Three months ago I upgraded from the Canon SX50, a superzoom/bridge camera, to the Nikon D7200, a DSLR. Once you’ve figured out the basics of how to use a DSLR, you’ll want to start refining your photography technique and learn how to do manual exposure. This article will cover how to make the switch from automatic modes to manual exposure as well as the best settings to use to get the most out of your DSLR for bird photography. Many of these same tips will also apply to those using a bridge camera.
If you missed Part 1 of this series, check it out here: The Inside Scoop On Upgrading to a DSLR
What is Manual Exposure?
When you use your camera on automatic mode, you are letting the camera decide which shutter speed, aperture and ISO to select for each shot. In other words, the camera will be deciding how much light will get through to your camera’s sensor (the exposure). This works okay some of the time, but often the camera will make the wrong decision and you will end up with a shot that looks very different to what you’d hoped. Common examples of this include shots that are too dark, the highlights blown out, grainy shots or blurry shots.
The best way to get the shots you want is for you to make the decision about which settings the camera should use, aka manual exposure. This can be a scary transition to make after the “comfort” of automatic mode, but trust me on this point: you are smarter than the camera and can get consistently better shots if you’re the one making the decisions!
I won’t be providing an explanation in this article about what shutter speed, aperture and ISO are. If you would like a refresher on these concepts, please click here for an overview.
Light Meter and Histogram
If you’re going to start making the decisions about the big 3, then you’d better know what changing each of these settings will mean for your shots! Your camera’s light meter in your viewfinder is useful for determining whether your shot is correctly exposed. In the photo above, the light meter is currently showing 0 which is neither over or under exposed. As the arrow moves to the left, your shot is underexposed and to the right is overexposed.
You should also use your camera’s histogram feature to double-check your exposure as the light meter doesn’t always get it right! For more details about the light meter and histograms, read this article.
Moving from Automatic to Manual Exposure in 6 Steps
Transitioning to manual exposure can be a difficult process, so I recommend taking the following steps to help you get there. These are the same steps that I took!
Learn how to adjust the shutter speed, aperture and ISO in your camera. Figure out where the buttons are and how to adjust them!
Find out where your camera’s light meter is and start paying attention to it for every shot. Be careful as the meter can be thrown off (e.g. with a bright background like snow). AB Tip: Slightly underexpose your shots so that the highlights aren’t too bright.
Practice taking shots of the same subject with different apertures, shutter speeds and ISOs to begin to learn how they work and how they affect the light meter. AB Tip: Choose a “low consequence” subject like a common bird in your backyard.
Use shutter priority mode in the field so that you can practice changing the shutter speed for every shot without worrying about aperture. Initially you can set the ISO to automatic, but with a maximum value such as 1000. Once you become more confident, then you can start choosing your ISO as well as your shutter speed. AB Tip: Increasing or decreasing the ISO will have an impact on how fast a shutter speed you can use.
Use aperture priority mode in the field to learn aperture without worrying about adjusting the shutter speed. Pay attention to which shutter speed your camera is choosing because if it gets too slow your shots will be blurry. AB Tip: One way to get the camera to choose faster shutter speeds is to increase the ISO.
Once you’re confident with the big 3, then it’s time to go to full manual exposure!
AB Tip: While using shutter priority mode and aperture priority mode you can use the exposure compensation +/- button on your camera to help you achieve the correct exposure. Once you move to manual mode this feature is no longer necessary (or available).
Now let’s move on to which settings are the best for different lighting situations.
The Golden Situation
When you’re out in the field shooting wildlife, the best you can hope for in terms of exposure is a sunny day. You also want your subject directly in front of you with the sun at your back. Let’s call this the golden situation!
AB Tip: Move to get better lighting. If the sun is coming from the left or the right then you’re dealing with side-lighting and shadows which can cause issues. In most cases you also want to avoid shooting directly into the sun (except for artistic effect). The midday sun can be “too”bright, so shooting early morning or later in the afternoon can yield better results.
Assuming you’ve put your subject in the golden situation, which combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO should you use? Of course each camera is slightly different, but generally you want something like:
ISO 200 – Shutter Speed 1/1000 – Aperture ƒ/8
In the golden situation you can use the lowest ISO possible to avoid any noise in your shot. You can keep your shutter speed high to freeze the motion and you can use the best aperture to get the entire subject sharply in focus and the background blurred. Win/Win/Win!
For the Piping Plover, I used ISO 400 – Shutter Speed 1/1600 – Aperture ƒ/8.0, pretty close to the ideal settings. I opted for a faster shutter speed as shorebirds are always moving and I wanted to make sure the camera froze the motion.
