Birds in Flight
What color is the sky? Where is the sun? Where am I in relation to the bird’s anticipated flight path? Am I ready no matter if the bird is a light or dark color? What direction is the wind coming from? These are questions that I’d like to have answered in order to position myself for the best bird in flight (BIF) shots and to obtain good exposure. Typically (but not always), I want the direct rays of the sun behind me shining at my back, perpendicular to the bird’s flight path so that there is less chance of the bird’s head casting a shadow on itself. The most dramatic BIF shots are of birds coming toward the photographer from a 3 o’clock position all the way to a 12 o’clock position if the bird is coming from right to left. If I take the shot after the bird has passed 12 o’clock (and is heading toward 11 o’clock) then the bird has passed me and I am taking it flying away, which is not usually what I want. Alternatively, it would be okay if the bird is between the 9 o’clock and 12 o’clock positions flying from left to right. Also, shooting a bird in flight at an angle of greater than 30 degrees above the horizon can yield an uninteresting shot, except maybe when taking a shot of a bird that is directly overhead (an underneath shot).
Let’s say I have a bright but overcast day and the sky is almost white. There are no direct rays of sun to deal with. A brown Northern Harrier female flies by at a level high enough that the white sky is my background. I’m shooting in Av mode and the camera’s autoexposure (AE) function is going to change my shutter speed to a very fast setting, like 1/4000 because the sky is so bright. I need to bump up the exposure compensation (EC) a couple of stops to offset what the camera wants to do. Otherwise, I end up with a silhouette of the harrier—certainly not what I wanted. But if I have adjusted the EC to +2 (or so) my exposure will possibly be enough to get some light on the bird’s feathers. If the bird had been white, then I may not need any EC but possibly just a touch. Many times I would point at a passing seagull (or white refuge sign, etc.) and take some test frames to see where my EC needs to be on that bird. Then I have a reference point for a light colored bird, and I know that if a dark bird flies by, I need to push EC up a stop or so more. Of course, this assumes that the skies brightness does not change between the time you did the test shots and the real thing. Nothing’s easy, is it? 🙂
A blue sky registers less bright (usually) than a bright white sky so if I shoot flight shots against a blue sky, my EC adjustment may be less. What if I’m shooting a white bird against a dark cloud? The bird will be a big white blot in the picture if you don’t lower your EC appropriately. It’s so easy to blow out the whites even when just a bit of the bird is white.
So far I’ve talked about the sun being positioned behind me when shooting flight shots. This doesn’t mean an interesting shot can’t be obtained where the sun’s rays are coming from the right, left or even almost straight at me (backlighting). When a bird is between me and the sun I’ll need to adjust the EC up and if I get it right, some great effects such as the sun backlighting the bird’s feathers can be captured. So there are “rules” in bird photography but sometimes breaking them yields fabulous images. Great images can be made too if the light is coming from the left or right. But things have to happen just right as unwanted shadows can also result. If the bird moves its head just right or happens to bank at a perfect time, side light can yield phenomenal shots. Sometimes a shot that I think won’t come out well, turns out to be super due to a unique lighting effect. This goes for non-flight shots, too. [By the way, on a serious note, refrain from pointing your camera directly at the sun. It can be harmful to both you and your camera.]
What happens if I’m following a brown bird in flight with my lens and the background suddenly changes from bright blue sky to a dark green (leafy trees in the distance) as I am panning? If I’m panning and shooting burst in Av mode, and I have EC set to expose the bird while the background is sky, then suddenly the green trees in the distance become the background (because the bird passes in front of them), my camera’s autoexposure could suddenly (depending on camera settings) change the shutter speed to a slower one, boosting light because it now sees lots of darkness. This could happen during a burst sequence or during separate repeated shutter presses. The bird is now probably overexposed unless I reduced the EC setting at the same time I was panning and holding the shutter button down. Shooting in Manual camera mode, as discussed earlier, can remedy problems like this.
Regarding wind direction, birds usually take flight against the wind in order to achieve the proper lift they need. Keep this in mind when setting yourself up for a take off shot.
Focusing and BIF’s
Focusing on a bird in flight may be the most challenging part of this kind of bird photography. As I mentioned earlier, I primarily use my center focus point only—even on BIF shots. Sometimes I’ll try other AF modes that the 7D has to offer, but I usually come back to center point. (Since acquiring the 5D Mark III body, I have had good luck using the AF mode that puts 4 additional focus points around the center point.) As discussed earlier, other camera settings that you may want: 1) set your AF mode to AI Servo, 2) set the Drive mode to high speed continuous shooting. I hardly ever take my camera off of these two settings whether I’m shooting BIF’s or not. Check your manual for how to set these on your model of camera.
AI Servo (also explained previously) instructs the camera to continuously execute AF even during burst shots. If I keep the center focus point on the bird’s eye and the bird gets closer to me, the lens should theoretically keep refocusing on the head and keep it in focus, even as the bird moves closer to me. The tricky part (as you can well imagine) is keeping the focus point on the bird. Once it slips off, you are momentarily focusing on the sky or distant trees, etc. This is why so many shots of a BIF using burst mode can be out of focus (OOF). It takes a lot of practice to get this right.
When I shoot BIF’s from my vehicle, I have a very limited panning arc while shooting from the window. I just make sure I orient the vehicle so the sun’s direct rays are shining perpendicular to the side of the truck. That puts the sun at the back of my camera when shooting out the driver’s side window. At times, I’ve also reversed that and shot out my passenger’s side window (PSW). Here’s an example of a Northern Harrier shot out the PSW with the sun at the camera’s back. If you missed the section on how I set up my truck for shooting out the windows, please see Shooting Bird Photos.
