A Take On Birds (and perhaps, other wildlife)

On the eve of going to out to shoot with my newly acquired, fabled Tamron 100-400, I decided to open up Google Keep, to make some notes of the ways I have been photographing birds and animals. My next idea was to gather ideas from friends that I would like to try, and before I could finish the list, it dawned on me to just write it as an article here on my site. I can sure use the content.

Hear me out though, this is not a tutorial and it’s not a hard-and-fast set of rules. It’s a combination of things that worked for me throughout the years, and advice from friends. The points below are not meant to be compatible with each other, some work for certain situations, some don’t. Also pay attention to the settings and parameters you usually use. Changing them on a whim will be unsettling if you got used to the same settings over time… even worse, if you forget to set them back when you return to you portrait, puppy or landscape shoots.

Time to get into the list of things that really may just make a difference to you.

Incoming by Neil Roux on 500px.com

First and foremost, Shoot Raw. The data from the sensor contains the most bang for buck, and more data means more power. You can modify white balance, recover more highlights and shadows and it doesn’t make the process any harder in post. Do it. You cannot compare the 256 levels of brightness (dynamic range?) a jpeg renders vs the 4096 or even 16,384 a raw can store.

With that said, use auto white balance during shooting. It’s true that if you shoot raw, you can tweak WB in post, but with the ever changing light and environment of outdoor shoots, getting a ‘close to be good enough’ wb is just saving so much time.

Do not concern yourself with all the settings, all the time. Set once, and shoot away. Focus on what is important, being there, smelling the fresh air and enjoying the birds and wildlife. Get the photo, make the art – instead of fiddling with settings all the time. Try stuff, fail, come back next week and try again if you must.

I do not shoot full manual, or full auto when doing bird or animal photography. I reserve that power and flexibility for my macro, black & white or arty stuff. With birds and animals, moving fast and unpredictably, the last thing you want is to have a sudden requirement to drop 3 stops on shutter in the blink of an eye. Use the semi-manual modes, like shutter priority, giving you the reliability of letting the camera handle the other things for you.

Definitely consider what auto-ISO can do for you. Getting the shot is priority one, nothing else. Auto ISO is great, and if you’ve never used it, here’s how it works.  Usually you would decide on an appropriate ISO level to use, like 200 or 400. With Auto ISO your camera will look at another setting (called minimum shutter speed) to try and determine which ISO you should be on to get the shot at the best possible shutter speed, and the lowest possible ISO. The aim here, is lowest ISO, highest shutter-speed. If the shutter-speed drops too much, ISO might go quite high. To counter this, you can set a maximum ISO for auto, but if the metering determines that the maximum ISO is not good enough, shutter speed will suffer. I personally like mine on Auto-ISO 200-800 and then hope that circumstances will never need to go higher, since my D7200 suffers greatly over 800 (I lose sharpness, details… sometimes OK, sometimes terribly).

Remember, ISO noise is part beauty, part ugly, part psychology. It matters to get the shot more than it matters to have to do extra work in post to deal with the noise. In any case, the grain is likely not going to be visible much if you don’t pixel-peer, print standard sizes or use the image at website picture size.

When it comes to metering, you have a few choices. Firstly, understand what metering does here. If you are shooting full manual, metering does not do anything for you, other than showing you the exposure on the little exposure meter. If you are using any of the priority modes, then metering will do some of the work, while allowing you to set the parameters to a certain extent. If you choose spot metering, your camera body and its amazing processor will consider the middle part of the frame, a few percent at largest to determine metering for exposure. I use this mode A LOT when I do airshows and such, where exposing for the aircraft in the middle of my frame is all I care about. However, the thing that has made the largest difference for me (and seemingly other bird photographers I meet at the hides) is my Matrix Metering (Nikon). Canon calls it evaluative metering, others call it segment or honeycomb metering. Evaluative metering is a smarter mode where your body will consider ‘most’ of the frame for metering, by using 9 or more (likely 60+ on newer bodies) zones to intelligently figuring out a proper exposure for the whole frame. It’s black magic, and awesome, and doesn’t matter how it works, but it does. Try it, and keep your shortcut to tune Ev [Exposure Compensation] close-by.

