Manual Exposure/Exposure-Lock : Flying Birds and more

So how does one go about planning to shoot birds in flight? There are times when you actually might want to turn the dial to ‘Manual Exposure’ for this one. 

Getting a Bird in Flight in itself is such a challenge to start with, and here I am telling you about one step further, going to manual exposure mode while doing that. Am I mad? Why cant the Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority do the job?

If you read on for a tad bit longer, it will become quite obvious.

So here is the situation that you find yourself in

  1. Bird coming in to land in the water (in a pond) with the sun behind you 
  2. The pond is surrounded by trees.
  3. You start tracking the bird when it is still high up in the sky.

Now, assume that when the sky was the background, following is the exposure value under Aperture Priority

– Aperture : f/6.3 

– Shutter  : 1/4000

Slowly and steadily the bird starts coming down to land and at some point before landing, the background changes to dark green trees surrounding the pond

What do you think will happen to the exposure?

You guessed it right, the value will change because now the background has changed. Brilliant!!

But wait a minute…is it supposed to change? 

Has the light on the subject changed? 


Wow!!, no wonder then that when you use Aperture/Shutter priority for such a case you would end up messing up the exposure. In the example below and above, it would end up overexposing the bird. 

Now, there are a couple of options that you can go for in this case

1. Use Exposure Lock (Canon – * button / Nikon AE-L button) when the bird was in the sky and lock your metering to that reading. 

2. Once you have an idea of the exposure against the sky, just switch to Manual mode with those settings. This ensures that the camera does not apply its own intelligence and change the settings later. Please note, that if it is a planned shoot this can be accomplished quite easily. This is not the best route for a bird suddenly surprising you by coming in to your view.

Now that we have birds in flight under control, think how will you click anything with a continuous changing background?

The same principle applies to anything that has a changing background. For e.g. if you have a subject against the waves this approach works very well. Take a look at the following images

More often than not, good images are a byproduct of a lot of good planning and decent technical skills. Be prepared for what you want to shoot and you will come back with lovely images more often than not.

Let me know your thoughts about todays blogs and what you want to read about.

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  1. Saju Devassy July 3, 2017 at 10:58 am #

    Great snippets guruji, Watery Horizons are the tough ones to make in my experience, Land Mass, Tress etc gives a better horizon to adjust the settings, especially since there is lot of reflection of the subject and the environment in the Water.
    Negating the reflections especially when it is harsh is another challenge

  2. Palash kumar Nath July 3, 2017 at 4:00 pm #

    Very informative….I was just wondering what’s your take on putting the ISO on auto with a maximum limit while in Manual mode for BIFs.

    • July 3, 2017 at 6:05 pm #

      Palash, as long as the background isn’t changing I quite like the Auto ISO with a max ISO and a minimum shutter limit approach. I would not go out only with Auto ISO, I will couple it with a minimum Shutter Speed for BIFs and that should work just fine I think. Well at-least with the newer cameras where unlike earlier there isnt any limit on the shutter values that you could set. For e.g. the first firmware of the 5DMk3 used to limit max shutter speed to around 1/250 – absolutely useless in BIFs but since then Canon has woken up to this approach as well.

  3. Nikhil Kikkeri July 4, 2017 at 5:21 am #

    Very informative. I am trying to photograph albatrosses and sooty shearwaters in flight this summer, but I never got the lighting right. I have a few more opportunities before they end up New Zealand later in the year.

  4. Vinaya Mathews July 10, 2017 at 12:32 pm #

    Rahul, the problem of changing exposure components along with changing background crops up with the ‘Evaluating’ metering mode (term used for canon cameras). Though I am not a bird photographer, with my little experience, I feel for bird photography in general & birds in flight in particular, spot metering mode is more advisable metering mode as It is the fastest metering mode & avoids the problems mentioned in your blog.

    • July 10, 2017 at 12:40 pm #

      Ansolutely agree about spot metering on the bird holding on to the correct reading. The only thing is that I have seen a lot of people having difficulty in keeping the bird exactly on the focus point ( assuming the focus point is linked with spot metering – which isn’t the case with most Canon bodies today, Nikon is much better in that sense). Technically though, you are right 🙂

      Thanks so much for this comment. It’s great to have such discussions.

      • Vinaya Mathews July 10, 2017 at 2:12 pm #

        Thanks a lot for taking my comments in right spirit. Appreciated your reply. Bye

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