What shutter speed is best for bird photography?
The answer for “Best shutter speed for Bird Photography” may not be straight forward. But to begin with, a shutter speed of 1/2500 or 1/3200 of a second or higher is a safe bet. But one may not always have the stars aligned in their favor to afford such a shutter speed. This is a question that lingers around many, specially when we talk about Bird Photography. Well the same is true for Wildlife and Sports photography. This is also true when you want to freeze any moving object in your frame.
In this blog, I will cover:
- Shutter speed basics
- Exposure Triangle elements
- Factors that determine the shutter speed
Let’s talk about the basics first.
What is shutter speed?
Shutter speed represents the duration for which camera shutter remains open to create an exposure. The longer the shutter remains open or slower the shutter speed, more and more light can hit the sensor. This is good when light is low or one intends to bring a sense of motion in the image. Whereas, the shorter or faster the shutter speed, less and less light can hit the camera sensor. This is good when shooting in abundance of light and there is a need of freezing the action.
Exposure Triangle Elements
Exposure in photography is the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor. The key elements of exposure are Aperture, ISO and Shutter speed.
Aperture is the opening in the lens that controls the amount of light that enters the camera exposing the sensor. This is represented by F stop values. Aperture is a property of a lens. It allows a photographer to open or close the opening in the lens to have a wide or narrow view, thus enabling more or less light to reach the camera sensor. A wide aperture allows a shallow depth of field creating a bokeh effect.
ISO represents the sensitivity of a camera sensor to the light. As we bump up the ISO, the sensitivity of the sensor to the light increases, thus enabling a higher exposure in low light. Similarly, the sensitivity of the sensor to the light decreases when the ISO is kept low. ISO is nothing but a tool to amplify the light that hits the camera sensor, similar to an amplifier in a music system.
It is like a curtain that sits right in front of the camera sensor which gets opened and closed when the shutter button is pressed in a camera.
To get a tack sharp image, it is important that the shutter speed chosen is fast enough to freeze any movement. Birds usually are restless souls. They are always busy doing something. When in flight, most common birds usually attain a speed of 20 to 60 Km/h and can even go higher when diving. Migratory birds usually fly at the same speed what we do when driving i.e. somewhere around 60 to 80 Km/h. There are majority of birds which can attain the speed of over 100 Km/h. Peregrine Falcon, can reach a max speed of about whooping 390 Km/h. Now, if we think about it, it’s really really fast. One would definitely need a good fast shutter speed to freeze such a motion.
I guess, it would be a good idea to list out few important factors to keep in mind while choosing the right shutter speed.
What factors affect the choice of shutter speed in bird photography?
A. Focal length
Focal length of the lens at which you are shooting has a major impact on the minimum shutter speed one needs to dial in. By rule of thumb, your shutter speed has to be a minimum of the reciprocal of the focal length to get a decent shot, specifically hand held. So, if you are shooting at 600 mm, then the minimum shutter speed required would be 1/600th of a second.
One may need to consider the crop factor too while using this lens on a Cropped sensor body or using a Cropped sensor Mode in a Full Frame body. When shooting with 600 on a Nikon or Sony, would give you a Crop factor of 1.5x, whereas the same is 1.6x on a Canon. This means you would achieve an equivalent focal length of 900 mm on a Nikon or Sony, where as 960 mm on a Canon. Thus the shutter speed required would then be 1/900th of a second and 1/960th of a second, respectively.
Minimum Shutter speed for any Camera Shake: 1/(focal length x Crop factor)
Note: The above just determines the minimum shutter speed required for a sharp stable photo, but it does not guarantee the control on motion blur, which depends on the motion of the subject in the frame.
Shot at an equivalent focal length of 960 mm on a 150-600 mm Sigma Contemporary at a shutter speed of 1/1600. Best shutter speed in Bird photography is completely situational.
B. Motion of the Subject in the frame
This contributes to the motion blur one may get in a photograph. When photographing birds, it is important to keep in mind that the birds move very quickly and they don’t stay still for long. It’s always a good practice to set a high shutter speed to freeze motion avoiding any unwanted motion blur in the image. If not done so, you may end up having a soft looking image.
For birds in flight or action, the recommended shutter speed would be 1/2500 to 1/3000 of a second or even higher. For birds sitting on a perch 1/800 to 1/1250 of a second will give you a decent result, but you can expect some motion blur. Higher shutter speed is always recommended. Use of a Tripod or monopod can definitely help, specially if you have a stable tripod with a gimbal head. It is worth every penny.
