Martin Benadie recommends keeping it simple when first getting to grips with your camera settings…
‘f/8 and be there’. This simple statement has become the intonation of many wildlife photographers and something I too was advised many years ago…
What I took mostly from this statement over the years is to try and concentrate less on all the technical aspects of photography and to keep settings as simple and understandable as possible so that you can always just get the shot as opportunities arise. As a very realistic example, the last thing you want is to be fumbling with settings when that flock of African skimmers flies by!
The camera mode I use most for bird photography is ‘Aperture Priority’ (AV) coupled with the ‘Auto-ISO’ feature on most modern digital SLRs. In this blog we will delve a bit deeper into shooting modes and in particular ‘Aperture Priority’.
The advantage of shooting in AV mode is that you have quick control of depth of field and bokeh (out-of-focus parts of image behind subject). Practically, the closer you are to your bird subject the higher the aperture should be to capture the entire bird. At an aperture of say f/4 your depth of field will be very shallow and while the bird’s eye and head may be in focus, the rest of the bird (behind head) may not be captured in as much detail. The aperture range of f/6.3, f/7.1 or f/8 works particularly well in this regard, depending on available light, your lens and how much of the background you would like to blur.
I may also just have to make a quick note here about your lens.
With variable aperture birding zoom lenses (like the Canon 100-400 or Nikon 80-400) you may find the lens sweet spot for critical sharpness may be f/7.1 or even f/8 where with prime lenses like the legendary 300 f/2.8 or 500 f/4 you can shoot at lower apertures and still get very sharp results bearing in mind depth of field of course! The shallower the aperture (lower the number) the better your background blur (bokeh) too and the higher your shutter speed.
On the subject of shutter speed, especially for birds in flight or fast-moving birds, one typically wants to freeze motion and cognisance must also be taken of shutter speeds unless you are specifically after a creative motion blur effect. The accepted formula is to keep your shutter speed to at least the focal length of your lens for a perched subject but you would need shutter speeds well in excess of 1/1000 of a second for any moving birds.
I personally do not use the ‘Shutter Priority’ (SV) mode much for bird photography, because I want to control the aperture. Because I want the highest shutter speeds, most likely the aperture will be always set to wide open anyway? Worst of all, if the light conditions change quickly (let’s say the bird moved from an open area to a more shadowy part), in SV mode the camera will still shoot at the set shutter speed, and the image might come out underexposed! The only exception here may be specifically for shooting birds in flight under controlled conditions (light more or less the same), but that is the subject of another blog.