Setting up the Nikon D500 for Bird Photography

The Nikon D500 has long been regarded as one of the best cameras around for bird and wildlife photography. Although it was released all the way back in 2016, it’s still the best Nikon DSLR for this genre of photography.

In my recent video I was at Bempton Cliffs, photographing seabirds such as Gannets, Herring Gulls, Razerbills and Puffins. Along the way I shared all of the settings I use when photographing birds with this camera.

You can watch the video above, and for clarity I’ve also included all of the settings below.

Shooting Mode / ISO Settings

I use aperture priority mode for bird photography (almost all my photography actually). Considering how important shutter speed is for birds, this may seem counterintuitive, but actually works really well. The trick is to set your lens to its widest aperture and use manual ISO settings. Then keep an eye on your shutter speed while adjusting your ISO. This method ensures that you’re always using the lowest ISO possible for the shutter speed you require.

Release Mode

Setting the camera to Ch (Continuous high speed) will mean that you capture more shots of your subject as it flies by. Often, some of the shots in your burst won’t be in focus, so the more you can capture the better. It also increases the chances of freezing the bird in an interesting pose. The D500 can process up to 10 shots a second.

Autofocus settings

Obviously manual focus is not going to be an option for fast moving subjects such as birds, so we have to rely on our cameras’ autofocus settings. I always use the AF-C focus mode, this is continuous autofocus meaning the camera will attempt to continually refocus on a moving subject. When it comes to AF area modes I usually choose the 72-point Dynamic-area setting. This will use a cluster of 72 autofocus points of which the center point is used to acquire initial focus on the subject. From here, if the subject moves away from the initial point of focus, the camera will determine where to focus from the surrounding focus points. If my subject is moving around a lot, I may choose 153-point Dynamic-area, but it’s generally better to use fewer focus points where possible, as it gives the camera less decisions to make and can therefore operate quicker. In most situations I fine 72 points the best compromise. In certain circumstances, when my subject is particularly erratic, I will opt for the 3D tracking mode which activates all focus points and attempts to automatically focus on and track the subject.

Back-Button Focus

Instead of half-pressing the shutter release button to acquire focus, I have instead assigned the AF-ON button on the back of the camera to perform this function. I must admit, it took me a long time to realise the benefits of this technique, but I now find it essential for bird photography. If I’m tracking a subject, I will keep my thumb on the AF-ON button to maintain focus, but should I find a stationary subject, I can focus once and let go of the AF-ON button. Now I can use the shutter release button without the camera refocusing. It’s like having AF-C and AF-S rolled into one!


The vast majority of the time I will set the D500 to use its Matrix Metering mode. This usually does a good job of producing a balanced exposure without blowing out the highlights. Occasionally I will be photographing a scene with a lot of dynamic range (a dark coloured bird against a bright sky for example) and in these situations I will use spot metering. This can help prevent your subject becoming a silhouette.

Exposure Compensation

In general I don’t find it necessary to use this feature. However, if I’m getting a lot of blown out highlights, I may dial down the compensation a bit to bring the detail back in those areas.

White Balance

I always set White Balance to auto. Since I’m shooting in RAW format, I can simply adjust this setting in Lightroom. I do find, however, that the D500 usually does a good job of automatically setting the white balance to begin with.

4 responses to “Setting up the Nikon D500 for Bird Photography”

  1. Sid. Burklund says:

    I own 2 Nikon cameras, a D 90 and new love my D 500 both DX format. Both were purchased for landscaps, birds & mammals.
    I bought the D-500 last fall and find articles such as yours most important in my learning curve. Along with it I picked up a Nikon 16 -80 f2.. 8 x 4 to go along with my 70 x 300 zoom.
    Thanks for the great blog

    • Rob says:

      Thanks Sid, really glad you found it useful – I’m hoping to do some more D500 content a little later in the year. Many thanks for checking it out. 🙂

  2. Kristin says:

    I got a D500 last year and haven’t had much free time to practice with it, so this is extremely helpful! Thank you!

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