As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s a good idea to start a thread on shooting wildlife as most don’t do so and may not have developed the technique. Wildlife, bird shooting in particular, can be particularly challenging as it rearranges the rules of photography. Doesn’t change them, just reorganizes them. Here are the basics gathered from some other bird shooters I know as well as my personal experience. Some of you may have alternate ways of doing some of the following but that’s what makes this type of shooting so unique and fun. I’m glad we’re all Nikon shooters as this simplifies things a lot. Besides, many of the tweaks Nikon puts in their cameras can be quite useful to us.
For wildlife, especially birds, it’s a good idea to set you AF to AF-C. You don’t want the focus to lock. The reason is that birds especially never sit completely still. When you lock focus, it moves it’s head and now the eye, so critical with animals, is just out of focus. Even with AF-C this can still happen. In this mode, the annoying beeping our cameras do will be disabled on most models. Use the green light.
If you have a generation one Nikon you may either use the standard settings in Optimize Image or Vivid1. Do not use the Vivid2 settings. Your colors will be screwy!
If you have gen2 Nikon, your settings are called Picture Controls, not optimize image. Here, set them to standard and saturate to taste. One or two is fine. I would advise not setting to vivid mode unless you’re trying to make some drug induced statement. Your colors will not be accurate. These inaccuracies will be subtle and often within a color spectrum. For example, red can be off; Scarlet can look like Crimson and Crimson like Vermillion. This is critical because a bird’s color often differ in the subtlest ways. Even their names can reflect this; Scarlet Tanager and Vermillion Flycatcher are two examples. Many cameras do not always convey the colors in birds plumages accurately so some saturation in standard mode is necessary. You may ask why this is with birds? Because many colors in a birds plumage are not what they may seem. Red for example is not produced by a pigment but by coratonoids that color the feathers. Blue is even trickier. You’re not actually seeing blue feathers. Blue is produce by tiny hooks on birds feathers that reflect blue light. The camera can sometimes tell that’s it’s reflected and the blue may be a bit off. Ever see a picture of a bird that is blue and its feathers look translucent? That’s why. Yellow is produced by a lypochrome, this is a fat soluble die which colors the feathers. Sometimes these interact with the blue hooks and presto! You have green coloring. For this reason green can also look translucent at times. Only brown and black are true pigments and that’s why the look normal most of the time. Some saturation is needed to produce the colors correctly. Some birds are also intensely colored but may not look so when photographed.
As most of you know, I’m a big fan of Active D Lighting. However, I’ve found that this gen2 camera feature is best left turned off when shooting animals. It cranks up the noise a lot, that’s how it works which is fine for landscape shots where dark shadow areas are prominent. It can add noise the areas in the shadows on a bird’s body.
Now for the actual shooting technique:
This is the real challenge. The thing you need to do while scanning is to look for a bird that is in an area where the background will work for you. In other words, you want to compose the photo BEFORE you point the camera at it. You often don’t have time to compose the conventional way in the viewfinder as you may only have a split second before you lose the shot and you still have to do one more thing. Once in your viewfinder, tap the shutter a few times to make sure your focus is in the right place. If you’ve ever got blurred shots of birds when you swore your focus was on, it may not have been. Birds tend to look more or less like they’re surroundings even if it’s not totally camouflaged so it can trick your AF. Once you’re sure you’re focused in the right place, don’t just fire wildly. Ease your finger down on the shutter as if you were pressing it slowly down. It will fire normally. By doing this you will have eliminated most of the tiny vibrations and movements produced by actually pressing the shutter. This can set things just out of focus. As you’ve perhaps figured out, most of these tips have to do with precise focusing. It makes sense when you consider that this type of shooting requires long telephoto lenses that can be thrown way off by the slightest imperfection in technique.
I can say that for birds, you want to shot at least at 400. If you have a camera that’s clean at higher ISO’s go for it. You want to be able to maintain reasonably high shutter speeds which will not only help you to be prepared for those unexpected imperfections on your part that I spoke of, but also for the ones your subject will undoubtedly send your way.
Aperture: This is really to taste. Most bird photos are considered good when the subject is isolated against a unicolored background. I either shoot for this or for a background that’s slightly out of focus. Of course your lenses will also depend on your ability to control this.
Bird and wildlife shots in general are best done on either spot or center weighted metering. If the subject takes up most of the frame, use center weighted. For birds, they rarely take up that much of the frame so spot metering is best. If you use Active D Lighting on a gen2 camera newer than the D300 set your ADL to auto. On auto, ADL will turn off automatically when metering is switched off of matrix. If you use matrix metering, your exposure will be off and highlights may be blown and dark areas look like black holes. By setting ADL to auto if you have it, your camera will be ready for those non-wildlife shots after you’re done skulking lol.
The exact type of shots you’re doing depends on you reasons. If it’s for identification purposes, you need to have a shot that shows as many field marks as possible. This may mean that the shot may lack artistic aesthetics (as most of mine do), but will be quite useful for those who need to use them. Otherwise, you shoot the way you want and create what pleases you.