Bird Hunting Photography – Part 3 Camera Settings

Here are the settings to give you the best chance at sharp, well exposed pictures.

Option #1 – Set your camera to “Auto” and have at it. I hope you found this helpful and I appreciate you visiting the Birdhunter!

Option #2 – Option #1 is kind of a joke, but not really. Today’s cameras are brilliant, and there is merit to trusting that technology. Sometimes after I take some shots on the settings described below, I switch the camera to “Auto” to see what it does. Sometimes the camera does know better. But typically, “Auto” is not the best choice for action photography. The shutter speed may be a bit too slow, the aperture a bit too wide, and all your moving doggie shots are just not that sharp. Very frustrating! Especially after you blew all that money on state-of-the-art lenses and cameras. Try these recommended settings below. They come from years of taking terrible pictures and hopefully learning from those failures. If it does not work for you, then put your camera back on “Auto”!

General Settings

These are the settings and tips under all conditions. This is not an exhaustive list of camera settings; you should get to know your camera well (read the manual!). I use a Nikon D850, and some of the nomenclatures apply to that camera, but the translation to other models or brands should be easy.

  • Use the viewfinder and not the live view on the back of the camera. If there is no viewfinder on your camera, then use what you have.
  • Shoot in RAW or the highest image quality on your camera. RAW requires post-picture-taking processing with Lightroom or a similar app. If you do not want to mess with that, then use the highest quality JPEG setting on the camera.
  • Use continuous-servo auto-focusing. (AF-C) This has the camera focusing continuously when you press the focus button and is intended for moving objects. Within AF-C, I like the “release” priority, which fires the camera even when it is not focused. It is very irritating for the camera to not fire.
  • Use whatever focusing mode you are comfortable with. Auto is OK; I like the single focus point to control exactly what the camera is focusing on. You should experiment with different modes and find what works best for you.
  • Exposure Metering – use spot or center-weighted. I like the subject to be properly exposed regardless of surroundings. If your subject is in a snowy scene, then use exposure compensation to overexpose by 1 stop (+1EV)
  • Auto ISO – use it! This is the greatest thing ever. You can set the aperture and shutter speed and the camera selects the correct ISO for proper exposure. If that ISO is reasonable, say less than 800, then you can take the picture with confidence. If the ISO is too high, like 5,000, then you need to drop the shutter speed or open up the aperture, or both.
  • This is optional but try to use back button focusing. I love this. You set your camera so that the shutter release does not focus the camera and instead use a button on the camera’s back to focus. This allows you to focus on something, then re-frame the picture and hit the shutter release. Once you get used to it, you will be focusing all the time with that back button and hitting the shutter release at will. It sounds trivial, but it is not.

Settings When the Light is Good.

This is most of the time . . . hopefully.

Mode: Manual – Manual is my favorite! The other options are Program where the camera pretty much does everything, Aperture priority (you will never use this), or Shutter Priority (you will never use this.) Manual lets you pick the shutter speed and aperture, and the auto ISO works with those settings and available light.

Shutter Speed – in manual mode, you need to select a shutter speed. I like 1/1,250 of a second as this does a good job at freezing motion. 1/1000 is also good; at 1/1600 or more, usually, the ISO starts getting pretty high.

Aperture – Lenses typically have a sweet spot when it comes to aperture. Learn your lens, so you know where sharpness lives. On my favorite lens, 7.1 or 8 is where it performs the best.

ISO – This is set to Auto. The D850 lets you pick the maximum ISO, so I set that at 3,600. The camera will choose the lowest ISO with your aperture, shutter speed, and light. So, this variable depends on the other two for proper exposure. Watch that ISO, and if it is too high, you need to drop the shutter speed or open up the aperture, or both.

On a good day, with plenty of light, I get awesome results with these settings.

Settings When the Light is Challenging.

When the light is waning or otherwise insufficient, you can continue to use the manual settings, but you may need to drop the shutter speed, open the aperture, and/or raise the maximum ISO to 10,000 or more. Or you can set the camera to Program or Auto mode and let it figure out what to do. All of this will give less than optimal results, but what else are you gonna do?

Settings When Stopping Action is Not Important.

If you take group pictures or other shots where freezing action is not important, keep it on manual and drop the shutter speed to 1/320 or even 1/200. This allows the ISO to drop to lower levels. Often the group picture is at the end of the day, sometimes at dusk, so it is good to have a tripod allowing even slower shutter speeds.

Part 4 – Camera Management in the Field will be published soon. I hope you found this helpful, and I appreciate you visiting the Birdhunter!


Filed under Photography Technique & Tips

2 responses to “Bird Hunting Photography – Part 3 Camera Settings

  1. Good advice. The proof is in the product, and your photos are excellent. This essay reads like the lectures I used to give my photography students years ago. The key element is that you must be really dedicated to your art, as you obviously are. I no longer have access to Lightroom or PhotoShop, so I gave away my Canon D cameras. There are days I regret that.

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