Debuting in 2015, the Sony a6000 Mirrorless Digital Camera is an affordable choice for amateur bird photographers. It delivers the high speed and image quality of a full DSLR camera, with the portability of a mirrorless: all for around $500 USD.
But if you’re new to interchangeable-lens cameras, all the settings can get a bit overwhelming. That’s why I’ve compiled this list of helpful tips for taking bird photos with your new camera.
1. Pick A Longer Lens
First and foremost, you’ll want to choose a good lens. Most Sony A6000 cameras come with a 16-50mm lens. Some also come with a 15-210mm lens. Unfortunately, with bird photography, these lenses won’t allow you to shoot much more than pigeons in the park, or a robin at your backyard feeder. For true bird photography, you’ll want to invest in a lens with a longer focal length, such as a 100-400mm or longer. After all, there’s no point in bothering to set your camera “just right” if the subject matter won’t even be visible because it’s too far away.
2. Use The AWB Setting
In the real world, our brains adjust for color temperature (the color emitted from a light source—like sun or a light bulb) allowing us to see colors similarly in both indoor and outdoor settings. A digital camera takes in the color temperature of the light source when snapping a shot: this is the reason images look yellow when taken inside or blue when using a flash. To make this more understandable, think of how different the world looks when viewing it through brown-lens sunglasses, than it does through red lenses. If you look at snow, or a white piece of paper while wearing red-red-lens glasses, the paper will take on a pink hue, while it will take on a more yellow hue if you look at it while wearing brown sunglasses.
The Automatic White Balance setting on a digital camera will automatically adjust the colors for each photo, in order to keep white looking, well, white. This will allow the color on your bird photos to come out accurate.
To turn on AWB on your Sony a6000: Push the Function (Fn) button, highlight the White Balance setting, and choose AWB.
3. Make Use Of Semi-automatic Modes
Fully-automatic doesn’t allow for control over exposure, so it’s best to use a semi-automatic mode. In situations where you want increased control over depth of field, you’ll want to use Aperture Priority (A), to increase or decrease the size of the aperture. The camera will then select the appropriate shutter speed to handle the chosen aperture size.
In the event that you use one of these settings, it’s also a good idea to turn on Auto ISO. ISO controls the brightness of your photo; the higher the number, the brighter the photo. If you remember using film, ISO is the digital equivalent to the number that was on the film canister. 100-speed film produced images that were crisper because they were less grainy, but they were also less sensitive to light, requiring longer exposure times. 800-speed film was more sensitive to light but had coarser grains. So while it needed a lower exposure time, it had an increased level of noise.
Because you so frequently will need to use a high shutter speed in bird photography, you’ll need to find a way to make your image brighter, since there might not be enough time for light to get in. Using Auto ISO allows you to change the speed or aperture, without having to consider how sensitive the photo needs to be.
In the event of low or high light, or the desire to blur or freeze action, you’ll want to use the Shutter Priority (S) mode. This will allow you to speed up or slow down the shutter speed while the camera selects the appropriate aperture.
On the Sony a6000, Aperture Priority is accessed by turning the top knob to A and Shutter Speed by turning the knob to S. Auto ISO can be enabled by clicking the right side of the control wheel (labeled ISO), and selecting ISO AUTO.
4. Always Use The Histogram
The histogram can be a bit intimidating if you’re new to photography, but it’s fairly easy to use once you understand it. Long and short, blacks are the left and whites are on the right, with mid-tones between the two. Key things to remember about the histogram: if there is a large spike touching the right side of the graph, there are portions of the image where highlights are “blown out,” meaning they are completely white, with no image detail. This cannot be fixed in post-processing, because there is quite literally no data being stored for that section of the image. This is where you’d use the A or S settings to adjust the exposure. It’s better to have parts of the image be completely black than completely white.
The reason it’s so important to use the Histogram is that the LCD screen on the camera can be misleading. The brightness of the screen in combination with the ambient light can cause you to believe that the image you’re about to take is under or over exposed. The Histogram provides you with more accurate exposure readings. While there is no right or wrong graphical representation of image exposure, there are some general rules of thumb with Histograms:
- Right-skewed: Overexposed, your image will be white washed, with areas of no detail
- Left-skewed: Underexposed, your image will have large areas of black with little to no detail
- Middle-skew: Probably good. So long as the color distribution is largely in the middle of the graph, your exposure will probably be fine
On your Sony a6000, access the histogram by toggling the Display Button a few times, until you see the Histogram pop up.
5. Adjust Exposure With Exposure Compensation
In most situations, your camera is going to aim to shoot in middle-grey (18% grey tones). In situations where your image is darker than middle-grey, your camera will think the scene is under-exposed, while with images that have less than 18% greys are ones where your camera will think there is overexposure. In both situations, your camera’s auto-settings will attempt to adjust for this.
