Basic settings for Wildlife, Birds, and Macro

Baltimore Oriole with the Nikon P900

When teaching my Point and Shoot Nature Photography workshops I spend a few hours on the basic set-up of a camera for wildlife, bird, and macro shots, running through the menus on several different cameras, depending on what the participants have. I have had many requests to condense this information into an article here. The problem is, of course, that different cameras have different settings, and even if they have the same feature, it might well be called something different…and it will certainly be found in some other section of the menu, functions, or controls. The best I can do is to run down through the Nikon P series menu, with hints on where to find the feature or function on other makes where and when I know. 🙂

  1. Set the control dial to P (Programmed Auto)
    Program works exactly the same way as Auto, selecting the balance of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO for correct exposure. It does, however, allow you a bit more control over things like where the scene is metered for exposure, where the camera is going to focus, and light values when the scene is not well balanced in itself. (To be fair, modern Auto Programs do an excellent job with a wide range of scenes, but almost all of them use “wide area” or “multi-spot” focus…the camera decides what you might be thinking of focusing on…and that is death for wildlife photography. Reason enough to use Program.)
  2. Open the menu system (generally with a Menu button. On Canon cameras, some of these features are in the Function Menu, not the main menu, and on Nikon and Sony cameras they may be more easily accessed through the Function button than in the main menu.)
    1. Set Image Quality to Fine (or whatever the highest setting is). This will improve your image quality, but at the cost of writing larger files to the SD card. It is still a good trade. (For Canon cameras, this is in the Function menu, not the main menu. Press the center button of the control wheel on the back, and scroll down to Image Quality. )
    2. Set Image size to “full size” or “large” (also in the Function Menu on Canons)
    3. Nikon has several Picture Control programs which determine how your jpeg is processed in the camera. Set Picture Control to “Standard”. Sony calls this feature “Creative Style” (Again, a similar setting in the Function menu on Canons).
    4. Leave White balance on Auto (Function menu on Canons)
    5. Exposure area/mode (might be called Metering). On Nikons it is in center by default in Program, and you can not change it. On Canons, it is in function menu, and you want “center”. This biases the exposure for you subject, which for wildlife is generally near the center of the frame. Even when it is not, shift your aim and half press the shutter release to lock both focus and exposure on your subject, then while still holding the shutter release half way down, move the subject to where you want it in the frame.
    6. Continuous (or Continuous Shooting). I find that for birds and other active wildlife you do not need more than 2-6 frames per second. Set it to Low Speed Continuous. (again in the Function Menu on Canons).
    7. ISO. Leave it on auto. That will ensure that you get the highest shutter speed and the widest aperture at the lowest ISO possible for each shot.
    8. Auto-focus Area (or something similar). This is where you set the area on which the camera will focus. Choose the smallest, or next to smallest area in the center of the frame. Smallest will give you the most control, but next to smallest will focus faster in most situations. (Main menu on Canons. It is set to Flexispot by default, which is a small movable square in the center of the frame. Once selected, you can make the square smaller by hitting the Focus button (upper right corner of the back of the camera with 4 arrows pointing to the four corners of the button on it) This will wake up the movable spot. While it is showing, press the Display button to change the square to its smaller size).
    9. Autofocus mode. You can generally choose either single shot, or full time. Full time uses more battery, but ensures that the camera will begin to focus as it comes up to your eye and will find focus faster. For wildlife it is well worth the extra battery drain (buy spares and keep them charged in your day bag).
    10. Noise Reduction Filter. Nikon gives you three choices. You will get the most detail if you set it to Low.  Canon and Sony only allow you to control High ISO Noise Reduction, but again, to preserve detail, set it to Low.
    11. Active Dynamic Lighting (or Dynamic Range Optimization on the Sonys). This is function that analyzes the image before you take it to determine if the shadows are going to go black or if you are going to lose detail in the whites and brights. It automatically tones down the brights, and pumps up the shadows as the image in is processed in the camera, and removes almost all need for you to worry about exposure. Set to at least the Normal setting (or mid, or Auto, depending on the brand). On some Canon cameras this is called iContrast or Contrast Control, and it is found, again, in the function menu. On the newest Canon P&Ss it is split into Highlight Control and Shadow Control. Set both to Auto.
    12. If I have not mentioned a setting that you see in your menu, leave it on the default setting, as it came from the factory.
  3. Set your EV Exposure Compensation (generally accessed by one of the wheel sides on the Multi-function control wheel on the back of the camera…it has a +/- in a square box, black on white and white on black) to -.3 or negative 1/3. This will tone down the highlights in every image, saving detail in bright areas.
  4. On some cameras there is a separate setting for macro shots or macro focus. It might be in the scene modes, or it might be accessed through a button on the camera, or by pressing one edge of the multi-function control wheel on the back. The button or control will generally have a flower on it. Once pressed you should have to option of Auto Focus, Infinity Focus (a mountain symbol) or Macro (the flower). The Sonys feature continuous macro focus. Do not leave your focus set to macro. On some cameras this will limit the distance you can be from your subject, and on others it will just make the focus motor work harder. Again, on the Sonys it does not matter as there is on separate macro setting. 

Muskrat, Nikon P900

Your camera will remember these Program settings, even if you turn the camera off, or switch the control dial to some other setting than Program. As soon as you come back to Program, these settings will be in effect until you change them in the Menu or Function Menu.

Many cameras, however, have a User Memory, or Custom Setting. It is the U on the Nikon Control Dial, or C1 or C2 on Canon, or MR on Sony. For wildlife shooting, I set all the settings above, then zoom my zoom to full zoom (telephoto), open the Menu once more and find Save User Settings (or something similar…Sony calls it Memory, Canon Custom Settings). On Nikons you have only one user memory. Choosing Save User Settings will store all your current settings, plus zoom position, so that when you are in another mode and want to quickly reset for camera for wildlife, all you have to do is rotate the Control Dial to U. When saving settings in Canon or Sony, you have 2 memories in Canon, and 3 in Sony. You get to choose where you save the settings above, and then you can access them…on Canons, by choosing C1 or C2 on the Control Dial, in Sonys, by choosing MR on the Control Dial, and then selecting the correct memory in the screen that comes up. On Sonys you can also get to the Memory settings, when the Control Dial is in MR, through the Function button.

So that’s it. Quick settings for wildlife, birds, and macro.


2 thoughts on “Basic settings for Wildlife, Birds, and Macro”

  1. Extraordinarily helpful! (I would have posted a comment on the blog page, but didn’t see anywhere to do so.)

    I have basically plugged in your settings (plus used the birdwatchers scene to zoom the camera to 800mm) and saved them under “U”.

    Then I turned the camera off, set it on P and undid many of the wildlife settings so that I have on P my scenery and flowers setting and on U my wildlife settings.

    Thanks again for the blog.

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