Greatest Camera Settings for Bird Photography

Imagine that you’re on a beautiful beach and you observe an unusual bird fly towards you. The sun is low in the particular sky and golden lighting washes over delicately designed wings. You raise your camera, unsure of exactly what settings to use. When you return home, you realize the shots are blurry and overexposed – and worse, the particular pictures have just enough fine detail to identify the bird as a Far Eastern Curlew, a types you’ve been trying to photo for years. How can you avoid this disaster?

House Finch
House Finch, Nikon D500 + Tamron 150-600 G2 @ 400mm, ISO 3600, 1/250, f/7. 1

In bird photography, there are some commonly used camera settings that are a great starting point for almost any circumstance. No matter how rushed you are, you have to be able to capture good, sharp images of birds. Below, I’ll introduce these settings and when to use them.

Table associated with Contents

Shutter Speed

Shutter quickness is the most essential variable for bird photography because birds are almost always relocating, and you need a fast sufficient shutter speed to freeze that motion. But in the alternative direction, you also want to utilize the longest shutter speed feasible because there is never enough gentle! The right shutter speed for any stationary hawk perched on the branch at sunset may be something like 1/200 second, but if it takes off, you’ll require closer to 1/2000 to avoid obnubilate.

The best shutter speed also depends considerably on your focal length and exactly how close you are to the bird. To simplify matters, I use created the following table. It provides good starting points for the recommended shutter speed regarding focal lengths of about 500-600mm (full frame) and the bird taking up most of the composition:

Situation Secure Recommendation Standard Range I Use
Perched, still birds 1/400 1/40-1/640
Walking or gradually moving birds 1/800 1/500-1/1500
Running and darting parrots 1/1200 1/800-1/1500
Birds within flight, slow 1/2500 1/2000-1/3200
Birds in flight, fast 1/3200 1/2500-1/8000

These values are typical, although not universal, and there is room for experimentation. For example , We specified a huge range designed for perched birds because various species behave differently. Owls and herons can remain very still. If you have time for you to brace yourself or use a monopod, you can achieve extremely low shutter speeds with these species, especially if your lens has optical stabilization enabled. On the other hand, if the bird offers feathers waving in the blowing wind, you will have to use a much faster shutter speed to get a razor-sharp seem.

For rarer birds, I always start with the safe value, and if I possess time, I will start taking risks. If your shutter speed can be dangerous, you will increase the probability of getting at least one sharp shot for a series of multiple photos in the row.

As soon as birds start moving, you need to use a faster shutter acceleration. I recommend a starting associated with 1/800 for slow-moving parrots. Such birds often pause, and you want to get them at around that time. Keep in mind that certain bird species, such as side rails, have quick twitches like tail-flicking even when they are walking slowly, so if you are photographing such a bird, you’ll have to use even faster rates of speed.

Ring-billed Gull in flight
Ring-billed Gull, Nikon D500 + 500mm f/5. 6 PF @ 500mm, ISO 450, 1/2500, f/5. 6

With birds in flight, I’m almost always on 1/2500-1/3200 for larger chickens and 1/4000 or faster for smaller birds. Nevertheless , with larger birds within flight, you can also pan at much slower speeds like 1/250, following the bird because it flies. This creates a wonderful background with motion blur that is worth exploring.


If the aperture mechanism of my birding lens were broken plus stuck wide open, I possibly wouldn’t even notice. Maybe it seems sacrilegious how small I care about changing aperture, but there’s a good reason for that. There never seems to be enough light to use the fast shutter speeds I need, therefore i think it’s helpful to shoot with my aperture wide open whenever possible.

Ending down for depth associated with field does makes sense, but from my experience, any time a bird is in the optimal present and the eye is sharpened, the depth of field wide open (f/4 or f/5. 6) is already good enough. For larger birds, I have noticed that on some rare events I do stop down, such as shooting ducks when the body is in a slightly different concentrate plane than the head.

American Robin
American Robin, Nikon D500 + 500mm f/5. 6 PF @ 500mm, ISO 1800, 1/400, f/5. 6

With some lenses, stopping down one stop can enhance sharpness, but the latest supertelephoto primes are typically near or at their maximum sharpness wide open.

Consequently , my recommendation is to capture wide open and only stop lower when necessary to get more level of field. Personally, over 95% of my shots are wide open.


