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I have a low level consumer dslr (Nikon D3400) and recently was trying to capture a bird flying in my backyard. It was around noon, bright sunny day. I was using a telephoto lens at 200mm to try to get a close shot of him, and bumped up the shutter speed to 1/2500 to make sure I wouldn't get motion blur (which may be way too high but I was reading a nature photographer who is known for pictures of bird in flight who said it is normal for him to be as high as 1/3500 shutter speed), had aperture set at the lowest it would go for that lens and focal length = f 5.6, and ISO was 100. All the pictures I took with those settings came out grossly underexposed and I'm totally confused as to why. I can only assume it's because of the high shutter speed? Also, I was using "continuous" shot setting to try and get multiple shots quickly and hope for 1-2 good ones.

  • If you want to set a a shutterspeed, and are not sure about the other settings, why not use shutter priority? That would be S-Programm. Then set the shutter to what you need and keep the rest on auto. – Kai Mattern Apr 27 at 10:53
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When you shoot a bird in flight, you are shooting a rather dark object(*) against a light background, so general exposure rules hardly apply.

Using auto-exposure is better (this takes in account changes in orientation from the sun or passing clouds), but with a 200mm the bird must be a rather tiny part of the picture so the camera mostly exposes for the bright sky in the background and the bird is under-exposed.

The solutions:

  1. Set you camera to use "spot" metering, so that the camera computes the exposure from a small centered part of the frame. This reduces the influence of the background. Problem: your bird has to be there at the center when you take the shot, otherwise your camera will expose for the sky. So this requires a very accurate aim for a bird in flight.
  2. Keep the standard "weighted" metering, but use exposure compensation to overexpose by about one EV (or more if necessary, after checking your first few shots).
  3. If you shoot "raw" you can recover some of the under-exposure in post-production (the necessary data will have been lost if you only have the JPEG). One limitation is that you may want to use burst mode and using raw will slow down the bursts or even limit their length.
  4. You can mix 2) and 3), over-expose a bit and recover more from the raw.
  5. You can of course shoot in manual mode, but you have to use your histogram regularly to check that your settings are still adequate.

Note that in all cases, since the bird is dark, your camera has less light to work with so this reduces the speed you can use. Since your camera AF will also struggle, you will have to use a small aperture to get some depth of field. Expect a large trash ratio.

Learn to shoot with both eyes open, one in the viewfinder and one outside. This makes birds a lot easier to frame.

(*) Unless you shoot seagulls, but these are easy targets, so you wouldn't be asking here...

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  • Birds can be quite dark against the sky. I use spot metering on a much narrower FOV and still often have to bring up the shadows (the bird) in post. Depending on what the camera does, you can often do that even from a JPEG. – Ross Millikan Apr 27 at 14:30
  • When you shoot a bird in flight, you are shooting a rather dark object against a light background, so general exposure rules hardly apply. ummm...wat? There is no difference between the light traveling from the bright sun to a bird perched on the ground or it traveling from a bright sun to a bird in flight. The fact that the sky is bright has no bearing on the light reflecting off the bird. If the sun is behind you, Sunny16 works fine. If the bird is backlit, then adjustments need to be made, no different than if the bird were on the ground – OnBreak. Apr 27 at 16:04
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Why your exposure was off:

There's a handy little rule for proper exposure called "Sunny-16." The rule states that proper exposure in bright sun is equal to:

  • Aperture: f/16
  • Shutter Speed: 1/ISO (1/100 for ISO100 film, 1/400 for ISO400 film, etc.)

So, for your example, proper exposure would be f/16 and 1/125 for ISO100 (rounding it to the nearest stop for ease of math).

Opening up the aperture from...

f/16 --> f/11 --> f/8 --> f/5.6. So, 3 full f-stops. This means we increase our shutter speed...

1/125 --> 1/250 --> 1/500 --> 1/1000

You say that you set the camera to 1/2500. This is just over 1 stop underexposed according to Sunny-16.

Now, Sunny-16 assumes you're in full sun. If your bird was in the shade or a cloud covered the sun at any given time, then your proper exposure would have changed dramatically from this needing a bit more light.

Tip for Next Time:

Instead of shooting full manual while also trying to track a bird while also trying to pay attention to any changes in lighting conditions...shoot in Aperture Priority. Set your Aperture to f/5.6 and ISO to 200 or 400. The camera will choose the shutter speed...but make sure you pay attention to what the camera is choosing!

If the camera is going too low, bump your ISO higher. If the camera is maxing on it's max shutter speed and still overexposing, then either bump ISO down and/or stop down the aperture to get the shutter back under control.

