Shot of the Day – Rufous-Crowned Sparrow

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

This image of a Rufous-crowned Sparrow was taken at Transition Ranch northwest of Uvalde, Texas.

Technical Information:

Equipment:  Canon 7D, Canon 600 f/4 L II, Canon 1.4 extender, Gitzo Tripod with Wimberly Head

Exposure:  1/400 @ f/6.3, ISO 640, Processed in LR5


Three Things Every Bird Photographer MUST Know (Part Two)

In my previous post, we focused on how important it is for the bird photographer to know how to quickly and efficiently select the different AF area selection modes and AF points.  In today’s post, I will discuss the benefits and uses of Aperture Priority (AV) exposure mode and Manual exposure mode and when to use each.  However, to make sure we are comparing apples to apples, lets first identify the Canon and Nikon equivalents and then we will define each mode and their possible use in bird photography.

Canon & Nikon Exposure Modes

Program Mode (P) vs Program Mode (P)

Shutter Priority (TV) vs Shutter-Priority Auto (S)

Aperture Priority (AV) vs Aperture-Priority Auto (A)

Manual (M) vs Manual (M)

Here are some links to more in-depth discussions on Canon and Nikon’s terminology and descriptions.

While many people are probably already familiar with the basic gist of each of these modes, let’s take a look at how each one applies within bird photography.

Program Mode (P)

In this mode, the camera selects the aperture (f-stop) and the shutter speed.  If you use this mode ever for bird photography, you have relinquished every aspect of control that you need to photograph birds well and creatively.  There is really never a time when you should shoot in this mode (except for those times when we have accidentally moved the control dial and don’t realize we are shooting in this mode)!  This might be fine for snagging quick Christmas shots at grandma’s house but I don’t understand spending the money on a nice DSLR camera and then never bothering to learn how to shoot in other modes.

Shutter Priority Mode (TV or S)

In TV mode, the user selects a given shutter speed and ISO (unless you are using auto ISO which I do not recommend) and the camera selects the aperture.  Quite often I read or hear of bird photographers recommending TV mode to other beginning bird photographers on the basis that you want to use it to stop motion by selecting a fast enough shutter speed.  Of course, the shutter speed needed to stop a heron in flight (say 1/800) and that of a swallow (say 1/2500) can vary quite a bit.

I can honestly say I never use TV mode because for me, controlling the depth-of-field with the correct aperture is more important and I can control my shutter speed by raising my ISO if need be.  Sure, you might stop motion of a flying Heron by using TV and setting your shutter speed to 1/1000.  But let’s say you have your ISO set low at 200 or the like.  What if you end up with a very large aperture like 2.8 and your AF point snags a part of the wing?  You have no hope of having the bird’s eye in sharp focus.  Using AV mode solves these issues for me.

Aperture Priority Mode (AV or A)

In AV mode, the user selects a given aperture (f-stop) and ISO and the camera selects a shutter speed.  This mode is excellent for bird photography because we should be very concerned about having the proper depth-of-field.  If we are just diligent, we should have no problem insuring sufficient shutter speeds by using proper stabilization techniques, an appropriate ISO and learning to read light.  When using AV it is important that the user learn how to apply exposure compensation.

Manual Exposure Mode (M)

In the Manual Mode, the user has complete control over all aspects of exposure:  shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.  This allows you to be in complete control of your camera.  While this might seem intimidating, I can assure you that with a little learning and a little practice, you will be smarter than your camera in no time!  You do not have the ability to apply exposure compensation in Manual Mode since you are in complete control of exposure.

Manual vs Aperture Priority Mode – When Do I Use Which?

So how do I know when I should use Manual Mode and when should I use AV Mode?  For me, it boils down to this simple determination.  When the tonality of the background is changing and the light remains fairly constant, I shoot in Manual Mode.  When the light is changing constantly and/or the tonality of the background remains constant, I will work in AV mode using exposure compensation.  Now, it is important to understand that I use evaluative metering 100% of the time.  This determines how the camera body reads the light reflecting off the scene and determines exposure.  Some photographers might suggest to use spot metering and stay in AV mode.  Well, how likely are you to keep the spot on a flying bird all the time?  If you can, you are way better at panning and following birds in flight than I!

