Bird Photography Camera Settings

I often bump into bird photography enthusiasts when I am out and about with my camera. And every now and again, the subject of camera settings comes up. Clearly, the best camera settings are the ones you used to shoot your best photographs. But sometimes those settings do not give the same results when you use them the next time you are out with your camera. This is often due to weather conditions where the available light is different. Or it could be because the bird in question was just too active, and the excessive movement meant the shot was not as sharp as you would like it to be.

Camera Equipment

Let’s start with the equipment you are using. It does not matter how much you paid for your equipment! Even with the most expensive camera and lens, you can take poor photographs. I started out with a Canon EOS 600D and a Canon 70-300 Lens. I then upgraded the lens to a Canon 75-300 lens with Image Stabilisation. I managed to get some great shots, but I also managed to get a lot of photographs that were out of focus.

My current equipment is a Cannon 7D MK ll with a Canon 100 – 400 L Series lens with IS. I also use a Canon Extender 1.4X lll. And occasionally I still get shots that go straight into the bin. Sometimes it is my own fault because I have chosen too low a shutter speed. Or sometimes the bird just won’t stay still. So my first piece of advice is to buy a decent SD card with tons of capacity and take a lot of photographs. I use a SanDisk Extreme PRO with 128GB of storage and a speed of 170 MB/s.

The Weather

There is an old story in Ireland of a tourist who asked a hotel concierge what the weather was going to be like. The concierge responded by saying “do you see that mountain over there? If you can see it, then it is going to rain. When the tourist asked, “what if I can’t see it?” the concierge replied, “then it is already raining”. It is a fact that the weather in Ireland is changeable. And when I go out with my camera, I want plenty of light. I rarely, if ever, go out on a dull day. That is relevant to the settings I use on my camera!

Camera Settings

I have played around with camera settings in the past and finally settled on my current settings because I believe they give me the best opportunity for good photographs. I always set the camera to Manual Mode. It gives me total control over some of my settings, while giving me flexibility on others.

Let me start with shutter speed. As soon as I get out of the car, I check that my shutter speed is set to 1/1000th of a second. Remember, I have the equivalent of a 560mm Lens (400 x 1.4) and in general, I like to have double the shutter speed of my lens. The high shutter speed gives me a good opportunity for sharp images. There are always exceptions, but I will address that later.

Now that shutter speed is set, I set my aperture. When I use the 1.4x Extender, the lowest aperture I can get on my camera is F8. That is what I always choose when I start. It gives me the most light I can get, and there is usually enough depth of field. In certain conditions I may need more depth of field, but again, I will come back to that. I usually set White Balance to full sunshine or partial sunshine.

I then choose silent continuous shooting rather than just taking a single shot. I don’t really care that I may have to delete 20 images, as long as I have at least one image that I am happy with. There are all sorts of reasons why a shot might not be sharp including wind or just a skittish bird, but this mode gives you a better chance of a good crisp image.

The final setting is ISO and I always set that to automatic. Remember, I am mostly shooting on a bright sunny day, so I have rarely had issues with the camera choosing a high ISO that adds noise to my photographs. In general, this is not a major issue and if ISO is creeping up, I can take shutter speed down to 1/800th.

Once I capture an image that I am happy with, I will then play around for a while with different settings. I often drop the shutter speed down to 1/800 or 1/640, or even lower to 1/320. Sometimes I get lucky and get a sharp image with a lower ISO (because the lower ISO lets in more light) that is sharp as a tack. Other times I will drop the shutter speed down really low, maybe to 1/80th, if the bird is settled. Every now and again I get really sharp images.

I’m sure there are many who would prefer to shoot in aperture mode or other modes, but this is what works for me. However, there is one final setting that I believe every bird photographer should adapt!

Back Button Focussing

This was a game changer for me. Sometimes it can be difficult to get a bird into focus. It may be that the bird is moving about. Or often there are other objects that get in the way, like branches on a tree or other birds. And just when you think you have the shot, the camera goes off into automatic focus mode and takes an eternity to come back into focus. And you lose the shot. Try manual focus I hear you say! Well not for me. I simply can’t manage it. Maybe it is a genetic defect, but I just prefer auto focus!

Back button focussing is where you can programme one of the buttons on the back of your camera to adjust focus, instead of turning the focus ring. Once the bird comes into focus, the auto focus tracking kicks in. In my case, I chose the “Autofocus On” button which is now the button I use to focus on a subject. I no longer have to experience the frustration of pushing the shutter release button to take a shot, only for it to go into autofocus mode and take an eternity to refocus.

There are several Canon Videos on YouTube that explain this in more detail. They also feature different cameras, as the set up process is slightly different depending on what camera you use. So go to Google and search for “Back Button Focussing” for your camera.

Birds of Ireland A to Z