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Best Camera Settings for Bird Photography

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Related course: Simply Stunning Landscapes

Birds are mobile. They shift light and position and behaviour fast. And sometimes it seems half the work is changing camera settings for bird photography!

So how do we select what works? Here is where you need to start.
Audubon bird standing on a grassy hill overlooking blue waters - best settings for bird photography
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Which Settings Are the Most Important

I’ve recently switched camera systems for bird photography from Canon to Panasonic Lumix.
The hardest part of the transition was not giving up my big, white Canon glass. It was learning how to quickly change and manipulate the controls on the new cameras.
And that is something you’ve got to practice. If you are new to photography, or still learning your gear, that’s your first step.
black and white penguin side view standing on a block of ice with the blue sea in the background
Each camera system has their own features and menu items. But here are five things you need to know how to change fast:

  1. Mode
  2. Focus Mode
  3. Shutter Speed
  4. Aperture
  5. ISO
  6. Exposure Compensation

You have to understand how these five impact your image. But you also need to know how to set them quickly. This means without having to lower your eye from your camera.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve missed a shot because I had to lower my camera to make a setting change.
Or because I was fumbling with buttons and wheels when I should have been shooting.
small bird with a red crest on its head, standing on a thin tree branch - best camera settings for bird photography

What Settings Should You Start With

Camera settings are a controversial thing in photography. It’s the images that matter. But people get very wrapped up in what things should be for certain situations.
I’m going to tell you what I do. I’m a working pro, with an extensive publication history. I know my way works.
But other methods may work as well. It is important to experiment to find the settings that work best for you.
Caracara large bird facing the camera standing on an orange hill with a mountain and a blue sea behind him
When photographing birds and wildlife, I have a “home base” on my camera. It’s settings that I start with, and try to leave my cameras set at when I shut them off for the day.
This is so when I turn the camera on, I know where I am. And it’s this:

Aperture Priority, ISO 800, F5.6, Continuous back-button focus.

With that, I’m ready to shoot in most light situations, allowing the camera to decide on shutter speed.
I can fire away without having to change anything and probably get close to what I’m going for.
This is my home base. I will make adjustments as the situation, lighting, subject, and creative goal of my image changes.

Bird Portraits

portrait of a rockhopper penguin against a blurry green background
Images of still birds, fairly close up, I refer to these as “portraits”. Like a portrait of a person.
The animal is your main subject, and the background and surroundings secondary. Your goal is to make your subject, the bird, stand out from the background.
It’s the star of your image, and you need to make it look that way. Your settings should reflect that.
small blue Cinereous conebill bird standing on a twig of lavender
small round sparrow bird standing on a grey twig branch against a background of green field
Here are some guidelines to your settings:

  • Focus: Focus on the eyes. In a portrait, our entry point are the eyes. If they’re not sharp, then you’ve probably missed the shot.
  • Camera Mode: I favour Aperture Priority for most cases. It gives you the freedom to quickly adjust your depth of field.
  • Aperture: Go for a shallow depth of field. You want to separate your subject from the background. If your lens is high quality, you should be able to shoot wide open without a substantial loss in sharpness. (Lower quality lenses may need to be stopped down a bit to achieve a sharp image). Use a long lens in the 300-600 range set to an aperture of f2.8, f4, or even f5.6 in the long range. It will create good separation between your subject and the background.
  • Shutter Speed: choose a shutter speed that is fast enough to attain a sharp image. If you lose sharpness due to motion blur, or shake, you’ll have missed the shot. A good rule is that when hand-holding a lens, you need a shutter speed at least as fast as your lens length. Twice as fast is even better.
  • ISO: Depends on lighting, but choose one as low as you can without lengthening your shutter speed.

Environmental Portraits

penguin with a bright orange beak and bright orange yellow throat and chest looking up at the clear blue sky - best camera settings for bird photography
Step back a bit from a traditional portrait and start showing off the surroundings, the habitat, the environment in which the bird lives.
Now you’re creating an environmental portrait. This is one of my favourite forms of bird photography. In this kind of image, stories appear.
You can learn a little about the bird, and where it lives, by looking at the image. Compositionally, they are challenging to create. Settings, however, are straight forward.
a flock of birds resting on a grassy beach with the waves crashing on the rocks in the background
photo of a black and white penguin on a stony beach looking towards the camera with the waves and the mountain in the background

  • Camera Mode: Aperture Priority or Manual Mode
  • Aperture: A deeper depth of field is appropriate in this kind of image. Allow your aperture to drift upward toward f8 – f11. This will put more of the frame in focus, allowing more details of the surroundings to emerge.
  • Shutter Speed: Fast enough to maintain sharpness
  • ISO: Will need to be higher with the smaller apertures. Just make sure it doesn’t get so high that too much noise appears (this varies from camera to camera).

Birds in Flight

silhouette of a big-winged bird in flight against an orange sky at sunset
Images of flying birds are frustrating. Focus, depth of field, and changing light all conspire to create situations that are very difficult to photograph.
I’ve shot many times from the stern of an ocean-tossed ship only to get one in 500 images that works.
Be prepared to go through a lot of pixels and a lot of memory space before you get some images you are happy with.
photo of bird in flight flying upwards, the clouds and blue sky behind him
Pictures of birds flying, or other quick behaviour mean a greater number of creative decisions. You’re also constantly shifting camera settings as your creative goals, lighting, and action change.
Purposeful blurs, sharp stop-action shots, or something in-between might all be acceptable results. But you should be purposeful, and know what you are trying to do.
flock of birds taking flight, the grass and dim blue sky in the background
Here are my choices for sharp action shots:

  • Focus: Continuous focus mode
  • Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual Mode – use any of these.
  • Aperture: Usually wide open or close.
  • Shutter Speed: Fast! Think 1/1000th or faster.
  • ISO: High enough to allow a very fast shutter speed.

photo of a flock of brown birds in flight over water
For creative flight blurs, the main change is to slow you shutter. Here is how I go about it:

  • Focus: Continuous
  • Aperture or Shutter Priority Mode
  • Aperture: Set for desired shutter speed.
  • Shutter Speed: Depends on speed of action, but anywhere from 1/15th to 1/100th are possible.
  • ISO: You can lower it due to long shutter speeds.

Conclusion

bird with big wings flying over waves crashing on the rocks and mountainside
Again, these are my choices for bird photography. They work for me. They will probably work for you too.
But ask another wildlife photographer and you might get a different set of recommendations.
Some of you might have your own opinions on the subject too. I encourage you to share them with me in the comments! Just keep in mind that we can both be right.
I find making photos of birds entertaining, partly because of the many variables. From dealing with awkward lighting conditions like a bird against a white background to creating blurs. To flight shots, and telling stories through environmental portraiture.
There is amazing potential for image-making in bird photography.
All the guidelines and advice in the world, however, is not equal to what you will learn by going out and doing it. So start there.
Go out and practice. Learn your cameras, and play with the camera settings for bird photography.
Use this is a starting point, but then grow and find what works best for you, and then share your results with me!

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1 comment
  1. For all of my Wildbird photos I use manual mode with my aperture set wide open at f4, a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000th sec, auto white balance and auto ISO set to a minimum of 100iso and a maximum of 32000iso. My camera is a Nikon D7500.

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