Let’s say you are using AV mode (amount of exposure compensation is not important for this illustration) and you start photographing a Great Egret in flight and in the first frame, the background is the sky and your exposure is spot on.  What will happen when that same bird drops out of the sky below the tree line?  The camera will end up dropping your shutter speed significantly because the tonality of the sky was much brighter than the tonality of the trees.  What will result is a very overexposed (and probably blurry due to low shutter speed) Great Egret.  Has this every happened to  you?  It use to happen to me regularly.  What made the difference for me was reading Arthur Morris‘ book “The Art of Bird Photography II” which is available as a CD and well worth the price.  He taught me when to use Manual Mode and when to use AV Mode.

Here is a series of images of the same Great Egret on different backgrounds.  Without manual exposure, the camera would have selected a very slow shutter speed for the first shot with the darker background leading to a blurry image and an overexposed subject.

Great Egret - Manual Exposure

Great Egret – Manual Exposure

I would encourage you to begin to pay attention to the tonality of an area you will be shooting and ask yourself if the lighting and the background tonality are remaining constant or changing?  This is a great exercise to do every time you go out.

Go out to your local park or a place where you can find some birds to practice your manual exposure techniques.  Don’t wait until you go to some exotic birding destination and try to learn a new technique!

Three Things Every Bird Photographer MUST Know (Part One)

I would say far and away one of the biggest challenges facing bird photographers is that many do not know how to use their camera body functions and controls quickly and without looking, if at all.   And the impact this will have on your ability to quickly and easily make necessary changes as light and/or subjects change will be a handicap you can’t overcome until you do learn your camera body inside and out.  Whether you are photographing foraging shorebirds on the beach, herons/egrets coming to a rookery, or passerine migrants at a water feature, these three controls and functions will put you light years ahead of most other photographers.

Photographs such as these two show how using two different types of autofocus modes are critical. The first shot of a flying female Purple Martin was made much easier by the use of the Auto-Select 19-Point AF mode on my Canon 7D and the second shot of a Sedge Wren was made much easier by the use of the Single-point AF mode so I could lock focus on the eye of the bird amidst a bunch of cattails.

Purple Martin (Auto Select 19-Point AF) & Sora (Single-point AF)

Purple Martin (Auto Select 19-Point AF) & Sora (Single-point AF)

Selecting the Autofocus Area & Autofocus Points

I want to be clear that I am NOT talking about the Autofocus (AF) Mode which is in Canon/Nikon (One Shot/AF-S, AI Focus/AF-A, & AI Servo/AF-C).  Quite frankly, why bird photographers do not move the AF to the rear button (available on most camera bodies) is beyond me.  I will write a post on doing this in the near future because once you do that, you combine all AF modes into one button.  AF modes deal with the “how” of AF.

What I am talking about here is the ability to control the “what” of AF and by that I mean, which one of the AF area selection modes and/or AF points will the camera use to acquire focus.  Today’s typical consumer, prosumer and professional camera bodies have a range of 9 to 51 AF points and these can be combined in different types of AF area selection modes.  For example, I have three (3) different bodies in my possession now:  Canon 7D, Canon 1D Mark III, and Canon T4i.  My typical workhorse for bird photography is the Canon 7D.  It has three different basic AF Area Selection Modes and two additional modes that can be added using a Custom Functions menu.  I have added a copy of the Canon 7D user manual so you may better understand.  So, let’s take a look at the differences in these AF area selection modes.  While the terminology will vary for Nikon, the function and concepts remain the same.

Canon 7D AF Area Selection

Canon 7D AF Area Selection

The Single-point AF (Manual Selection) allows the user to select one of however many AF points you have available.  On the 7D, you have up to 19 AF points and this mode will let you choose any of the 19 points.  What is really awesome about the 7D is that you can have one spot chosen for horizontal shooting and a different spot for vertical shooting.  You can set the 7D to remember which spot for each orientation rather than having it revert back when you change the camera from horizontal to vertical or vice versa. This is referred to as a manual selection because you are in control of the exact AF point which will be used by the camera body to acquire focus.  All other AF points will be ignored when you use this mode.  This mode is very useful when you are photographing birds in foliage or where other obstacles might cause interference with AF.  I like this mode when I have the time to pinpoint AF right on the eye of the subject.  In Nikon terminology this mode is called Single-Point.

