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Camera Presets for the Birds!

Why do many nature photographers find bird photography so challenging? I think the ever changing situation (light, shadow, movement) challenges a photographer’s knowledge and ability to effectively and efficiently get the best shot at the optimum exposure. I address the challenge by developing my understanding and knowledge related to my equipment. That includes understanding equipment features as well as limitations.

You must accept that your camera/lens has limitations. Once you understand these, you can recognize when the limits of your equipment will not allow you to capture the photo you see in your mind. Then, you can determine what photo your equipment can capture. All in all, this is just a way of setting realistic expectations–something I see as beneficial for all photographers.

Choosing camera settings is often about compromise. For example, in selecting an exposure mode, you are looking for the best compromise between control and automation. Manual mode provides the maximum control but may be slower to use in the field, which could mean missed shots. In Program mode, all control over the combination of aperture and shutter speed is done by the camera and taken away from the photographer, which may not provide enough control.

In bird photography, I often feel as though I am battling against low light levels, especially during the golden hour! Birds normally move constantly, so I want a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion. Also, long lenses magnify the movement (‘shake’) in my gear, which also calls for a fast shutter speed. However, long lenses also tend to be ‘slow’, having a maximum aperture of f/4 or smaller. Adding teleconverters makes them even slower and further magnifies any movement. Because of these issues, I always want to use the fastest shutter speed available for the given light level. Therefore, I  want to keep my aperture at its widest usable setting. I find aperture-priority mode to be the best setting for almost all bird photography because it lets me choose a wide aperture and have the camera set the shutter speed accordingly. As a side note, I also use this mode when shoot wildflowers as it gives me the most control over depth-of-field.

Digital SLR cameras have a bewildering array of settings. Getting them right can make a big difference to your bird photographs and can make producing them much easier. The following are starting points or settings you might have preset when heading out on a bird photography shoot–knowing that you will modify them as the situation demands.

DSLR Settings for General Bird Photography
Exposure Mode: aperture priority

  • Aperture: widest
  • Shutter Speed: controlled by exposure mode
  • ISO: 100 if possible
  • Metering mode: Evaluative, spot for extreme situations
  • Autofocus mode: AI servo or Continuous
  • AF point selection: center point
  • Drive mode: Continuous

 

DLSR Settings for Birds in Flight

  • Exposure Mode: manual
  • Aperture: widest
  • Shutter Speed: 1/1000th for birds moving slowly through the viewfinder; 1/4000th of a second for those moving quickly
  • ISO: high, 1600, tradeoff is digital noise
  • Metering mode: Evaluative, spot for extreme situations
  • Autofocus mode: AI servo or Continuous
  • AF point selection: center point
  • Drive mode: Continuous
  • Lens setting: Image stabilization – mode II or off

 

GOOD BIRDS!

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Shooting at a South Texas Photography Ranch: Morning, Day 1

Harris's hawk (Carol Fox Henrichs)Caught this fierce look at Santa Clara Ranch. Nope, that’s not a dust spot on the camera sensor; it’s a feather dangling from the bird’s right foot.

The Morning

Our group spent the morning of day one in the raptor blind at Santa Clara Ranch. Jurassic Park fans shouldn’t confuse the raptors from that story with those we were after. Hawks, eagles, vultures, kites, ospreys, falcons, and owls are all among the birds sometimes considered raptors. Most of these are birds of prey, which hunt and feed on other animals. We were not using live animals as bait, therefore, the birds attracted to our food were those that would feed on dead animals.

Leaving the camphouse promptly at 7:00 am, we set out for the blind with chicken quarters and the carcass of a javelina. The wounded javelina had been lurking around a feeder for a couple of days and exhibiting aggressive behavior to anyone coming near. It obviously was not going to leave nor was it going to heal. So, it was put down the night before our visit to the raptor blind. Not to go to waste, the carcass provided a tasty meal for the Northern crested caracara and I’m certain the coyotes finished it off within a day.

While javelina might be an acquired taste, it seemed chicken appealed to a wide variety of birds.  I watched the Northern crested caracaras and Harris’s hawks tear at the chicken quarters tied to the perches. Then, quite unexpectedly, the Green jays joined in on the feast.