In-the-field camera adjustments

You have the right equipment and it is set-up properly, as covered in PART 1.  Now you must consider the three legged stool that allows us to take quality images: ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Aperture represents depth of field. As depth of field increases, shutter speed goes down. As ISO increases, depth of field and/or shutter speed increase. For example in cloudy conditions the correct exposure for a neutral bird with a neutral background at ISO 400 might be F8.0; 1/250 sec. If I increase ISO to 800 and I keep aperture at F8.0 shutter speed will increase to 1/500 sec in order to get the correct exposure. Both ISO and shutter speed increased by 1 stop. I keep the aperture fixed when shooting in Aperture Priority Mode, and the variable is shutter speed, which is given when I meter the scene (by pressing the shutter button 1/2 way down) and viewing the given shutter speed. Another example: If I had a correct exposure at ISO 400 of F5.6; 1/500 sec. And I increased ISO to 800, I could adjust aperture to F8.0 and shutter speed would remain at 1/500 sec. Both ISO and depth of field increased by 1 stop.

To take excellent images of songbirds in-the-field you must set ISO, aperture, and exposure compensation – based on lighting conditions, background, and songbird highlights. Exposure compensation allows us to adjust exposure in 1/3 stop increments in order to expose the songbird correctly. Exposure compensation is necessary because we are using a multi-segmented metering system which is predictable in its response to songbird highlights (it doesn’t see them) and lighter backgrounds and darker backgrounds. Note that using a multi-segmented metering system, combined with exposure compensation and Aperture Priority, is the most efficient and accurate way to approach songbird photography, in my opinion. It is the quickest way to adjust accurately to changing lighting conditions and/or changing background tones with fast-moving subjects.

Update: Using cameras such as the Canon R5, which has excellent high ISO performance, shooting in manual mode (instead of aperture priority) is an option. You can then ensure enough depth of field on the bird and set the shutter speed, while setting up exposure compensation, which is actuated via ISO (usually by setting auto ISO). And since the camera performs better at high ISOs you can set shutter speed higher when there is bright enough light.

An F4 lens is wide open (with very little depth of field) at F4.0. For an F4 lens, F 5.6 is one stop of depth of field, and F8.0 is 2 stops of depth of field. Sufficient depth of field on songbirds is important for good feather detail, and 2 stops of depth of field is very good – in this case F8.0. If a 1.4x tele-extender is added to an F4 lens it becomes a F5.6 lens (wide open at F 5.6), so in order to achieve 2 stops of depth of field aperture must be moved to F11. In this case ISO must be increased in order to have enough shutter speed. Sometimes I adjust aperture to less than 2 stops of depth of field in order to have enough shutter speed at a specific ISO – usually the highest ISO I am comfortable using, which does not yield an image with too much noise.

When setting aperture to ensure sufficient depth of field on the bird 1/3 of the depth is toward you and 2/3’s is going away from you. If a bird has its tail coming toward you while perched and you focus on its head you waste much of the 2/3’s of depth. In such instances I focus somewhere on the back of the bird to ensure I use that 2/3’s and the 1/3 is used to have the tail in focus. This is especially important for many of the colorful tanagers of South America with their spectacular back patterns and colors. I do not recommend eye tracking in this instance.

Generally, you will adjust the ISO between 320 and 1600, but some camera and lens combinations perform better than others at higher ISOs, and modern noise reduction software must also be considered. You must judge the performance of your camera and lens combination (and noise reduction software) and determine the highest ISO at which you are comfortable. Many of you will have more flexibility with ISO above 1600. The goal for me, using aperture priority, is to set ISO low enough for good noise performance and generating enough shutter speed, while setting aperture high enough for good feather detail on the bird. The goal for someone using manual mode and exposure compensation via ISO is to set shutter speed low enough to generate an acceptable ISO (with respect to noise) while setting aperture high enough for good feather detail on the bird. This requires judging lighting conditions. At low light levels shutter speed cannot be set so high that ISO skyrockets.