Aperture Priority is a tried and true mode for fast action. You choose the aperture you want for Depth of Field, ISO for noise levels, then let the camera handle the shutter based on whatever gets it to proper exposure. You still have to keep an eye on the range it is using to make sure it is acceptable, however. There is no free lunch.

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    If you want to keep the shutterspeed to what you select - why choose aperture prio instead of shutterspeed prio? – Kai Mattern Apr 27 at 10:56
  • For a novice, S/Tv with 'Auto' ISO is probably the way to go. With an f/5.6 lens, the camera is most likely going to keep the aperture wide open and use the lowest ISO it can. If the birds are darker than the sky, some positive exposure compensation will also be needed. – Michael C Apr 27 at 13:42
  • @KaiMattern I disagree that keeping the shutter speed is the most important thing here. There's little real world different in this case between 1/4000, 1/2000, and 1/1000. However, there's a good bit of difference between f/5.6, f/8, and f/11. We don't know where the lens's sweet spot is but if we follow the stop down from max advice this would put us, ideally, at f/8. More open is less IQ, more closed gets into diffraction territory. Aperture Prio solves for this while all OP has to do is make sure the camera continues to use shutter speeds over some minimum, like 1/500 – OnBreak. Apr 27 at 15:53
  • @MichaelC disagree on the Tv and definitely on auto ISO. But, yes, Exp Comp may be needed. – OnBreak. Apr 27 at 15:55
  • For sports/action shooting, the difference in blur between 1/500 and 1/1000, which is where we are really at with an f/5.6 lens under a cloudy sky, or near sunrise or sundown when wildlife is most active, at lower ISO, is usually significantly greater than the difference in blur between wide open and one stop down in aperture. This is particularly the case with telephoto lenses when compared to other, wider angle lenses such as a 50mm f/1.8 "nifty fifty". – Michael C Apr 27 at 16:07
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If you’re a beginner and only just starting off shooting birds in flight, here are some tips that I recommend which will help you in managing to keep your shutter speed high, ISO low and produce sharp, correctly exposed brightly lit images.

  1. Only shoot in best available light - Best times are 1 hour after sunrise or 1 hour before sunset.
  2. Ensure that you only shoot with the sun behind you and therefore, benefit from the natural key light offered to you by the sun. This also ensures that you maintain your ISO as low as possible as the light is hitting the birds with full intensity but is somewhat diffused and soft.
  3. Set your camera at either SPOT, Center Weighted or Partial metering modes. Spot being the most widely used. This will ensure that the reflected light measured by the camera, is from the bird alone and not the rest of the image. This does mean that the rest of the image can result in being over exposed but not as must as if you were shooting at midday where the contrast is much higher.
  4. Next, if possible, set your focus points to SINGLE POINT AF which will ensure that the most important part of your image is in focus. That focus point needs to be at the birds eye especially the one closest to you.
  5. If you find this difficult to work with, try the Dynamic Area AF where you can expand the Single point to also enable focusing points surrounding it. This is a good option for beginners as it is more forgiving than a single point but not as precise
  6. At a beginning stage of photographing Birds in Flight, try not to continuously follow the bird in flight so much so that you end up facing the sun. you will get an over exposed image with a black shadow for the bird and a totally underexposed subject.
  7. Instead, create makings from your left to right that will become your focal view and stay within these parameters. If the bird fly's out of this range, that’s a shot missed.

Now with all this is mind, set your camera at 1/1000secs, f/5.6 and ISO400 and take some test shots. If the image is over exposed, then;

  1. If the image is sharp, but has noise, reduce ISO
  2. If the image has motion blur, increase Shutter speed
  3. If the Noise is acceptable and the image is sharp, but the image could do with a bit more depth of field, then close your aperture a stop or 2.

If the Image is Under Exposed, then;

  1. If the image is sharp and has acceptable noise, then increase ISO
  2. If neither the image is sharp and the noise is unacceptable, then you can work on improving your camera holding techniques, or increase the ISO and work on reducing noise using software.
  3. Or, you need to try again when the light conditions are better
  4. Or you need to work on remaining within the preset focal view boundaries where the most efficient light is.

You will read that many professional bird photographers will insist on you to not use Aperture priority mode, and they have many justifiable reasons for saying that, but in my view, AP Mode allows more flexibility and can help you understand exposure with the help of using the exposure Compensation button, that will be the little button with the +/- next to the shutter button.

Other than that, enjoy your photography.

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