Monday, March 14, 2016

Secrets of photographing birds in flight: Part I

Adult bald eagle at the Conowingo DamTravel to destinations to view wildlife in their native habitats is getting more and more popular. Images of flying birds are among the most coveted photos for “wildlife travelers,” because making photographs of flying birds is both challenging and satisfying.

Over the years, I've learned a few secrets about wildlife photography, and how to make great images of birds in flight. I'd like to share what I've learned, which may help you make wonderful photos of flying birds for yourself.

Location, location, location:
Before you leave, research your destination to the extent possible. Find out where birds frequent, and determine the “lay of the land.”

Once you arrive, choose a location which will likely have many birds in flight. Rivers, lakes, and open fields, are ideal as they are not only venues at which birds fly, but generally open enough to give you a clear field of view to photograph them. Look for a position which will have the sun at your back, so the birds are well lighted. Try to position yourself where the birds will likely fly across your field of view instead of straight at you, for better shooting. The closer you are, outside the birds' circle of fear, the better your images will be.

Note the wind direction as birds in open spaces often take off and land into the wind.

The “golden hours” are great times to photograph birds, but their colors will be skewed at those times. I prefer times early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the birds are generally active, but the light is still in the “daylight” spectrum.

Clothing for you and your camera:
Be aware that birds have superb color vision. Read about it in my article, “Nature photographers' clothing and gear color really matter!” If you don't have a Romulan cloaking device to hide you and your camera, wear neutral colors which blend in with your surroundings, tans, grays and pastel greens, no neons, and remove potential reflection from your camera gear by covering it up. I use Lens Coat products to cloak my lenses, for example.

Research, research, research:
The more you know about the flying habits of the birds you'll be photographing, the better your images.

Camera, lens, support:
Use the fastest and largest lens you have. A 300mm lens is the minimum needed. A 500mm or 600mm lens is much better. Avoid teleconverters as they soften focus, reduce contrast, and handicap autofocus because they reduce the light available for the autofocus sensors. If possible, use a tripod with a gimbal head or monopod. It's very tiring handholding a 500mm or longer lens for hours.

Generally use shutter speeds at or greater than 1/1000 sec. to freeze the bird's motion. You might use somewhat slower shutter speeds to show a bit of wing blur which suggests motion. Turn your image stabilization or vibration reduction off, as at shutter speeds of 1/500 sec. or above, they will likely degrade your images.

Use aperture priority and set your aperture to f/7.1 to f/8 to get a necessary depth of field and gain a margin to overcome focus error. Set your ISO as low as possible, but high enough to ensure your shutter speed remains above 1/1000 sec. By using aperture priority, within the constraints mentioned, your meter will automatically adjust your exposure, as needed, as you move your camera to follow the birds in flight.

Matrix vs Spot metering:
If the sun is in your face, if a bird fills at least 20 percent of your viewfinder, use spot metering to get the right exposure. Otherwise use matrix metering with EV (exposure compensation), as needed, to overexpose compared to the light meter's reading, to properly expose the image for the bird. If the sun's at your back, use matrix metering.

Use continuous autofocus. Set the focus area to the optimum number of focus points for your camera, so that the bird remains in focus as you follow it. Especially when photographing birds which move erratically, I've found the focus area with fewer focus points generally works better. If you're using a tripod, try using the center focus point only. It's very helpful to maintain focus on the bird and not slip to focus on the background.

If your lens has a focus limit setting, set it to furthest setting to minimize autofocus hunting.

Continuous shooting:
Use continuous shooting of at least 5fps or more, if possible. Continuous shooting helps reduce camera shake by eliminating the need to repeatedly press down on the shutter release button. It also helps obtain optimal images with eyes open, unblocked by wings, and great wing positions, etc.

Saving your images as RAW files will give you more control over how your images will look, and more flexibility in difficult lighting circumstances. RAW images, however, are larger and therefore take more time to store than JPG files. If your camera is capable of not slowing down while shooting in 5 second bursts of continuous shooting, while saving files in RAW format, stick to RAW files. Otherwise, you may want to consider JPG. All my wildlife images are saved as RAW files.

Generally it's best to maintain the flying bird you're photographing on the center focus point, as much as possible, and worry about your final composition later.

In “Secrets of photographing birds in flight: Part II,” I'll discuss composition in more detail, focusing, handholding your camera/lens and plus the use of tripods and monopods you may find helpful for capturing images of flying birds.


George-Des Moines said...

Fantastic primer for bird photography. This is a must read.

Stan-West Chester said...

Ned, this is the best article I've read in years on bird in flight photography. Can't wait to see how you follow up in Part 2.

Janet said...

I've always used continuous focus with the 3D setting which uses all the focus points and found it's very slow, so I regularly lose the bird. I didn't realize as you point out, that by reducing the number of focus points I use, I could improve the speed and keep the bird in focus. I'll try that this week. Great article.

Ned S. Levi said...

Thanks Stan. Part II is scheduled for next Monday morning. I hope it fulfills your expectations.

Vic said...

Great idea for the use of spot metering if the sun is in your face. I don't know what I didn't think of it. I guess that's why you're the pro and writer and I'm the reader. I hope to be at Heinz with you on Saturday. I'm trying to get out of other plans that morning.

Sally-St. Louis said...

I don't know how I missed that article on avian eyesight you linked to and the need for me to stop wearing Cards hats when I go birding. Thanks.

Walter said...

How do you "decouple" autofocus from the shutter release button? I didn't think that was possible.

Ned S. Levi said...

It's different Walter, according to your camera, and some DSLRs don't have the capability.

Look in your menu system. On many cameras there's a section for Focus settings. Look for one which sets AF activation, or words to that effect. If it's there there should be a setting to assign AF on to a button other than the shutter release.

Debbie said...

I never thought about using spot metering when the sun is in my face. I'll try that today.

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