Monday, March 21, 2016

Secrets of photographing birds in flight: Part II

Adult bald eagle at the Conowingo Dam Travel 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.

In Part I, I discussed my secrets for shooting birds in flight covering such issues as: location, lighting, exposure, photographer's clothing, best lenses, RAW vs. JPG and more. In Part II below, I discuss my secrets about composition, focus, handholding, and using tripods and monopods.

All the normal rules of composition apply when shooting flying birds, as well as the right to ignore them.

Try to have more space in front of the bird than behind, about 2–3 times in front compared to behind.
Look for occasions when you can shoot 2–3 birds together to make a more interesting composition. Having males and females together is great.

Rather than have every part of the bird suspended in air, showing wing blur gives a visual cue that the bird was flapping its wings and in flight. Another great way to show motion is to have trees and alike in the background, which will be streaky-blurred due to panning.

Freezing motion:
As stated in Part 1, your shutter speed generally should be at or above 1/1000 sec. to freeze the motion of a bird in flight. When at close range, you may need a shutter speed of 1/2000 sec. or higher. If possible, try several speeds, then zoom to 100% on your camera's LCD monitor to see if you can detect motion blur. Go for your shutter speed accordingly.

To capture a bird in flight, freezing their body movement in its entirety, you need to pan your camera across the scene while tracking the bird so that the camera and the bird are positionally synchronized during each shot. Therefore, smooth panning is essential.

Get your initial focus lock as fast as possible. Practice seeing the bird and quickly sighting it in your viewfinder. Prior to bringing your eye to the viewfinder, start panning with your eyes and head to help you sight the bird through the lens more quickly.

When using continuous autofocus, best when shooting birds in flight, you can either choose a single focus point (Choose the center point because it's a cross-type focus point, to give you the most flexibility for creating the best composition possible in postprocessing.) or multiple focus points.

When birds are moving in a somewhat predictable path, single point focus is excellent, but when they are moving erratically, multiple point focus can help maintain focus through your shooting.

Unfortunately, when using multiple focus points, the chances of the autofocus system loosing focus on the bird to a busy background is significant. To make matters worse, it's often very hard to get the camera to refocus on the bird.

To combat that, two techniques can be used.

First, practice using a single focus point so that you don't have to use multiple focus points to help you track birds in flight. (I rarely use multiple focus points myself, except for the most erratically flying birds.)

Second, preset your camera to decouple the shutter release from the autofocus system. Once that's done, you can use the AF-On button, or a programmed button, to activate and release autofocus. This will give you autofocus control, to reacquire focus on the bird in flight, without needing to stop shooting, even in continuous shooting mode.

To capture birds in flight, a ballhead, normally the preferred head for tripods for still photography, is a detriment. It can't be panned smoothly or fast enough. While pan and tilt heads will work in a pinch, gimbal heads are by far the most satisfactory and effective for bird in flight photography. They enable you to quickly and smoothly track birds in flight, synchronizing them as closely as possible with your camera.

To use the gimbal head most effectively, adjust its screw locks loosely enough to achieve smooth panning both horizontally and vertically.

Monopods are an alternative to tripods and handholding, but they neither give the stability of a tripod nor the total free movement of handholding. They provide better stability than handholding and are less tiring. They are faster to action than tripods, which take time to set their legs prior to use and weigh less than a tripod.

The key to handholding cameras while panning to track birds flying is to divide your body into three sections. Your legs provide the support, like tripod's legs. Everything between your waist and shoulders becomes your gimbal head. Your waist is the pan base via which you rotate your body to follow birds horizontally. Your torso makes your vertical adjustments to keep the bird synchronized in your viewfinder, coordinating with your arms, as a unit. You'll use your face to steady the camera.

Stand with you feet comfortably apart, basically under your shoulders. Your left hand holds your lens from underneath, with your elbow tucked in, upper arm against your torso. Your right hand holds the right side of your camera, with your elbow tucked in, upper arm against your torso, with your fingers running the camera's controls. The camera should be held with the viewfinder at your eye, pressed against your face for more stability. That gives you a three point hold, essential for maximum handholding stability.

To track the bird, rotate your body at the waist horizontally, and adjust vertically by bending your torso up and down from the waist, keeping the torso rigid to the extent you can. You'll have some movement of your legs, especially your thighs, and your torso, but with practice you'll learn to keep that at a minimum.

Handholding your camera/lens means you're not dragging around a heavy tripod/head, and it gives you the most flexibility to track birds even when the climb very high.

When shooting wildlife, including birds in flight, my camera's shutter release is decoupled from the autofocus system. My lenses are set to accept autofocus commands, while letting me override with manual focusing, as needed. For birds in flight, I typically use my camera/lens mounted on a tripod with a gimbal head.


Charles-Hampton said...

Great follow-up to Part I. The handholding tips are especially helpful.

Fran said...

I just decoupled my shutter release from autofocus to try per your suggestion.

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