This shot was captured at a shutter speed of 1/1600 at a focal length of 600 mm (960 mm equivalent focal length).
C. Lighting situations impact on determining the best shutter speed in bird photography
Depending on the time of the day or the weather condition, you may be left with no choice but to use a low shutter speed. If you are shooting early morning or late evening, when the ambient light is very low, you may have to shoot at a shutter speed of less than the focal length reciprocal explained earlier. This becomes more challenging when using a telephoto lens like Sony 200 600 mm or Canon 100 400 or Nikon 200 500 mm or Sigma 150 600 or any other telephoto zoom lens. But such situations gives rise to the opportunity of being creative. One can use the slow shutter speed to give a deliberate sense of motion in the image. This happens to be our next point of the topic.
Shot at 1/250 of a second handheld at a focal length of 600 mm (960 mm equivalent focal length). Since it was shot late evening, a slow shutter speed helped here in getting a decent sharp image and a good exposure. Gear Used: Sony A7M3 paired with Sony 200 600 mm
Shot at 1/1000 th of a second, but at the wing tips the motion blur appeared. Though, this image is a good example of creative motion blur giving a sense of motion. Hence, indicating, 1/1000 or even 1/1250 of a second shutter speed may not be capable of eliminating the motion blur when bird is in action.
Both the above shots were taken in low light situations. One at a low shutter speed and the other one at 1/1000 of a second. One may note that these shots were shot using a tripod.
Shutter speed:1/125 Equivalent Focal length of 960 mm in low light.
D. Creative Need to determine the best shutter speed in bird photography
Freezing the motion or bringing the sense of motion can be a deliberate choice. To freeze a fast motion, set the shutter speed to a high value. Whereas, to get the sense of motion in the image, slow down the shutter speed.
When photographing birds in rain, you can set a shutter speed to a fairly low value. You can get image like below with trail of rain drops. Don’t forget to set the drive mode to the Continuous shooting / Burst mode. this will drastically increase your chances of getting a sharp picture.
NOTE: Drive mode also is the key to getting more frames while capturing a bird in flight or action.
Shutter speed: 1/250 (Handheld at an equivalent focal length of 960 mm).
Gear used: Canon 80 D paired with Sigma 60 600 mm lens.
E. Aperture and ISO
We have talked about the importance of using a high shutter speed while photographing birds. But, then we have also talked about exposure triangle. Aperture, ISO and Shutter speed form the exposure triangle. It means, when the shutter speed is high, the amount of light that can hit the sensor is reduced. To balance the exposure, set a wide Aperture and / or a high ISO, depending on the amount of light available in the scene.
Usually when shooting the birds, you would set up the aperture to the widest possible. This will allow using a low ISO value. ISO comes with a price and that price is none other than noise in the image. Depending on the camera body, you will have to find the ISO tipping point for your camera, beyond which the image may be unusable.
Depending on the camera body one has, this value can change. For most of the Basic entry Full Frame cameras, an ISO of 800 to 1600 would serve a decent picture. One may even consider cranking it up to 3200, if need arises. Anything higher than this is a tough ask. However, professional Full Frame bodies like 1DXMii can easily handle an ISO of 32000 (10 x of 3200). And still render an image of quality, though, it will be susceptible to noise.
This value will go further down when using a cropped sensor DSLR or Mirrorless body. And even further down when using a bridge camera. This is basically due to the size of the sensor on these bodies.
Above Shot was taken in rain at 1/800 of a second but 1600 ISO at 600 mm.
Shot at an ISO of 1600 and Shutter speed of 1/1000 at 600 mm.
Pro tips for getting the best shutter speed in Bird or Wildlife Photography:
So, we know now there may not be one best shutter speed in Bird Photography. However, best is to follow best practices. While Photographing, I usually set the aperture to the widest. And I play with the shutter speed and ISO as required. Usually, while shooting birds, you can adjust the shutter speed or ISO, leaving the aperture value untouched. However, in good light, you can set the aperture value to F8 or F9, for deeper depth of field in the scene. This can help you get away with situations where you have missed focusing at the bird’s eye. Moreover, having more of the bird in focus is desirable, as this will allow you to get good details in their beautiful feathers.
This is a photograph that I made on a Canon 600 mm IS ii paired with Canon 7D M ii.
Drive Mode: Burst, shutter speed : 1/1250 and ISO: 1250 at F4. Shot on Canon 7DM2 and Canon 600 mm IS ii.
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