Aperture Priority, Shutter Speed Priority or Manual?

Three Pink-eared ducks in the mist

Camera modes can be daunting. In the beginning, they are just those 'other' weird looking buttons on your camera dial that you routinely avoid.  But as you grow in confidence, you start making tentative steps away from Auto. For bird photographers, that usually means dialing in to Aperture Priority (AP) mode.  But is this the best mode for bird photography?  What if you use Shutter Priority (SP) instead? And Manual? Surely that is just way too hard.  After all, why bark when you have a dog right?

The truth is that each mode is simply a way to make adjustments to the camera settings. There is no magic button that will give you the perfect setting for every subject in every light condition.

To get the most out of your camera, you still have to understand the inter-relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO. You may have a dog, but at some stage you are still going to have to learn to bark yourself.

Common Misconceptions about Camera Modes

Aperture Priority (AP) or Shutter Priority (SP) modes are easy because you only need to adjust one button

In AP you set the aperture you want and the camera sets the corresponding shutter speed that will give you the best image (according to its internal light meter and the set ISO). In SP mode, it's the speed you set, not the aperture.

It's that simple right?

Wrong!

Even in AP and SP modes you still have to know how to compensate for tricky lighting conditions by way of 'exposure compensation' (usually by turning a little dial + or -). In my article, A Morning on the Avon, you will see a classic example of tricky lighting conditions: a black and white bird on a very dark background (see below), and why in conditions such as this, you cannot simply rely on your cameras recommended settings. 

Black-winged stilt on dark background

 

 Black-winged Stilt: Canon 1Dx Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm IS USM Lens II, F6.3, 1/5000, ISO250.

 

And then there is ISO.

In the old days, the ISO or 'sensitivity to light' of the film, was set in stone. But these days, the ability to adjust the ISO value for each photo (not just each roll of film) has become a game changer. It means you can shoot a bird in full sunshine at 200 ISO then in the next shot take a photo of it in the shade at 640 ISO or higher.

Auto-ISO

'But wait!' I hear to you say, 'I don't need to worry about ISO because my camera has an option to use Auto-ISO!'

Yes, you can use Auto-ISO. Basically, SP or AP with Auto-ISO means that should the situation, for instance, be too dark for a sharp shot at your lowest aperture value, then instead of underexposing the image, the camera compensates by increasing the ISO value.

BUT, I strongly recommend against relying on Auto-ISO. To get the best shot in every circumstance, you really want to have CONTROL over the ISO. Get into the habit of thinking for yourself about what ISO you want for each image, rather than letting the camera do it for you. Where possible, you want to avoid using unnecessarily high ISOs which will result in 'noisy' (grainy) images (unless that is the look you are after of course).

In short AP or SP modes are not 'one-button' wonders.

To get the best out of your DSLR, you will still have to know how to make other adjustments according to the conditions.

SP is better for Action shots 

Wrong!

It is just as easy to change shutter speed in AP mode as it is in SP mode. For instance, you just decrease the Aperture value and the shutter speed automatically becomes quicker. That is what I did to get the below action shot.

In fact, you can easily underexpose an image in SP if you are not careful. The lowest F-stop value of your lens dictates how fast you can take an image in AP mode. In other words, if you have an 'F/4' lens - usually written on the edge of the lens - then the fastest shutter speed you will be able to get is whatever corresponds to your F4 aperture.  On the other hand, if you are in SP mode and choose a shutter speed which requires an aperture value less than your lens can offer, the camera will still take the photo but it will be underexposed. 

So in this instance, unless you are keeping an eye on the aperture settings as well as speed, the SP mode can lead to problematic images. 

New Holland Honeyeater taking off from flower

 New Holland Honeyeater taking off (Albany, Western Australia): Canon 1Dx Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm IS USM Lens II, F6.3, 1/4000, ISO1250.

AP is the best mode for bird photography 

Wrong! 

I think most amateur bird photographers use AP (as opposed to SP) as there is a lot of focus (pardon the pun!) on the depth of field. The traditional notion of bird photography is that you want as much of the bird in focus as possible, whilst at the same time maintaining a distance between the bird and the background.  This normally means that most photographers shoot between F5.6 and F8 (or up to F11 if the background is clear) to try and maximize the possibility of getting every single feather sharp.  There is a depth of field chart to distance that some photographers use - but personally whenever I see charts like this I start to hear the soft whir of my brain shutters coming down. 

