10 Essential Bird Photography Camera Settings

by John Stapel

essential settings for bird photography

Are you looking to get started with bird photography, but you’re not sure which settings are best?

In this article, I break it all down for you. Drawing on years of experience as a bird photographer, I share my favorite shooting modes, exposure settings, autofocus settings, and more – the tried and tested methods that practically guarantee extraordinary results.

By the time you’re finished, you’ll know all about the best bird photography settings, and you’ll be ready to capture sharp, well-exposed, jaw-dropping bird images of your own.

Let’s dive right in.

1. Shoot in RAW format for the highest-quality photos

Here’s your first bird photography setting, and it is absolutely fundamental:

Always shoot in RAW.

A RAW file holds all the data that your camera sensor captures. So when you shoot in RAW, you’re utilizing the sensor’s complete capacity. JPEG format, on the other hand, compresses the data to reduce the size of the file. In other words, it throws some of the data away.

More specifically, shooting in RAW (as opposed to JPEG) offers all sorts of practical benefits:

  • You can select your white balance settings during the post-processing stage
  • You can recover detail in the shadow and highlight regions of your images
  • You have maximum flexibility when editing contrast and color

If you’re serious about bird photography – about getting the best possible photos – then switch to RAW right now. And if you find RAW intimidating or you’re not yet ready to process RAW images, then work in RAW+JPEG, which will give you high-quality RAW images as well as shareable JPEGs. Make sense?

sandhill cranes flying overhead

2. Use the Auto White Balance setting for the best colors

Under certain lighting conditions, your photos will turn out unpleasantly blue; under other lighting conditions, your photos will look ridiculously yellow. But thanks to your camera’s white balance capabilities, you can counteract these unwanted colors for accurate, neutral photos.

White balance does come with a problem, though: You have to adjust it every single time the light changes. It’s tough to do, especially when photographing moving birds.

Fortunately, your camera offers a neat solution:

Auto White Balance, also known as AWB.

Auto White Balance requires zero input from you, the photographer. Instead, it will automatically adjust as the light changes. With newer cameras, the AWB setting does a tremendous job of getting the colors right – and if the Auto White Balance setting fails to get great results, you can completely reset the WB in post-processing (as long as you’re shooting in RAW, that is!).

So use RAW format, set your camera to Auto White Balance mode, then forget about it.

flamingos in late afternoon sunlight

3. Use Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority for the best exposures

Beginner bird photographers often set their cameras to Auto mode. But here’s the problem: You have no control over the resulting exposure (i.e., the brightness and tonal detail in your images), nor do you have control over key variables such as aperture and shutter speed.

Instead, set your camera to Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority mode – both of which are simple to use, offer sufficient control, and will give you incredible results.

Personally, I recommend you start with the Aperture Priority (Av/A) mode. Most of the pros use this setting, which allows you to choose the aperture while the camera selects the shutter speed. Note that your aperture influences two aspects of every image:

  1. The overall exposure
  2. The depth of field (i.e., the amount of the image that is in focus)

I’d recommend setting your aperture between f/5.6 and f/8. That way, you let in plenty of light, but you also keep the bird sharp from wingtip to wingtip (a key element of a good bird photo!).

Note that once you’ve set your aperture, your camera will choose a shutter speed with the goal of producing a perfect exposure. This method generally works well. The exception is when shooting in low light; your camera will set a too-slow shutter speed, which will result in blurred birds.

So in low-light situations, I recommend you use Shutter Priority (TV/S) mode instead. It allows you to select the shutter speed (which helps you either freeze the action or blur it), while the camera chooses the aperture with the goal of achieving a perfect exposure.

bird on a perch in a forest

4. Use the Auto ISO setting for low-noise photos

Auto ISO, when used properly, can solve a lot of problems.

You see, in bird photography, you generally need fast shutter speeds to freeze the action – which requires higher ISOs. But higher ISOs, especially on APS-C cameras, can result in a lot of noise. So bird photographers often set a low ISO then boost it as required.

