General DSLR setup for wildlife and birds in flight photography

There are many resources which you will find on the internet and elsewhere on how to set up your DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera for wildlife and birds in flight photography, but here is my take on it…

I will walk you through my general camera setup of my Canon 7D, but most of the settings can be found on any DSLR and is not limited to the “big” brands like Canon or Nikon, although the latter two brands’ settings are very similar.
Needless to say, every camera brand and model have different settings to fine-tune it even further to your needs and as such I repeat what I have stated to many people before: Know your camera’s user manual  from the first page to the last!

 

SHOOTING / EXPOSURE MODES

 

The most important and generally used shooting modes are shutter priority (“Tv” on Canon and “S” on a Nikon), aperture priority (“Av” on a Canon and “A” on a Nikon) and of course manual mode (“M” on both Canon and Nikon).

 

 

Aperture Priority

 

I prefer aperture priority mode 90% of the time. The reason for this is simple: I can control the depth of field required for every specific scene I wish to capture. I will for example set my camera to a very general F5.6 when I get into a vehicle at the beginning of a game drive and if it is in the very low light of the early morning, even to the lowest my lens allows, which is for example F4 with my 500mm L lens.

 

In most circumstances I will play around with apertures from F4 to about F7 for general wildlife and birds in flight photography – F4 for a rather shallow depth of field (to isolate my subject from the background) and a higher shutter speed for any specific ISO setting, and F7 where I require a slighter deeper depth of field (to capture for example two animals in sharp focus which stand slightly behind each other). Needless to say, in the latter situation you will sacrifice some shutter speed at the same ISO.

When I want to increase the depth of field to take a more landscape type of images, a can simply do so by turning the main dial a couple of clicks to F8 or F11, whilst keeping an eye on my shutter speed.

 

For me the big advantage of aperture priority mode is that it is one of the “semi-automatic modes” – You do not have to control each and every variable in the exposure triangle (shutter speed, f-stop and ISO). In the quick changing and sometimes surprising environment of wildlife and bird in flight photography, you need to be able to capture an unexpected moment by simply pressing the shutter button, whilst knowing that you still have creative control and the camera does the rest of the “thinking”. One simply has to select an aperture (or f-stop) at a specific ISO, and the camera selects the shutter speed for the perfect exposure.

 

One important thing to keep in mind is your ISO! The only control which you have over your shutter speed, is to adjust the ISO… I usually test the exposure at the beginning of a game drive in low light with an ISO of 800. By simply holding the shutter button halfway down you can see whether or not you will have a suitable shutter speed for you requirements. The rule of thumb for wildlife photography is the same shutter speed than the focal length of your lens, i.e. 1/500s with a 500mm lens or 1/18s with an 18mm lens. For birds in flight photography I will rarely recommend anything less than 1/2000s, where anything more than 1/2500s is a bonus! As the day and light progress I will constantly monitor my shutter speed, to make any adjustments as required – No need to shoot an elephant that is standing still at 1/8000s at ISO3200, where you can get an image with much less noise and of a better quality at 1/250s at ISO100! But more on the ISO a bit later.
Yes, you can be more creative in aperture priority mode as well  – If you want to over-expose or under-expose a scene slightly, you can do so by simply turning the quick control dial at the back of the camera and as such using exposure compensation to obtain the desired effect.

 

For me aperture priority mode is simply full manual mode on steroids!

 

Shutter Priority

 

Shutter priority mode is the converse of aperture priority, i.e. you choose a specific shutter speed and ISO, whilst the camera does the rest by choosing the aperture (f-stop) for the perfect exposure.

 

The down side of shutter priority is that you do not have any real control over the aperture and the depth of field you are shooting into. For me the latter is where creativity lies in wildlife photography, especially if you keep in mind that most of the time we want to isolate our subject from the background by using a rather shallow depth of field.

 

That is not to say you cannot be creative with shutter priority! I basically use shutter priority for one thing only and that is slow shutter speed panned images, like the one below.

