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Bird Photography Settings: The Ultimate Guide

the ultimate guide to bird photography settings

Want to capture amazing bird photos? Then you absolutely need to master your camera settings.

Settings determine whether your bird photos look blurry or sharp, well-exposed or lacking details – in my experience, they’re often the difference between a great shot and a mediocre one.

I’ve been photographing birds for over a decade, and in this article, I share my favorite bird photography settings, including:

  • The shutter speed you need to keep your bird shots sharp
  • The best camera mode for well-exposed bird images
  • The best aperture for bird photography
  • The perfect autofocus mode for consistently in-focus photos
  • Much more!

By the time you finish reading, you’ll know how to capture beautiful images of birds perching and birds in flight. Let’s dive right in, starting with the basics:

1. Use Aperture Priority mode to set your exposure

white morph reddish egret in a pond

First things first:

If you want to create beautiful bird photos, you must make sure they’re well exposed. In other words, you need to choose the right aperture, shutter speed, and ISO – the three exposure-triangle variables – to create a bright, detailed photo.

Technically, you can select your exposure variables using Manual mode. You dial in each setting with the help of your camera exposure bar (displayed at the bottom of the viewfinder), and you end up with a solid exposure.

But working in Manual mode is slow, and birds are fast. If you stick to Manual mode, you’ll end up missing too many shots while you’re fiddling with your camera dials.

Instead, I recommend you use Aperture Priority mode, which lets you select an aperture and an ISO, while the camera selects a shutter speed based on its evaluation of the ambient light.

Simply dial in an aperture and an ISO value (more on that later on!), then let your camera pick the right shutter speed. You’ll want to check your results frequently, and if your camera starts to underexpose or overexpose your the images, you’ll need to address the issue with positive or negative exposure compensation, respectively.

You’ll also need to make sure your shutter speed doesn’t drop too low, as I discuss in the next section:

2. Choose a shutter speed of at least 1/500s (and probably faster)

least sandpiper in the water

If you want to capture sharp bird photos, then you need a fast shutter speed. Birds are generally full of energy, so a too-slow shutter speed will ruin your shots with motion blur.

How fast is fast enough?

Unfortunately, there’s no single ideal shutter speed. Relatively stationary birds – such as a cardinal on a branch – require much slower shutter speeds than birds in flight. And bigger birds tend to be slower than smaller birds, so you can often get away with slower shutter speeds when photographing, say, a swan (versus a tiny chickadee, which hops around like a bolt of lightning).

That said, here are a few recommendations:

  • If you’re photographing a motionless bird (for instance, a bird that’s sleeping or standing still), use a shutter speed of at least 1/500s, especially if you’re working with a telephoto lens. The 1/500s speed may not be strictly necessary to freeze the bird, but it’ll help compensate for camera shake.
  • If you’re shooting a small bird that’s moving slowly (e.g., preening) or a big bird that’s moving at a slow to medium speed, around 1/1000s is a good choice.
  • If you’re shooting a fast-moving bird, including a bird in flight, you should choose a shutter speed of at least 1/2000s. If the bird is flying at high speeds, then 1/2500s, 1/3200s, or even 1/4000s is even better.

Now, you might be wondering: Why can’t I just crank up my shutter speed to 1/4000s and leave it there?

Unfortunately, every shutter speed boost comes with a cost. The higher the shutter speed, the darker the resulting exposure (or, if you’re using Aperture Priority, the more you’ll need to increase your ISO, which causes other problems). So unless the light is extremely bright, you’ll often need to keep the shutter speed at my recommended amounts and no higher.

3. Use the lowest ISO you can afford for noise-free photos

If you’ve followed the bird photography settings recommendations I’ve given above, then your camera should be set to Aperture Priority mode.

And in Aperture Priority, you can’t actually choose your shutter speed. But you can adjust the shutter speed indirectly by raising and lowering your ISO.

You see, the ISO refers to the camera’s sensitivity to light, so if you raise the ISO (i.e., brighten the exposure) while in Aperture Priority mode, the camera will compensate by boosting the shutter speed (i.e., darken the exposure).

That’s why it’s important to monitor your shutter speed as you work. If it gets too low, you can boost the ISO, which will force your camera to increase the shutter speed. Make sense?