Yes, there is also centre-weighted metering, I like it as well, but for now, try your matrix/eval modes.

Jackal buzzard (Buteo rufofuscus) in flightHere’s another sore fact. LCD screens are not representative of the photograph you just took. Yes, use it, it’s great for general information and showing you your composition. It will not be showing you your true exposure and colours. What you see on the LCD is… “some render of the body’s idea of a jpeg or something – hampered by ambient light, the brightness setting of your lcd and other stuff”. That’s my quote and I am sticking to it. RAW files are not viewable, they are dumps of digital data from the sensor; what you are seeing on the lcd is the raw converted to some visible image (perhaps a Jpeg?). Turn on Histogram, use that as a major guideline of your exposure. I still do not rely on my histogram 100%, but I do rely on it largely. If you have never used your histogram, search around a bit to see how they work. In a nutshell, it’s a graphical representation of your exposure. You may hear people refer to exposing”to the left” or “to the right“. They are referring to the histogram, getting the maximum number of SNR (Signal to Noise Ratio). Of course, if your histogram touches the left, you have under-exposed areas, and if it touched the right, you have over-exposed areas. Naturally, this is not always a bad thing. In cases where you are taking a few shots of a bird in flight against a bright sky background, you may see the histogram touch on the right of the graph, while the bird may be correctly exposed. This would be fine, if you have enough dynamic range available to recover in post, of course.

I was going to write more about “blinkies”, or highlight alerts. In your lcd preview, when this is enabled, it’s shown as blinking parts of the image where you have overexposed or underexposed to the point where pixels are pure white, or pure black (unrecoverable information). However, using histograms replaced this for me. It may be useful to you, so try it if you want.

Now, a BIG ONE! Back-Button-Focus. At the risk of sounding opinionated… If you aren’t using this, you are not getting all the control and power you thought you had over focus! Most (if not all) bodies now have a way to turn this on. A button (usually called AF/AE or something like this) located on the back of your body can be programmed to act as the auto-focus actuation button, INSTEAD of your shutter button. Do it now. This gives you full control on when to focus, and when to meter. You do not want to (or need to) focus everytime. If you are shooting all your subjects are infinity, you can focus once, and that is it. The same goes for aircraft, birds (at a certain distance) and so forth. It means you can focus when you need to adjust for changing distance, or re-focus as needed – then using your shutter button as a metering button (halfway) and a shutter release button. In the case of tracking focus (continuous or servo) for moving birds or moving subjects (again, probably not aircraft or cars past your infinity focus) you can keep your thumb on the AF back-button, to keep AF tracking enabled. If I cannot persuade you, this guy explains well!

Moving back to exposure related chatter now. Exposure Compensation, the little Ev slider you see in the viewfinder and on your body lcd, a very useful feature used to coerce your body to meter at an exposure level above or below what it initially calculated. Whether you are using aperture priority, shutter priority or some form of manual with auto-iso – the camera will do metering for you in one way or another. It will come to some conclusion, and when you fire the shutter, the image will be taken. What if it is too bright or too dark though? This is what exposure compensation is for: telling the metering to do what it does best, but a little higher or lower please! Nothing is as useful to me (at this stage of still learning to be a bird photographer) than setting my camera to shutter priority (so I can control speed for those smaller birds) and having my exposure compensation set to -0.7. This counters the over-exposed white feathers everytime, without a hitch. The same would be true for shooting black or very dark birds, but I will throw the Ev up to +0.3 or more to compensate, leaving the shutter and iso exactly where it was. Less setting stuff, more shooting!

I'm keeping an eye on you by Neil Roux on 500px.com

Here is a short one, turn on stabilisation if you lens has it. Sure, in many cases you will be shooting on a tripod, or using a bean-bag – and in those cases turning stabilisation is almost always a given – but turn it on when you are handheld, especially at shutter speeds nearing the extreme lows. That old golden rule about shutter speed says, if you are shooting at a focal length of 250mm, your shutter speed must be 1/250th of a second, or faster stands, but even when I am shooting at twice the rule, I still get motion softies. I keep stabilisation on. Not everyone has this feature on their lenses, it comes at a well-worth-it premium however. If you are in the market for a new telephoto, consider it a long term investment. Take your time researching, there’s a lot of information and reviews out there. The glass, and you, will make the picture more than anything else, and fortunately lenses age like wine.

