Archive for the ‘Tips’ Category

We’ve got great automation in our cameras. Metering is generally terrific with lots of options to control exposure. So why do I use Manual Exposure Mode for bird photography?

Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine

I’m using Aperture Priority for general photography and other exposure modes are the exception. For me, depth of field is everything because I either want subject isolation or background detail. I choose the depth of field desired for a situation and the appropriate aperture – the shutter speed is automatically calculated and I use base ISO unless I need a faster shutter speed (and then I increase ISO as needed). Depending on the scene and subject, I may also need a specific shutter speed but I choose aperture then shutter speed and finally ISO. If my scene is a little light or dark, or if I have blown highlights, I dial in exposure compensation as needed. But with bird photography, I often use manual exposure mode rather than aperture priority – especially for birds in flight. Here’s why.

Aperture selection
For birds and most wildlife, I typically start by choosing my aperture. Usually I shoot wide open or slightly stopped down to isolate the subject with a soft background, with the side benefits of a fast shutter speed at as low an ISO as possible. Subject isolation is important, but sometimes lenses perform a little better stopped down 0.5 to 1.5 stops. Long lenses are usually intended to be used wide open, but when you add a teleconverter, or need a little more depth of field, you probably will stop down from the widest aperture to obtain best performance.

Harris Neck NWR

Harris Neck NWR

It’s important to note that I’m also trying to keep the shutter speed up – usually 1/1000 sec or faster for moving birds. This is consistent with a wide open aperture or only stopped down slightly, then increasing ISO as needed until noise is problematic and I need to make trade-offs.

For those that use Auto ISO, there are additional considerations. Auto ISO is a useful tool when the light on the subject is changing. As with Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority Modes, Auto ISO is a semi-automated exposure mode. With Manual Exposure and Auto ISO, you can set the aperture and shutter speed and allow the ISO to float. Unfortunately, Auto ISO makes the camera respond the way it would in other semi-automated modes by adjusting exposure, and you would have to adjust exposure compensation to get correct exposures. If you have constant light on the subject and are using Manual Mode as described here, I would avoid Auto ISO. It’s a useful tool for other situations.

Light on the subject
In open areas, the light on the subject is usually constant. Light clouds or changing light poses a different issue, but if the light is relatively constant the exposure values don’t need to change. So manual exposure mode can be used to lock in exposure settings to produce accurate exposures for a wide range of subjects and compositions. If light on the subject is not changing, I don’t need the camera to adjust exposure.

Black Skimmer

Black Skimmer

Bird Color
The color of birds can have a big impact on exposure. Birds with white or black coloring are especially difficult because they are at the extremes of your exposure. It easy to blow out highlights or underexpose dark areas and shadows to the point where they can’t be easily recovered. The camera’s meter exposes to a neutral based on 18% gray. A white bird will be underexposed and look gray, while a black bird will be overexposed and be a dark gray – and neither is right. The problem is worse when you have extreme contrast on the same bird such as light areas in sun on a dark bird, and a stop of overexposure is very difficult to recover. The exposure of a neutral gray card would be the same regardless of the color of the bird, so manual exposure simply locks in the correct values.

In this image, the bird has a neutral tone but is lit by full sun against a dark reflected background. In automated modes without exposure compensation, the bird tends to be overexposed with blown highlights. Manual exposure mode locks in the exposure for a sunlit bird regardless of the background.

Harris Neck NWR

Harris Neck NWR

Size of the subject in the frame
A small bird in a distant landscape essentially becomes an exposure for the landscape. Zoom in or move closer to that same subject, and the color of the bird starts to influence the exposure read by the camera. Fill the frame with that same subject, and the color of the bird or even parts of the bird dominate the exposure. If a bird starts out far away, and gradually moves closer until if fills the frame, you need to maintain the same exposure settings – either with exposure compensation or just using manual exposure. The size of a neutral gray card makes no difference in the exposure if you are metering on the gray card. Manual exposure locks in the correct exposure value regardless of how you frame the subject.

The first image in this pair shows a yellowlegs that is small in the frame, so the overall exposure is based on the green background. The second image shows a very dark glossy ibis that is large in the frame, which would tend to require exposure compensation in an automated mode.

