Manual Mode Photography

posted by Jerry Liguori at
on Monday, December 2, 2013 

I've had several people send me personal e-mails asking how I shoot raptors, particularly about what mode I shoot. Its a loaded question of course because depending on the lighting, lens, situation, what the bird is doing (and several other factors) makes a difference in how to take pictures. I'll just discuss raptors in flight for now. I always shoot manual mode so I control the aperture and shutter speed instead of letting the camera decide. This is what works for me and what I am comfortable with, but I have been photographing birds in flight since 1993, so I am comfortable how to shoot at under all conditions. To put it in perspective, I have over 20,000 Red-tailed Hawk pictures alone on my hard drive (after deleting the "throw-aways"). If you don't feel confident in doing so, DON'T. There are tons of photographers that take amazing photos, and everyone has their preference, so there is no single correct way.

Shooting in manual mode allows me to lock or unlock the aperture setting, but more important for me than that, is it allows me to change the shutter speed instantly with the turn of a dial. This is ideal for shooting moving subjects in many situations. If you choose to let the camera decide the shutter speed for birds overhead, the camera will underexpose and overexpose a number of photos. Yes, you can use exposure compensation, but that might still leads to 'misses' in exposure. Check out these photos of the same Cooper's Hawk taken seconds apart. The "sunny 16" rule normally does well (for topsides or birds at eye-level) when the sun is directly exposing a bird, but when the bird flares overhead, I like to choose the exposure. I shot the underside of this bird at f4 -- 1/800 sec. (200 ISO), and the topside at f4 -- 1/2500 sec. (200 ISO), changing the shutter speed as the bird turned. Again, this takes lots of practice, so it may not be for everybody, buts its the way I feel comfortable.
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

Hey Jerry,
Nice tip for shooting bottom side overhead, vs. topside in full sun. Do you have any exposure tips for minimizing the blown-out whites from sun-lit tail converts when trying to get undersides at more acute angles?
Thanks for posting all this great info.
Adam Hutchins

December 2, 2013 at 2:25 PM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

My comments section doesn't seem to be working properly, so if you have trouble commenting, send me and e-mail and I'll post it like I did for Adam

December 2, 2013 at 2:26 PM  
Anonymous Marc Bernardo said...

Interesting Jerry, it must take experience because I have a hard time shooting in manual mode, but you seem to do great. Maybe I'll give it another try but not feeling too confident about it. I'll let you know how it goes.

December 2, 2013 at 5:58 PM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...


If you are doing well the way you are shooting now, stick with it. I know your reluctance....but just think how everything was unknown the first time you took your camera out of the box. There is a learning curve to everything! But, the reason I posted this is because people asked, it isn't neccessarily what I recommend. Its just what I'm used to.

December 2, 2013 at 6:02 PM  
Anonymous Derek Lyon said...

Do you us manual mode for perched birds too?

December 3, 2013 at 4:39 AM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

Derek -- yes, I do, but only because I always have. Its nice to look at a subject, assess the lighting and shoot away. But, the nice thing about digital photography is that you can check your exposures on the spot.

December 3, 2013 at 7:12 AM  
Blogger Shyloh Monster said...

As a beginning bird photographer, Manual Mode is scary and intimidating. That said, I shoot in Manual exclusively. Over time, assessing light conditions and making adjustments on the fly has become more natural and I'm beginning to enjoy shooting with total control over my camera (and lens). I haven't mastered any technique and still decry my bad photos. In the end, when I nail a shot, the results are more rewarding. I reckon the pursuit of that perfect image keeps me shooting.

I envy and admire the skill of anyone who can first find the bird, obtain and KEEP focus while panning with a handheld monster lens, adjust for every light angle and background, compose the frame and still land a compelling properly exposed tack sharp image. I believe it's the result of constant practice over an extended period of time, coupled with an extensive knowledge of the photo subject.

Thanks for getting me started with bird photography and convincing me that shooting in Manual Mode is the way to go. With time and effort, anyone can land a decent raptor flight shot. I hope to one day land a high percentage of decent raptor flight shots. In the end, being in the presence of great birds is the ultimate quest.

December 3, 2013 at 8:44 AM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...


I think you would be successful in any mode or with any equipment, you have a knack for photography, your pics are amazing, especially for the amount of time you've been doing it! And I'm not the kind of guy to blow smoke, and you know that.

December 3, 2013 at 8:51 AM  
Anonymous Steve Byland said...

Great stuff Jerry! Taking it a step futher, I use the "Custom" modes on my Canon to keep my three most commonly used manual set-ups ready at my finger-tips. If I'm driving and I see a flying bird, a bear in the woods, or a flock of geese, I can go right to a custom mode that I know will have the camera set-up the way I want (focus mode, ISO, focus points, aperture etc). The only thing I have to deal with is shutter speed.

December 3, 2013 at 3:11 PM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

Exactly! Great comment Steve!
Thank you...

December 3, 2013 at 3:15 PM  
Blogger Bryce said...

I only shoot manual because thats how I learned. But why shoot any other way? It's total freedom and control! Not that I have it down yet. I'm happy I got started the right way. Taught by the best!

December 3, 2013 at 8:28 PM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

I appreciate your confidence in me Bryce, but I'm not the best, but thank you, it is nice to hear

December 3, 2013 at 8:49 PM  
Anonymous Derek Lyon said...

I meant to ask you this earlier ... do you use autofocus in your shots or manual?

December 14, 2013 at 6:19 AM  
Blogger Jerry Liguori said...

Always autofocus, unless there are branches in the way or such.

December 14, 2013 at 6:20 AM  

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