But here is where I am going to let you into a little SECRET. I take most of my bird photos at F4, not F5.6 or F7.1 as many other bird photographers recommend, and almost never change it. I find that F4 gives a beautiful softness to busy backgrounds that enhances the overall photo (see photo below), whilst still retaining enough depth of field to give a sharp bird photo. And I am not the only one. Check out the work of Ray Hennessey. I defy you not to LOVE his images, most of which have been taken at F4!   

New Holland Honeyeater on white wisteria

 

 New Holland Honeyeater (Donnybrook, Western Australia): Canon 1Dx Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm IS USM Lens II, F4.5, 1/2000, ISO640.

 

Soooooo,  the idea that you want to maximise depth of field for a bird image to get the whole bird in focus is NOT set in stone. Judge an image by the result, not by how you got there.

And of course, AP mode, like all the other modes on your camera, still has to be adjusted to the conditions. It is no easier, or harder, than the others.

It is just a 'preference'.

Manual

So, hopefully, by now you are starting to understand why I, and most professional nature photographers, recommend using the Manual mode. No particular camera mode gives you a quick fix. At the end of the day, to get the most out of your DSLR, you need to maintain active control over all of the settings.

But Manual means I have to do everything myself. That's way too hard for an amateur like me, right? 

Wrong!

Manual is actually not much harder than using AP and SP mode with exposure compensation.

Trust me. If I can use Manual, YOU CAN TOO. I am technically challenged. I wouldn't recommend Manual if I didn't feel totally comfortable with it myself, and I do.

I think one common misconception with Manual is that you are flying blind. This is not true. You still use the camera's metering system to determine your settings. On my camera, the exposure bar is visible inside the viewfinder (perpendicular bar on right hand side). As I adjust either my shutter speed, ISO or aperture I watch the bar to see how these settings affect the meter so that I get the effect I want in the resulting image.

It may take a few outings to get the hang of it, and it WONT mean you will suddenly take better photos.  But what it WILL do is force you to come to grips with the interrelation between aperture, shutter speed and ISO and at every step you are making a decision about which of those elements is more important for that particular bird photo.

You can, of course, still take perfect bird photos using AP or SP. But if you want to become a BETTER bird photographer, then the best step you can make is to switch to Manual, now!

Did you find this article helpful? Is there anything else you'd like to know about bird photography? If so, please be sure to leave a comment below.

 I would really love to hear from you!


8 comments

  • I feel so embarrassed. I’m surprised I ever had any good pics of flying birds especially from a boat or even hand held with 300 mm f4 lens. I never really had a good lilac crested roller in Africa nor a flying puffin shot from a boat. I watched the 41 minute tutorial by the Sigma salesman and read all you material. So ISO-1500 and shutter speed 1/2000 and hope to have enough light to be around f8 to have a few feet of depth of field. That should take care of waves, and birds flying 50 mph. Thanks.

    Ralph Powel
  • Thanks as always for sharing your experiences. I’m not going to be a professional bird photographer… I just enjoy a lot being outdoors chasing those little creatures (little… some). I belive every word you say here, if you like to take pictures of whatever, working in manual is something you learn sooner or later. It just takes more time to get used to it, but it’s really worthy time. My main problem is focus. As Chris says bird don’t really like to pose in fixed places… and a good focus it’s the main challenge for me.
    Hope to take better photos with your advices!

    Laura
  • Thanks Georgina, your photos are beautiful! Your tips are great especially for someone that is having trouble getting their head around the so called “exposure triangle” Very helpful tips. Thank you again

    Sue Neilson
  • This is a wonderful article. Beautifully written and easy to comprehend for luddites like me. Thank you! But…. as a complete novice, I am fearful that by the time I adjust all the settings the bird will have flown away. It’s hard enough to convince them to pose in auto.

    Chris
  • Thank you for sharing your experiences and settings, my next outing I am going to try and reduce my fstop, I have been using f8 only for sometime.
    Great website and article

    Ann Lefroy

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