Harris Neck NWR

Harris Neck NWR

Harris Neck NWR

The background is the counterpart to the subject filling the frame. The amount of background in the frame, and the lightness or darkness of the background can have a large impact on exposure. Consider the same subject with dark bushes as a background – and then consider it with the light blue sky as a background. In semi-automated modes, the bird will tend to be overexposed with a dark background, and underexposed with a light sky. Manual exposure locks in the correct exposure value so changes in the background don’t cause a change in the exposure.

This pair of images shows the same birds in the same pass just a few seconds apart. Only the background has changed. But with an automated mode, the difference would require a full stop of exposure compensation to account for the light on the subject being unchanged.

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

Royal Tern

Manual exposure mode eliminates all these issues. It provides a constant exposure value as long as the light stays the same. If the light changes, you probably need to make adjustments. Let’s look at the most common ways to set the exposure.

Using Manual Exposure
If you normally use Aperture Priority, an easy way to find the right exposure settings is to simply meter the scene in your normal manner and take a test shot. If necessary adjust exposure compensation and take additional test images until your exposure is correct. Then set the camera in Manual mode for the same aperture and shutter speed settings you found to be correct. The exposure indicator may or may not be centered. Normally it indicates a correct exposure, but it depends on all the variables that influence whether your exposure is correct or not – especially framing the scene. So it is only used to provide perspective on the impact of changing light and make additional quick adjustments.

Another common way to determine the manual exposure settings is to meter the subject or another element in the same light and adjust if necessary. Ideally you would use something in the same light that has a neutral tone – a gray card, foliage, etc. This provides a good starting point for the correct exposure and then you will take a test image to confirm the settings. If you have a pure white subject such as a great egret, you can spot meter on the white subject and add +2 stops as a starting point. An easy technique if you want to photograph a pure white subject at f/4 in manual exposure mode is to adjust your aperture two stops before you spot meter. Set the aperture for f/8 and meter the scene to find the shutter speed. Then change the aperture back to f/4 thereby making your two stop adjustment.

Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine

There is no perfect exposure mode for all situations. The camera does a fantastic job with automating functions and freeing you up to make well composed images. But Manual exposure mode does have a place, and is frequently my choice for photographing birds. It has limits and would not necessarily be my choice in changing light, but when light is consistent, it’s a good option.

We’ve discussed the use of Manual mode for bird photography, but the same issues and techniques apply to other situations. For example, Manual mode is useful for sports, especially when team colors are different or backgrounds are changing. It could also be used for weddings where the bride is wearing white or ivory and the groom is wearing black or other dark colors. Consider manual mode to be one of your tools and use it when appropriate.


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Most modern Nikon and Canon cameras have a neat but underutilized feature – in-camera multiple exposure.  This is a handy feature that has lots of uses, so here’s a quick primer.  I’ll cover how the function works and demonstrate a couple of common uses.  We’re going to look at two situations.  In this blog we’ll look at how to use the multiple exposure function to have a longer effective exposure without using ND filters.

One of my favorite techniques for photographing water is to use the multiple exposure function instead of a neutral density filter.   There are several situations where this applies.  The most common is you simply did not bring a neutral density filter and need a longer exposure.   You might also be in a situation where you want the effect of a longer exposure than can be used – such wanting a 20 second exposure without the curl of breaking waves, but the waves are breaking on a five second cycle.  Or you might not have a strong enough ND filter – such as using a Variable ND filter but trying to avoid unevenness that comes with maximum ND.

Here is an example.  The first image is a five second exposure of a coastal scene at sunset.  The image was made with a D800E and exposure settings of 5 seconds, f/16, and Lo 1.0 ISO.  The only way to lengthen the exposure was to raise aperture, and this would introduce a dark band in the image from the curl of the waves.   Note that there is a clear texture to the foam in the water.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park / False Klamath Cove

5 seconds, f/16, ISO 50  – False Klamath Cove

The second image is the result of a 9 image in-camera multiple exposure with exactly the same settings for each image – 5 seconds, f/16, and ISO Lo 1.0.  This resulted in cumulative exposure of 45 seconds which creates a very soft, gauzy effect for the water and without any breaking waves.  In addition to the cumulative effect of the actual exposures, there was also time between exposures because each exposure was manually triggered.

