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Birds in Flight

Yesterday was a rare blue (mostly) sky day here in wintertime central Ohio, and I took the opportunity to go to some local hotspots and point the camera skyward. While I took a lot of shots of many different things - nearly 1,000 images, most of which got chucked into the digital dust bin - I found that I was somewhat fixated on flying birds.

Shooting birds in flight isn't very easy, and requires purposeful adjustments to the camera, among other tactics. Following are a few images from yesterday, with some info on how each was made.

An adult Ring-billed Gull gives the photographer a sideways glance from up in the blue ether. Gulls are always great practice for aspiring birds in flight photographers. They're big, often fly rather languidly, and sometimes nearly float in place. Plus, they are often rather predictable in their movements, which allows the photographer to prepare for the moment when the subject enters optimal air space.

All the shots in this post were made with a Canon 5D Mark III hooked to a Canon 500 mm f/4 II, along with a 1.4 teleconverter, which transforms the lens into a 700 mm. That's a really good setup for flying birds, but great results can be had even with higher end point & shoot bridge cameras. The settings used for this gull photo were: 1/3200 shutter speed; f/5.6; and ISO 320. For flying birds, it is almost always best to use a VERY fast shutter speed. At the beginning of the learning curve, it's probably best to set your camera to shutter priority, and let the camera select the f-stop and ISO. On a bright sunny day, very quick shutter speeds can be used, with little penalty in the ISO department.

Large lumbering birds such as this Great Blue Heron make for fairly easy flying targets.With lots of species of birds in flight, a clear blue sky background with the light coming from behind makes for an excellent backdrop. In the case of this heron, the distant brown shrubs and trees makes for a nice background. This shot was made at 1/2500; f/5.6; and ISO 640.

When shooting a flying bird, you want to pick it up in the camera as far out as possible, and track it as it moves (hopefully) closer. When it enters striking distance, begin depressing the shutter and keep smoothly tracking the bird as you fire off shots. Ideally you'll have your camera set to burst mode. This means that as long as you have your finger depressing the shutter button, the camera will keep firing shots. Burst rates vary between cameras, but mine is six shots a second. "Bursting" a flying target greatly increases your odds of a sharp image.

A pair of Rock Pigeons rockets by. Pigeons are extraordinary flyers, and appear deceptively slow. They're not - these birds were probably doing 40-50 mph. I am an unabashed pigeon enthusiast (SEE HERE), and I think this shot shows the beauty of this species. As I was tracking the birds, firing off rapid bursts of shots, the blurred pigeon in the foreground was gaining and ended up photo-bombing the other bird in this shot, which was my target. Although I have other shots of one crisp bird, I like this one for some reason. Camera parameters were 1/3200; f/5.6; and ISO 250.

Another tip, at least for DSLR shooters, is to use Al-Servo shooting mode. Al-Servo allows the focus to constantly adjust to moving targets, so as you hold the shutter button down, the focus constantly updates to compensate for the target's changing distance. In tandem with Al-Servo, a huge positive change is shifting your camera to back button focusing. Basically, the way my camera is set up, the typical shutter button that is on the front of the camera and deployed by one's right index finger only trips the shutter. Nothing else. The focus and exposure compensation is controlled by one of the buttons at the top right rear of the camera, and this button is deployed with the right thumb. There are many advantages to this system, and I think that most DSLR cameras will allow it. Google "back button focus" and "Al-Servo mode" to learn more.

A Cooper's Hawk explodes through the brush. This shot was taken at Mike and Becky Jordan's place in Delaware County - home of the famous lark/bunting/longspur flocks (CLICK HERE). As we watched throngs of Horned Larks, the hawk ripped through the yard and landed in a thick patch of brush. Lots of House Sparrows and other songbirds frequent the thicket and adjacent garden, and Senor Cooper was intent on making a meal of one. I moved a bit closer and got into a good position, fixed the camera on the raptor, and waited until it flew. When it finally did, I was ready and hit the shutter while tracking the bird as smoothly as possible. I only got two images in which the bird was fully in the frame, but both came out quite nicely. The camera was set to 1/3200; f/5.6; and ISO 400.

One grim reality of making crisp in flight bird shots is the need for a decent tripod. I don't like lugging tripods around, and generally only do so if I'm birding in a situation where I need/want my scope, or if I know I am going to be specifically focusing on shooting images of birds. All of the shots presented here were shot with a Manfrotto tripod and an  Induro head. The latter is an especially fluid swivel mount that the camera sits on, and it allows for buttery smooth travel.

The smaller the target, the more difficult getting a clear in-flight shot becomes. Songbirds, such as these Horned Larks, can be quite difficult to pick up and track as they rocket about. I often just set up on a flock, and pull the trigger when I see incoming birds, as was the case here. The very fast shutter speed froze the lark in flight. I also wait until something spooks a feeding flock, which usually doesn't take long, and then try to burst off shots while doing my best to track the birds as they fly away. This one was made at 1/3200; f/5.6; and ISO 250. When light is abundant, I like to shoot at 1/3200, as that is usually plenty fast enough to freeze moving birds, but still allows the ISO to remain low, thus keeping image quality at a high level.

Everyone, it seems, has a camera these days and the quality of shots of birds that I see is routinely amazing. Lots of great images are made with all manner of cameras, from good point & shoot bridge cameras to high end Nikon, Canon and other DSLR's. One way to try and stand out from the crowd is to shoot your subjects in poses that most people don't, such as on the wing.


Sue said…
When you're talking "camera", it's like a foreign language to me. I don't think I'll ever be able to learn that, but I guess that's ok---I can come steal a look at your fine photos!!
Rondeau Ric said…
Good info Jim. I'm going to give your suggestions a try.
Anonymous said…
Love the hawk.. Gary Wayne

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