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FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions about bird (and other) photography

These apply mostly to digital SLRs; the terminology used reflects that used on Canon cameras, but the principles are the same on other makes.

If you can think of other FAQs (there must be lots!) send me an email with your question to the address on the front page, and I'll put an answer here for you.

When should I fomat my memory card?

Many memory cards will come formatted when you buy them, but to be on the safe side, it's a good idea to format your memory card using the camera in which the memory card is to be used. Formatting lays down an electronic pattern including space for an index, so that the camera and your computer can find the pictures you have stored on the card.

It is very important to realise that formatting the memory card once you have taken pictures will destroy any pictures or any other data stored on the memory card.

From time to time, it's a good idea to reformat the memory card, but make sure you have a backup of your files, or preferably two backups in different places before you do this.

My pictures are fuzzy - why?

Your problems may be caused by:

1- the automatic selection of a focusing point.

You may find that the camera has focussed on something else other than the subject you wanted to focus on. This can happen quite easily if the subject is so small in the frame that the camera is picking up something which is bigger to focus on, but it's not at the same distance as your subject. For example, is the background in focus, but the bird out of focus?

Sett the camera to use the centre focussing point only, then you know what it is focussing on. You will not be able to do this in fully automatic mode (the green rectangle). If you are not very experienced, you might select Program mode (P), in which you can alter the balance between shutter speed and aperture, while allowing the camera to determine the exposure. The P setting should allow you to change the focusing point.

If you have more experience, or are prepared for a challenge and reading the manual which came with your camera, you might try one of the other modes which give you more control over the camera, such as Av (aperture priority), Tv (shutter speed priority) or even M (manual).

2- camera shake

This is likely to be the case if your fuzzy images occur:

  • mainly in dull light
  • if you're hand-holding the camera with a long lens attached
  • with a longer focal length on a zoom lens selected
  • if you're using an automatic exposure setting
  • if you are using a low ISO speed.

To fix these problems, you could try:

  • increasing the iso speed up to 800 iso, but no higher. It is unlikely that you will be able to do this in automatic exposure mode.
  • put the camera on a tripod or use a bean bag
  • use aperture priority set to the the widest aperture of your lens, (e.g. f5.6 rather than f22), to ensure that the camera selects the fastest shutter speed which the prevailing light and ISO setting allow.

Should I use RAW or jpg?

RAW is good if you:

  • want to take your photography forward and are striving for ultimate image quality
  • want to retain detail in the highlights and shadows
  • want to work on your pictures to get the best out of them, say to rescue an under-exposed or over-exposed picture
  • have a large hard disc and are prepared to buy another one when this one fills (up as it will if you take lots of shots)
  • want to crop a small section from the middle of a photo, as the bird or other subject was far away

Jpeg is good if you:

  • don't have a large hard disc
  • can't be bothered editing your pictures, and don't want to sell them
  • want to share pictures immediately with other people
  • don't want to crop a tiny section of a picture on a regular basis
  • want results very quickly

What jpeg setting should I use?

Use large fine to get the best quality. You can always reduce the size of the picture later, but you can never invent detail which isn't there in the first place, so use the best setting that your camera can take. Memory card storage is now very cheap. Buy a bigger memory card if you need to.

Should I sharpen my jpgs in the camera?

No - don't set the sharpening too high. Use the default sharpness in the camera, and if you need more sharpness, do this in a photo editing program, which will allow you to control the degree of sharpness, undo it if you don't like it, and apply the sharpening only to a selected area, such as the main subject.

Should I use AF one-shot, AI servo or AI focus?

  • Personally, I use one-shot most of the time, and keep refocussing by depressing the shutter button half way.
  • AI servo or AI focus can be useful where the subject is close, the movement is relatively slow, and the camera/lens combination can keep up with the movement, e.g. for a duck swimming. However, it also relies on the subject being covered by the focusing point you're using.
  • If the subject wanders off the focusing point, AI servo will stop focusing on the duck, and focus on the water instead, so it's more useful if the subject is large and/or close, which will allow you to keep the focusing point on the subject.
  • There are also issues with some slower lenses, where AI servo does not keep up with the movement.
  • If the subject is small, it is difficult to keep the centre focusing point over the subject.

What minimum shutter speed should I use for bird photography?

  • The old rule about the shutter speed being the reciprocal of the focal length of the lens, to counter camera shake applies to all SLR cameras, whether film or digital.
  • Image stabilisation will help to counter camera shake, but will not compensate for movement of the subject.
  • Using as fast a shutter speed as possible will help to stop the movement of the bird. That's why it's good to have a lens that lets in a lot of light (but such lenses are also heavy).
  • You may get away with slower shutter speeds if your camera is suitably steadied, e.g. on a tripod or a bean bag, and if the subject is not moving much, but take lots of shots as you will have less of a hit-rate in these circumstances.

What ISO speed should I use?