Zone AF (Manual Selection of a Zone) allows the user to select one of “x” number of zones depending upon the camera body.  On the 7D, I have up to 5 zones that I can select.  To be honest, I have rarely used this mode, but I am planning on using it some more because I can see some potential for use on close-up, small moving birds and improving the focus on the eyes.  In Nikon terminology this mode is called Dynamic Area but it more of a combination of this mode and the AF point expansion mode described below.

Auto Select 19-Point AF (Automatic Selection) is a mode where the user allows the camera body to select which AF point is used and I find this mode to be outstanding for bird flight photography and for quickly moving birds without a lot of foliage, obstacles or other items that could acquire focus rather than the bird.  I use this mode when shooting shorebirds foraging on a beach (if they are resting I prefer to use Single-point AF mode), birds in flight, or action shots of birds.  The primary downside to this mode is that on occasion the focus may lock-in on a wing tip and due to proximity to subject or aperture the eye/face of the bird may not be sharp.  My experience demonstrates that this mode more often than not helps me capture shots I would have missed with most other modes.  When the subject is strongly contrasting against a background, such as in this shot of the nesting Great Egrets,

Great Egrets on Nest Auto Select 19-point AF Mode

Great Egrets on Nest
Auto Select 19-point AF Mode

I have found this mode to still be effective.  However, if the bird and the background were closer in tone then this mode might struggle acquiring focus.  In Nikon terminology this mode is called Auto Area.

Those are the three default modes on the Canon 7D; however, by changing some settings in the Custom Function Menu III:  Item 6, I can add two more AF Area Selection Modes to my repertoire at hand.  These are Spot AF (Manual Selection) and AF point expansion (Manual Selection).

Spot AF (Manual Selection) mode is designed for pinpoint focusing.  When you select this mode, you can still use any of the 19 AF points and have Spot AF; however, for a camera to AF on a subject, it is looking for contrasting lines or edges and when using this mode, if you are putting the spot on an area that is all one color or lacking detail, you can seriously delay or even be unable to lock focus in this mode.  I have used it with mixed results.

AF point expansion (Manual Selection) mode allows the user to select any AF point to the be the primary point, but in addition the surround points become active and if for any reason the primary AF point loses the subject the surrounding AF points are used to assist in acquiring focus.  This is very useful in bird photography where you still want to designate a primary focus spot, say in a situation where a warbler is at a water feature with branches and leaves in the background, and rather than have every AF point functioning which is going to struggle with focusing on just the bird, this mode will give you a better shot of nailing the focus on the bird.  It is important to note that you don’t have control over any of the surrounding focus points as to which are used and which are not.

Now, for in the field, the real question is, “How quickly can you change from one mode to the other?”  Inevitably, there will be times that you are in one mode and a situation calls for a different focus mode.  I suspect that few bird photographers can adequately describe the different AF modes available on their camera and probably even fewer can switch quickly between modes without having to take their eye away from the camera body.  This is an ability that will quickly skyrocket your field technique and allow to capture more of those “oh man” shots!

On the Canon 7D, you simply press the “AF Point Selection” button on the upper right rear of the camera body and then you push the “M-Fn” (also called Multi-Function button) located just behind and to the left of the shutter button.  I have trained myself to be able to move through all five AF Area Selection modes while still looking through the viewfinder.

Autofocus Points

Throughout the discussion above we have referenced that in most of the modes, the user has control over which of the AF points are selected.  The issue that begs to be addressed is, “Do you know how to change which AF point is selected?”  So many users simply use the center point all the time and this is seen in countless boring compositions with birds centered perfectly in the frame when the user had time to compose the shot according to the rule of thirds.  Unfortunately, because they had the center focus point selected they just shot away without any thought to composition.  Just as you need to be able to change AF area selection mode without looking, you will want to be able to change AF points in like manner.

