Archive for January 5th, 2019


Shooting Birds

January 5, 2019
Click Image to enlarge

I’m often asked what the best way is to capture images of birds.  That is a big question with more and one right answer.  A better question is to ask where to start when capturing birds with a camera. 

Here is how I go about it:

When shooting birds, I use the larges lens I have available to me.  Most of the time I use my Nikkor 70 – 300mm 4-5.6 G.  It is not as crisp as a prime but gives great results and in 99% of the cases, I do not need to go shallower than f5.6. For the camera body, use what you have, of course, but if you can choose between a crop or full sensor, go with the full.  It makes a huge difference in post-processing.

First off, I want to control the camera, so I shoot in Manual most of the time.  Sometimes I will use Shutter Priority, but I find it easier to just pick my settings, then let the ISO float as needed with ISO-Auto on.  Either way, manual or shutter priority, I set the ISO to at least 800, then keep the ISO-Auto on so it goes higher as needed. 

A note about JPG vs. RAW:  If you have the ability to shot in RAW, do so.  I only shoot in raw and never have my camera create JPGs.  Relating back to the days of film, JPGs are like the finished print and RAW is like the negative.  The print (JPG) is done, little can be done to fix issues with it, the negative (RAW) give us the ability to change almost everything in post-processing.  I am the photographer, not my camera. I control my images, not the little silicon brain in my camera.

Next, you have to understand how your camera focuses.  In most DSLRs and some point and shoots, you can control how the lens focuses on a subject.  I will either use small-group or single-point focus.  I use single-point unless I anticipate the subject flying away.  I have found my Nikon D810 keeps focus better with a small-group setting than single-point when birds are flying.  Single-point will give you the sharpest image if your subjects cooperate.  However, what I pick I stay with as I don’t like to change in the middle of a shoot.  That works for a small group or single bird.  For a flock or large group, selecting the multi-point focus options will give reliable results but they are not required by any means.

I stet the DOF to something on the shallow side of middle, f7.1 or lower, f9 is as deep as I go for single birds or a couple of birds unless I have something specific I want to achieve.  Because I have ISO-Auto on, I set my shutter to 1/1000” to start and shot some test images.  I then adjust up or down as needed.  A stationary water bird might get an 1/800” or even a 1/650”, but never lower than that handholding a lens with the reach to shoot birds.  For fast birds, like hummingbirds, I set the shutter speed as high as 2000 but will keep my eye on the ISO to make sure it is not maxed out and giving improper exposure.

Often, it is desired to drop out the background in an image which normally needs a shallower DOF than 5.6.  The trick to solving this problem is decreasing the distance to the subject.  For most of us, our 300mm lenses only go as low as 4 or 5.6.

The DOF for a Nikkor 70-300mm at 300mm, using f5.6 is:

Distance (ft) DOF (inches)
10 1.37
20 5.47
30 12.30
40 21.86
50 34.17

As you can see, the sweet spot for dropping out the background will be between 20 and 30 feet.  Anything less and you will loose focus on parts of the bird being shot, anything more and you will need to post-process and edit in Photoshop or the like to get a decent result.

Now that the DOF is set and you know your target distance, most often at 20 feet of greater, you will need to crop your image to get the desired detail and to mimic the goal of filling the frame, this is where the use of a full-frame sensor pays dividends.  At 20 ft, the field of view for the Nikkor 70-300mm at 300mm is around 3 feet horizontally.  At 30 feet it’s around 3.5 feet.  Most likely, cropping will be needed to produce an image that is artistically appealing.   Because of this, it is critical than the subject be in focus.  Imperfections will be amplified.  Single point of focus and a higher shutter speed will give you crisp results.

Keep in mind, hand-holding a 300mm lens requires a shutter speed of at least 1/600”, even with a FX (full-frame) camera body.  Purists will point out that with a full-frame 1/300” is all that is needed. That is true enough, if you don’t crop, but cropping is the trick in getting the effect of a lower DOF lens with a f5.6 lens that fills the frame.  Given that you will not know if cropping is needed until post-processing, it’s best to shot as if it is needed.  What you give up in shutter speed you can make up for in in sharpness.

As for white-balance, shooting in RAW allows me to change it in post-processing but it is better to get the right balance from the start.  I use an expodisk 2 to set the Kelvin value for me.  Otherwise I simply place it in AUTO and adjust in post.  I also set the exposure metering to spot, this is key in dropping out the background as the exposure will be set to enhance the bird and not the background.  

Another benefit to shooting stationary birds with a higher shutter speed is they do not stay stationary long, especially when moving closer.  You will not have time to adjust your setting, so it best to be prepared for the inevitable.  Some of my best images came from exactly this scenario, I wanted to capture something like a Blue Heron feeding, only to have them fly off. It was being ready for 5 or 6 seconds of flight that allowed me to capture the image.  Had I worried about camera settings, it would have been too late.

Click Image to enlarge

Now that all that is set up, it’s time for you to get creative.  Before I shoot, I see in my mind the image I want to create.  I frame my shoot and focal point to give me that image.  For example, I shot this image of the egret at the pond using my D810 and Nikkor 70 – 300mm at 300mm, ISO-Auto (220) f9, 1/1000” white balance in AUTO and spot metering.  I rotated my camera to portrait to include the reflection of the egret.  In landscape, it is just a bird on a green background. I also used the rule of thirds and set both the bird and reflection on the right third line.  I only cropped the image to a 5×7 format with no enlargement at all.  The only non-standard post-processing was to tone down the greens to give them more contrast adding to the image’s depth.      

In the end, that are many ways to achieve the results you want and this is truly just a starting point.  This is how I do it with the equipment I have.  Not all of us can plop down 6-grand on a 600mm f1.2 lens. There are no hard rules that cannot be broken.  Shot what works for you but shot!  You will not get the shot sitting on your couch.  You might take a hundred images to get the one you want to share.  So what, as long as you get the one!     

Happy shooting!

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