Using aperture priority, I used to set aperture at 1-2 stops of depth of field (F5.6 to F8.0 for an F4 600mm lens), making sure to have enough shutter speed to consistently get sharp images.  The lowest aperture I now set is 1 and 1/3 stops of depth of field at 960mm (using the Canon 7D Mark 2). Shutter speed can range from a low end of about 1/125 sec for very still perched songbirds (where I am trying to catch a stop point in their head movements) to 1/2,000 sec or more when trying to get a sharp image of a warbler capturing an insect (such as a Spruce Budworm) or a perched warbler singing while wind is blowing the bird and its perch. Note that there are stop points to the actions of warblers while they constantly move their heads, but also while they feed or sing, so lower shutter speeds (such as 1/125 sec) can be used, but the percentage of sharp images goes way down.  That can sometimes be compensated for with a higher frame rate – more frames per second (fps). For example, a camera body with 14 fps will capture more sharp images than one with 5 fps. The Canon R5, at 20 frames per second, is even better, and its high ISO performance allows more shutter speed to be used for given lighting conditions. With that camera I would always set aperture at a minimum of 2 stops of depth of field, because of its high ISO performance. If you are using a 500 mm or 600 mm f4 lens with a 1.4x teleconverter that means going to F11. Shutter speed might be lower at a given low light level, but I would judge that, and make sure shutter speed is high enough, and shoot near the lowest shutter speed possible.

As per Part 1 your camera is set to a multi-segmented metering system (the entire scene is metered):  “evaluative” for Canon; “matrix” for Nikon; “multi” for Sony.  Using this type of metering system and exposure compensation allows you to get the exposure correct as lighting conditions and background tone change, such as when a songbird is in front of you and lighting conditions suddenly change from bright cloudy to a lower light situation because darker clouds blew in, and/or the bird moves to a deeper part of a tree during cloudy conditions that is darker, and/or the bird moves from a neutral background to a lighter or darker background. You will not have time with quick moving songbirds to use manual exposure and make test shots and adjustments.  The bird will be long gone. You only have time to let the camera meter the scene and for you to make a quick exposure adjustment, if necessary. If you want to consistently do high level songbird photography and make images of them in their natural habitat  (singing, feeding, gathering nesting material, etc)  you must use a multi-segmented metering system and learn to make quick adjustments via exposure compensation, while you set the depth of field on the bird to make sure most or all of it is in focus. You can use Aperture Priority mode or Manual Mode.

TONE: It is very important to learn to judge the overall tone of the entire scene in your viewfinder – neutral tone, slightly lighter or darker than neutral, much lighter or darker than neutral, etc.  Multi-segmented metering systems (Canon, Nikon, Sony), when set to use the entire field of view, perfectly expose a neutral toned bird in a neutral toned background, but they underexpose as the background gets lighter, and they overexpose as the background gets darker. And they do not “see” the bright highlights of songbirds, so they do not make an automatic negative exposure adjustment.  They are all predictable in this way. All exposure compensation adjustments (that can be quickly and accurately made) are based on these factors.  The numerous examples further below demonstrate this. Viewing those examples, remember that they are not always perfectly accurate representations of the overall background tone that was in-the-field. Why? When you make exposure compensations the background changes; the more the adjustment, the more it changes. Background is judged at the time of capture in-the-field.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: When approaching a situation where a songbird (or many) can be photographed the first thing I consider is if the possibility of capturing a good image exists.  Are there good perches with natural backgrounds that can make a nice composition?  I look carefully and make sure the answer is yes.  Otherwise I often move to find a better location, especially when it is cloudy, because more options are available. It is better to move and search than to spend time on a situation where it is virtually impossible to get a good image. But a very cooperative bird that can be set-up relatively easily is often worth it.  I put that in bold because this is extremely important during the short springtime period when beautiful colorful songbirds can be photographed well.  Even when many songbirds are in an area, if the location has no possibilities and the birds do not cooperate very well, move to find a better location. That may be a spot only 30 yards away, where you find much better possibilities, and a somewhat cooperative bird has many options available that make nice images.

Next consideration: lighting conditions. Cloudy conditions are best because there are no harsh shadows, and I can point the lens in any direction.  In this case I almost never include sky as part of the image, so the bird(s) normally must be relatively low, but if, for example, the background is solid cedar/spruce/pine forest for a high warbler I can take aim. Sunny conditions are more restrictive. During sunny conditions I must use the lower angle sun (never higher than 40 degrees above the horizon) and position myself with my shadow line pointing at the subject (the sun directly behind me). I must stay more disciplined with my direction of shooting, staying within 20 degrees to the left or right of my shadow line.  But the opportunity to use a blue sky as a nice part of a composition exists so I can look to target higher birds.

