I have been asked a few times about the settings I use when photographing birds with my Sigma 150-500 lens. I am happy to share this information but would like to first share how I came to be doing this. I have admired the work of many nature photographers over the years, and have been lucky enough to meet a few of them. Each and every one of them do things a little bit differently and this for me is a very important point. Personally, it was not just a case of copying the settings someone else was using and instantly getting a great picture. It was more about finding out what worked for me and then improving on it.
I have several handicaps when it comes to photography. Firstly I have shaky hands and I mean serious shaky hands. I have always had them and over the years learned how to compensate for the shakes. Thankfully image stabilised lenses make photography possible for me, but sometimes it just isn’t enough and this is where I resort to using my monopod. The monopod gives me something to grip on to steady the shakes and still allows the lens stabilisation to work effectively. When it comes to bird photography I wouldn’t be without it.
Typically when I am heading out to photograph birds I have several things in the boot of my car. I have a comfortable fold up chair. For me this is extremely important because of my second major handicap. I suffer from arthritis and struggle to stand for any length of time. Birds and time go together so being able to sit comfortably for long periods is essential. I also have my hiking boots so that I can go into wet and muddy areas without getting wet feet and I have a warm jacket. It may not be cold when you first sit down but believe me after a while even a gentle breeze can be chilling.
Next I have a means of camouflaging myself so I semi blend into the background. The aim for me is not to be totally hidden, just not to look like a human sitting with a camera. The birds are not that fussy about how you achieve this and it is definitely not a fashion show. Finally the most important is my long suffering husband who comes along with me to carry my gear and thankfully enjoys spending many hours reading books. I couldn’t do a lot of it without his support.
You will have noticed that I have yet to mention my camera gear, well that I have it with me goes without saying but exactly what I have is this. I use a Canon 7D DSLR camera body with a Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens. It is very rare these days for this lens to be off my camera as most of my photography now is birds. I have the fastest compact flash cards I can buy so that I am not slowed down by the camera saving data onto the cards. A slow card can be the difference between catching that magic shot and missing it totally.
Now to the settings. I attended a Nature Photography Workshop where I was encouraged to use Manual Settings on my camera for photographing nature. It was a big step for me but I went there and learned more about how my camera worked and which settings created which result. This was pivotal for me in many ways as it pushed me out of my comfort zone and into an area of experimentation. I was achieving better than I previously was however I still wasn’t happy with the results when I compared them to others I had seen.
I then met up with another nature photographer who told me about speed and how essential it was when it came to birds. I was getting so confused about how to achieve this using manual settings that I moved to Aperture Priority. I still use this setting now and to achieve the speeds I want, I simply adjust the ISO and F Stop settings. I try to keep the F stop at around 6.3 which the best I can do with the lens at full extension to give me the nice smooth blurred out backgrounds. These really make the shot for me provided the bird is in sharp focus in the foreground.
I like to get the speed of the shutter upwards of 1/3200 and to do this I am usually shooting with high ISO – minimum 400 but often up to 3200 depending on the light. I don’t need this for a bird sitting on a stick, so long as the bird is happy to stay still and pose for me, but often they move fast and you need the speed to catch them or to stop motion. It is important to realise that the higher the ISO, the more noise you are likely to have when it comes to processing the image. I usually have my camera set to AI Focus, or AI Servo (if I am planning to shoot flying birds), and I use auto-focus. I am not great with manual focus so unless I need it for something specific I just don’t go there. I am also aware that the image stabiliser on the lens will slow the auto-focus down a little but with my shaky hands I have learned to leave it on and just deal with that split second of slowness. If I didn’t have the shaky hands problem I would not have the stabiliser turned on when shooting over 1/3200.
Another thing I sometimes do to help with the speed is to under-expose the shot by 2/3’s of a stop. This many not be the correct way to do things but it works for me and I am happy with the results. It goes without saying that the brighter the day, the better it is and using this particular lens in shade or dull days is not going to produce good results. I use such days for practice rather than having any great expectation of good images.
Practice and patience are extremely important with bird photography. Going to a venue, seeing nothing to photograph and then leaving immediately is never going to work. You need to sit down and wait. Observe the natural behaviour of the birds and become part of their environment before attempting to photograph them. They are creatures of habit and by watching you can learn to predict what they are going to be doing and where to set your focus point. To get good images consistently you need to know your subject, know the direction of the light and know where to position yourself in relation to these factors.
If you are still with me at this point I have one last thing to say. I am not an expert in this field and don’t think I ever will be. I have serious envy for those with the big prime lenses and super expensive gear, their images are just stunning and super sharp. However without them to inspire me I wouldn’t be on this path of constantly trying to improve my own photography. What I have discussed above is what is currently working for me, this is not to say if I learn something new that I won’t change it up a bit because I most certainly will. The point I am trying to make is that it works for me, it may not work for you. Experiment, but have fun doing it!