We’ve got great automation in our cameras. Metering is generally terrific with lots of options to control exposure. So why do I use Manual Exposure Mode for bird photography?
Nikon D800E, 600mm f/4 Nikkor @ f/5, 1/1000s, ISO 400
Click for an enlargement
I’m using Aperture Priority for general photography and other exposure modes are the exception. For me, depth of field is everything because I either want subject isolation or background detail. I choose the depth of field desired for a situation and the appropriate aperture – the shutter speed is automatically calculated and I use base ISO unless I need a faster shutter speed (and then I increase ISO as needed). Depending on the scene and subject, I may also need a specific shutter speed but I choose aperture then shutter speed and finally ISO. If my scene is a little light or dark, or if I have blown highlights, I dial in exposure compensation as needed. But with bird photography, I often use manual exposure mode rather than aperture priority – especially for birds in flight. Here’s why.
For birds and most wildlife, I typically start by choosing my aperture. Usually I shoot wide open or slightly stopped down to isolate the subject with a soft background, with the side benefits of a fast shutter speed at as low an ISO as possible. Subject isolation is important, but sometimes lenses perform a little better stopped down 0.5 to 1.5 stops. Long lenses are usually intended to be used wide open, but when you add a teleconverter, or need a little more depth of field, you probably will stop down from the widest aperture to obtain best performance.
It’s important to note that I’m also trying to keep the shutter speed up – usually 1/1000 sec or faster for moving birds. This is consistent with a wide open aperture or only stopped down slightly, then increasing ISO as needed until noise is problematic and I need to make tradeoffs.
For those that use Auto ISO, there are additional considerations. Auto ISO is a useful tool when the light on the subject is changing. As with Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority Modes, Auto ISO is a semi-automated exposure mode. With Manual Exposure and Auto ISO, you can set the aperture and shutter speed and allow the ISO to float. Unfortunately, Auto ISO makes the camera respond the way it would in other semi-automated modes by adjusting exposure, and you would have to adjust exposure compensation to get correct exposures. If you have constant light on the subject and are using Manual Mode as described here, I would avoid Auto ISO. It’s a useful tool for other situations.
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