Foundational Terms

These are the terms behind everything that is important and confusing about operating a DSLR.

  • Exposure: Measure of how exposed to light your image is (how much light is let in, how it is processed, and for how long). In a basic sense, if your picture is overexposed, it is too bright and if it is underexposed, it is too dark. An optimal exposure is somewhere in the middle and is considered the ideal lighting for your image. However professional photographers often stay away from optimal exposure and instead adjust exposure according to each situation – for example, sometimes a photographer wants a sunset image to be on the darker side and will adjust Exposure settings to ensure the image is underexposed. Adjusting Exposure involves tinkering with ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed settings (see below).

ISO: Is the camera’s ability to manipulate light. As you increase ISO you are ordering the camera to capture (create) more light, which is sometimes necessary in situations with insufficient lighting. There is a consequence to increasing ISO however – as the additional processing of light will make your images less crisp and will add grain (image fuzziness). If you decrease ISO you are ordering your camera to capture less light (or telling it that is doesn’t need to create additional light) (note minimum is ISO 100). A low ISO is ideal because the lack of processing will lead to crisp, detailed images (minimal grain) and optimum colors. Obviously, ISO awareness is always on the mind of the photographer – who must constantly consider quality of light when taking photographs. While ISO can be manually adjusted, it strongly recommended that beginners use the AUTO ISO feature, as ISO usually needs constant adjustment, which can be quite challenging.

What to remember: Sufficiently lit environment = Low ISO, which = Crisp, Detailed Image. Insufficiently lit environment = Need for High ISO, which = Grainy, Less Detailed Image. For advice on what lighting is best for bird photography see: Lighting & Bird Photography

  • Aperture: Is the size of the opening in the camera lens, a large aperture enables maximum light to pass through into the lens, a small aperture restricts the amount of light that passes into to the lens. More light leads to more brightness, crispness, better details, and vivid colors – in other words a higher quality image, so in most cases a large aperture is preferable to a small aperture. Aperture size is stated in terms of “f-stops” – which is the letter f, followed by a slash, and then a number. The smaller the number, the larger the opening. So, for example, the f-stop: f/4 has a larger opening (and thus allows more light to pass through) than the f-stop: f/8.

Aperture size also has a significant effect on depth of field – which is the amount of space in the photo that is in focus. A small aperture leads to a shallow (smaller) depth of field, this means that only a portion of the photo will be in focus, that portion will be the subject (in the case of a bird photography – the bird), the rest of the background will be out of focus and blurry – this phenomenon allows the subject to stand out and attract the center of attention. A large aperture leads to a deep (larger) depth of field, this means that most of the photo – subject and background – will be in focus. Depth of field decision making depends on what the photographer’s intention are – if they are just trying to capture the essence of the subject, than the larger the aperture the better, if they are trying to capture the essence of an entire scene, than the smaller the aperture the better.

Shutter Speed: Is the amount of time the shutter (the opening in the cameras lens) opens to expose the camera (specifically the image sensor) to light. The faster the shutter speed, the more time the shutter stays open and allows light to pass through, the slower the shutter speed, the less time the shutter stays open and allows light to pass through. Shutter speeds are expressed in seconds and fractions of seconds – such as: 1 / 4 s of a second (which is a very slow shutter speed) or 1 / 2000 s (which a very fast shutter speed).

Shutter speed considerations are most important when it comes to photographing motion. As a fast shutter speed (such 1/2000 s) will freeze motion, which leads to minimal blur. This happens for two reason: 1. Subject Blur is minimized: the subject can only move so much in the duration that the shutter is open and 2. Camera Blur is minimized: the hand shake of the photographer holding the camera can only make so much of an impact in the duration that the shutter is open. Obviously, a slower shutter speed will struggle to freeze a subject in motion because the subject will spend more time in motion (motion blur) during the extended duration that the shutter is open. The impact of the hand shake of photographer (camera blur - which is inevitable, unless a tripod is used) will also be maximized with a slow shutter speed. Keep in mind however, that blur in a photography is sometimes intentional – for creative or story-telling purposes. A shutter speed of 1/500 is a solid recommendation for bird photography.

