histogram or a highlight display (a.k.a. “blinkies”) that blinks to show areas that are overexposed. See article #1 in this series. I find the blinkies setting very helpful in avoiding overexposure of white or light-coloured birds, not to mention scenes that include snow.

Release priority: AFC Continuous: release + focus. AFC Single: focus

This function allows you to decide whether you want your camera to capture an image any time you press the shutter, or only when the image is in focus. The choices are:

  • Release. An image will be captured every time you press the shutter release.
  • Release + focus. Photos can be taken even when the camera is not in focus. This seems like a bad choice, but in actual use you will find that (a) images are sometimes in focus even if they don’t meet the camera body’s standards (such as an identifiable focus point), and (b) sometimes a slightly out of focus image is better than none at all (e.g. the Canada Jay photo below). Note that in continuous mode the frame rate slows for improved focus if the subject is dark or low contrast.
  • Focus + release. Similar to the above option, but in this mode priority will be given to focus for the first shot in each series, after which the camera will maximize frame rate for the rest of the series. This might be useful in an unusual situation where you know the bird is not going to move.
  • Focus. Images can only be captured when the camera believes they are in focus, as shown by the in-focus indicator.
Canada Jay with tracking antenna. 1/1000, f/7.1, ISO 250. The fuzziness in the image is a result of losing focus lock
when the perched bird jumped into action.

Test and adjust – Change these adjustments dynamically during the course of a shoot

Auto ISO settings

Auto ISO: On

The base ISO of your camera (usually ISO 100) will, all things being equal, give you the best images. All things are not equal though: high ISO speeds allow you to capture images in less than optimal light. The trade-off here is that high ISO numbers also introduce noise.

In search of the best images you would ideally make an informed choice about the ISO you are prepared to accept, but in bird photography you need to be prepared for the unexpected. One of the ways you can hedge your bets is Auto-ISO. With this enabled the camera will consider your shutter speed and aperture and then adjust ISO within a user-defined range in order to get a correct exposure.

Auto ISO range: ISO range 100-1600

The key here is to set an appropriate range to work with, and also know how to quickly switch to manual. A range of 100-1600 is a good starting point. If your equipment is good and light conditions are poor consider going for an upper limit of 3200, but be aware that the camera will tend to default to higher ISOs more often than not. If it’s a once in a lifetime record shot in the gloom then switch to manual ISO and go for broke (noting that if it is completely dark you won’t be able to autofocus anyway). I would rather have my grainy shot of a Blackish Nightjar shot at ISO 16,000 than no shot at all.

Camera settings: high ISO
Blackish Nightjar in Colombia. 1/640, ISO 16,000, f/5.6

Auto ISO minimum shutter speed: 600. When you set the auto-ISO range you also may be able to set a minimum shutter speed. This is particularly relevant if you are using the aperture priority automated mode. What happens is that as the light drops the camera will adjust shutter speed to maintain a correct exposure. Only when those adjustments are insufficient will it start to bump the ISO up. Because you will be shooting moving targets with a long lens you will want to limit the camera’s ability to slow the shutter speed down to a level where your shots are likely to be blurry, whether through subject movement or camera shake.

Remember that even perched birds tend to make rapid movements, so you will set to make the minimum shutter speed at a high enough speed to counteract this. See article #2 in this series.

Autofocus modes

Autofocus mode: Continuous

This is the best autofocus mode for tracking birds, but ensure you know how to change modes quickly – see article #10 in this series for more on this topic.

Autofocus Area mode: Dynamic 9 point or Group

Dynamic 9 point or Group are my typical starting points. Learn how to switch quickly. If you are visiting an area with birds flying over wide-open spaces, such as Wolfe or Amherst Island, use Group or d9. In the more closed-in environment of Marshlands or Lemoine Point CAs, Group or Single may be better.

Metering: Point

Matrix metering is better if you want the bird and its environment to be properly exposed; point (a.k.a. centre-weighted) is the best way of ensuring that the bird itself is properly exposed.