Note: The majority of brightly colored songbirds (especially warblers) have bright highlights (white, yellow, orange, etc). I base my exposure compensation settings on this, in order to reduce the probability that I must make a large adjustment, reducing the amount of time fumbling with buttons as much as possible. This is the most efficient way to operate. Exposure compensations of -2/3 or -1 stop are used most often – with neutral (or close to neutral) backgrounds, so I approach warblers with exposure compensation pre-set to -2/3 or -1, and adjust based on the background. I find the majority of pleasing and most often found backgrounds are neutral or close to neutral, so if an adjustment is necessary it is usually small (only 1/3 stop in either direction).

Full Sun settings: Using an F4 lens, in full sun, I used to set the ISO to 400, the aperture to F8.0 and exposure compensation to -1 (full sun neutral settings for songbirds with highlights).  This exposure compensation is correct for an overall neutral toned background. Sometimes right after sunrise (the “sweet light”) the strength of the clear sun is less than it would be 1/2 hour later and instead of -1 exposure compensation for a neutral background  -2/3 is correct. This usually generated sufficient shutter speed. I now set ISO to 800 – 1250 and achieve sufficient shutter speed with lower lighting conditions.

Bright cloudy settings: In bright cloudy conditions I set the ISO to 800-1250, the aperture to F8.0 and exposure compensation to -2/3 (bright cloudy neutral settings for songbirds with highlights). This is correct for an overall neutral toned background. For birds with very bright highlights in very bright cloudy conditions I set exposure compensation to -1.

Using aperture priority, in either full sun or bright cloudy conditions, the only variable I may have to adjust is exposure compensation.  With Canon equipment I have a dial set-up to easily adjust it when the shutter button is pressed half way down. Referring to your camera manual to set up a button to use easily and quickly for exposure compensation is important. In either full sun or bright cloudy conditions I would set ISO higher when I wanted to set aperture for greater depth of field on a bird larger in the frame (for example, setting aperture to F11, instead of F8, for an F4 lens), so shutter speed would remain the same. I would set ISO higher in full sun or bright cloudy conditions, using aperture priority, if I wanted to generate more shutter speed. Using the Canon R5 I could do the same in lower lighting conditions because a higher ISO capability means a higher shutter speed is either generated (using aperture priority) or set (using Manual mode and exposure compensation via ISO).

Cloudy low light settings: In cloudy conditions of lower light ISO setting depends on light intensity. Using aperture priority I set aperture to F6.3-8.0, and exposure compensation at -2/3. I often start with ISO 800, then meter a neutral background (by pressing the shutter button half way down and seeing the resulting shutter speed) to see if I have enough shutter speed (at least 1/200 sec).  If not I increase the ISO until I do.  In very low light conditions I may need to increase to ISO 1600 or more (and even go down to F5.6) in order to achieve enough shutter speed. Excellent camera and lens combinations (and good noise reduction software) offer more flexibility in the lowest lighting conditions – giving the ability to shoot at higher ISOs. Experience photographing warblers also plays a part in determining shutter speed, and therefore ISO, because a more experienced photographer can stabilize his/her equipment better, by putting pressure on the camera and lens and setting the tension of the gimbal head appropriately – all to lessen the effect of the slapping mirror of a DSLR. This is much less of a factor with mirrorless cameras such as the Canon R5. A less experienced photographer using a DSLR with a mechanical shutter (with a mirror slapping) will be better off shooting at a higher shutter speed, 1/320 sec or above, and may need to increase ISO to get there.

In any of the 3 lighting scenarios covered above if a neutral toned bird were the subject, instead of a songbird with bright highlights, a starting exposure of 0 (zero) is correct for a neutral background.

In each of the 22 examples below I chose the ISO, focal length, and exposure compensation before approaching the situation.  That way I could concentrate 100% on following the subject with my eyes just above my viewfinder, point the lens at the perch the bird approached (or directly at the bird, if already perched), and focus as quickly as possible. If an exposure adjustment became necessary it was usually small and quickly executed. Note that the aperture settings below are for an F4 600mm lens, used with a full-frame camera or used with camera with a built-in crop factor of 1.6x (Canon 7D Mark 2). Also note that when a bird was smaller in the frame, and my focal length was 600 mm, I could use less depth of-field (i.e. F5.6 or F6.3 instead of F8) and still get sufficient feather detail if the bird was positioned close enough to parallel to the plane of focus.