There are two ways to find the ISO . You can use Car ISO (then fine tune it with exposure compensation ), or else choose this manually. In practice, as long as I had easy access to a dial to change the exposure compensation, I find Auto ISO to operate well. This is especially true with mirrorless cameras where the exposure preview is immediately apparent with the electronic viewfinder.

However , there are some situations where you can use true manual setting. If you are in one place where the light is fairly constant and then you’re not varying your shutter speed either, such as with a river shooting birds within flight, you can set the particular ISO manually. The reason why this is often worthwhile is that some parrots have very small spots of bright feathers, and the camera may suggest different exposures based on which direction the bird faces, when you would rather the exposure configurations remain constant.   Simply by fixing a safe ISO value, you can avoid the camera metering somewhat randomly.

A “safe” INTERNATIONALE ORGANISATION FÜR STANDARDISIERUNG is one that doesn’t blow out any important highlight ideals. You can determine this ISO value by photographing the brightest birds at the beginning of the shooting session and obtaining an ISO that does not overexpose them. However , this particular comes with the caveat that your scene will slowly get lighter if you are shooting in the early morning, and you may gradually end up with overexposed images.

If your camera has an overexposure indicator (such as the “blinkies” upon overexposed areas), this can be helpful to watch – whether straight in the EVF on a mirrorless camera or when looking at your images on a DSLR.


If any of the three variables above – shutter speed, aperture, and ISO – are set automatically by the camera, you will end up relying heavily on the camera’s metering system to determine the appropriate exposure. Even if you’re establishing all three values manually, the meter will still appear in the viewfinder to inform you whether the camera estimates you are over, under, or properly exposed.

I tend to use place or center-weighted metering for the majority of bird portraits since these types of tend to produce the most constant exposures for me. Different digital cameras meter differently so you might need to experiment a little. Matrix/evaluative metering is usually the most advanced and hands off metering system on a digital camera, but I tend to like the predictability of spot plus center-weighted for my bird photography.

Black-capped Chickadee
The quick-moving Black-capped Chickadee, Nikon D500 + 500mm f/5. 6 PF @ 500mm, ISO 3200, 1/800, f/5. 6

Regardless of what metering mode you use, I also suggest having exposure compensation very easily accessible to enable you to adjust exposure quickly (though it only affects your own exposure one or more of shutter speed, aperture, or ISO is set automatically by the camera).

Finally, I can get exposure pretty shut following these methods, however in unusual situations, I always make a mistake on the side of caution. Bird photography does not usually need intense shadow lifting in post-production, so slightly underexposed shots will not suffer a lot. In most modern cameras, it makes little difference to the end result if you underexpose your images with a stop (or even multiple stops) and correct the particular exposure in post, when compared with using a higher ISO to begin with.

Camera Modes

Given that the optimal shutter velocity can vary wildly in parrot photography, you need to be in a camera mode that allows you to control shutter speed. I recommend full Manual Mode – or Manual Mode with Auto ISO and exposure settlement – to make quick adjustments.

Mallard, Nikon D500 + 500mm f/5. 6 PF @ 500mm, ISO 1600, 1/500, f/5. 6

The only downside to Manual Setting + Auto ISO is that if suddenly the light becomes too bright so that there is overexposure at base ISO, the camera has no way to compensate automatically. In this case, you will find two solutions. The first option would be to recognize what’s happening and use a faster shutter acceleration. The other solution is quickly switching to aperture priority mode and setting your largest aperture, at which point the camera will set foundation ISO and a good shutter speed.

Several photographers actually shoot in aperture priority mode for almost all their bird photography because of this. They’re still able to manage the shutter speed via a careful dance with Car ISO, but this is a more complex technique (discussed in detail in Nasim’s article How to Photograph Birds , under the header “Camera Configurations. ”)

In terms of Shutter Priority mode, I might not recommend it meant for bird photography even though it might be tempting. The reason is that in brighter light, if you miss to change your shutter speed, the camera can stop down the aperture too much. Most modern birding lens are sharpest at or near wide open, and I may not want to lose sharpness – not to mention the shallow depth of field I like – by letting the camera stop down to something less wide like f/11.

Should You Use Back-Button Autofocus?

