Whereas Part I of this book provided guidance on buying the equipment you need for high-quality bird photography, Part II gives instruction on the effective operation of that equipment.  We begin with the technical aspects of operating the camera and the external flash so as to capture sharp images that are properly exposed (i.e., well-lit).  After this we expand the discussion to a broader range of practical issues that are relevant when shooting in the field, such as choosing the right angle and composition, making the best use of light and background colors, and capturing the bird in the ideal pose.  We’ll conclude Part II with some pointers on turning your yard into an aesthetic bird-photography studio.

Chapter 6

Operating the Camera

In Chapter 2 we reviewed the basic technology underlying today’s DSLR’s.  As we now consider the effective operation of the camera in the field, we’ll rely on a number of concepts introduced in that earlier chapter.  Though we’ll briefly review essential concepts where necessary, it may be useful to skim through Chapter 2 at various points in order to most effectively digest the material presented here.

6.1 F-stops, Shutter Speeds, and ISO

The very first task in learning to use your DSLR is to master the skills involved in obtaining a good exposure—that is, in getting a photo in which the bird is lit well enough that you can discern sufficient detail in the bird’s plumage and other features.  Of course, the correct exposure of a bird depends to a very large degree on what you’re trying to achieve, aesthetically, with the image that you’re crafting: you may want the scene to have a dreary, subdued mood, or you might be trying to achieve a high key effect in which the photo is excessively bright, for artistic reasons.  For now, however, we’ll concentrate on the more basic task of maximizing the amount of detail visible in the bird, and leave the more artistic considerations for later.
    As explained in Chapter 2, there are three settings that you can manipulate in the camera in order to affect the exposure (brightness) of an image: the aperture, the shutter speed, and the ISO setting.  The aperture is the easiest to understand: a wider hole, or aperture, will let in more light per unit time, resulting in brighter images.  The aperture that we’re talking about here is the diaphram (or iris) located within the lens.  This diaphram can be opened or closed to varying sizes, resulting in changes to the amount of light that passes through the lens.  Recall from section 3.1 that a larger aperture (wider hole) corresponds to a smaller f-number; thus, f/8 lets in more light than f/11.

Fig. 6.1.1 : F-numbers and aperture are inversely related.  As the f-number is varied from
2.8 (at left) to 32 (at right), the aperture decreases in size.  This is counter-intuitive, but it’s
absolutely essential to remember this fact when shooting in the field.  Otherwise, you’ll
find yourself adjusting exposure parameters in the wrong direction, resulting in useless shots.

    Light passing through the lens (and diaphram) only reaches the imaging sensor when the shutter is open, and the amount of time that the shutter is open is dependent on the shutter speed.  Obviously, if the shutter opens and closes very quickly, less light will reach the sensor than if the shutter opens and closes slowly.  Thus, a faster shutter speed results in a darker exposure.

Fig. 6.1.2 : The three exposure parameters in DLSRs (left-to-right): ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.
The aperture limits light via space constraints, the shutter speed limits light via time constraints,
and the ISO setting artificially amplifies the signal (and noise) from the imaging sensor after
exposure has already taken place.

    Finally, we have the ISO setting.  Recall from section 2.5 that the ISO setting controls the amount by which the analog output of the sensor (the signal, as well as any attendant noise) is amplified before being converted to digital pixel encodings.  Because higher signal values result in brighter pixels in the resulting image, turning up the ISO (i.e., increasing the amount of amplification) will cause the resulting image to look brighter (though possibly also noisier).
    We thus have the following simple rules:

If you want a brighter image...
If you want a darker image...
decrease the shutter speed increase the shutter speed
enlarge the aperture
(decrease the f-number)
constrict the aperture
(increase f-number)
increase the ISO
decrease the ISO
Table. 6.1.1 : The Fundamental Rules of Exposure. 
Note that if you
re shooting in Manual Exposure mode, you can apply these rules
directly.  However, if you
re shooting in one of the Automatic Exposure modes
(section 6.3) you
ll instead need to adjust a pseudo-parameter called exposure
, because in the Automatic Exposure modes, the camera tries to
maintain a constant brightness by trading off one parameter for another.  All of
this is explained in section 6.3.