Male Bay-breasted Warbler; ISO 400; F8.0; 1/800 sec; Exposure compensation -1.  In morning low angle sun (about 15-20 degrees from the horizon) my neutral settings for full sun would yield plenty of shutter speed.  And with an overall neutral background -1 compensation is correct, in order to not over expose the bright highlights on the bird. No adjustment with buttons was necessary.  I could concentrate on waiting until the bird hopped to a good composition perch and took a good pose, focus, then fire a burst of 4-8 shots, then choose the best one (pictured).

What could I do in the same situation as above if I were using a 1.4x teleconverter and a full-frame camera (without the 1.6x crop factor of the Canon 7D Mark 2)? My F4, 600 mm lens would effectively become a F5.6, 840 mm lens, so to still get 2 stops of depth of field I would move my aperture to F11 (instead of F8.0). Once that is done shutter speed would go down, but I could compensate for that by increasing ISO to 800. Then my shutter speed would be approximately the same.

Male Magnolia Warbler; ISO 320; F7.1; 1/1000 sec; Exposure compensation -1.  This image was taken later in the morning in full sun, so ISO 320 was fine. With an overall neutral background -1 exposure compensation was necessary to not overexpose the bright highlights on the bird, and I approached the situation at -1, and no adjustment with buttons was necessary.

Male Cape May Warbler; ISO 320; F7.1; 1/800 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3. This image was taken in very close to full sun conditions late in the morning.  I took advantage of an opportunity to use a background that is mostly blue sky, especially with a bird that is so beautiful when looking up at it.  Overall the background is slightly lighter than neutral, so I had to move +1/3 stop from -1.  So correct exposure compensation is not -1 (as in the previous 2 examples).  -2/3 is correct: Before this bird hopped from a green background to this perch I had exposure compensation set at -1, but once it hopped there, upon seeing the lighter background, I changed it quickly to -2/3.

Male Kirtland Warbler Singing; ISO 400; F10; 1/1250 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3. This is an example of assessment of the environmental challenges that can occur during songbird photography. And also assessing behavior. The sun was higher than 40 degrees from the horizon, but there was a thin layer of clouds that softened the light slightly, so the light was not as harsh, shadows not as pronounced.  And I could use that light.  It was windy.  The bird swayed back and forth on its perch, but stayed on its perch, so I had time to rotate my camera and lens and try for a vertical composition.  I adjusted exposure compensation from -1 (for a neutral background) to -2/3 because of the partial sky background.  The very bright light allowed me to set the aperture to F10 while generating a high shutter speed of 1/1250 sec, which was sufficient speed to get a sharp image while the bird swayed and sang and I moved to follow it.  I increased the depth of field (to F10) just in case (with all of the movement) my focusing point only caught the back edge of the bird’s breast or neck.  That way I would still have a chance of getting the entire bird in focus – especially its feathers closer to me.  And I fired as many images as possible while the head position was good while the bird sang because I knew my chances of getting a sharp image were slim. 2 out of 20 were sharp. This is an example where the eye tracking capability of the Canon R5 would have yielding many more sharp images.

Red-eyed Vireo; ISO 250; F7.1; 1/800 sec; Exposure compensation -1/3.  Because of the very early morning light, light background, and glare from the oak leaves, I adjusted exposure compensation from -1 (for a neutral background) to -1/3.  I had time to turn the camera and lens for a vertical composition as well.  I reduced the glare a little in post processing.

Female Brewster’s Warbler; ISO 400; F8.0; 1/1000 sec; Exposure compensation 0.  Late morning full sun. I adjusted exposure compensation from -1 (for a neutral background) to zero because of the light background. This image was cropped. The overall lightness of the background was more evident at the time of capture and when uncropped. Why? Because to expose the background correctly, and show its brightness, exposure compensation would have had to be +2/3. But if that were done the bright highlights on the bird would have been way overexposed. So correct exposure for the bird (zero) makes the background darker by -2/3 stop, and you see it in this image.

