Ophrys Photography

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Tips and tutorials
Photographing wild birds Part 8


Birds in flight (BIF)

If you restrict yourself to taking pictures of static birds, you are really missing out. Even a rather plain bird can be transformed into a thing of beauty and wonder when it flies. The trouble is, birds in flight (BIF) are just about the toughest thing to photograph other than perhaps insects in flight!

Lots of people try but give up as they just can't get any success. I must confess that this article was a long time coming, because I certainly struggled myself to become competent enough to feel reasonably qualified to write this article. I consider that shooting BIF with a camera is equivalent to clay pigeon shooting - it is definitely an acquired skill and you have to keep practicing to get better, although some people are just gifted and make it look easy.

I consider myself to be " average" but I'm getting better. If I can do it - so can you ! I really admire those early pioneers who managed top get great results of flying birds with manual focus film cameras. I expect they had a very high discard rate.


Pelicans in flight against the African sky, Kenya.

Equipment considerations

The real breakthrough in photographing BIF came with the introduction of predictive autofocus systems. (AI servo/continuous focus). These continually focus and refocus i.e. track the subject as it moves or flies around. Without it you would have to partially press the shutter button to acquire focus, then release and depress it again continually as the subject moves around the frame. AI is short for "artificial intelligence" and it is able to predict where the bird will be in the frame from moment to moment and also addresses shutter lag - that is the time it takes for the camera to flip its mirror up, open the shutter and close it again. The AI servo algorithm estimates the subject's speed and distance traveled and compensates for it - clever stuff. It would be brilliant if AI servo was perfect but unfortunately it is not and you have to keep your expectations at a sensible level. Some systems are better than others and the further you go up the manufacturers' range, the more accurate it tends to become. The Pro Canon 1 series and Nikon D3/D700 are currently the best available.

There are no two ways about, better equipment makes the task a lot easier. I find that my Canon 1D mk IIII locks on very fast and tracks focus much better than say a Canon prosumer xxD model. You do however have to study the manual a bit and get the custom functions set up sensibly to get the best out of the focusing system. A Nikon D3 that I hired provided the most accurate focusing that I have yet encountered in any camera. I know this because I tested it as I explain below.

Check your autofocus system

It is important that when you evaluate a new camera that you put the AI servo through its paces. To do this, I like to do two tests. The first simple check is to ensure that when the camera is put onto a tripod and a cable release used, that it can focus on a static subject without continually hunting around or "chattering". When AI servo has achieved focus it should move backwards and forwards a few times and then settle. Take a picture and then view it on your computer at 100%, and it should appear as sharp as a similar image taken in one shot mode. If it doesn't settle then the camera is suspect.

For the next test you will need an assistant to either jog towards you or to drive a car towards you at about 20- 30 mph. You need to have the camera set to the lens's widest aperture, AI servo selected, an ISO that will give you a shutterspeed of at least 1/1000 sec so you can handhold, and shoot away with the motordrive set to its highest speed. A car number plate makes a good target or if using a runner, it is best if they wear a high contrast top as the autofocus may struggle on a low-contrast subject. You can shoot jpegs for this eliminates the need to process RAW images and you will also get more images in the burst to evaluate. Alternatively if you shoot RAW and use the slideshow function in Breezebrowser you can evaluate the images in a full screen slideshow and also double check that the AF point remained on the subject on any out-of-focus images.Count the the shots that are out of focus. Assuming that you kept the AF point on the number plate or the runner's chest you should be able to achieve 80-90% images in focus if the camera is working OK.

Lenses
Lenses vary a lot in their autofocus speed and I find that the Canon 400mm f5.6 and 500mm f4 lenses to be very fast particularly if you set their focus-limiter switch to the appropriate range. This stops them hunting and looking for a subject at an unsuitable distance.

Adding a teleconverter slows autofocus noticeably. Zooms are also a bit slower usually, but the 70-200 f2.8L is a quick focusing lens and can be useful for large birds such as gannets. Sadly the popular Canon 100-400 f4.5-5.6 L IS is rather slow to focus, it is not at its best when used wide open and is slowest when paired to a xxD camera. The 1 series pro cameras, have superior focus lock and tracking ability and the keeper rate will be much higher with these. For this reason, if you envisage doing a lot of BIF photography and can't afford a new 1 series camera, I recommend picking up an older secondhand 1 series such as the 1DmkIIN which are available pretty cheaply these days. The 7D reputedly has advanced autofocus so might offer a viable alternative to the bulky 1 series bodies.

Fast lenses, that is to say, lenses of f2.8 or wider can often take advantage of the camera's more sensitive cross-type autofocus points, and so these can give you an advantage.

My favourite lens for birds in flight is my Canon 400mm f5.6 as it is very sharp even when used at maximum aperture, it focuses very fast and is compact and light in weight. I like to use it handheld. It does lack image stabilisation (IS) but as you need to be shooting at high shutterspeeds to freeze subject motion blur this is not as much of a handicap as it might appear. The Canon 400mm f4 DO IS may be even better as its maximum aperture is a stop faster (which can be traded for extra shutterspeed in dull conditions) and the IS makes it more versatile. It is however considerably more expensive and probably has no better image quality than the f5.6 lens. Nikon users have the wonderful 200-400 f4 VR lens, but again it is expensive and is pretty heavy.