Fast Shutter Speed = Motion Blur & Camera Blur minimized = Frozen Subject

Slow Shutter Speed = Motion Blur & Camera Blur increased = Blurry Subject

Exposure Modes

Adjusting exposure through ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed is done through the adjustment of DSLR settings and modes. There are four different exposure modes, which are:

  • AUTO ISO: In Auto ISO, the camera will automatically set the ISO to what it believes will produce an optimally exposed image. In Auto ISO, the photographer can set a maximum ISO, which will prevent the camera from increasing past a specified ISO. The photographer can also prevent the camera from decreasing past a specified ISO by setting a Minimum ISO. Since ISO is often the exposure setting that most often needs adjusting, enabling ISO to be set automatically (but with limits to how high or low it can go) – is really a powerful tool that is used by experienced and even professional photographers. If you want to adjust ISO manually – you turn off Auto ISO, and make the adjustment by pressing down on the fn button while turning turning the knob.
  • Full Auto Mode: In Full Auto Mode, the camera automatically sets all three exposure settings – Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO – to what it believes will produce an optimally exposed image. In Full Auto Mode, the photographer does not have to adjust any settings, they just point and shoot. The upside is that the photographer doesn’t have to do any technical adjustments, the downside is that the photographer is ceding control over the creative process to the camera itself. While the image may be optimally exposed it may not capture exactly what (in terms of aspects like details, colors, crispness, and blur) the photographer intended. Cameras are getting better and better at taking excellent images in Full Auto Mode but they will never be able to frame the picture exactly as the photographer sees it in his or her mind. Still it is the recommended option for beginners, since the most important thing you can do after getting a DSLR – is to simply get out in the field and take pictures.
  • Aperture Priority Mode: In Aperture Priority Mode, the photographer sets the aperture manually, while the camera, based on the selected aperture, automatically sets a shutter speed that will optimally expose the image. This mode is recommended for photographers who are taking images of stationary (or still) subjects because it allows them to control aspects directly related to image quality (especially crispness) as well as depth of field.
  • Shutter Priority Mode: In Shutter Priority Mode, the photographer sets the shutter speed manually, while the camera, based on the selected shutter speed, automatically sets an aperture that will optimally expose the image. This mode is recommended for photographers who are taking images of subjects that are in motion and who either wants to freeze or create a blur effect of that motion.
  • Program Mode: In Program Mode (which is the least-used of all exposure modes), the camera automatically sets aperture and shutter speed to what it believes is optimum exposure based on lighting but the photographer has the option of adjusting the ISO.
  • Manual Mode: In Manual Mode, the photographer manually adjusts all three exposure settings – ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed. In other words, Manual Modes gives the photographer complete control over the image. Successfully adjusting in Manual Mode requires experience in determining how each of the exposure settings will impact the image – beginners are best off practicing in Aperture Priority Mode and Shutter Priority Mode before spending too much time in Manual Mode. Once they are aware of the intricacies of those modes, venturing into manual is recommended.

Info on Lenses

  • Focal Length: A photographic lens is characterized by its focal length, which is measured in millimeters. For example, a photographer who says they have a 18-55mm lens, is referring to the focal length of their lens. The only thing a photographer needs to understand about focal length is the impact it will have on their pictures. The first impact is the angle of view, which is how much of the scene will be captured in the image. Consideration of angle of view is particularly important in landscape photography. The second impact is magnification, which is how large individual elements in the scene will be, magnification is of particular importance to wildlife photography. Remember the smaller the focal length, the wider the angle of view. The longer the focal length, the stronger the magnification power. An overview of lens types is below:
  • There are two types of lenses – Prime and Zoom. Prime Lenses have a fixed focal length, Zoom Lenses have variable (more than one) focal lengths. The advantage to a Prime lens is that it built to only take pictures at one focal length – which makes it generally lighter and smaller than a Zoom lens. In addition, Prime Lenses tend to have larger apertures than Zoom lenses. Zooms Lenses are however much more popular due to their versatility, which for example, allows a photographer to snap a picture at a 300mm focal length and then at a 70mm focal length seconds later.
  • Zoom Lens Types:
  • Standard Kit Lens: A Standard Kit Lens is the lens that usually comes with your DSLR. The most common Standard Kit Lens size is 18-55mm and it is an excellent choice for basic photography needs – such as: taking pictures around the house, of people, or in other close-range settings. A Standard Kit Lens of that size can also can produce a wide angle of view – which can be valuable if the photographer is interested in landscape shots. Standard Kit Lenses are also more lightweight than telephoto lenses (see below), however they are limited in terms of magnification power.
  • Telephoto Lens: A telephoto lens features long focal lengths which can produce strongly magnified images. A lens with focal lengths between 100 to 300mm is considered telephoto, while a lens with focal lengths between 400 to 600mm (and beyond) is considered super telephoto. Telephoto lenses of both kinds are essentially required for wildlife photography – especially of birds. While magnification power increases with a telephotos lens, the photographer’s ability to shoot wide angle greatly diminishes. It is important to note that telephoto and especially super-telephoto lenses are quite large and heavy, which will make maneuverability more challenging as well increase the odds of camera blur (from hand shake).
  • Macro Lens: Designed specifically for close-up photography, Macro Lenses are revered for their ability to reproduce small image subjects (like insects and flowers) at a 1:1 reproduction ratio – which means the image captures the subject at its actual size and with great detail (a major technical advancement).
  • Wide Angle Lens: A Wide Angle Lens is a lens with short focal length, which enables it to produce images with a wide field of view. As mentioned above – a wide field of view enables the photographer to fill their image with a maximum amount of space – for this reason it is the ideal lens for landscape photography. Even better – most of the image should be in focus, which is often not the case with a telephotos lens. A lens with a focal length anything of less than 35mm is considered a Wide Angle Lens.