This technically works, but it takes time to adjust the ISO, and while you’re busy fiddling with your settings, you’ll often miss great shots. That’s why I recommend a simple, three-step alternative:

  1. Determine your camera’s maximum usable ISO.
  2. Set your camera to Auto ISO and Aperture Priority mode.
  3. Set your camera’s Auto ISO maximum based on your determination from Step 1.

That way, your camera will stick to its lowest ISO setting and only raise it when necessary. You don’t have to worry about adjusting the ISO in mid-action, and while you won’t always avoid noise, your images will be as sharp, well exposed, and noise free as possible.

(What is a good maximum ISO benchmark? High-ISO capabilities are getting better all the time, but ISO 1600 is a good APS-C setting, while ISO 3200 is a reasonable full-frame maximum.)

5. Use Auto ISO combined with the minimum shutter speed

Many cameras allow you to choose the minimum shutter speed in Auto ISO mode, which tells the camera to use the lowest possible ISO to achieve the minimum shutter speed value. (Though make sure your camera mode is set to Aperture Priority!)

This gives you the best of both worlds. You can set the minimum shutter speed to the lowest value that guarantees sharp photos, and you can rely on Auto ISO to handle any exposure issues. For instance, if you set the minimum shutter speed to 1/1000s, the camera will always try to select the lowest-possible ISO value to meet your requirement (while nailing a perfect exposure).

It is important to note, however: If there is not enough light in the scene for your camera to achieve the required shutter speed at its maximum ISO, then the shutter speed will drop below its set minimum. So keep an eye on the shutter speed, and carefully consider whether you’d prefer to sacrifice shutter speed, aperture, or ISO when the going gets tough.

duck taking off

6. Use the Evaluative/Matrix metering mode for accurate exposures

Your camera’s metering system evaluates the scene to determine the exposure value necessary for a detailed image.

But by changing the metering mode, you can tell your camera to prioritize certain parts of the scene when metering. For instance, spot metering mode uses a small circle at the center of the scene to determine the correct exposure, while center-weighted metering mode broadly prioritizes the center portion of the scene.

There’s a common belief that spot metering works best for bird photography. I disagree; it has too many limitations. Instead, I recommend you use your camera’s Evaluative metering mode (also known as Matrix metering mode). When set to Evaluative metering, your camera will analyze the entire scene, and using complex algorithms, will arrive at the right exposure value.

No, Evaluative metering isn’t perfect. But it’s smarter than other metering modes, and when used alongside exposure compensation (discussed in the next section), you can achieve consistently outstanding exposures.

bird photography camera settings pelican flying

7. Use exposure compensation to tweak the exposure

If you don’t already use exposure compensation, then start right now.

Why?

Exposure compensation lets you adjust your exposure in either direction: the positive, or +, tells your camera to deliberately overexpose the image, while the negative, or -, tells your camera to deliberately underexpose the image.

Of course, by using Evaluative metering, you’ll get generally good exposures – but your camera’s metering system relies on algorithms that render the scene as a neutral gray. And not all subjects should look gray; egrets, for instance, are white, while crows are black.

That’s where exposure compensation comes in. If your subject is very dark, you’ll want to dial in a bit of negative exposure compensation (to prevent your camera from trying to “gray” the subject). And if your subject is very light, you’ll want to dial in a bit of positive exposure compensation (again, to prevent your camera from “graying” the scene and capturing a too-dark subject).

So start using exposure compensation to improve your bird photos. You’ll see phenomenal improvement with occasional exposure tweaks of +/- 1/3 stops!

camera settings black and orange bird You should tweak exposure compensation to keep black feathers looking black.

8. The histogram is your best friend, so learn to use it

Every time you take a series of photos, you must check the histogram.