For example, if you take a photo (in manual exposure modesection 6.3) and then, upon reviewing the image on the camera’s LCD, decide that it’s too dark, you can make sure the next photo (of the same scene) turns out brighter than this one by either increasing the ISO, enlarging the aperture (i.e., using a smaller f-number), or decreasing the shutter speed (or some equivalent combination).  If after making the adjustment(s) to these settings, you find that the next photo is still too dark, then you can simply adjust one or more of the settings further and try again, and repeat this process until you get an image that has just the right amount of exposure.  This trial-and-error process may seem slow and wasteful, but in time (with experience in the field) you’ll get better at adjusting these three settings rapidly and in the proper amounts, so as to hone in on the right values with fewer trials.

Fig. 6.1.3 : Finding the right exposure settings via highlight alerts.  This rock was
the whitest object I could find at the beginning of a shooting session at a bald eagle
hotspot.  Adult bald eagles have white heads, so I chose my exposure parameters
so as to avoid overexposing white objects.  The red indicator pixels show that
I was clipping some highlights.  After seeing this on my camera’s LCD, I turned
down the exposure until the highlight alerts indicated no clipping of highlights.

    Now we need to consider some of the complications involved in adjusting these three parameters (aperture, shutter speed, ISO).  The good news is that there isn’t a single, unique combination of the three parameters that results in the
correct exposure.  Once you’ve found a setting that gives you an exposure that you like, it’s possible to change two or more of the parameters (in the proper way) and still get the same overall level of brightness.  For example, if you were to turn the f-number down one click on your camera’s aperture dial (say, from f/8 to f/7.1), and then turn the shutter speed up one click on your camera’s shutter-speed dial (say, from 1/320 to 1/400), you should find that the resulting exposure hasn’t changed.  That’s because the larger aperture (smaller f-number) has been counterbalanced by the increase in shutter speed.  This is called reciprocityReciprocity works by trading off stops of light between parameters.  A stop of light corresponds to a doubling/halving of the shutter speed (or ISO), or multiplying/dividing the f-number by 1.4 (the square root of 2).  In practice, you can usually forget about the exact definitions (multiples of 2 versus 1.4) and just think in terms of clicks on the parameter dials.
    So the good news is that you’re not looking for a needle in a haystack: a number of different combinations of ISO / aperture / shutter speed will typically give you a good exposure, and you just need to find one of those combinations.  The bad news is that there are secondary effects of adjusting these parameters—that is, other effects besides just changing the exposure.  As we explained in section 3.7, for example, enlarging the aperture not only increases the amount of light collected, it also results in a shallower depth of field (DOF).  Sometimes you’ll want to do both (increase brightness and decrease DOF), and in those cases you can achieve that by adjusting the aperture.  If, however, you don’t want to change the DOF, then you’ll have to resort to changing one of the other two parameters (ISO or shutter speed) in order to adjust the exposure.

Fig. 6.1.4 : Snowy egret in a shallow depth-of-field (DOF).  Because I wanted to isolate my
subject, I set my aperture very wide, and then calibrated my exposure by adjusting the
  shutter speed and ISO (but not the aperture).  When one of the exposure parameters is
constrained for artistic reasons, adjusting the brightness has to be done using the other
parameters.  (
1/1250 sec, f/6.3, ISO 125, 600mm, manual mode, TTL flash at +1 FEC).

    Similarly, changing the ISO or shutter speed can have other effects on the resulting image.  Increasing the ISO can increase the noise level (as explained in section 2.5), while decreasing the shutter speed can decrease the sharpness of the image, due to motion blur.  Thus, the challenge is in finding the combination of these three parameters which gives you an acceptable exposure, without producing too much noise (via high ISO) or motion blur (via low shutter speeds); in addition, if you’re trying to achieve a specific effect via DOF (such as isolating the bird via a shallow DOF), then you’ll want to find a combination of parameters that doesn’t violate your desired DOF.
    To make matters worse, there are limits on how high or low you can set each of these parameters, and it’s not uncommon to run into some of those limits in the field.  Native ISO values are typically limited to a range of 100 to 1600;
expanded ISO ranges typically are only simulated and should generally be avoided if possible.  Apertures are likewise limited at both the high and low ends of the range, though it’s the upper limit that is most often encountered in the field, since the objective lens diameter limits how wide the aperture can be made.  Though shutter speeds are also limited at the high end (typically 1/8000 sec for pro bodies) as well as at the low end (typically 30 seconds), in practice you’ll want to avoid going below 1/125 or 1/160 sec (plus or minus, depending on whether you’re using a tripod and/or image stabilization) in order to avoid image blur (or 1/640 to 1/1600 for birds in flight, or even just small birds frantically foraging).