Back-button autofocus refers to assigning the back AF button, usually tagged AF-On , to initiate autofocus, and (usually) disabling autofocus through the half-press of the shutter key. Is this useful in bird digital photography?

For DSLRs, I feel the back-button autofocus is very useful, and I utilize it instead of half-pressing the shutter button on my D500. It can be useful to press the particular AF-On button  to start focus, shift the structure a little, and then take our photo. In cases like that, I do not want to activate autofocus by pressing the shutter button.

Home Wren, Nikon D500 + 500mm f/5. 6 PF @ 500mm, ISO 2200, 1/1000, f/5. 6

On the other hand, using the latest mirrorless cameras, the particular autofocus systems have very smart tracking and can follow a subject across almost the entire frame, rather than a small portion in the heart of the viewfinder. This reduces two of the big great use back-button autofocus exclusively. I also find it ergonomically more comfortable sometimes for low-angle pictures (like birds on the ground or in the water) to press the shutter button to concentrate rather than using a button for the rear of the camera.

Whether this is really worth keeping half-press autofocus accessible is up to you, but We at least recommend familiarizing your self with back-button focus if you’ve never used it before. I do tend to leave half-press autofocus enabled these days, but only after I know the benefits of using back-button.

Upon some cameras, you can even get the best of both worlds by development the AF-On button to focus in a different mode as half-pressing the shutter key, making it very quick to switch autofocus modes. So , it’s unquestionably worth learning the details of AF-On and practicing by it for a while even if you plan to keep half-press autofocus enabled.

Raw vs JPEG

Bird photography is very unforeseen, and at times, you will need to squeeze every last drop from your files. That’s why I recommend shooting in Raw. Organic makes it easier to change white balance in post-processing. It also makes it easier to reduce noise if you were shooting in low light conditions – very common in bird digital photography. I use custom noise decrease techniques in post-processing, and I really feel much safer knowing There are the best starting point in a Raw rather than JPEG file.

Double-crested Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant, Nikon D500 + 500mm f/5. 6 PF @ 500mm, ISO 200, 1/500, f/5. 6

Even with a properly-exposed photo, I still like to manipulate tone curves to bring out the subtle gradations on the subject itself, and this is where Raw shines. JPEG files can look perfectly good unedited, but they’ll quickly begin to show compression artifacts while you edit them more and more.

For more a more detailed comparison, I suggest consulting our article on  Raw vs JPEG .

Autofocus and Burst Mode

I can only scuff the surface of autofocus since each camera is different and am is not an expert in most camera. With birds, I find it crucial to be in continuous autofocus mode all the time regarding tracking movement.

Almost every camera system may have a continuous autofocus mode which includes way of selecting or tracking a subject. Newer mirrorless cameras often have animal eye AF modes that actually do work with regard to birds, so I suggest experimenting with those. Chances are, you will also need to switch between a couple various modes from time to time, so it is worthwhile to program a few control keys near your right hands to do this. Nasim’s article upon Autofocus Settings can expose you to some of the different options if you aren’t already familiar.

Caspian Tern
Caspian Tern, Nikon D500 + 500mm f/5. 6 PF @ 500mm, INTERNATIONALE ORGANISATION FÜR STANDARDISIERUNG 360, 1/3200, f/5. six

Rush mode or high FRAMES PER SECOND mode instructs the camera to keep taking shots so long as the shutter button will be held down. The rate associated with shooting is typically between 10-30 frames per second if you have a camera geared toward wildlife photography. This mode is useful for action pictures, especially birds in airline flight. The only downside is that you might get more images than you recognize (or intended) and thus end up with thousands more shots to undergo at home. To save space on my memory card, I will often turn it off if I’m not photographing birds in flight.


This article has covered the most crucial settings for bird photography such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and metering modes. I recommend starting out with these secure values, but also experimenting, specifically with common species of parrots that you see all the time. Probably the most challenging of the group is shutter speed, but it’s some thing you’ll learn a lot more about when you practice with different types of bird, as each species acts differently.

Digital camera settings alone won’t assure a good bird photo, so you still need to capture an excellent subject with an interesting structure and skilled post-processing. But settings are the first step in bird photography and one of the most important.

In case you have any questions about these types of or other camera configurations for bird photography, please ask in the comments beneath.

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