The histogram is a simple graphical representation of all the tones in the scene, and it’ll show you whether your file is too dark, too bright, or just right:

histogram skewed to the right

Note that the histogram is a far better way of evaluating exposure than the LCD monitor – because LCD brightness and the ambient light can fool you into believing that a photo is under- or overexposed, while the histogram always gives you a clear-cut exposure reading.

Typically, if the graph is skewed toward the right-hand side of the histogram (as in the example above), your image is overexposed.

And if it’s skewed toward the left-hand side, like this, then your image is underexposed:

histogram skewed to the left

You want the histogram to have a distribution that touches neither the leftmost edge (underexposure) or the rightmost edge (overexposure). That way, you’ll capture all relevant details for a perfect exposure.

That said, don’t always expect the histogram to look like a bell curve. Imagine an egret flying against a stand of trees. Your histogram will likely have two pillars on either side of the graph: one pillar (toward the left) would indicate the trees, and the other pillar (toward the right) would indicate the egret. It’s not a perfectly curved histogram, but it’s a perfect exposure.

rumpled bird on a perch

9. Enable the highlight indicators to prevent clipping

This is another useful and practical bird photography settings tip. The highlight indicator, widely known as blinkies, indicates any overexposed areas in your image. If you overexpose parts of the shot, they’ll literally blink at you during playback:

blinkies highlights bird photography The circled areas on the photo actually blink! (Though note that the circles themselves are for the purposes of illustration.)

As I discussed in the previous section, it’s very hard to determine if you’ve overexposed an image just by looking at the LCD monitor. Instead, you should rely on the histogram – but you should also check for blinkies, just to be absolutely sure you haven’t clipped any highlights.

(Sometimes, it’s hard to determine if there are any overexposed areas using just the histogram. This is especially true if there’s a slightly overexposed area, and that’s where the blinkies come in handy!)

stilts in the water Make sure you keep detail in white feathers by using the histogram combined with the highlights indicator.

10. Learn to use AE/AF Lock or the AF-ON button

One of the biggest issues bird photographers face is switching between AF-S (One-Shot AF) and AF-C (AI-Servo) mode.

AF-S mode locks focus as soon as the shutter button is half pressed, and this is ideal for perched birds – but AF-C mode continually reacquires focus, which is ideal for all other situations.

So what do you do?

You set your camera to do back-button focusing via the AF-ON button.

This may sound intimidating, but it’s actually easy. You’re simply decoupling the autofocus function from the shutter button, so when you press the shutter button, your camera fires off a shot, and when you press the AF-ON button, your camera autofocuses.

That way, you can shoot in AF-C mode all the time. If your subject is stationary, press the AF-ON button to acquire focus, then let go. The focus will lock, and you can fire off the shutter button to your heart’s content.

bird perching back-button focus For a perching subject, press to focus, then let go. The back-button focusing technique will keep the bird sharp.

And if your subject is moving, you can hold the AF-ON button while firing shots with the shutter button. Got it?

bird taking off from branch For a moving subject, press to focus – and continue to hold. Your lens will constantly acquire focus as the bird flies, and you can fire off a series of images with your shutter button.

(Note: If you don’t have an AF-ON button, you can likely configure another button to do the same thing.)

Essential bird photography camera settings: final words

pelican in evening light bird photography camera settings

Determining the right bird photography settings might seem hard, but it doesn’t have to be.

Above, I’ve shared the 10 most essential settings. If you can make them a part of your daily bird photography, you’ll see a drastic improvement in your images.

Now over to you:

Which of these settings do you already implement? Which do you plan to try? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

  • GENERAL

  • GEAR

    • Review of the Nikon D500 for Wildlife and Bird Photography

  • SETTINGS

    • 10 Must-Use Bird Photography Camera Settings for Beginners

  • COMPOSITION

  • ADVANCED GUIDES

  • POST-PROCESSING

  • INSPIRATION

10 Essential Bird Photography Camera Settings