Other Important Terms & Topics

  • Auto-Focus: Mechanism that involves the camera automatically focusing on a selected subject or area. Autofocus is generally recommended for bird photography as manual focus can sometimes take too long and cause a photographer to miss a shot. Autofocus is a two-step process – the first step involves the photographer pointing the camera at the subject they want to capture, while pressing the shutter release button (the button used to snap the picture) halfway down. When you press the button halfway down you are telling the Auto-focus to focus on the subject you are aimed at. The second step involves pressing the shutter release button the rest of the way down – this will take the picture. Another option (which many photographers prefer) is to use back-button auto focus. Which involves pressing a button on the back camera to focus, instead of pressing the shutter button halfway. The photographers who prefer this style say that it allows them to focus on pictures more quickly than it does when using the shutter release.
  • Manual Focus: Involves manually turning the focus wheel (the wheel at the end of the lens) to focus in on a selected subject or area. While manual focus is not a complex or difficult task, it generally take longer to focus manually than it does automatically. Manual focus may also not be as precise as automatic focus – as it takes some time to master the process. Manual focus may be worth it when it comes to close-up (macro) photography – as the auto-focus mechanism will at times struggle to focus in on up-close subjects. Another time to consider using Manual Focus is when photographing birds in trees or other crowded settings – as auto-focus tends to struggle to focus in on a bird when there are many other potential subject points – like lots of branches and leaves. By manually focusing you can zero in on the bird without having to worry about the distractions.
  • Hand-Holding Camera: Most photographers shoot hand-held, that is they use their hands rather than a tripod to shot pictures. Shooting hand-held will inevitably lead to hand shake – which leads to disastrous-picture ruining camera blur. While hand-shake can never be completely reduced while shooting hand-held, there are certain steps photographers to drastically reduce it. Here are a few of those steps:
  • Increase Shutter Speed: The fast the shutter speed, the lesser the effects of hand-shake become. Think about it - your hand will shake a lot more in 1/20 s than it will in 1/1000 s.
  • Improve Your Stance to Improve Stability
  • Right hand holds the camera body, left hands holds the lens (or vice versa if your left-handed)
  • Bring camera directly up to right eye
  • Push your elbows against your sides or even bring them as close as possible to each other, this will allow your elbows to, in a sense mimic a tripod.
  • If possible, lay on the ground, as doing so will drastically reduce hand shake.
  • Vibration Reduction (VR): Vibration Reduction is an image stabilization feature that automatically reduces camera blur. Vibration Reduction can be the difference between a good image and a fantastic image – as blur is a detriment to image sharpness and quality. Since vibrations are magnified in telephoto lenses, VR is an important telephoto feature. Note that the Vibration Reduction feature is not included with all lenses.
  • Cleaning a DSLR Lens: The most important thing to remember when it comes to cleaning a DSLR lens is that they are not designed to be touched. Over-cleaning and too much contact is not good. Do all you can do avoid having to touch the lens – preventing a dirty lens should be a priority. Below are some tips on keeping your lens clean.
  • Apply the lens cap anytime the lens is not in use.
  • Don’t expose an uncapped lens to liquid or food
  • Take care not to leave fingerprints by touching an uncapped lens

Even if you are diligent about keeping the lens clean - dust, smudges, smears, and fingerprints will still make their way on to the lens at some point. Below is a process you can use to check and clean the lens if necessary.

  1. Inspect the lens for blemishes after every photography session or at least after every couple of photography sessions.
  2. If there is dust on the lens – feel free to use an Air Dust Blower, which will simply blow compressed air on the lens - removing dust in the process. Compressed air will not do any harm to the lens, so using an Air Dust Blower on a consistent basis shouldn’t be a concern. That said, don’t freak-out over dust, as it is not known to affect image quality.
  3. If there are more serious blemishes like fingerprints, smudges, smears, etc. lightly press a microfiber cloth onto the lens and using a circular motion gently remove the blemishes.
  4. If the blemishes persist, spray a lens cleaning solution onto a microfiber cloth (not on the lens directly), and using a circular motion gently try to remove the blemishes.
  5. Another lens cleaning tool is a Lens Pen, which includes a brush (for removing dirt and other small debris) on one end and a felt-like tip (for removing smudge stains, etc.) on the other.

Remember: Check your lenses for blemishes frequently but only act if necessary.

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