Male Blackburnian Warbler; ISO 400; F8.0; 1/1000 sec; Exposure compensation -1 and 1/3.  This example is not cropped.  Other examples are slightly cropped.  Late morning clear sun. The overall tone is darker than neutral.  So exposure compensation goes from -1 (for a neutral background) to -1 and 1/3.  I also purposely left this image completely unprocessed to help show the overall tone of the background, but it is darker than what was experienced in the field because of the negative exposure compensation.

Male Chestnut-sided Warbler; ISO 400; F8.0; 1/1600 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3.  This image was taken very close to sunset, during the “sweet light”.  No haze or clouds blocked the sun, but at this time (or just after a clear sunrise) the intensity (or strength) of the light is reduced because the beam of the sun passes through more of the near earth atmosphere. If the sun were higher I would have used -1 exposure compensation with this overall neutral background, but I used -2/3 because of the decrease in intensity, and this was correct.


Male Brewster’s Warbler; ISO 400; F8.0; 1/400 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3.  Here I used my bright cloudy neutral settings for songbirds with highlights because the background was neutral overall, no adjustment with buttons necessary.

Male Hooded Warbler; ISO 640; F7.1; 1/500 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3. Under bright lighting conditions this bird’s bright yellow cheek can be overexposed with a neutral background unless exposure compensation is set to -1, but here the background is a little lighter than neutral, so I set it to -2/3. Exposing this particular bird correctly is tricky but important. You do not want to overexpose the cheek, but you also do not want to be so dark that black area of its neck is too dark and without detail.

Male Blackpoll Warbler; ISO 640; F8.0; 1/1000 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3. The bright cheek of this bird can be overexposed as well, and the background was also a little lighter than neutral, hence -2/3 exposure compensation is correct, even though the light level was considerably brighter than the previous example. If the background was neutral the correct exposure compensation would have been -1.

Male Magnolia Warbler; ISO 640; F8.0; 1/800 sec; Exposure compensation -1.  This bird was very hyperactive, flitting high in the spruce cones, and it swayed slightly in the wind on the end of perches, so I increased the ISO to 640 to have more shutter speed.  Its background is slightly darker than neutral so I went from exposure compensation -2/3 to -1. This is an example of when I will point up at a bird in cloudy conditions – because there is no white sky in the background.  And this is an example of spending time with a bird that was not ideally cooperative, because it was cloudy and there were many nice perch options. This is another especially beautiful bird when looking up at it.

Male Cerulean Warbler in Redbud;  ISO 400; F5.6; 1/640 sec; Exposure compensation 0 (zero).  I moved exposure compensation from -2/3 (for a neutral background) to 0 because of the bright flowers. I reduced their glare in post processing.

Male Blackburnian Warbler; ISO 400; F5.6; 1/320 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3.  The lighting conditions were tricky here but I judged the overall background to be neutral, and -2/3 exposure compensation worked well.

Male Mourning Warbler; ISO 400; F6.3; 1/400 sec; Exposure compensation -1/3.   I moved exposure compensation from -2/3 (for a neutral background) to -1/3 because of the slightly lighter background.  This bird also does not have very bright highlights so 0 (zero) would have worked as well.

Male Cape May Warbler; ISO 400; F7.1; 1/250 sec; Exposure compensation -1 and 1/3.  This example is not cropped.  The overall tone was quite a bit darker than neutral, and I considered the bird’s very bright yellow on the side of its neck.  So exposure compensation moves 2/3 of a stop. It goes from -2/3 (for a neutral background) to -1 and 1/3.  I also purposely left this image completely unprocessed so the overall tone of the background could be seen somewhat – it was lighter. During post processing I would pull up the dark areas somewhat.

Note that when I refer to bright cloudy situations there is a range of “brightness” of the light hitting the subject.  The brighter the light the more chances of the highlights being overexposed. So under those very bright conditions I often need to adjust exposure compensation -1/3 stop to the negative side for songbirds with especially bright highlights.  For example, for an adult breeding plumage Blackburnian, Cape May, Magnolia, Black and white or Hooded Warbler, with a neutral background, I will adjust exposure compensation to -1 (from -2/3) so I do not blow out the highlights.