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park / False Klamath Cove

9 frame in-camera multiple exposure  – each 5 sec, f/16, ISO 50 – False Klamath Cove

Setting up Multiple Exposures

The process for creating an in camera multiple exposure is very easy, but the first time through it may be confusing.  We’ll walk through the steps involved.  Keep in mind the camera menus may be a little different, but the ideas are consistent.


It’s better to use a cable release and a tripod for multiple exposures.  You can usually use Exposure Delay Mode instead of a cable release, but you may need to account for the time between frames.  Mirror Lock Up may be useful in some situations.


  1. Under the Shooting Menu – select Multiple Exposure
  2. Select the Multiple Exposure Mode and scroll right to see the menu options
  3. Select either a single Multiple Exposure or a series

Note: It’s usually better to select On (single photo) rather than On (series) because invariably you will forget that you had a series selected and will ruin some subsequent images by taking multiple exposures by mistake.

  1. Select the Number of Shots for your multiple exposure

The number of exposures possible varies by camera model.  The number you want to select depends on the desired effect.  Depending on the camera the options are usually 1-10 or 1-3.

  1. Set Auto Gain to On in order to average the exposures

Auto Gain simply averages the exposures together.  In the film days, you’d need to manually calculate the exposure times to account for the cumulative impact.  Digital cameras do the math for you, but you could turn off Auto Gain and make your own calculations for the weight of each exposure.

  1. Go to the Tools Menu and turn off Long Exposure Noise Reduction.

Long Exposure Noise Reduction adds to the time between images, so in most cases it’s better to turn it off.  This step is not required but usually makes a better image.

The settings for the Canon cameras are similar.  You would choose “Average” rather than Auto Gain On.  But the technique works in essentially the same manner and produces a single file in the camera.

If you are using multiple exposures instead of a ND filter, you can calculate the equivalent exposure based on the number of stops.  Two exposures is double the time or one stop, four exposures is two stops, and eight exposures is three stops.  Keep in mind these are rough estimates because in some cases there is an impact on the equivalent exposure from the time between images.

Now you are ready to create your multiple exposure image.  Simply trigger the shutter in the usual manner.  I usually use Exposure Delay Mode set for one second rather than Mirror Lockup or a Cable Release.

I usually set my camera for Single Images so each individual exposure is triggered with a press of the shutter.  It’s usually best to count the number of images that make up the multiple exposure.  If you select Continuous High or Continuous Low the camera will fire the entire sequence with a single press of the shutter.  That can be convenient, but you give up precise control and may introduce some mirror vibration.

As each individual exposure is completed, you’ll see the green light on the back of the camera which indicates the image is being processed.  After the final exposure, you’ll see the green light a second time as the image is written to the memory card.

Compared to ND filters

Multiple Exposures can be used instead of weak ND filters or in addition to a ND filter.  If all you need is a few stops, multiple exposures provide a good alternative.   But that’s not the only reason.

  • To blur fast moving clouds, multiple exposures with minimal time between exposures can simulate a ND filter.
  • Some ND filters pick up a color cast at 10 stops or beyond. Multiple exposures can be used for a series of shorter exposures and less color cast.
  • Multiple exposures can be used in combination with circular polarizers and other tools with less risk of vignetting.

There are a number of different ways you can use the in-camera Multiple Exposure.  For the sake of time, we’re just covering one technique here.  My most frequently used technique is to use multiple exposures with a Circular Polarizer and Lo 1.0 ISO for photographing streams.  The CP provides an additional 1-2 stops to slow the exposure as well as cutting bright reflections on foliage or water.   Another technique is to use it for close up flower photography by having one frame correctly exposed, then a second frame underexposed by one stop and defocused to create a soft blur behind the sharp flower.  For wildlife photographers, a multiple exposure burst of 1/30 sec. images while Continuous High can provide an interesting abstract of a bird taking off or flying.

Eric is a professional nature photographer leading workshops, providing private instruction, and selling fine art prints.  For more about Eric, visit www.bowlesimages.com .


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We’ve all done it.  You hear about a great photography location – start thinking about going there – and next thing you know you are planning a trip for photography to a place you’ve never visited.  It’s a great idea, but its not a simple effort.  The last thing you want to do is visit a location and not end up with great photos.  What is the purpose of the trip – vacation, personal photography, photography business, etc?  Where do you stay?  What time of year should you be there?  Where exactly do you go and what time of day is best?  What can you do that is unique or interesting?  Are there special location specific equipment needs?  What will it cost?

Jekyll Island - Historic Landing Sunset

Trip Purpose

Planning starts with the purpose of a trip.  If I am planning a photography trip, then getting great images drives the agenda.  If I am planning a vacation with some photographs, my time is more balanced with family time, limited photography, and more time in museums and other places of interest.  A photography business trip starts with trip goals, budget and economics – I have to get the images, scout the locations, and get everything done in the least time possible.  Each trip is different, but we’ll focus here on planning a photography oriented trip.

Italy Veneto_78258_20110313

Area Research

I start planning by researching the general area.   As a nature photographer, I want to know what parks and natural sites are in the area and could be included in my itinerary.  Typically I start the planning with one or two key areas – parks, cities, regions, etc. – and then add the smaller or secondary locations that fill in the trip.  What are my choices?  Today, research usually begins on the internet.  I start with using Google maps to get a general idea of the area.  The map view shows the area, significant towns and cities, major roads, and most parks and natural areas.  This gives me an overall perspective of the area and the relative distances.  For general planning, I’ll go to TripAdvisor, Fodor’s, and Frommers to get an idea of the most important activities and sights for the area.  All of these resources provide some sort of ranking of the “best” places to see, visit, stay and eat.  I typically set up a folder for bookmarks to remember good links.  I also create a Word document for my itinerary and copy and paste material for future reference.

Italy Veneto_78372_20110314

Location Research

Once I get closer to deciding where I want to go, I investigate the key attractions in more depth.  For National Parks, of the best books on national park photography are the Audubon and AAA guides by Tim Fitzharris.  Laurent Matres has an excellent series of photography guides (many with co-authors but the same format) with volumes for individual states of the west.  Martres’ books do a great job of rating photo attractiveness and difficulty of reaching the locations.  I’ll use these resources and Google maps to lay out a tentative itinerary of the major sight and photo opportunities.  This gives me an idea of how many days are required for each location, and how I’ll spend my time – the framework for the itinerary.

Monument Valley

Optimal Time to Visit

Given the rough itinerary, I want to start thinking about key images.  For most parks, there are key species of wildlife and plants that are important for photography.  If I’m in Yellowstone, I want bison.  If I’m in the Smokies, I want summer or fall bears, late spring through fall deer, spring flowers, or fall foliage.  If I’m in Arches, I want late spring flowers.  Each area has favorite times of year and subjects and you plan your trip accordingly.  You don’t want to visit a the Smokies expecting to photograph bears and deer in April when they look ragged due to a harsh winter and shedding fur.  For wading birds, the mating and nesting season is March through June in the southern states, so don’t expect much activity in November if you visit the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.

St Aug Alligator_103349_20120507

Daily Itinerary

Once I have my rough itinerary and a list of locations, I start organizing the trip.  Sunrise and sunset locations are important for each day and they tend to be in prime locations.  I also want to schedule visits to key areas, attractions, etc.  Any key activities are planned and scheduled.  Putting things on an itinerary starts to give me a sense of scheduling and drive times required.  Often this is where I start to make decisions on how much I can do in a day and what to exclude.  Don’t forget to look at the lunar calendar, sunrise and sunset times, and tidal charts – I add these times to every itinerary – even most personal trips.  Finally – you can’t do everything.  It’s better to focus on a smaller area and reduce driving and travel time than to spread yourself to thin across a large area.  Around this point you need to decide whether guides are needed.  Some locations work well with a guide – such as Monument Valley for access into restricted areas, or the Okefenokee to head out by canoe into unfamiliar swamps.

Shute Bear Refug_085526_20110826

Image planning

The next layer is nailing down the itinerary for each day and the planned shooting locations.  An itinerary is never set in stone and needs flexibility, but I want to go in with a definite plan and alternatives.  For example, I might find a location is better or worse than expected and need to adjust.  At this point I work through expected drive times to each location, how long I expect to be in a location, and when I need to leave and move to he next stop.  I don’t want to be rushed, but I don’t want to miss key stops because I spent too much time in a location without a good reason.   One good tool for planning images is The Photographers Ephemeris.  This app for iOS and Android provides sunrise, sunset, moonrise, and moonset data overlaid on a map.  This is a great tool to plan specific angles for your images.

Invariably, you lay out an itinerary and expected times and decide that things need to be shifted around.  It’s far better to make those decisions in advance and adjust accordingly than to be scrambling onsite.  Often I need to switch the order of certain days.  I might build in extra time to account for weather.  On a trip to Maine to photograph puffins, I planned and booked two days to the same location knowing that rough seas and weather could easily disrupt plans.  I got lucky and ended up with two days of shooting, while a friend traveling later that week had his trip cancelled.

Machias Seal Is29158-20080708

Image ideas

Lots of photographers use Flickr to get an idea of typical images from a location.  I don’t – the quality of images on Flickr tends to be very mixed and you have to look at lots of images to get to the good ones.  500px and others are similarly of mixed quality.  Google maps again comes in handy because it is possible to see photos with specific location data overlaid on a map.  Instead, I tend to use stock agency sites such as Getty, Shutterstock, and even regional stock agencies like KAC Productions.  The amount of time I spend here depends a lot on the location.  I want a general idea of a location – for example – what kind of mountains are their in the Badlands.  I may not have specific location detail, but at least get an idea of successful images for an area.  Finally – I tend to look at images from other photographers – particularly well known photographers in the area.


Restaurants and Lodging

A trip is not complete without some perspective on food and lodging.  You might be camping – but you need a campsite.  Tripadvisor.com is a good source for food and lodging recommendations.  I use the TripAdvisor app for my iPhone to find good recommendations in the field.  I like to eat well when I travel, and finding good restaurants within my budget is part of the planning process.  Don’t forget to check seasonal hours and closing times since your choices can be very limited when you return to town after a sunset shoot.

Closing Thoughts

It’s great when a plan comes together.  A couple of years ago we planned a personal trip to Venice that included photography.  But by exploring the area, we found a wonderful wine region just to the north – the Prosecco region.  Our research turned up a 100 year old winery and farm that provided lodging.  Not only did we enjoy exploring the food and wine of the region, but we got some great photos.  Including this scene from the window of our room one rainy morning.

Italy Veneto_78372_20110314


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In the night skies we’ve got a great photo subject – the moon.  There are a few tricks to getting good photos of the moon.  Our context is the full moon – but the techniques apply to the moon throughout the lunar cycle.

The rule of thumb for exposure is Moony 11 – a version of the Sunny 16 rule. In Manual exposure mode, start with f/11 and shutter speed equal to ISO. So start at ISO 400, 1/400 sec, and f/11. Then back off aperture a stop or so with a corresponding adjustments. So you might use f/8, ISO 200, and 1/400 sec. You can drop the exposure by a little with a slightly faster shutter speed if needed to make sure you don’t blow out the moon, but this should be pretty close.

The moon moves, so you don’t want too slow a shutter speed with a long lens. Anything in the normal range of 1 over the focal length should be fine. So with a 300mm range, you want 1/300 of a second or faster. This is one of the reasons I don’t stop down my aperture beyond f/11. Plus – you don’t need more depth of field unless you have a foreground element.

The basis for the Moony 11 rule is that the moon is in full sun, so it is pretty close to Sunny 16.

Use the longest lens you own – or at least 300mm if possible. Even at 300mm, the moon looks small in the frame.

Since you are probably going to be locked down on a tripod, turn off any kind of VR or image stabilization. Use a cable release or shutter delay. My image here used Exposure Delay mode set for 2 seconds instead of a cable release or mirror lock up.

Auto Focus on the moon usually works, but you might use Live View to make sure your focus is on the money. Since the moon is small, you’ll probably crop severely to fill the frame.

A couple of days before or after the full moon are nice because you can use some daylight. Just keep in mind, the light on the moon is still pretty close to “Moony 11”, so exposures won’t vary much. Even with a crescent moon, the light on the portion you see is still full sun so stay with Moony 11.

Here is a sample image from last month. This was taken about an hour before sunset – and there was still blue in the sky. I used a Nikon D800E, Nikon 600 f/4 lens, and exposure settings of f/5.6, 1/800 sec, and ISO 200. The image was underexposed by two stops from Moony 11 to create a black sky.

Jekyll Island

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