A ball head is not very useful for BIF - a gimbal mounted on a tripod is much better as it provides a wide range of movement and if balanced correctly floats weightlessly without flopping over to one side like a ball. If I am using a heavy lens like the 500mm f4 I use a gimbal head to support the lens and to hold it when not in use. However, if birds are close and flying erratically I generally prefer handholding the lens for as long as my arm muscles can take it as it gives far more freedom of movement.



Ruppell's griffon vulture coming into land - Kenya,
Canon 1 DmkIII plus 500mm f4 IS handheld

Getting started.

A good place to practice shooting BIF is on larger slower birds. Seagulls make good targets initially as they are quite large and will come quite close. Get a friend to throw some bread for you in a park or at the seaside and practice shooting as the birds approach. The best conditions are when there is plenty of light to enable you to achieve a high shutterspeed, You want the sun at your back so you cast a shadow directly towards the bird and you also want the birds to be flying into the wind if possible. If the wind is quite strong, the birds can literally hang in the air in front of you and are then at their easiest to photograph.


Mediterranean gull in winter

Ducks are far less easy as they fly very fast but they slow right down to land and can then be worth a try. In fact there is nothing to be lost by having a try at anything that flies by - you can always delete it again later if it is no good - it has not cost you anything. The most important thing with BIF is to expect a high discard rate and to not get demoralised if things don't work out at first.

Camera settings

Unless you are trying for an arty/blurry shot you need to use a high shutterspeed to freeze the motion of a bird in flight. If you are very skilful at panning smoothly you might be able to photograph a slowish bird at 1/250th sec. For the rest of us mortals, you can never have too much shutterspeed, so aim for 1/1000 as a minimum and preferably use something around 1/1600 sec. If you really need to freeze a fast bird, then 1/3200 sec is not outrageous. This may mean using your lens at its widest aperture setting and upping your ISO considerably so shooting in bright light is a real benefit. Aim at the bird's eye/neck/head when focusing and don't cut off the birds wingtips. Be prepared to crop a bit in post-process later on the computer to get a nice composition if necessary.

In the shot below, the pelicans coming in to land made for great target practice. Before shooting I had to get my 1D mk III camera set up in readiness. I used evaluative metering as I knew I could trust its accuracy in the bright conditions. I then set the ISO to 400 as this was giving me 1/2000 sec at f7.1. This is a nice high shutterspeed to freeze the movement of the birds and enough depth of field to get the second bird reasonably in focus too. I set the focus limiter switch on the 500mm f4 to max distance and the IS selector switch to position 2 for panning. Keeping my finger on the half-depressed shutter button, I used the centre AF point only (selected in custom functions) and placed the red AF square onto the head of the nearest flying bird while it was still a long way off. I then tucked my right elbow into my side for stability and twisted my body slowly and smoothly to pan with the birds as they glided in. Keeping the red square on the bird's head I gently squeezed off a few frames when it was looking good in the viewfinder.

Great white pelicans landing at lake Nakuru in Kenya


I chose single AF point and set the tracking sensitivity to medium/slow as the background had a lot of other birds in it and I didn't want the focus to jump back to them in preference to my subject. If the background had been less busy I might have chosen to expand the number of AF points to include those immediately surrounding the selected point. This is achieved in the custom functions and this can give make your task of keeping the AF point on the subject that much easier.

More advanced BIF

Once you have mastered the larger slower birds you can try your hand at smaller faster ones, but expect the discard rate to go up again. Birds just about to take off from or land on a perch can be anticipated with practice. If a bird looks up and excretes, or suddenly crouches, it is very possible that it is about to take off. Under these circumstances I would usually pre-focus and switch the lens to manual and stop the aperture down a little if there is sufficient shutterspeed to gain a little depth of field to overcome any focusing errors. Unfortunately birds often take off in an unexpected direction (usually facing away from you!) but occasionally they fly off parallel to the perch and you will grab a good shot or too as it does. Another thing you can try is to select all the autofocus points (using AFPS described in tutorial 3 ). Focus on the bird with the centre AF point and hopefully as it flies off, the AF will keep tracking it. If this happens reasonably slowly the AF might cope, but more often than not, it is defeated, but it is worth a try. This is the method I used on these goldfinches below.



Exposure

I have covered exposure in detail in tutorial 6 , but just to recap, either set the camera to evaluative metering or the mode that works best for you or set the exposure manually using a mid tone in the scene in the same light as your subject. Take a test shot if time permits and check the camera histogram at the earliest opportunity and apply any necessary exposure compensation.

Summary

In summary then, photographing birds in flight is a bit hit and miss but there is nothing to be lost by having a go. You need to be quick, so if you see a bird take flight and start flying towards or across your path just take a snipe at it. Chances are you will miss, but now and again you strike lucky and get a gem!