 

It is simple – I chose a shutter speed of 1/30s in shutter priority mode, set the ISO to auto ISO (which entails that the camera uses the lowest ISO possible under the circumstances) and the camera choose a suitable f-stop (the latter not being that important as you are “panning” in any event). These settings are saved as a preset under the custom user settings (C1, C2 and C3) of my Canon 7D and I can quickly access it by simply turning the mode dial a couple of clicks.
Full Manual


You will get many wildlife photographers that boast about always shooting in manual made. I am not one of them for reasons that already appears herein before.Yes, you have complete control over all three the variables of the exposure triangle, but it is tricky and time consuming – you manually have to choose your aperture (f-stop), your shutter speed and ISO, whilst making sure that your exposure is perfect by keeping an eye on the exposure level indicator in your viewfinder. You can also over or under expose, by either adjusting you shutter speed or aperture.You can use manual mode if you are in an environment where the scene and light in your viewfinder do not change that regularly and if you have the luxury of time to adjust any of the three exposure components a your leisure (and without the risk of missing the shot because you fiddled with your camera settings).Can you use manual mode to your advantage? Yes, you can! I use manual mode for example in some landscape images or when shooting the milky way – In the latter instance I know I want a rather shallow depth of field like F4 and a shutter speed of exactly, 20, 25 or 30 seconds at an high ISO of 1600 or 3200. In landscape photography you also have time on your side (most of the time) and as such you can shoot in manual mode (but I rarely do and I am not at all a landscape expert).
Other exposure modes


If you want to use the other exposure modes like the full-auto (or “green”) mode and program mode, you could just as well have bought a cheaper point-and-shoot camera, so I will not even go there…The only other useful mode is Bulb mode (“B”), which you use when you need shutter speeds that exceeds the limit of 30 seconds in manual or shutter priority modes. This mode is the only way to shoot for example star trails with a remote or cable shutter release, where you lens is open for 45 minutes or longer. But this post is about wildlife and birds in flight photography, right?
METERING MODES
There are three basic metering modes in most DSLR cameras, being evaluative- (or “matrix”), spot- and centered-weighted average metering. The short discussion of each of these modes hereinafter will help you to understand what the “metering mode” is all about.You can also read more about the metering modes and view some graphics of the differences on Godigitalslr.com by clicking the link.
Evaluative (matrix) metering

This is the metering mode that I use most of the time and it is a general purpose metering mode suited for most wildlife wildlife and birds in flight photography – The camera’s software goes through thousands of “virtual images” in its memory and selects an exposure that is most suitable for the lighting of the entire scene in your camera’s viewfinder.

The technology and algorithms use to achieve the aforesaid are beyond my technical knowledge and comprehension, so I suppose you will have to do with the result of my experiences in the field over the last couple of years. I have found that this metering mode gives the most consistent results and most of the (few) flaws can be corrected in post-processing.

 

Spot metering


Spot metering is the second most useful metering mode. It is used to expose for a specific spot of a scene which may be something like only 2% of the viewfinder area.

This is handy for example when you want to expose for a subject’s face that is standing in dense dark bushes or shrubs that tak up most of the space in the viewfinder – The camera will expose for a perfect exposure on the face, whereas if evaluative metering was used the subject might have been over exposed, as the camera would have exposed for the darker areas which take up most of the scene.

This is a very handy metering mode that can at times save photographic opportunities which would otherwise not have been possible.

 

Center-weighted average metering


This metering mode is weighted at the center of the scene in your viewfinder and then averaged out over the rest of the entire scene in you viewfinder (rather self-explanatory, don’t you think).

I use this mode mostly when a capture portraits of wildlife and birds, as I have found that results are not very consistent with fast moving subjects, especially birds in flight.

 

AF (AUTO FOCUS) MODES

There at basically three auto focus modes in most DSLR cameras, being One Shot, AI Servo and AI Focus.

 

AI Servo


Let us start with the only mode I use for wildlife and birds in flight photography, AI Servo (AF-C in Nikon).

AI Servo mode is used for moving subjects where the focusing distance between you and your subject constantly changes. This mode/setting is one of the things that make DSLR photography rock!