It depends on circulstances, but even on a digital SLR, I would hesitate to go above 400 ISO, except in conditions of dull light where the shot would otherwise be impossible to take satisfactorily. I have found that even at 800 iso, there is sufficient noise when seen at 100% to be off-putting, but that's only because I often crop the picture to a small proportion of the original size. If you want to use the whole picture, you should get away with 800 iso, as long as you're not printing very large, say bigger than A4. Definitely avoid the maximum ISO which your camera allows - it's unlikely to give good results.

What metering mode should I use?

I use evaluative metering, which gives good results most of the time. However, for flying shots, I see whether the bird is darker than the sky (e.g. a crow), in which case I use an additional stop or two of exposure compensation, or lighter than the sky, (e.g. a gull in sunshine against a blue sky), when I stop down a stop or two. It is difficult to use spot metering with moving birds, as you can't keep the centre of the frame over the bird.

My Sensor has Dust on it

Even with modern dust-cleaning systems, if you change lenses frequently, or even without changing lenses, it is possible to get dust on your sensor. Dust will show up as grey blobs of different sizes in your pictures (not in the viewfinder - dust there will not be on the sensor, but on the mirror or focusing screen).

The following applies to Canon DSLRs, but the principles are the same for other makes.

To reduce the formation of dust in the first place:

  • When changing lenses, switch off the camera. Dust is then less likely to be attracted to the sensor.
  • Always have the replacement lens handy, rather than leaving the sensor open to dust.
  • If you don't have the replacement lens handy, put the body cap on the camera when removing a lens.
  • Turn the camera body upside down when changing lenses.

Once you detect dust, there are several options, in ascending order of effort expended:

  • Ignore the problem and put up with it.
    This is an option if the dust is in the lower half of the picture, and it's so small that you don't actually notice it in your pictures. If you haven't noticed it, you probably aren't reading this! If you have noticed it, it's probably against the sky in the upper half of your pictures, in which case you will probably want rid of it.
  • Clean the sensor using the camera's menu
    Modern cameras will attempt to remove dust from the sensor when they start up, and when you switch them off. However, this may be insufficient, so you can execute the sensor cleaning from the menu as well. To do this, you need to find and choose the menu option "Sensor cleaning", which will be on the tools menu or submenu.
  • Remove the dust with software
    This applies only to recent Canon cameras. From time to time, you set the "Dust Delete Data" option in the menu, then take a picture, which creates a map of where the dust is. After shooting and downloading your pictures, you load Canon's own software, such as Digital Photo Professional, which uses the dust delete data to find the dust and delete it from your pictures. However, using this option does not remove the dust from the sensor, it only removes its effect from pictures you took after you have set that option.
  • Blow the dust out
    This can be quite effective for moderate amounts of dust, which are not stuck on too hard. I use a Giotto rocket blower (obtainable from Jessops or Calumet, for example). Do not under any circumstances use an aerosol or a compressed air device of any kind, which may leave a residue on your sensor, and ruin your camera!
    Select "Sensor cleaning" in the menu, remove the lens and hold the camera upside down (so that the dust falls out). Blow the dust out of the camera by squeezing the rocket blower several times. Don't put the rocket blower nozzle into the camera in case you touch and damage a vital part with the nozzle.
  • Clean the actual sensor!
    This is the least safe option, and should only be attempted if you've tried everything else first.
    It involves buying a packet of sensor swabs, and some Eclipse fluid. I bought mine in Calumet, and (touch wood) I haven't had any problems using them. However - use this method at your own risk. You have been warned!
    The main problem would be if when dragging the sensor swab across the sensor, your mirror flipped back down, resulting in damage which would be expensive to repair. It's not supposed to happen, but it could.
    A second possible problem could be dragging dust across the sensor, creating scratch marks.

    If you really want to do this:
  • First, either fix your camera up to its charger / mains lead, and power the camera from that, or make sure their is enough battery power to do the job, and that the battery is not nearly empty.
  • Put a drop of Eclipse fluid on a new sensor swab
  • Set "Sensor cleaning" mode on the camera menu, which flips the mirror up
  • Remove the lens, and hold the camera upside down
  • Clean the sensor by dragging the sensor swab steadily but gently in one direction only across the sensor
  • Switch off the camera, which exits sensor cleaning mode, and flips the mirror down again
  • Switch on again and take a test shot. Test shots should be taken out of focus (use manual focus) against the sky, or a white piece of paper. Either of these should show up any remaining dust. Look at your test shots at 100% view (actual pixels). The quickest way to do this is to take a small jpg and look at it in Windows Picture and Fax Viewer (in Windows XP, that is)
  • Do this until test shots show that the dust has gone. You may need to repeat the process two or more times

If all this fails, or you don't feel like cleaning your own sensor, you could get the sensor cleaned for you:

  • You could ask your camera manufacturer to do this. You would need to send the camera away and it might cost quite a lot
  • You might find a dealer to do the job
  • or if you live near Glasgow, you could email me at the address on the front page and I will offer you a sensor cleaning service for a modest charge and after a signature confirming that you understand that this is at your own risk.