Fig. 6.1.5 : In intense shooting situations, you need to be able to change exposure
parameters quickly, and correctly, without exceeding key limits.  For this shot,
I got a reasonable exposure (clipping some of the highlights on the back of the
bird in order to make details visible on the underside), but I allowed the shutter
speed to go too low, resulting in motion blur.  Fortunately, the image ended up
having a dreamy, artistic effect that I like.  Notice the eye-shine from my flash,
which normally I'd fix in Photoshop.  (1/50 sec, f/10, ISO 125, 600mm, Av with
-1 EC, TTL flash)

    Fortunately, as we’ll see in section 6.3, there are several exposure modes that you can use to make it easier to manage the three parameters affecting exposure.  What you’ll typically find in the field, however, is that you only need to search for your optimal parameters at the beginning of the day’s session, and then to gradually adjust individual parameters a little bit throughout the session, as the lighting changes (i.e., as cloud cover comes and goes).  Furthermore, if you do most of your birding at the same place several days in a row, you’ll often find that establishing your initial settings at the start of each session is easier, since they’ll likely be the same settings you used at the start of yesterday’s session, and may be just a few
clicks (on the parameter dials on your camera) away from whatever setting the camera was left in when you turned it off at the end of the last session.

Fig. 6.1.6 : Changing the behavior of the thumb dial on
the Canon 1D Mark III.  For some situations I like to
set it to control ISO.  Another menu option allows me
to swap it between shutter speed and aperture.

    One trick that can help you to become faster at adjusting exposure parameters is to reassign the camera’s dials and buttons (if your camera allows you to do that) to particular exposure parameters, depending on your shooting style and exposure mode.  For example, if you find that in a particular birding situation you tend to adjust the ISO and aperture more often than you adjust the shutter speed, then you could assign those two parameters (ISO and aperture) to the two dials or joysticks on your camera that are most easily within your reach.  My current camera has two dials, and I typically assign shutter speed and aperture to these; adjusting the ISO can then be done by first pressing a button and then turning the dial that normally changes the shutter speed.  However, if I’m birding in a dim environment, such that I’m limited primarily by my shutter speed, then I may set the shutter speed to its lowest practical value (say, 1/160 sec) and then assign the two dials to ISO and aperture.  Unfortunately, not all cameras allow you to reassign their controls in this way.
    Note that when trying to freeze birds, a faster shutter speed isn’t always the ideal solution.  As previously mentioned, birds in flight often need a shutter speed of 1/640 to 1/800 sec for slow-flapping birds or 1/1600 to 1/2000 sec or faster for fast-flapping birds.  Even the fast head movements of foraging birds (especially warblers and small shorebirds) can require speeds of 1/1600 or more to freeze.  When these speeds aren’t feasible, due to exposure constraints, flash can sometimes be used to freeze the bird by
keeping ambient light low and using a short flash duration (see section 7.7).  In the case of foraging birds (i.e., those not in flight), if you’re already using flash for fill light then it’s often preferable to keep your shutter speed below the sync speed (to maximize effective flash output and minimize recycle time), and just try to get the bird while it’s not moving.  I’ve found that for shooting frantically feeding warblers, 1/1600 sec sometimes isn’t fast enough to eliminate motion blur, so I instead shoot at 1/300 sec (the sync speed of my camera) and take lots and lots of photos in hopes of getting the occasional lucky shot when the bird is perfectly still.  This is sometimes the only way to fully dispel the shadows in the scene.  Flash is dicussed in greater detail in Chapter 7.