Unfortunately, ISO comes with a big downside: The higher the ISO, the more noise you’ll get in your photos, and the worse they’ll look. So while you should definitely increase your ISO if the shutter speed drops below my recommended values, you should keep it as low as possible otherwise.

the ultimate guide to bird photography settings little blue heron

4. Use an aperture that’s wide (but not too wide)

As I emphasized above, Aperture Priority allows you to dial in an aperture and an ISO, while your camera selects the shutter speed. And if you select a wide aperture, the camera-chosen shutter speed will be faster.

Therefore, many beginner bird photographers select their lens’s maximum aperture (often f/4 or f/5.6) in order to keep the shutter speed as high as possible. (A wide aperture also produces beautiful background bokeh.)

Reddish egret at sunset

This isn’t a terrible strategy, but here’s the problem: As you widen the aperture, images become softer and you lose depth of field (i.e., the amount of the scene that’s in focus). If you go too wide, your subject’s legs and body will start to blur.

In my view, every bird photo should have a sharp head and (at the very least) a sharp front leg. If you’re photographing a bird in flight, you’ll want to keep portions of the wings sharp, too. But in most situations, your lens’s widest aperture just isn’t enough.

So instead of selecting a wide-open aperture such as f/4 or f/5.6, stop down a little. You’ll still get decent bokeh at f/6.3 or f/7.1, and you’ll also get enough depth of field to keep the bird’s body sharp.

5. Use back-button focus to capture tack-sharp photos

Back-button focus is one of the most useful camera features you’ll ever encounter. Here’s why:

Back-button autofocus lets you control your camera’s focus via a button on the camera’s back (sometimes labeled AF-ON). Rather than pressing the shutter button halfway to focus, then pressing the rest of the way to capture a shot, back-button focus allows you to separate the two functions, so that:

The shutter button is used for taking pictures.

And the AF-ON button is used for focusing.

This is invaluable if you want to focus and recompose, then track a moving subject, then focus and recompose again.

You’ll want to make sure you’ve set your autofocus mode to AI-Servo, also known as AF-C. Then, if you press and hold the AF-ON button, it’ll activate the continuous autofocus, which will track a moving subject.

But once you let go of the AF-ON button, the autofocus will lock in place.

So if you come upon a bird that’s moving, you can track it by holding down the AF-ON button. As soon as the bird stops moving, you can let go of the AF-ON button and test out different compositions, knowing that the focus won’t change.

The ibis in the photo below was moving along the water’s edge – then it stopped. I held the AF-ON button until my lens focused on the eye, then I let go and reframed.

the ultimate guide to bird photography settings white ibis portrait

That’s the power of back-button focus!

To set up back-button autofocus does take a bit of fiddling with settings (and it changes from camera to camera). So take a look in your camera’s manual (or do a bit of Googling!) and get it set up.

6. Use continuous shooting to nail the action photos

Birds are full of life, which means that there are plenty of opportunities for action shots: Birds flying through the air, birds diving into the water, birds capturing fish.

But if you’re not prepared, it’s easy to miss those prize-winning images. After all, birds move fast!

And that’s where continuous shooting comes in handy.

These days, pretty much every camera has a continuous shooting mode. This allows you to fire off a burst of photos, generally between 5 frames per second and 30 frames per second. And you can use it to capture split-second moments.

So whenever you go out to do bird photography, switch over to continuous shooting. And then, when the action heats up, start shooting bursts rather than single shots.

That’s what I did for the little blue heron scene displayed below. When the bird began to hunt, I started shooting in bursts, so I could be sure to get sharp shots with the beak near the water:

little blue heron fishing

Will you get a lot of throwaway images? Sure. But you’ll also have a much better chance of getting the perfect image. To my mind, it’s absolutely worth it.

You do want to be careful, however, because your camera’s buffer can fill up quickly. When that happens, you won’t be able to shoot bursts until the camera has processed some of the images. So be mindful of your camera’s buffer, and don’t overshoot. Got it?

Bird photography settings: final words

great blue heron posing

Choosing the best settings for bird photography may seem difficult, but it doesn’t have to be.

Just remember the settings that I’ve shared. You’ll be capturing amazing photos in no time!

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Jaymes Dempsey
Jaymes Dempsey

is the Managing Editor of Digital Photography School, as well as a macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. To learn how to take stunning nature photos, check out his free eBook, Mastering Nature Photography: 7 Secrets For Incredible Nature Photos! And to see more of Jaymes’s work check out his website and his blog.

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