Your goal is to properly expose the subject, not the background. Your camera’s auto-exposure does the best it can, by properly exposing the entirety of the frame. But in most situations, the subject is only taking up a portion of the frame.
If you’re attempting to take a shot of a snowy scene, and you allow your camera to auto-adjust the focus, the snow comes out grey looking, instead of a beautiful, glistening white. By using Exposure Compensation, you can correct for this. On a snowy scene, throw in a touch “overexposure” to get that snow to sparkle.
This is especially useful in bird photography, as you may have many times where the image you’re trying to capture is against a bright blue background–the sky.
On your Sony a6000 camera, use Exposure Compensation by hitting the +/- button. +1 will overexpose by one stop, while -1 will underexposeexpose by one stop.
6. Turn On The Zebra Pattern
Affectionatly known as Blinkies, the Hightlight Indicator, paired with Exposure Compensation and the Histogram, will ensure the best exposure possible. On Sony cameras, Blinkies are indicated by a Zebra pattern instead. When turned on, in areas of the image where the brightness level creates a huge area of white (blown-out), a Zebra Pattern will appear.
After using the Histogram, if you’re questioning whether your image might be overexposed, check for Zebras. If you do need to make adjustments, do so through Exposure Compensation as mentioned above.
To turn on the Hightlight Indicator on your Sony a6000, go to Menu > Custom Settings (the gear icon) > [Zebra] and pick your desired setting. To avoid a white subject becoming grey, try setting the Zebra between 90 and 95. To avoid too much sunlight, while outside, without focusing on white subject matter, try a setting between 70 and 80.
7. Make Proper Use Of Auto-Focus
Sometimes birds sit still, like when they’re perching for a snooze, but most of the time they’re moving about, whether pecking at the ground, flying through the air, or paddling in the pond. For non-moving birds, Single-Shot/One-Shot Auto Focus (AF-S) is going to be best, but if you want to catch one mid-flight, you’re better off with Continuous Servo AF (AF-C).
For the Sony a6000, this is where the Lock ON function comes in handy, as it’s designed to maintain focus as you track a moving object. To set this on, push the C1 (Custom Function) button on the top right of your camera. This will bring up the focus-mode menu, where you’ll select AF-C. Then, on the back of the camera, push the Function (Fn) button, highlight the option for Focus Area, and select a wide focus area. Last, you’ll want to Lock this. So push the Menu button, go to the first tab, page 5, and then down to Lock-On AF. The LCD screen will then produce a small box in the center of the screen. You’ll place that box over the subject matter that you’d like to keep in focus, and press the button inside of the control wheel. This tells your camera that this is the object you want to keep in focus, even if it’s not in the center of the shot.
Doing this should allow the camera to be in focus no matter what the bird is doing.
8. Shoot Everything In RAW
When you take a picture, your camera’s image sensor captures a monumental amount information. This data is sent to a computer chip, analyzed, and then saved as a picture on a memory card. When shooting in the standard JPG, the image data is compressed, causing a large amount of that data to be discarded to save storage space; a JPG stores 256 tonal values per color, while a RAW image stores between 4.096 and 16,384 tonal values for each color.
While the goal in photography might be to take a great shot without the need for post-processing, sometimes you simply have to take the shot and hope for the best. By shooting in RAW, you’ll maintain most of the data, allowing you more flexibility if you need to edit your photos later.
Put your Sony a6000 in RAW by pushing the Menu button, choosing File Format > RAW
*Keep in mind, shooting in RAW takes up far more space than a JPG image, so you’ll want to be sure you have a memory card with a lot of storage space. Where you used to be able to hold thousands of images, you’ll be lucky to hold 500. So make sure you always have an extra memory card.
9. Set It And Forget It
Remember that birds don’t usually hang around in the same spot for very long, so your best chance of capturing great shots is to pick the right settings, and then forget about them. By only having one or two variables that you need to change, you’ll be able to keep your focus on catching that bird—with your camera.
10. Get On Their Level
By positioning your photo at the same level as the bird, you give the impression of being in the world of the bird. If you’re photographing a small bird walking on the ground or swimming in a lake, get on the ground to be at the bird’s level. If the bird is perched in a tree, it could be best to take shots from a window or a ladder. Move slowly so as not to frighten the bird!
Getting on the level of the bird allows the appearance of eye contact, furthering the intimacy of the shot. You’ll also be more likely to have a blurred foreground and background, bringing the viewer’s eye to the focus of the image: the bird.
By following these ten simple tips, you’ll bring new life your bird photography, on your Sony a6000. Happy shooting!