AB Tip: There are some variations of the golden situation that may require adjustments such as shooting a bird in flight (you may want a faster shutter speed) or shooting a group of subjects (you may want a higher aperture).
Case Study: Cloudy Day Photography
Unfortunately you don’t always find yourself in the golden situation. There are a whole range of lighting challenges photographers have to deal with. Cloudy day photography can yield some great results though, so don’t stay at home just because it isn’t sunny! Plus, you don’t have to worry about shadows and side-lighting.
If, on an overcast day, you choose the settings I recommended for the golden situation your shot will turn out highly underexposed (dark). So what do you do?
This is where things get tricky! You have to make some difficult decisions that all involve trade-offs to get the correct exposure.
Option #1: Increase the ISO
√ Benefit: As you increase the ISO, your camera’s sensor will become more sensitive to the light passing through the lens and you will be able to achieve the correct exposure.
X Trade-off: As the ISO increases, so does the level of grain or “noise” in your shot.
For the Waxwings, I chose an ISO of 1250, which is much higher than the ideal.
Option #2: Decrease the shutter speed so that more light is let into your camera
√ Benefit: More light being let into the camera means you will be able to correctly expose your shot.
X Trade-off: As you decrease the shutter speed, the less you will be able to freeze the motion and the higher the risk your shot will be blurry.
For the Waxwings I chose a shutter speed of 1/1000 which is the ideal, especially as they were moving quickly eating berries.
Option #3: Decrease the Aperture
√ Benefit: Decreasing the ƒ-stop will increase the aperture and allow more light into the camera so you can correctly expose your shot.
X Trade-off: A larger aperture will reduce your depth of field, so less of your shot will be in focus.
For the Waxwings, I chose an aperture of ƒ/6.3 which is less than the ideal, but it worked out in this shot because both Waxwings and some of the berries are in the foreground. I could likely have gotten away with opening the aperture up further to ƒ/5.6 to allow even more light in.
Unfortunately for subjects that don’t sit still, you have to constantly re-evaluate the lighting situation and adjust your settings depending on what your meter and histogram are telling you.
My Exposure Deal-Breakers
With experience using manual exposure on your camera, you will start to learn which trade-offs you can accept and which are deal-breakers. This is what I’ve discovered for my camera, the Nikon D7200 and a Nikkor 200-500mm lens:
ISO: I try to keep my ISO below 800, but will occasionally let it creep up to 1500 at the absolute most (okay, in really desperate situations 2000). Despite the added grain, at least a higher ISO can mean that your shot is in focus. You can edit away some of the noise in your shot, so it’s not a total deal-breaker for me.
Shutter Speed: Generally for bird photography, reducing the shutter speed past a certain point is a deal breaker. While you can deal with some noise in your pictures, there is nothing you can do if the shot is blurry. While hand-holding my camera I try to keep the speed at 1/1000 or higher, but I will sometimes reduce it to 1/640 (or even slower) if necessary. A monopod or tripod helps on those occasions you need a slower shutter speed. I also turn on vibration reduction on my lens for slower speeds.
If your subject is moving quickly, then reducing the speed below 1/1000 is a deal-breaker. Your shot will be blurry! This is why for the Bohemian Waxwings above, I kept my shutter speed at 1/1000 at the cost of increasing my ISO significantly and using a larger aperture.
Aperture: This one is less of a deal-breaker for me. Even if some of your shot is out of focus, often the shot can look “arty” as long as the main focal point of the image is crisp (like the subject’s face). I would consider reducing my aperture before bringing the shutter speed down too low. However, at the smaller ƒ-stops you are running the risk that only a small portion of your subject will be in focus. This can be a deal-breaker.
Moving from automatic mode to manual exposure is a process and, for me anyway, was not something that happened overnight. Using those interim steps like shutter priority mode and aperture priority mode really helped make the transition easier for me. Once you start doing manual exposure, you’ll face the trade-offs and deal-breakers of adjusting each of the big 3. You’ll have to figure out which ones you can accept and which you can’t, depending on how you want your shot to look.
- I put together a Quick Guide to Manual Exposure for Bird Photography using the concepts from this post, but in a short reference guide format
- Some of the information in this article was inspired by a photography workshop run by Tony Beck and Nina Stavlund at Always an Adventure. If you’re based in Ottawa, this is a fantastic course!
- If you’re interested in purchasing my camera and lens setup: the Nikon D7200 is available on Amazon as is the Nikkor 200-500mm lens. If you choose to purchase via these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. This goes towards the cost of running this site which is greatly appreciated!
- I will be writing Part 3 of this series so stay tuned! If you have any ideas for topics you’d like to see covered in Part 3, please leave me a comment below ↓