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?