The Case for Manual Mode in Bird Photography

Cameras these days are smarter than ever, so why go full manual for bird photography?

When it comes to bird photography, there are generally two schools of thought when it comes to which camera mode to use. Some photographers prefer aperture priority (Av) mode which gives them the ability to manually adjust their aperture and use the exposure compensation dial to fine tune their exposures. Others take full control with manual mode and rather than thinking of exposure in terms of how to best compensate the scene against the camera’s neutral gray metering, they manipulate the three primary settings of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO directly.

The reality is that both of these modes may sound like different methods of getting the job done, but in this video Jan Wegener argues that in general they both boil down to the photographer only actually adjusting one setting. For aperture priority shooters, you’re probably going to keep most settings the exact same and only use exposure compensation. Manual shooters also keep everything the same throughout the day and only really bother to move one setting, and for Wegener that’s the shutter speed.

Would you agree with this video? Which camera mode do you use?

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18 Comments

michaeljin's picture

I don't practice bird photography, but from what I've seen it seems like a lot of it tends to be pretty static in terms of setting (you're not exactly running and gunning quickly between broad daylight and shadows) so I would think that manually setting your exposure would be the best solution for getting consistent results as the light that you're shooting in is not likely to change that drastically and auto-exposure might occasionally be thrown off by some random element in a scene leading to blown highlights or something...

Maybe I am stupid, but I shoot all bird photography in shutter priority with auto ISO. When a bird is relatively still on a branch I can dial back the shutter speed for lower iso & cleaner images but when it decides it wants to take flight or squabble with other birds, I can up the shutter speed to freeze it in action.

When you are using a long lens you need to make sure your shutter rarely drops below a certain speed, even if you are shooting with a lens/camera with stabilization. S/Tv gives you that control.

Is this a little more of that manual mode fetishisation?

Wolfgang Post's picture

Yes, Manual seems to be the fetish, judging from the overrated and overly abused line '.. like a Pro',

Dan Seefeldt's picture

"Like a pro" is clearly a reference in being able to do the task properly. It is not a reference to professional photographer quality.

Wolfgang Post's picture

This is only your opinion. Ask 10 people and you get 12 opinions what 'like a pro' means, including the cultural and language background of non-native speakers.
Looking at it pure from grammatical point of view, the word 'pro' here is a noun, not an adverb, indicating the short form of 'professional'.

Dan Seefeldt's picture

I've seen excellent aviation photos shot at very slow shutter speeds. The "can't have a shutter speed lower than half the focal length" or whatever doesn't matter.

Dan Seefeldt's picture

I guess it matters if you want blurry wings and sharp face or not.

Dan Seefeldt's picture

I guess, in the context of prop airplanes, to get the prop blur your shutter speed has to be pretty slow. Sometimes you would want to break the shutter speed shouldn't be lower than 1/focal length rule.

Carel van Huyssteen's picture

My best tip for birds in flight is to expose for the top of a tree or something similar, then lock it in manual mode, auto modes never give a proper exposure, auto ISO is also not the greatest in my opinion

I use manual mode. Most of the time I use a fixed ISO selection, however, if there's a large difference between sky-treeline-ground and where the birds are flying and landing I may use auto ISO. When I do use auto ISO, most of the time I'm also using exposure compensation along with it.

It really does depend on the type of birds you're shooting. If they're flying in and out of range to fast for fully manual sometimes you have to use an auto setting of some sort.

Martin Nesvarbu's picture

Not really a bird shooter, but what about spot metering? If I would shoot natural light i always tend to go AV if the light conditions are changing, and just spot meter on what i want to be perfectly exposed, plus EVF shows me what i will get straight away so no need for test shots...

Larry Wynkoop's picture

That can work, but it poses some problems of it's own. With an all-white bird for instance the camera meter will try to interpret the white as middle gray and underexpose. Likewise with a very dark colored bird, where it will overexpose.

Rob Mitchell's picture

Er, Use whatever you want, as long as the job gets done. Surely?

You're not a bigger or better man/woman for using or not using manual / semi auto / auto. Results matter, not how you get them.

That's just it, the article and video are about helping you get the results that you want. Nothing in the video or the article state anything about being "a bigger or better man/woman", simply about getting better images.

Dan Seefeldt's picture

Same with aviation photography. Keep the auto focus, but make it manual for ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Waty easier to change if needed.

Jerome Brill's picture

I've always shot manual. Trying to remember what each mode did seemed more complicated than just getting to know your three main settings. That's how I ended up learning anyway. Especially when Canon does "TV" for "Shutter Priority"? I was alway confused. I know them now but my camera doesn't leave M anymore.

If I'm shooting birds I set my auto focus to wide if there is a lot of sky in the background. Sometimes I do Center or Point if they are perched or I'm trying to nail a specific shot. On my Sony I do set it to DTM instead of AF-C which allows me to manually adjust the focus after the fact. This is good for birds that are stationary or you have a lot of shadows. Auto ISO but nothing beyond 2500. Shutter I change on the fly depending on what I'm going for. The last thing is setting my lens focus to ∞-3m. Don't want it hunting on the long end. I might have to change it back if I have birds flying towards me.

A lot of settings are contextual really. It's still difficult to nail composition with something that's moving unpredictably. Id say just keep that bird in the viewfinder and have a fast accurate autofocus system.

Eric Bowles's picture

If I can, I use Manual exposure mode for bird photography. If the light on the subject does not change, your exposure settings should not change.

Auto ISO is just another way of using a semi-automated mode. It suffers from the same problems you have with any other semi-automated exposure method. Your exposure depends on metering, and metering varies depending on how light or dark your background and subject are relative to the scene. You end up having to use Exposure Comp to correct the exposure, and end up with more missed exposures. That being said - auto ISO is great when light is changing rapidly.

The nice thing about the current Nikon's (D5,D500,D850) and probably Canon as well is the ability to set features like that to a custom function button or lens function button. So on my 400mm 2.8 VR I can set the lens function button to change auto-focus modes from Group to Single AF point or even the metering from Matrix to Spot metering. Getting out of Matrix metering is one of the easiest and best ways to improve your photography and having said that, I agree that Auto ISO is great for changing lighting conditions. I still use Aperture priority for shooting sports, but when I do get the time to do some Wildlife photography I use Manual mode with Auto ISO. Being a photojournalist I don't get to do as much wildlife and nature photography as I'd like to, but it is one of my strong suits and I absolutely love the peace it brings me!