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!

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.