Most photographers shoot BIF’s the old fashioned way–on foot! In many ways, this is far better than trying to shoot from a vehicle. You have full 360 degree motion which is not the case in a vehicle without a sunroof. When you see a bird flying in the correct orientation to the sun, and as it gets closer, plant your feet such that you can make a smooth panning arc for as long as possible–in the direction necessary to shoot the bird. If you have to move your feet during the pan, you can be sure any shots taken while your feet are moving will make keeping your focus point on the bird nearly impossible. Hold your left hand under the lens so that the weight is evenly distributed between both of your hands and you can pan the camera as smoothly as possible. Hold the camera snug against your face to further stabilize it. This is not necessarily comfortable but it helps you keep the center point on the bird’s eye/head. Also, I find I have the smoothest motion and least camera shake when I am exhaling. So try timing your bursts while you are exhaling. This actually works for non-BIF shots, too. Take burst shots as the bird is coming toward you and until it starts flying away from you.
If an eagle or a hawk is soaring in circles in front of you, for example, wait until you see the bird orient itself such that good light is on the bird’s eye. If the eye is in a shaded area, then there’s no reason to take the shot in my opinion. Press the shutter when the light is good–stop pressing when the important parts of the bird are in shade or just plain not visible. There’ll be a certain portion of that soaring circle that is prime time to shoot, but many of the points on the circle will yield unflattering poses.
Sometimes a bird will move its head side to side as it flies by. This can cause the bird’s eye to be in its own shadow at one point and then when it moves the head to the other side, the eye is in great light. Shoot when you have that great light!
Birds can cover a lot of territory quickly in the air so while you’re out shooting and waiting for that great opportunity, keep your eyes focused hundreds of yards out to see if you can spot a bird flying in your anticipated direction. If you see a potential candidate in the air from far away heading for you, look at it quickly with through your lens, scope, or binoculars and identify the coloring if possible. Quickly set your camera for the proper exposure for the color of the bird against the sky. The sooner you can ID the bird, the more time you have to get ready. But it won’t be long and the bird will have flown right by you. Get prepared quickly and execute your best technique as the bird flies toward you and by you.
I find the best light for shooting BIF’s is either bright overcast or sunrise/sunset when the sun is low. When the sun is low it can help get light under the wings of a BIF.
The other setting mentioned above is high speed continuous shooting. This is your burst mode and you want the camera to rip through as many frames per second as it can for BIF shots. This is activated by holding the shutter button down. Burst mode will stop either when you let up on the shutter button or when your memory buffer gets full and the camera no longer has a place to store all the data that you’re feeding it. If your buffer does get full, release the shutter button and wait 5 – 10 seconds for all the data to get written to your memory card. You can then start shooting again. With my 5D Mark III I find I don’t have to wait until all the data is fully written to the card. Even waiting only a second or two, I can press the shutter button and still get a few more shots.
Another important setting for BIF shots is to have as fast a shutter speed (SS) as you can while still exposing the shot properly. How fast the SS needs to be can depend on whether you are shooting a small bird or a large bird. Generally, the smaller the bird, the faster its wings flap requiring a faster shutter speed to stop the action. The slowest SS I like to use for BIF’s is around 1/1250 but I strive for even faster. Depending on where in the flapping motion you catch the wings, even 1/800 can work out if you hit it just right. My hovering kestrel was shot at 1/800 because I got the shot at the top of its wing motion when the wings were almost stationary.
As you can see, the brighter days are better for BIF’s, in general, so that you can choose a lightning fast shutter speed. If you don’t want to completely stop the action of the wings and you like a little blur on the wing tips, choose a slightly slower shutter speed. A fast SS is not only good for stopping wing action but also the general movement of the bird and increases your chance of avoiding motion blur. The shorter the time the shutter is open, the less chance for motion blur. Motion blur occurs when either you shake the camera while shooting or the bird moves in relation to the camera. This has nothing to do with the image being out of focus due to the lens not focusing properly.
How fast your lens focuses on your subject is also related to how many BIF keepers you will get. Some lenses are just not built for fast focusing; there is a longer delay between the AF actuation and the actual focusing of the lens. If you remember back when I talked about the three lenses I have owned, my current lens—the Canon 400mm f5.6L—is the fastest focusing of all of them including the Bigma by Sigma and the Canon 100-400mm L lens. Many times even pros will turn to the 400mm f5.6L prime lens for BIF’s due to its speedy response time and ease of manipulation, not to mention its sharpness. Among pros though, it has the reputation of a “toy” lens because it is so small compared to a 500mm or 600mm lens. UPDATE Sep. 1, 2013: My Canon 500mm f4 lens is now my fastest focusing lens.
Know your equipment–know how to quickly set the proper exposure for the situation, practice your technique, don’t panic, and have fun! BIF shots take good technique, good camera operation skills, observation skills and concentration. Don’t be surprised if, (when you get back home and view your shots) on your first few times out you can’t even find the bird in most of your burst frames let alone an in focus bird. Don’t give up! Get right back out there and keep practicing!
Back Button Focus
Speaking of focusing and camera settings, most, if not all cameras come with the default setting such that when you press the shutter button half way down it actuates the AF. Almost from the beginning of my bird photography experience, I have reprogrammed this function from the shutter button to the “star” button, which is on the back of my Canon 7D and 5D Mark III. This programming change can be done in the Custom Function area of Canon’s camera menu system. If you are interested in pursuing more about this subject, please read my post in the Articles section of my website titled, “Moving the AutoFocus Function Away from the Shutter Button in Bird Photography.”
When I am shooting BIF’s, I not only hold the shutter button down for burst shooting, but I also hold my thumb down on the star button on the back of my camera. At any time that I want the camera to stop focusing, I merely release the star button. I suggest you at least try this and give it a fair shake. And if you want to learn more about it, please click into the above link.