These are more complicated examples, with respect to adjustments, but songbirds are most active early in the morning (when light is usually the weakest during cloudy conditions), and they are often easiest to approach, so we have the most opportunity.  If there are early morning cloudy conditions we can often work with the low light or wait until there is just enough light.  Fortunately cameras performing well at higher ISO and good noise reduction software help us – more on the software in Part 4.

Male Black-throated Blue Warbler; ISO 800; F5.6; 1/250 sec; Exposure compensation -1.  I started at ISO 800,  F 5.6, -2/3 exposure compensation, and metered a neutral background to find I had enough shutter speed.  The bird landed on a perch with a slightly darker than neutral background so I moved exposure compensation from -2/3 to -1. This example is cropped, so the bird was smaller in the frame. Using F5.6 was good enough for sufficient feather detail in this case. The back of the wing and tail go out-of-focus, but the critical areas of face, beak, chest, front wing (shoulder) are perfectly in focus.

Male Cerulean Warbler; ISO 1250; F6.3; 1/320 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3.  I started at ISO 800,  F 6.3; -2/3 exposure compensation and metered a neutral background to find I did not have enough shutter speed for this particular somewhat hyper individual, so I adjusted ISO to 1250, metered again and had enough shutter speed at 1/320 sec.  The bird landed briefly on a perch with an overall neutral background so exposure compensation stayed at -2/3.  This was a difficult background to judge because it combined lighter and darker than neutral areas.

Worm-eating Warbler; ISO 1600; F6.3; 1/250 sec; Exposure compensation -2/3. This example is similar to the one above but after metering at ISO 1250 I found I had to adjust up to ISO 1600 to have sufficient shutter speed.

What could I have done if I were using a 1.4x teleconverter and a full-frame camera in the same situation as above? If I knew the combination of the camera, 1.4x, and lens produced good images at higher ISOs I would increase the ISO to 3200 and the aperture to 9. I would have the same depth of field on the subject and approximately the same shutter speed. Note that this example (and others) use less than 2 stops of depth of field (DOF), but more than 1 stop of DOF. If the bird is not too big in the frame using that amount of DOF is good enough for good feather detail (assuming the focus point is put on or near the neck or front shoulder of the bird). If I were comfortable with a max ISO of 2000, and I had a bird that stayed still, and I left the aperture at F9, my shutter speed would be approximately 1/125 sec. I would have to stabilize the lens as well as possible by putting more tension on the knobs of my gimbal-style head (Whimberly head), cradling the 600mm lens with my arm over it and leaning on the lens at the balance point and holding the camera tightly to my face – all of this to dampen shutter slap and my vibration (obviously with image stabilization on).

Male Golden-winged Warbler; ISO 400; F5.6; 1/160 sec; Exposure compensation +1/3.  I took this image before good noise reduction software existed and I used a camera with significant noise above ISO 400.  On that cold morning this individual was very slow moving and perched very still, so I was able to use a relatively slow shutter speed and turn the camera and lens vertically for a better composition.  I had to adjust exposure compensation from -2/3 to +1/3 because of the light background.  Most of that lightness came from the glare on the leaves, which I reduced in post processing.

Male Scarlet Tanager; ISO 400; F5.6; 1/250 sec; Exposure compensation -1/3.  I also took this image before good noise reduction software existed and I used a camera with significant noise above ISO 400. The overall background is lighter than neutral so I moved from a starting exposure of -2/3 (for a neutral background) to -1/3.  The background seemed light enough that I could have moved to 0 (zero), but this particular bird was very bright, and I did not want to overexpose. The red on a male Scarlet tanager , as well as the bright colors on many of the male tropical tanagers, are often brighter than you would expect and can easily be overexposed.

Male White-winged Crossbill in Hoarfrost; ISO 400; F6.3; 1/320 sec; Exposure compensation +2/3.   If the bird did not have a white-wing bar I would have used +1 exposure compensation because of the overall light background, but I dialed back to +2/3 to make sure the wing bar would not be overexposed.  I had time (with this tame subject) to view my results at +1 and saw the wing bar flashing.  I also had time to turn the camera and lens for a vertical composition.  When you are not sure of the correct exposure compensation, and have a tame subject that stays within the same background, take advantage of viewing images for flashing highlights.

