Camera Settings for Birding

Using Custom Shooting Modes

I own a Canon 7D II camera which is pretty sophisticated and has lots of bells and whistles.  One function I use regularly is the Custom Shooting Mode; most digital cameras today have a similar setting.  In general, you can pre-assign multiple favorite camera settings to a button on your camera and then switch between them quickly as your shooting conditions change.

I have options for three possible Custom Shooting Modes; C1, C2, and C3.  I setup C3 for BIF shots. C2 is preprogramed for shots taken along a bird walk, and C1 is used for shots of birds that are backlit (perched up in a tree with a bright sky behind).  By simply turning the knob I can quickly change the camera’s settings to any one of these scenarios.  I made C2 my typical birding settings because I can quickly switch to C1 and C3.  Below is a picture of the knob on my camera set for C2.


My default setting is C2.  I preset the Shutter Speed to X (see below), the Aperture to 7.1, ISO to Auto, Exposure Compensation to +1/3, White Balance to Cloudy, AutoFocus to AI Servo, Evaluative Metering, and my AutoFocus to One-Point AF (other camera manufacturers have similar nomenclatures).  I also set the camera to Manual Mode (as opposed to Shutter or Aperture Priority) as indicated in the top left-hand corner as C2M.


As I said previously I use this setting when I go on a bird walk.  The first thing I do upon arrival is look at the lighting conditions and then set my C2 Shutter Speed for the day’s lighting.  If it is bright sunshine I’ll set the Shutter Speed to 1/1000th of a second.  If it is overcast but good light I’ll set it to 1/640th.  If it is cloudy I’ll set it to 1/320th.  I then use the Custom Shooting menu to remember all the settings.  Then, every time I shoot that day the camera will use the same settings.  Unless I change them…

Let’s say it is a bright sunny day when I arrive so I set C2 to 1/1000th of a second.  I take off on my bird walk and find a bird covered in shadows and I want to use a slower Shutter Speed.  I use the button on my camera to change the Shutter Speed to 1/320 and shoot away.  Or there are two birds close together and I want to increase my Depth of Field by changing my Aperture to 9.0.  These are temporary changes to the C2 Custom Mode: the camera will revert back to the default C2 settings after a minute or I can force it back to C2 by simply moving the knob to C1 (or C3) then back to C2.  It’s important to reset the Custom Mode to C2 after making a temporary adjustment so that the temporary adjustment isn’t applied to the next bird you see that really requires the default C2 setting.

I set up my C3 Custom Shooting Mode for BIF (Birds in Flight) shots.  BIF shot opportunities can come up at any time so by quickly changing to C1 my camera’s settings are ready to capture the moment.  In general, you need a fast shutter speed for BIF shots, so that is the most important setting here.  I pre-program C3 to a Shutter Speed of 1/2000th of a second, Aperture 5.6, Exposure Compensation to +2/3 (to adjust for a bird with a backlit sky), and the Metering Mode to Spot (using the light on the bird to gauge the exposure).  I also preset the AutoFocus to Zone AF, which tells the camera to try and attain focus on objects around the middle third of the view.  This gives the camera a better chance of finding something to focus on than the One-point AF used in C2.


In use, as I am looking for birds in the trees and bushes around me while waking down a trail I have my camera set to C2.  Suddenly I look up and see a Red-tailed Hawk flying toward me.  I twist the knob to C3 and start shooting because the camera automatically changes its shutter speed and AutoFocus zone to the optimal settings for BIF.  Once the bird has passed I twist the knob back to C2 and it goes back to my default presets for my bird walk.

I use my C1 Custom Shooting Mode for backlit birds up in trees.   I basically use the same settings as C2 except I pre-set the Exposure Compensation to +2 to compensate for the backlight.  So now as I walk along the trail and spot a bird high up in a tree with a bright background I twist the knob to C1 and shoot away, hopefully getting a better image of the bird because I have forced the camera to allow more light in (otherwise the bird would appear very dark).  When I’m done I twist the knob back to C2 and continue down the path looking for more picture opportunities.

Clear as mud?  Just give it a try – first see if your camera has something like Custom Shooting Modes.  Figure out how to set one of those modes to the settings you usually use when you’re out and about.  Then go out and try it with just that one pre-set.  You’ll find that it’s easy to revert your camera back to those settings after adjusting for a special situation.  Once you get used to it try creating another mode with your favorite BIF settings.  Think of situations you are regularly in that require special adjustments of your camera’s settings and map them to one of the Custom Shooting Modes.

Let me know how you do with this or need a clarification. Good luck!

Try Something New!  Go Birding. Take Pics.  Share Here.  Repeat.  


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