The auto focus system of your camera follows the subject and constantly corrects the focus on your subject.

Now, this having been said, there is one other adjustment that you have to make to your camera controls – The factory settings of your camera are setup to use the shutter button for both focusing (by pressing the shutter button halfway) and for releasing the shutter (by pressing the shutter button down completely). You need to change this by setting up your camera to back-button or “rear-button” focus. I have already done a blog post on Canon 7D Custom Function Settings for Birds in Flight and Wildlife Photography where you can read more about this and if you do not use a Canon DSLR, it will hopefully guide you in the right direction to set up your Nikon or whatever brand you are using.

The best part of using a  rear-button focus setup, is that you can instantly change from AI Servo mode to One Shot mode, i.e. you can expose and focus for the scene, release the rear-focus button, recompose the image and take the shot. All of that without changing any settings on your camera. If you want to keep focusing on the moving subject, you simply hold down the rear-focus button like you would have done with the shutter button…

In addition to the aforesaid, a  rear-button focus setup allows you to be much quicker on the shutter button, as it does only one thing when you press the shutter, it takes the image. You will be amazed how important a few hundreds of a second are when it comes to birds in flight photography!

Trust me, using a back-focus setup is not all that complicated and I got 100% used to the idea during a couple of hours in the field one morning.

 

One Shot (Single shot)

One-shot AF (AF-S in Nikon) mode is used if you want to take only one image – The camera focuses once and when the shutter button is pressed down completely, the image is taken… Mmm, not very impressive, is it?!

Yes, you can use One Shot, but what is the use of having a DSLR that can do so much more!

I suggest that you use One Shot when you take a portrait of your neighbor’s wife sunbathing next to the pool… But if you set up your camera’s controls to  rear-button focus, you can even take an image of her getting up to take a dip in the pool…

 

AF Focus


AF Focus mode simply uses One Shot AF and then switches to AI Servo AF mode once the focused subject moves.

Once again, I do not have any use for this AF mode, as I have the freedom of using One Shot AF mode and AI Servo AF mode when I have a back-focus setup. It also makes change common sense that this “change” from One Shot AF to AI Servo AF takes some time (even if just 1/1000s) and that means a possible missed opportunity.

 

DRIVE MODES


The drive modes simply determine how many images your camera take when you press the shutter button and hold it down.

The drive basic drive modes are Single Shooting, which takes one image and that is it, Low-speed Continues Shooting, which takes approximately 3 frames per second with my Canon 7D, and High-speed Continues Shooting, which takes the maximum number of frames your DSLR allows (which is 8 frames per second with my Canon 7D).

Needless to say, the maximum frames per second you can take in High-speed Continues Shooting  depends on the camera model and brand you are using. The new Canon 1Dx shoots at an amazing 12 frames per second and the Nikon D4 an equally impressive 10 frames per second!

My DSLR is set up to shoot in High-speed Continues Shooting all of the time (save for when I shoot family portraits or the like). The reasoning behind it is once again simple – Your camera captures small moments in time which the naked eye cannot see.

Yes, you will be left with a lot of images to review and your memory card will fill rapidly especially with the very high resolution big images of the latest cameras like the Nikon D800, but the solution is a simple one: Use a proper size memory card of at least 8GB, review your images next to the campfire every evening and delete the obvious out of focus or bad images and delete the rest of the “unwanted” images once you uploaded them into Lightroom and if you are 100% sure that they should go to the recycle bin. Just remember one thing: You will more often than not visit an image that you have taken a couple of years ago and decide to give it a processing go with amazing results!

 

IMAGE QUALITY (FORMAT)

This is another no-brainer!

All the modern DSLR cameras give you the choice of file format in which your image is captured, i.e. RAW or JPEG, or the size of the specific format, i.e. large, medium or small.

I always shoot in RAW and at the highest quality (biggest size) possible. The ability to process huge RAW files which contains much more detail and information than their JPEG counterparts, is of immense value to wildlife photographers. Your shooting conditions are not always ideal and the ability to correct small flaws in images and to bring out their enhancing attributes are what RAW shooting is all about.