Shutter speed time! No pun intended. As with all things exposure related, shorter shutter time equates to freezing objects sharply, at the cost of allowing less time for light to enter the camera. You want to find some trade-off between shutter, aperture and ISO. It’s tricky, but all up to you. When it comes to birds, Neil of Neil Roux Photography suggests some ballpark ranges for shutter speeds:

For larger birds, like herons and cormorants a good guideline is 1/1500 or 1/1700th of a second. In good daylight this affords you some luxuries light lower ISO levels and smaller (larger number) apertures. He uses 1/2500 as a starting point for the smaller birds like finches, and 1/4000 for the really fast-moving kingfishers. Bird size and shutter speed somehow relates, but it’s not a golden rule. Try to balance aperture, for good depth of field and to avoid softness that comes with wide-open apertures, shutter speed and ISO, but consider shutter speed important. Moving things can blur, and shaky hands too.

Another little gem that is not so much a secret, is knowing when to use burst and when to actuate single shots. I use a mixture of continuous-high-speed drive and single mode. Bursting at high speed has it’s ups and downs. On one side, it allows you to get the sharp shot between the bad ones when unexpected things happen (often the case with unpredictable animals) – on the flipside you end up using more SD card storage, not to mention the relentless amount of images you need to work through to decide on keepers. I use high-speed shooting only when I expect the unexpected to happen. Spray and pray. Single fire to me, means planning and thinking; burst is more reliant on getting lucky, fishing with dynamite. You may or may not agree, but they both have their merits.

The last few points now, are more related to some techniques you could employ, where they might work for you.

Learn about your subject, which shouldn’t be hard if you love animals and birds. You will soon figure out how they move, where they go, when they eat and prey. This will give you the advantage of teaching yourself to predict where to focus, pre-focus and when to be ready. It’s becoming easier by the day for me to know when birds are about to take-off, by picking up on subtle hints of the different species – when they poop or gesture.

Do not go on Aperture diet. F5.6 is great and all for getting some extra light through, more shutter perhaps. Lenses are NOT at their best wide open, this is just optics for you. A lot of lenses are great at their wide sides, the 400mm F4’s are actually really amazing from what I can tell – but they are not at their best. Stop down a little if you can afford it. My Tamron 100-400 can open up to f/5.6 at 400mm, and it’s not bad, but I get amazingly sharp results at f/7.1 or f8. As long as I get enough light and a suitable depth of field for the distance I am working at (doesn’t matter past infinity) I am happy. It means my shutter speed has to take a toll, and ISO sometimes needs a boost, but then I do prefer a sharper detail than some noise. Don’t take my word for it, play around and test your glass out a little. Oh, and don’t stop down too far either, optical physics comes to bite you in the ass again when you stop down too much – it’s called diffraction.

Landing Grey (Grey Heron)

Last but not least, teach yourself to shoot with both eyes open. Not only will you prevent wrinkles and headaches a bit more, but you will have a good idea of what’s going on around you. Great for safety, but even better for monitoring moving animals while looking at something through the viewfinder. I use my telephoto as a nice telescope while doing game viewing, enabling me to watch, shoot and gawk at interesting birds, but the other eye stays open. If something goes down, I am aware of it and I can swing my lens that way. This is what I will always love about DSLR’s, liveview is not able to give you this ‘awareness while gawking’ – being nothing more than a tiny, shabby mobile screen.

Now, Go out, shoot a lot, enjoy it, keep the sun to your back and make great art with photos. Freeze time, capture history – forever. Make it yours, your way.

I hope this article helped you at least to some extent.

PS: Photo’s on this article are from my own as well as Neil Roux’s gallery. Support us with some views and comments, or a voluntary donation? 🙂


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