The Canon 7D offers 19 AF points that can be selected by the user (see pg 87 of Canon 7D user manual above for illustration of how 19 points are arranged) or if you are in Zone AF mode there are 5 AF zones that can be selected.  To quickly change the selected AF point or zone, simply press the AF Point Selection button and next you have 2 options.  The first is to use the multi-controller (the joystick like button at the upper right corner of the rear LCD) and simply push it in whatever direction you want to the move the AF point or zone.  If you push the multi-controller straight down the center AF point or zone will be selected.  I find this somewhat challenging to do when my camera is in vertical orientation due to my short fingers.  Hence, I often resort to the 2nd option which is to use the Main Dial which selects an AF point in the horizontal direction and the Quick Control Dial (large dial on lower right of camera body) which selects an AF point in the vertical direction.

Of course, you may have a different camera body and that is great.  The key is that you must learn how to make these adjustments quickly and effectively when shooting conditions or subjects warrant a change.  So take a moment and grab your camera manual or download the PDF version and just practice changing these settings first by looking and then by not looking.  How quickly can you go from one mode to another?  Go out in the backyard or to a local park and try using all the different focusing types and see how well they work in different situations.  You can always substitute a dark or bright colored branch, stump, leaf or even a water bottle for a bird.

While photographing at a local rookery, I had been in Auto Select 19-Point AF mode when suddenly a Neotropic Cormorant appeared out of nowhere not affording time to adjust AF Point selection but in this situation with a dark bird and a mixed tonality background, the auto select worked well.  There are situations that no matter how quickly you can change the settings you just can’t be fast enough.

Neotropic Cormorant in Flight Auto Select 19-Point AF

Neotropic Cormorant in Flight
Auto Select 19-Point AF

In this shot of a Common Gallinule at Brazos Bend State Park in Texas, the Auto Select 19-Point AF mode would likely have never worked due to the mass of vegetation around the bird and here the Single Point AF mode allowed me to zero in on the upper shield area near the eyes.

Common Gallinule Single Point AF Mode

Common Gallinule
Single Point AF Mode

If you have any questions or are struggling to comprehend this topic, don’t hesitate to email me your questions.  Even better, why not schedule a private class or workshop where you will get hands-on individual instruction?

Book Review – Bryan Peterson’s “Understanding Exposure”

As photography continues to grow in popularity and practice, more and more beginners are finding themselves spending lots of money on equipment and traveling to places to photograph.  Unfortunately, all too often, a lack of exposure theory and understanding prevent them for making the most of their equipment and time.  I have read many books and articles on exposure and I found one that seems to excel at explaining the concept of exposure.  Bryan Peterson is a well-known photographer from Chicago who has written many books on exposure, hosts workshops all over the world and has had many big name clients.

If you are trying to get a grasp on exposure, I think the best first book might be Bryan’s Understanding Exposure.  This book is in its 3rd edition so make sure you get the latest.  The book is available in both print and digital format and I purchased the digital format.  I have found that not all photography books work in digital format because what is often being described in a photo and the actual photo can be far from each other in digital format.  However, I found that this book did work well in digital format.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird Proper Exposure is the Key!

According to Peterson, “A correct exposure is a simple combination of three important factors: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.”  These three factors are what I call the “trinity” of exposure and Peterson calls them the “photographic triangle.”  One of the best explanations is how the author helps you understand that there can be many correct exposures, but there is just one “creatively correct exposure.”  This is the combination of aperture (f-stop), shutter speed, and ISO that created the desired effect.  If you get cross-eyed when people start discussing f-stops (depth of field), shutter speed, ISO, adding light or subtracting light, and types of lighting then I can honestly say this is the place to start learning.  You have already invested a lot of money on equipment, why not spend a few dollars and get a better understanding of the most important element of photography?

The photo above is a dark bird with a pale background on an overcast day.  Without understanding the interplay of shutter speed, f-stop, ISO and quality of light, this shot probably would have ended up with a very dark bird and no detail in the feathers.