I am receiving a lot of questions lately from followers asking about my camera gear, camera settings and any pointers I can offer to help them with their bird photography. This post is designed to help answer some of these questions and hopefully give you something to take away to help improve your shots.
Currently I am using the Canon 7D with the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens. I do like the versatility of the zoom, but have to admit the majority of my shots are taken at 400mm. I love the 8 frames per second on the 7D, especially for photographing birds in flight, and the auto focus on the 100-400mm is accurate and fast. New models of both of these pieces of equipment were introduced this year, so if you are looking to upgrade, prices have been drastically reduced on these non current items.
I like to incorporate my bird photography with hiking, so for this reason I do not use a tripod and shoot everything hand held. I am not one to stay in the same spot long, so for me setting up and taking down a tripod is too much of a hassle. I do use a tripod for landscape photography.
My fist piece of advice, if you haven’t already done so, is to stop shooting in any of the program modes. In these modes the cameras adjusts ISO, aperture, and shutter speed automatically. The camera does it’s best job to get these settings right, but when it comes to bird photography these program modes will really hold you back.
As far as what settings I use, this obviously varies depending on the conditions. I like to use the lowest ISO possible, but maintain a high enough shutter speed to freeze the action. Unfortunately with birds this is where the difficulty comes in. In order to get a high enough shutter speed you must increase the ISO, but if you increase the ISO too much you get noisy images. In order to improve the quality you must first understand the limitations of your equipment.
Regardless of what camera and lens set up you own, it is going to perform best at certain settings. For example, a camera’s image quality drastically decreases once you reach a certain ISO. Similarly, lenses are much sharper when not shot at their widest apertures. It doesn’t matter if you own an entry level DSLR and kit lens or a top of the line professional body and super telephoto lens, each piece of equipment has what I call a sweet spot.
Finding your camera’s sweet spot is quite easy, but requires the use of a tripod to eliminate any shake factor. Go outside and look for a subject to photograph. Make sure it is something stationary as you are going to take several shots of the same object. Switch your camera to aperture priority mode and extend your lens to it’s maximum range. Adjust the aperture on your camera to the widest aperture for your lens. On most kit lenses this will be f5.6. Set your ISO to 100. In aperture priority mode the camera will adjust the shutter speed for you. Take a photo of the predetermined object. Increase your ISO to 200 and take another photo of the same object. Continue to do this throughout the ISO settings on your camera. This will allow you to see the increased noise as you increase ISO, and where on your camera it becomes too noisy.
Similarly, you are going to want to do the same with aperture. To do this, keep your ISO at the same setting and only adjust your aperture. Again, the camera will adjust the shutter speed accordingly for proper exposure. Take repeated shots of the same stationary object as you narrow your aperture, f6.3, f7.1, f8 etc. You will notice your images become sharper. This will let you know at what aperture your lens is sharpest.
If you are just starting out I recommend shooting in aperture priority mode. Set your ISO to auto, but a maximum of whatever value your camera still performs best at. In most cases this will be 800. Set your aperture to the sharpest value you determined in the previous test. Note: be sure to keep a wide enough aperture to allow adequate shutter speeds, which are required to capture sharp images of moving birds. Likely f8 is going to be best. By doing this, you are shooting at the best possible aperture and ISO for camera and lens combination, while the camera adjusts the shutter speed. Light conditions are going to play a huge factor so I recommend doing this under good light conditions. By narrowing your aperture and limiting your ISO, I think you will see an improvement in your image quality.
I have since moved to full manual mode, which gives full control over shutter speed, aperture and ISO. With my particular set up, my lens is sharpest at f8 and images start to get increasingly noisy above 800 ISO. For this reason I try to shoot at these settings and adjust my shutter speed accordingly to achieve proper exposure. Ideally I like a shutter speed of 1/1000 or slightly higher, especially to freeze a moving bird. For birds in flight I will increase this even higher. Unfortunately, light conditions do not always allow for this so shutter speed, aperture or ISO must be adjusted accordingly.
Sharp images are still achievable at lower shutter speeds with the help of image stabilization if the bird holds still. Practice holding your camera steady; keeping your arms close to your body will help eliminate shake. Use your knee or some other object to help stabilize your camera. Breathing can also help reduce camera shake. Once you have composed your shot and focused on a bird, take a breath in. Exhale slowly and gently press the shutter once you have almost expelled your breath. I have found this technique incredibly helpful. Quite often shake is caused by excitement of a new species or anticipation of a shot, and practicing this breathing helps calm and relax you prior to the shot.
Shoot often and take lots of pictures. That is the joy of digital. Hundreds of images can be easily discarded without spending a fortune on film or developing charges. Do not get discouraged, use each outing as a learning experience and try to improve one aspect of your photography each time you are out. Most importantly, only compare your photos against your photos. There will always be photographers who produce better images than you and those who do not. This for me has been the best way to see and measure results.
If you have any further questions regarding bird photography, I am always available and willing to offer assistance. If a private, one on one or small group lesson in the field would be beneficial to you please contact me and we can arrange a time and place.