Shutter settings

Shutter release mode: Continuous low (Cl)

The options relevant to bird photography are Single (S), Continuous Low (Cl), Continuous High (Ch), Quiet (Q), and Quiet Continuous (Qc). Because birds are prone to rapid, unpredictable motion I recommend staying at Cl and being prepared to switch to Ch. Or stay at Ch and deal with the need to delete many images, carry extra cards, and being looked at askance for continually running off sustained bursts of rapid fire. “Spray and pray” is not a good look. Use Q or Qc in areas where wind noise is low and/or birds are close. (Quiet reduces maximum frame rate to 3fps on the D850).

Camera settings: quiet shutter mode
White-throated Quail-Doves are very shy birds. We observed them at close range from a hide. I used Quiet mode to avoid startling the bird. 1/800, f/5.6, ISO 1800.

Starting shutter speed: 1/1000, 1/1600 for birds in flight

Here I am talking about the shutter speed you set when starting a day’s birding, as opposed to the minimum speed setting for Auto-ISO mentioned above. 1/1600is a good starting point if you want to photograph birds in flight. Otherwise 1/1000 or even 1/800. When light conditions dictate you can and should go slower, but be prepared to delete a lot of blurred shots.

One technique I have found helpful is to grab an initial shot of a perched bird at a high shutter speed, then if it hangs around start decreasing shutter speed in increments and shooting again. While you do so keep an eye on the ISO readout in your viewfinder. As you slow down shutter speed the ISO will adjust downwards (assuming you are using auto ISO) . In a perfect world every shot would be at base ISO, and adjusting shutter speed downwards will allow you to approach that nirvana.

Camera settings: slower shutter speeds
Common Redpoll.  1/640, ISO 720, f/5.6. I risked a slower shutter speed because the bird was perched quietly. Shooting the same bird at 1/1000 resulted in an ISO of 1600, a speed at which noise could be a problem.

Lens switch settings

Typical Nikon lens switches.

Focus switch: A/M

The usual options are Autofocus (A), Manual focus (m) and A/M (autofocus with the ability to manually override).

Focus limiting: Limit

Often there will be a switch that toggles between the full focus range and a setting that limits close focus. A typical marking would be Full/Limit or Full/8m – . The idea of the limited focus setting is that the lens will achieve focus faster if it doesn’t have to cycle through the full range of possibilities. For most uses you should start off with focus limit enabled, but note that places where birds can be close (e.g. Marshlands CA) you might want to start out in Full.

Vibration Reduction: Off

Typically there are three options: Off, Normal, and Sport. Normal is the most-used option; Off is used when the camera is fixed to a tripod or when the shutter speed is higher than 1/1000; Sport allows a bird in flight to be more easily tracked. If you follow my recommendation and keep your shutter speed above 1/1000, the Off is the best option. But… if you find yourself in low light and need a lower shutter speed be prepared to switch quickly to Normal.

Lens switch photo

Finer adjustments using custom settings

Read up about these in your camera manual if you want to fine tune your photography. For reference, all of the accompanying photos were shot using these options.

Long exposure noise reduction: Off

This function is primarily of interest for landscape or astral photography, where long exposures are common.

Active D lighting: Off, but be prepared to switch to Normal for high contrast scenes

This is a Nikon technology that optimizes high contrast images. It aims to restore shadow and highlight details that might be lost when strong lighting increases the contrast between bright and dark areas of the image. I have not experimented a lot with this function, but I had Active D-lighting set to Normal during the Algonquin trip.

Focus Tracking with Lock-On: Blocked Shot AF Response – 4 (delayed), Subject Motion – erratic

This function allows you to select the length of time your camera will ignore an intruding object that blocks your subject. For our purposes this comes into play when tracking a bird in flight. A delayed response means that the focus will remain on your subject rather than immediately jump to the blocking object.

Develop your own starting settings

Over the course of your photography journey you can refine your personal baseline settings that work well in most cases and can be adjusted as required. But for best results you have to continually evaluate whether these settings need to be adjusted. The more that switching modes and adjustments becomes second nature, the better you chances of getting the shot you want.

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