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How-to's

Manual Mode for Bird Photography – Why, When and How-To

Eric Bowles (ericbowles)


Keywords: manual, mode, bird, bif, ericbowles

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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17 comments

Bruce Henderson (hendo55) on May 8, 2018

Great article, will definitely try manual. Ode on my next birding trip

User on April 21, 2016

Congratulations, very interesting article! I also discovered how to fix a speed with aperture priority thanks to auto iso (this is the closest I got to reach aperture priority with a fixed minimum or faster speed, in order to avoid blurred pics in low light conditions).

Gary Worrall (glxman) on April 17, 2016

Awarded for his high level skills, specially in Wildlife & Landscape Photography

Tks Eric, I always struggle with exposure shooting wildlife Will not have a closer look at my manual settings, often shooting auto ISO in my case .......Gary

james pattison (Teacher) on April 11, 2016

Hi Eric I'm just returning to Nikonians and I enjoyed your article. There is one aspect that I am not too sure about, you write: ( 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.) When I use Manual Mode (D750) I like the fact that I can select the Aperture and Shutter Speed the use Auto ISO so as you say (it will float) which allows the exposure to stay the same as the lighting changes. I'm not understanding why using Exposure Comp. would be needed and how manual ISO will help in this situation. Thanks, James

User on April 4, 2016

This article changed my way of thinking with excellent initial results. Patiently waiting for the weather to break here on the Great Lakes. Thank you

William Tompkins (billtompkins) on March 30, 2016

Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015

Eric, thanks for an excellent article. I've had difficulty in the past with this situation and have recently started using manual exposure based on ideas I heard at last year's NANPA Summit. I was recently shooting a wedding with a very difficult lighting situation - a floor-to-ceiling glass wall behind the wedding ceremony on a sunny day. I found the only way I could effectively shoot the wedding party was predetermined manual exposure. Your insightful comments over the years have been a great help to me.

James Voortman (jamesvoortman) on March 22, 2016

Hi Eric Thanks for the article and the excellent examples. I find myself gravitating towards Manual exposure for birding because of the need to control both shutter speed and aperture. I have typically been using Auto ISO (so not actually true manual exposure) with exposure compensation and centre-weighted or spot metering to bias the exposure towards the subject. After reading this I am going to give full manual control a try

Henry Altszuler (HMA123) on March 20, 2016

Thanks for an interesting article. I have been using manual metering with Auto ISO with spot metering since my max focal length is 400mm (D800) and usually have a relatively small subject in the frame. I will try to preset the ISO but I rarely seem to have the luxury of time to dial in exposure on a bird that will fly away in a few seconds. The situation may be different in a "birding area" where there are many subjects. Thanks for getting me out to experiment!

Eric Bowles (ericbowles) on March 18, 2016

Awarded for his in-depth knowledge and high level skills in various areas, especially Landscape and Wildlife Photoghraphy Writer Ribbon awarded for for his article contributions to the community Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded as a member who has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art a

(Edited by jrp Friday, 25 March 2016 ) Thanks, everyone - glad the article is helpful. As Don suggests, mixed lighting in wooded areas is a topic by itself. It's one of the more challenging areas of bird photography because you have very small subjects that are constantly moving from full shade to full sun - and everywhere in between. Feel free to post at the Wildlife forum if you have questions.

robert Beeson (rbeeson) on March 16, 2016

Always a good read! Thanks Eric!

Ray Heslewood (Hessy) on March 15, 2016

A very good and interesting article Eric. Ray

Joseph shank (Kjshank2) on March 15, 2016

Thanks Eric, I usually only shoot manual when I'm in a studio environment, but you have talked me into trying M for birds.

Don Roarabaugh (NatureDon) on March 15, 2016

Eric...Great advice throughout this article. I mostly photograph song birds, and almost always use manual exposure. I set exposure by spot metering a neutral tone in the light I expect birds to be in...say metering medium to light grey bark in direct sun, then photograph birds that are in direct sun. Only issue is if you come across a bird in shadow. However shadow light is not flattering for birds anyway, so I pass those up unless it is a shot just to record a species. Thanks, Don

Richard Luse (DaddySS) on March 15, 2016

Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for  his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous contribution to the 2019 Fundraising campaign

Thanks Eric, very interesting and I will sure try it next time out!

Natraj Sitaram MD (focus16) on March 15, 2016

Hi: Thanks for an informative article. Is there a way I can print this article without the black background (which is great for viewing on the screen but not for printing)?

User on March 14, 2016

Excellent tutorial, Eric. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.

Jagdish Hinduja (Hinduja) on March 14, 2016

compliments.I am very glad I found this article

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