All Words and images © Ted Byrne
Getting it right - Birds in Flight
Photographing birds in flight (BIF) is a skill that often requires a good overall knowledge of both the subject and your camera system. While modern AF systems and metering technologies are certainly making shooting moving targets easier, getting it right consistently can be an exercise in frustration for a beginner photographer.
First of all, what do I mean by "getting it right"? Of course, what makes a good photograph is certainly subjective, but there are a few simple principals that, when respected, can immensely improve the quality of your results. For this article I'll address some of the key techniques that can help you acquire more satisfactory results from your hand-held BIF efforts.
Large, soaring birds are easier subjects.
In focus... or forget it
I have never seen a good BIF photo that wasn't sharp. I don't mean corner-to-corner sharpness the way that one may evaluate lens quality. I'm referring to correct framing and proper focusing on the area of the bird that you are targeting. Very often this may be the bird as a whole, other times you may be focusing on a detail. Regardless, the golden rule is to ensure that the eye is in focus when it is in the frame. Depending on the distance to your subject, your choice of depth of field may be very important as well. Deeper DOF (higher f-stop) will certainly help you with keeping more of the subject in focus. Of course you'll need more light so you'll have to adapt to your shooting conditions.
Panning versus approaching subjects
Tracking a flying object when its distance from you remains constant is a much easier task than tracking a rapidly approaching one. For one, the subject size remains relatively the same in the viewfinder, which in turn may give you more time to lock on and track. Autofocus systems struggle much less with panning as well, and modern VR/IS systems can filter out this horizontal movement quite easily. Make sure that your panning technique is solid as well (a subject which would deserve a dedicated article in it's own right). Essentially you must ensure that your grip is stable and that your torso and camera body are moving as a single support system. Try to avoid, for example, twisting your shoulders to track but instead initiate movement at the waist level. Also try and get the subject in the viewfinder as quickly as possible so that you can immediately start a smooth panning movement.
It’s a little trickier when they are approaching (blue tint from reflection off water 10 meters below).
Technique & Gear
I try to use the fastest shutter speed possible if I'm trying to freeze any movement. For large planing and soaring birds I try to use a minimum of 1/500s. Smaller birds will require faster speeds. Therefore, using a Speed Priority mode is an obvious choice. However, if limiting depth of field is important, you may want to use Aperture Priority mode and simply keep an eye on the required shutter speed for your chosen aperture. I tend to use a very large aperture in order to limit DOF while maximising the shutter speed.
On my Nikon camera there is a setting called "ISO control" that I use religiously. I've even got it programmed under my custom menu so that I can rapidly change it if I change lenses. Basically, this setting allows you tell the camera to use a minimum shutter speed. If conditions dictate that there isn't enough light for a given aperture then it will increase the ISO automatically (to a maximum as defined by the user). Now, you may be thinking to yourself, what about the noise? Well, I'd much rather have an image that was dead-on in-focus with a little noise than a noiseless image that's out of focus. If there has to be a trade-off, I'll take a little noise any day (also, consider which of the two you could correct in post-processing should you happen to nail the perfect shot). With my preferred hand-held BIF lens, the NIKKOR 70-200mm f2.8 VR, I'll typically set the minimum shutter speed to 1/500, while allowing ISO to go as high as 800. Remember, these are minimum speeds. If conditions allow, the system will certainly increase the shutter speed accordingly. You should also use a burst-mode on your camera, especially when the bird is approaching the key position/moment in your shot.
You may have noticed that my preferred lens for BIF is a zoom, which makes hand-held tracking much easier. Normally I would always try and shoot with fixed-focal length lenses, for the sake of image quality, but the NIKKOR 70-200mm zoom is such a great lens that there is absolutely no IQ loss, plus you get the flexibility of having a very workable range for easier tracking. As well, this lens retains a constant aperture throughout the zoom range. Although I shoot with a consumer body, you simply can't beat the quality of the upper-end glass. There are also times when I'll use a 1.4x or 1.7x Nikon teleconverter with this lens, providing more reach with excellent results, even hand-held.
Serious bird-shooters will always want longer reach, however, and most claim that a fast 300mm lens, such as the NIKKOR 300mm, would be a bare minimum. Remember that this article is focusing on hand-held, casual shooting rather than using dedicated, heavier lenses that require rock-solid, dedicated support systems.
Sometimes you don’t need to get really close.
AF and Metering
If I'm trying to lock on to the eye of the bird, which is almost always, I tend to use the single-point AF in continuous-tracking mode. This mode locks on the AF point that you choose and continues to re-focus as long as the shutter-button is half-pressed. Not all AF points will track equally as well, so I tend to use the centre AF point (cross-type) for best performance. I'm not saying that this is the right mode for everyone. Perhaps 3-D and/or multi-sensor tracking modes may work better for you under other circumstances. If I upgraded to a 39-point AF camera (or better) then maybe my BIF shooting technique would change as well. The bottom line is that you have to make sure you know your DSLR autofocus modes well, and be sure to try them all to see which one(s) work best for you.
What about exposure? Should you trust the meter? What mode? For me it all depends upon the background and how much of the frame the subject is filling. Basically, if the contrast is high between the background and subject I'll use weighted-spot mode and adjust the exposure compensation accordingly (think of a subject with a lot of bright sky or ocean as a background). For homogeneously lit scenes, such as a bird planing along a sandy beach, I may switch to matrix mode. Of course, always check your results and histograms and adjust accordingly.
Know your subject
This may sound a little trivial, but it may actually be the most valuable tip. By simply observing your subject you will learn when more ideal photographic moments may strike. Does the pelican hesitate before diving for a fish? Perhaps he always takes off into the wind, and is forced into a slow ascent and splashes the water? Is your subject more active at dawn, dusk, or neither? If you're at the seaside, where will the sun be in relation to your subject? Do you have the luxury of choosing your position? Would your subject look more interesting with its lunch in its mouth? All these questions may be factors to consider before you pull the camera out to shoot. Therefore, if you have the possibility to revisit good locations you should really do so. When visiting a new area I find that my best shots come on the second, third or forth trip back. It is said that some of our better results come from our own backyard, so get to know your environment and subject as best as you can. This is especially so when traveling and you have very limited time in an area. You may have to be content to revisit 1 or 2 good spots instead of trying to see something new each day.
Seagulls are everywhere, go practice!
Just get out there!
The best bit of advice may be to simply get out there and try. Rarely will one pick up one’s camera and master BIF or other types of photography on the first go. Knowing your camera settings and good camera panning techniques can vastly improve the quality of your images as well as your level of satisfaction. Shooting hundreds of seagulls and pigeons during my lunch break really helped my technique. Don't be afraid to go shoot without coming home with the prize-winning photo. The simple fact that you're honing your technique will make you a better BIF photographer. In that respect, BIF photography is similar to many activities - practice makes perfect.