Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

October 12, 2009

Camera Settings

Filed under: Birds, Boyce Thompson Arboretum, favorite places, light, technique — richditch @ 5:24 pm
Verdin at water seep

Verdin at water seep

When out shooting at a popular spot I am occasionally asked by less experienced photographers about camera settings, so I thought I’d cover some of that for the people who haven’t asked yet.

I’ve used Nikon cameras and lenses since I started almost 40 years ago, so this will all be in terms of Nikon gear. But it should mostly translate to other brands.

  1. Except for very rare circumstances, I use auto focus exclusively. It is one of the great features of today’s cameras (in spite of how many of us resisted the new technology when it first arrived). I keep the camera set to AF-C (continuous) rather than the one-shot mode since my typical subject is free to move around and does so. I’ve set a “hidden” preference (at least on my D200)  called “focus priority” that locks the shutter until the subject is in focus, instead of the default setting of “release priority” that fires the shutter when the release is pressed whether or not the image is in focus. This doesn’t guarantee the subject will always be in focus, but it reduces the percentage of out of focus captures. My 300/2.8 AF-S lens is kept on the A/M position – that allows instant manual override of the auto focus function just by grabbing the focusing ring on the lens.
  2. I leave the AF sensors ungrouped and keep the center focus sensor active by default. That gives me the most compositional flexibility. When I’ve got a cooperative stationary subject like the resting duck I’ll select the focus sensor that corresponds to placing the subject where I want it in the composition.
  3. For flight shots I’ve tried switching the AF sensor array to react to the nearest object, but I don’t get a lot of practice and I’m not thrilled with my results so far.
  4. I have the grid turned on for the focusing screen in both my D200 and backup D70 – that divides the screen into nine segments with two vertical and two horizontal lines. This is a nice aid for composition and helps keep the horizon level.
  5. I use the meter in the camera in Matrix mode most of the time (that’s “evaluative” for Canon). But I also use the Spot mode regularly and have the user-defined function button on the front of the D200 programmed to switch from Matrix to Spot instantly. I shoot in Aperture Priority mode and have never used any of my cameras in Shutter Priority mode. I use the aperture dial on the camera body to change either aperture or shutter speed as needed – since they are both displayed in the viewfinder I can see exactly what I’m doing at all times.
  6. I like working with my 300/2.8 and matched 2x (which makes the lens effectively a 600mm f/5.6 lens) wide open (f/5.6) or stopped down one to two stops (f/8 – f/11) for the best tradeoff of limited depth of field and maximum image quality. I use the depth-of-field preview button frequently to judge DOF and adjust the aperture as required.
  7. In bright light I am usually set at ISO 200, but when I start out around dawn I’m usually at ISO 400. The D200 isn’t great at high ISO settings so I try not to go above ISO 400, but I will go to ISO 800 if that’s the only way I can get enough shutter speed. I’ve got the “high ISO noise reduction” turned on in camera at the highest setting and have learned to accept the slight loss of detail that is a side effect to controlling the noise.
  8. I use exposure compensation regularly, dialing in -.3 or -.7 stops when working with white birds on dark water.
  9. I shoot only in raw for maximum image quality and flexibility in processing.
  10. I keep the shutter release set on “continuous high speed” to allow me to take a sequence at the shortest interval possible, but I seldom do more than 2-3 frames in “burst” mode. It just requires a light touch on the shutter release to keep from blasting off a lot of frames all at once.

I’m sure I’ve overlooked some settings, but that has to be the majority of basic stuff.

This Verdin was photographed October 9, 2009, at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in central Arizona, as it drank from a water seep along a cliff face. I used the Spot meter because of the brightness of the verdin compared to the background. Front light and ISO 200 allowed 1/400th second at f/8 (to keep the tail in focus while providing some blur to the background). The low ISO value also kept the image noise under control and allowed me to crop a lot – this is about 30% of the frame.



  1. Rich,

    One of the reasons I enjoy your blog so much is the information you share with your readers and this post is a prime example of that.

    Of course I love the Verdin image too, it is a gorgeous bird and I love the way it is perched on the seep.

    Comment by Mia — October 12, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

  2. Mr. Ditch,
    I enjoy your site immensely and thank you for sharing your valuable insight and experience with visitors to your site. I find your comments very helpful.
    I also use Nikon (camera: D300) and have debated buying the 300mm f/2.8, but have refrained because of the cost and weight of the lens. I realize that you are probably much larger than I, a middle aged woman of approx. 130lbs, but I would appreciate your opinion on how much physical strength is required to use the f/2.8 in the field. (I currently use Nikon 300mm f/4 with 1.4 and 1.7tc.)
    Thank you in advance for your response,
    Kelly Colgan Azar

    Comment by Kelly Colgan Azar — December 5, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

  3. Kellly:

    First, thank you for the nice comment on my site. It is always good to hear such things!

    The 300/2.8 is no lightweight, and I get tired carrying it around. The TC20E adds a noticeable amount of weight as well, and I’d never consider trying to handhold this lens with any of the Nikon converters (1.4x, 1.7x, 2x). But I know some people regularly do hand hold big lenses such as this – even a 500/4.

    So, I’m also burdened with the weight of a Gitzo carbon Fiber 1325 tripod, a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ball head, and a Wimberly Sidekick to support this lens and converter and get the most out of them. That’s more weight and expense. Walking around with this for a couple of miles and a couple of hours on each outing is tiring, but its also good exercise for me.

    You’d love the results, and you’d love having auto focus even with the 2x, but if you do most of your photography away from the trunk of your car you might find this all to cumbersome.

    Comment by richditch — December 5, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

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