In today’s digital photography age, most novice bird photographers are happy just capturing a bird portrait with their cameras. After a while, the natural progression is to try and capture some action shots of birds in flight, but that is where most avian photographers struggle. Why? The answer is quite simple; they don’t have enough shutter speed!
Most birds typically cruise at speeds in the 20-30 mile per hour range, but during chases or altercations they can reach 60 miles per hour, with the peregrine falcon topping out at 200 miles per hour during a dive. To freeze that action, you need a very good tracking technique and a very fast shutter speed – the faster you can get, the better! How fast? I recommend a shutter speed of at least 1/1600th of a second, with 1/4000th of a second being the most you would need to freeze any action.
How does a photographer achieve those shutter speeds? The answer is quite simple; raise the ISO. Very early in the morning or late in the afternoon as the sun is starting to set, I recommend a minimum ISO of 1600. When the light starts to get brighter, I generally drop down to ISO 800. I rarely drop below that so I can comfortably maintain a fast shutter speed. With a shutter speed of 1/1600 – 1/4000 of a second, I can prevent motion blur, fixing one of the most common mistakes avian photographers make.
Another common misstep I see photographers making is photographing at the wrong time of day and in the wrong direction. Get out there early and stay late! Half an hour before sunrise and after sunset until about an hour after sunrise and before sunset is just magical. It is known as the golden hour because the light is soft and golden. The birds’ plumage will glow during this time and you can safely photograph until about two and half hours after sunrise and two and a half hours before sunset at most latitudes. Equally as important as being out at the right time of day is keeping the sun at your back. Why? To minimize the harsh shadows that you can get when shooting crosslit or backlit subjects. With the sun at your back, put both arms out, away from your body about 20 degrees, as shown in the illustration below.
Any subject in that zone should make for a very pleasing subject with nice, even and soft lighting. When the sun is low it also gives a great catchlight in the eye. If your intended subject isn’t in the zone, then you need to move yourself or concentrate on a subject that is in the zone. Remember to try and acquire and track birds early and only depress the shutter button once they are in the zone. Birds are a lot like airplanes; they like to land and take off into the wind. Having the sun and wind at your back are ideal conditions for flight photography. Even when the wind is hitting the side of your face you should still get excellent results, but if the sun is at your back and the wind is coming directly at you, then the birds will almost always fly away from you. So, check the wind direction before you head out. In most sunny conditions, the light is just too harsh on the birds, so once my settings reach f/8 with a shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second and my ISO set to 800, it is time to put the camera down and scout. It’s also good to keep in mind that bright overcast conditions can extend your photographic opportunities.
Let’s also make sure we have our autofocus (AF) set correctly. Your camera should be set for AI Servo (Canon) or Continuous/AF-C mode (Nikon). If you have another make of camera body it will have a different term associated with it, so check your manual for the fastest one. Use only center point AF spot selection when first starting out for the fastest and most accurate acquisition of the target. You can also elect “focus point expansion” if your camera has that kind of option. This makes your center spot a bit larger, giving you a better chance of locking on your target. But be aware that many cameras do not have this capability, so stick with center point. Don’t forget to set the drive mode to high speed, not single shot! This takes care of some of the basic settings, now to move on to camera mode.
So what mode should an aspiring bird in flight photographer use? Manual mode, of course! Because background conditions can change when a bird is flying, manual mode is the only option that will not get fooled by them. A simple way I like to setup my camera is when I am out in the parking lot unpacking my gear. I get out there early and place the sun directly at my back. I set the ISO to 800 and choose an f/stop from f/5.6 – f/8. I photograph a white or silver car in the lot or even a white sign that is in the zone to check my exposure. I look at my histogram and adjust the shutter speed until I move the histogram as far to the right as I can without any part of it touching the right edge. Your highlight alert should be turned on, as this will help you see that you have no blown highlights (AKA blinkies) when you review your image. If my shutter speed is below 1/1600th of a second, I will adjust my ISO up until I achieve that speed for flying birds. Since most birds in the field have some white on them, now you can go out into the field and, as long as you keep them in your zone with the sun at your back, you will have the correct exposure even if they fly against a totally different background. On darker birds, you will have to sacrifice a little bit of shutter speed – but remember to not blow the highlights! You don’t want an image of a bald eagle that has a totally washed out head. As the sun rises, you will gain a faster shutter speed and as it starts to set, you will start to lose it.
Depth of field is rarely a problem in bird photography unless you get too close! Getting too close can disturb the birds, but often times it just spooks them and they fly away. This is where focal lengths of 400mm or more come in very handy. Below is an example of what different focal lengths look like on a full frame camera as well as a crop sensor body.
All of the images were taken at approximately 100 feet away, with the carving of the puffin being about 12 inches in size. You can see that at that distance, I had plenty of depth of field at f/8 and with the Canon 7D Mark II and the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary combined with the Sigma TC 1401 teleconverter I was autofocusing at f/9 and almost filling the frame with the small carving from 100 feet away! Many birds will allow you to approach closer but there really is no substitute for focal length. That added reach now also allows you to photograph even smaller birds.
The biggest change that has happened to the world of bird photography has been to the gear. The new digital camera bodies from all of the manufacturers allow us to adjust our ISO easily and with little noise to achieve and maintain the fast shutter speeds required for capturing birds in flight. The biggest revolution has happened in the quality and affordability of long telephoto zoom lenses. The days of only needing long, expensive primes is over. These aren’t your fathers’ zoom lenses! Sigma introduced two affordable and hand-holdable (for me) 150-600mm zoom lenses (Sport and Contemporary) about a year and a half ago, and I believe these two lenses will revolutionize the bird photography world. The Sport is totally weather sealed and weighs in at 6.3 pounds, which won’t be hand-holdable for most photographers. It is really designed for people who find themselves out in the harsh elements often. It has a slight edge in overall performance at a current price of around $2,000 US. For those unable to hand hold, placing the lens and camera into a gimbal style tripod head or gimbal side mount to use with an existing ballhead will make the combination almost weightless, once properly adjusted.
For me the biggest eye opener was the quality of acquiring, tracking and focusing of the lighter and even more budget friendly Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary! It weighs in at 4.3 pounds and I remove the collar when hand holding for even bigger weight savings. Its current advertised price is under $1,000 US. Combined with the Canon 7D Mark II, this makes for a very potent, lightweight and budget friendly combination, with an effective reach of 960mm. As a matter of fact, all the images in this article were taken with the Contemporary lens! Even the smallest songbirds are now in reach for the bird photographer looking to get into this exciting field, all in an airline-friendly travel package.
Remember, these are just guidelines, and with practice you may be able to use a slower shutter speed and still freeze the action. Hopefully I have provided you with enough information to go out and capture some amazing bird in flight images of your very own.
For a complete list of my workshops, lectures, galleries, blog, eBooks and more please visit: http://www.roaminwithroman.com
Here are additional image samples of birds in flight: