A Little Help from my Lens

Last year at the Photography show I bought a Sigma 150-600mm lens for my camera and the docking station to go with it. I also upgraded my camera body to the 7DMkII at the same time. And for those wondering, a body upgrade, MkI to MkII, and a lens upgrade, 150-500mm to 150-600mm, is just/only that, an upgrade. It is not new as such. That’s my excuse anyway – “It’s just an upgrade.”

With the docking station I can program the 2 custom settings on the lens. It took me a little while to work out what I might use it for. My main subject, especially with that lens, is wildlife and I find myself often trying to take photos of birds in flight. There are a number of times on Baildon Moor when I see Kestrels, Red Kite or, on some occasions, Barn Owls.

Usually I have my camera set to centre spot focusing triggered by the back button and most of the other things set to auto, P, or standard. Using a spread of focus points will often result in focusing on the “wrong” part of the image. There are times when I want to photograph flying birds above me. My normal settings can struggle with that. Often simply getting the bird in the viewfinder is hard enough without the effort of getting the centre spot on it and focusing. Birds against a sky would also be simple silhouettes if I didn’t dial in some over exposure.

Cue some custom settings.

Lens Settings

Using the docking station I have programmed C1 on the lens.

Flying birds that I want to photograph are seldom close to me, also if they are in the distance then they are too small to bother with.

Focus distance limiting is set to be between 8m and less than infinity. The idea of this is that the lens does not try to focus on the clouds and the closer limit stops it hunting unnecessarily and so should focus reasonably quickly.

I want the camera to focus as quickly as possible so the option that says “Prioritize speed to reach the focus point as quickly as possible.” seems the option to go for.

If I leave the optical stabilisation on then I want it to operate smoothly. Ideally I should remember to turn it off because I can be moving the camera in every direction. The OS2 setting on the lens is if you are panning horizontally – which I might want if it is a low flying duck or a Kingfisher.

Camera Settings

There are three custom positions on the mode dial of my camera and I have set C1 to go with the C1 setting on the lens.

The most important setting for the camera in this mode is the exposure compensation. It is set to plus 2 stops to compensate for most of the frame being bright sky. Without that the birds would probably be silhouettes and I would struggle to get detail out of them later. The chances are that I will be looking at the shaded side of the bird and also with the majority of the image being sky the camera would be thinking the whole subject was bright. You often need to do the same thing when shooting in snow – everything else, apart from the snow, can look dark.

To then make it more likely that I get focus I have the AF point selection set to its maximum of 65 points. The chances of me getting a centre point on the bird and then focusing are minimal – getting the bird in the viewfinder is difficult enough.

I have used these custom settings a few times now. The most recent was yesterday on a birding walk on Bracken Hall Green and Baildon Moor. I did a blog post, with photos, about it here.

I am wondering about modifying these settings but I will probably have a go with them a few more times before deciding. A few times I have reduced the exposure when processing so perhaps I don’t need so much compensation. If the images are over exposed then one or more of the aspects of the exposure triangle were contributing to a reduced quality image. A slower shutter speed than needed would increase motion blur. A larger aperture than needed would reduce clarity and the depth of field. An aperture of around f11 gives the best clarity. The “film” speed (ISO) used would be higher than needed and so contribute to noise and “grain”. At the moment with C1 the camera shutter rate is set to “high speed continuous” I may change that to “silent continuous shooting”. Most birds would not be affected by the shutter clatter but a field quartering and hunting Barn Owl might.

Shooting in RAW gives me some leeway on exposure but I find that it can be more difficult to recover from dark shots than it is with light shots.

I would be happy to hear from people that have tried different things.

One Reply to “A Little Help from my Lens”

  1. You have obviously put a great deal of thought into your camera settings and I have to concur with your settings Paul. Though not a big fan of bird photography I do like to ‘try my hand’ occasionally with a visit to the Rodley nature reserve or Adel Dam. On the other hand much of what you have said about focusing and exposure compensation also applies to getting the shot at airs shows. Keep on rocking with the blog. Always a good read.

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