At my bird-photography workshops and tours, the question I get asked most often is, “Hey Rick, what’s your f-stop?” Basically, the photographers are asking me for my camera settings: ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.
I reply with a smile, “What’s your creative vision?”
I share this because the answers to both questions are equally important: A photographer needs to have the best camera settings to get the best in-camera image, and a photographer needs to have a creative vision to make a good photograph.
The first step to a great shot is getting it right in the camera. Let me take you through a few time-proven suggestions.
Exposure triangle: The aperture, shutter speed, and ISO all affect your in-camera image. I usually do not shoot wide-open, meaning selecting the widest aperture, even when I want to blur the background. I usually stop down a stop or two because if my focus is a tad off, or if I want more depth of field (like when I am photographing more than one bird in a single frame), the smaller aperture will provide greater depth of field in my frame. I also carefully select my shutter speed, to either “freeze” the action (usually setting a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second) or add a bit of blur to the scene (experimenting with shutter speeds from 1/100th to 1/15th of a second and sometimes even longer). And when thinking about the ISO, I always try to shoot at the lowest possible ISO setting (which might be ISO 10,000 in pre-dawn light) so I can get the cleanest possible image, which lets me crop in for the cleanest (least amount of noise) shot.
When it comes to choosing between Manual, Aperture Priority, or Shutter Priority mode, here is what I suggest: Use whatever mode works for you. Many of my friends and I choose the Aperture Priority mode, but some friends choose the Manual Mode. But here’s the thing: If you consider that there is really only ONE correct exposure, you can get there using any mode.
Focus: Simply put, if the bird’s eye is not in focus and well lit, you, and I, have missed the shot. To get the most amount of light in the eyes, the best vantage point is to photograph with the sun at your back. To get a fast-moving bird in focus, you want to set your camera on focus tracking, which tracks the subject right up to the moment of exposures. Some newer cameras, like the Canon EOS R5 and EOS R6, offer Animal Tracking, which, as a wildlife photographer, I feel is one of the biggest advancements in the recent history of camera development.
However, even with Animal Tracking, your AF setting (area of focus and number of focus points) must be set correctly. If you are going somewhere for serious bird photography, I suggest you go through all the AF settings before you leave home.
Light: Birds in flight are some of the most difficult subjects to photograph, not only because of the fast-paced action but also because some birds have both light and dark feathers, such as a Bald Eagle. To help ensure a good exposure, set your camera’s highlight alert (which shows overexposed areas of a frame in “blinkies”) and check your camera’s histogram to make sure you do not have a spike on the right. You will probably need to take a few test shots to get this right. Just keep in mind that it’s easier to open up shadows in Photoshop and Lightroom than it is to rescue overexposed highlights.
Lenses: I know many pro bird photographers who use long telephoto fixed-focal-length lenses with the goal of getting closeups of different birds. Me? I use telephoto zoom lenses, which are more flexible, meaning that you can photograph birds at different distances from the same spot. My go-to lens for bird and wildlife photography is the Canon RF100-500mm IS lens. For more subject magnification, I add a 1.4x teleconverter, which gives me a maximum focal length of 700mm. Yes, when using a teleconverter, the light reaching the image sensor is reduced, which means shooting at a slower shutter speed … unless you boost the ISO, which is what I do. I’d rather get a sharp shot with a bit of noise than a blurry shot with little noise.
Frame rate: Gesture, the position of a bird’s wings, the angle of its head, and its expression are key to good bird photographs. To capture subtle differences in gesture, set your camera to the highest possible frame rate. Serious professional bird photographers choose a camera with super-high frame rates.
Creative visualization and creating a mood
All that tech stuff is good to know, but it’s also critical to understand that the most important element in any photo is the mood and feeling the photo conveys — and this goes for both close-up photographs and wide-angle shots. You reach that goal with your creative vision.
Light and color can help create a mood, which is why bird photographers like to photograph in the early morning and late afternoon. Gesture can help create a feeling, and here’s a quick gesture tip: wings up or wings down.
The background also affects the mood of a bird photograph. A clear blue sky might be nice, but a photograph of a bird flying low over water illuminated by a golden setting sun has more of a mood.
One final and general bird photography tip: In addition to taking super-tight, full-frame shots of birds, also take wide-angle photographs that show the bird or birds in their environment. These images can convey more of a story and sense of place than a close-up photograph.
Good luck with your bird photography. I am rooting for you!
This article was first published in the “Photographing Birds” column in the July/August 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.