With bird photography, most of the time you’ll want to blur the background as much as possible to minimise any distractions and make the subject stand out. The way to achieve this is to set as wide an aperture as possible – the wider the aperture, the softer the background.
Setting a wide aperture also has the added bonus of allowing you to shoot at fast shutter speeds, because the wider the aperture, the faster the shutter speed can be.
When shooting handheld, you should aim for a shutter speed that’s faster than 1 over the effective focal length of the lens you’re using.
If, say, you’re using a 300mm lens on a camera with a crop factor of 1.5x, the effective focal length will be 450mm, so you’ll need to set a shutter speed of at least 1/450 sec.
Keep it steady
If your camera or lens features image stabilisation, you may be able to get away with much slower shutter speeds, while for moving subjects you may need slightly higher shutter speeds – 1/500 sec may be fast enough to eliminate camera shake, but it might not be fast enough to freeze the motion of a swooping bird of prey, for example (learn some of the common mistakes at every shutter speed – and the best settings to use).
The only time when you may want a narrower aperture is when you want to maximise depth of field – if shooting flocks of birds, for example.
Similarly, the one time when you may want a slow shutter speed is when you’re panning (to blur the background), or when you want to blur the motion of the bird itself.
Exposure-wise, spot or centre-weighted metering works well for subjects that are backlit.
And lastly, you’ll need to select the focus point that’s closest to your subject, and to set single-shot AF for static birds, and focus tracking for moving subjects.
For more bird photography tips, download our free bird photography cheat sheet.
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