 

AF POINT SELECTION


AF point selection determines which AF (auto focus) points your camera uses to focus on a subject.

Every brand and model camera have different settings and these setting are very model and brand specific. The Canon 1Dx has 61 focus points, whereas the Nikon D4 has 51.

My Canon 7D only has 19, but I do not use of all of them at every given time – I use Single Point AF selection on just the center AF point and sometimes AF point expansion (on the center AF point). I have just found that with the 7D my own reaction time in following a subject is much quicker than that of the camera having have to choose which AF point of the many should take the job over momentarily.

Now, once again having said that, I am sure that there are many Canon 1Dx and Nikon D4 users that will quickly say the AF tracking on these cameras is in another class and… it is completely true! So watch this space, as I may just one day do a post on these cameras once I had some field experience with it… (my wife will say its wishful thinking…).

 

WHITE BALANCE

Choosing a white balance preset when shooting in RAW, as you always should, is easy! No need for worries here, as you will select Auto White Balance.

Technology is so advanced that most of the time the white balance of your image will be perfect. If not, you can do the necessary corrections in Lightroom in post-processing.

 

JUST TO SUMMARIZE


Well, that is it!

Just to summarize my general camera setup for birds in flight and wildlife photography:-

1. Aperture Priority exposure mode, with a custom user setting for a quick change to Shutter
Priority if necessary;
2. Evaluative (matrix) metering mode;
3. AI Servo focus with  rear-button focus setup;
4. High-speed Continues Shooting drive mode;
5. Always shooting RAW and not JPEG;
6. Single-Point AF with an occasional switch to AF Point Expansion;
7. Auto White Balance.

Without running the risk to repeat myself… These settings are not the alpha and omega and you will find many other suggestions on the web. These are merely the settings that I have used for the last couple of years and which “proved” itself in the field and for my camera make and model. I do however trust that it will assist you in setting up your specific camera.

Have a look at my post on the Canon 7D Custom Function Settings for Birds in Flight and Wildlife Photography. This post might be of assistance even if you do not shoot with the Canon 7D…

 

9 comments
  • Thea TroetscherJuly 15, 2013 - 20:20 - Thank you so much for this site!!! It is amazing! Love your photos and you are a natural teacher!
    Best shooting to you,
    TheaReplyCancel

  • linruphoto@gmail.comJuly 16, 2013 - 06:51 - Thanks Thea! Appreciate the feedback!ReplyCancel

  • prabir kumar dasJanuary 6, 2015 - 10:40 - great! I learnt a lot of thingsReplyCancel

  • MabelLucy HaysApril 8, 2015 - 11:30 - I am still gaining experience with my 7D before I purchase the 7Dii down the road so even though your article is 2 years old it is a great find for me.
    Thank you for your time and energy.
    Do you have the same information if you are supposed to be doing wildlife but get sidetracked with general landscape or storm clouds etc?
    I am guessing you would have one of the custom settings set up for this??
    Thanks again :))ReplyCancel

  • KrishSeptember 25, 2015 - 10:06 - I am a learner wuth a Nikon D3300 and a Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD SP AF but dreaming to become a great photographer some day. Your advice will help me a lot, really. If you permit, then I may sometimes ask you some silly questions on this topic (not about neighbor’s wife) I am sure,,,ha ha haReplyCancel

  • Manoj SingrakhiaNovember 22, 2015 - 13:52 - Hi Rudi,
    Thank you very much for the post, these posts connects wild life enthusiast from all around the globe.
    Need you assistance in setting up the C1, 2, 3 function on my Canon 7D.
    Regards,
    ManojReplyCancel

  • EstebanApril 6, 2016 - 22:01 - Great information and a super Website.
    Good jobb Rudi, many thanks…
    Regards
    EstebanReplyCancel

  • Johan CalitzJune 12, 2016 - 10:25 - Very good and helpful.ReplyCancel

  • Ratnang SinghAugust 16, 2016 - 18:43 - You’re a life saver .. ! This had been so good ! Thankyou so much for really simplifying a lot of things for me !!ReplyCancel

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