Note that setting exposure compensation is often unclear.  It is not always easy to judge if a background is slightly lighter or darker than neutral, or how much lighter or darker, etc. When setting exposure compensation two possibilities may seem to exist, such as -2/3 and -1 or 0 and +1/3.  In those circumstances (for songbirds with highlights) always choose the exposure compensation yielding the higher shutter speed.  In those examples, -2/3 or 0It is better to have a slightly dark result than to overexpose the highlights of a songbird.  If details in the dark areas need to be recovered that can be done in post processing.  If highlight detail is too overexposed an image is often unusable.  If you are in a situation where you have repeated opportunity in the same general location (with the same background and lighting conditions) you can look at your initial songbird images on the back of your camera and see if you have blinking highlights on the bird.  You have set your camera up to show overexposed highlights as blinking. If they are blinking reduce the exposure by 1/3 stop or more and make sure the highlights are not overexposed.

Guided by the image examples above you can practice with a small toy bird (approximately the size of a warbler) that has a bright wing bar – paint the wing white if you must.  You will hone your ability to judge backgrounds and get the exposure right.  This ability is important because in many circumstances where you are trying to capture a great image of a songbird within its natural habitat you only have one opportunity and little time.

You can also practice at a higher level. You (or ideally someone else, while you cannot see what they are doing) can set-up many 6″ length pieces (approximately) of blue tape as described in this video:

Put a small piece of white tape on each piece of blue tape – it represents bright highlights of a songbird. The “tape songbirds” can be placed in various trees and/or shrubs that can be clearly seen from the position where the photographer will set up, and at varying distances from that spot, but within the range resulting in images of the “tape songbird” being between about 1/4 frame and 1/2 frame. Some pieces will be placed with neutral backgrounds (as seen from that spot), some with light backgrounds, some with dark.

The challenge when shooting practice begins is for the photographer to move as quickly as possible from one “tape songbird” to the next, focus and adjust exposure compensation as quickly and accurately as possible, and fire a small burst of images at each “bird”. The results can be checked by reviewing images for focus and blinking highlights, and checking the histogram to determine if an image is too dark, if necessary. The session can be timed as well. The goal is faster times and accurate exposures.

Note that I do not take images of songbirds that are huge in the frame.  The exposure compensation settings I have outlined oftentimes will not work.  I strive to emphasize their habitat (leaving room for it in the frame). Habitat loss is the number one factor responsible for a tremendous decline in songbird numbers in the western hemisphere over the last 50 years.  See:

The system I have outlined above works for other birds – perched, walking, swimming, or wading, such as hawks, owls, shorebirds, waterfowl, grouse, as well as animals. You must judge if the subject has highlights or not and adjust accordingly.

IN-THE-FIELD CHEAT SHEETS – I can supply these to workshop participants well before they attend the workshop, with all settings specific to their particular equipment combinations.

Below is a 3″x5″ card with ISO, aperture (F) and exposure compensation (EC) settings for a Canon 600mm F4 lens and the 600 F4 with a 1.4x teleconverter, for the different lighting conditions, for overall neutral backgrounds. The settings apply to a 500mm lens as well, and they apply for Nikon equipment.

backside of card 1 (below)

Below is another 3″x5″ card which gives ISO, aperture (F) and exposure compensation (EC) settings for a Canon 100-400mm F5.6 lens (used at 400mm) and the 100-400 with a 1.4x for the different lighting conditions, for overall neutral backgrounds. This is a combination useful for stalking songbirds when the equipment is used with a monopod.

back side of card 2 (below)

Below is the 3rd 3″x5″ card, which gives the exposure compensation settings for the different lighting conditions when the background changes to other than overall neutral, for both of the lenses above and the 1.4x combinations.

back side of card 3 (below)

You can use the cards by going to the correct box for the lighting conditions and equipment you are using – cards 1 and 2, and making the settings on your camera.  These are your base settings for neutral backgrounds.  Then the only card to use would be the third one, which you use to make only the correct exposure compensation setting, when the background is different than overall neutral. 

Cards 1 and 2 have a reminder on the back for low light conditions to take test shots to determine ISO and aperture needed for enough shutter speed.  Card 3 has a reminder on the back for full sun exposure compensation settings when the sun is very close to the horizon.

For all 3 cards there are exposure compensation settings for birds with very bright highlights under bright cloudy conditions.

My wife, Giuliana, used this system to get all of the perched bird images in her gallery:

In Part 3 I cover in-the-field decision making.