As many owners of mirrorless cameras can attest, it can take some time to get used to some of the different shooting capabilities that our mirrorless camera gear provides. One of the things that seems odd to use to photograph birds in motion, is a frame rate of 60 frames-per-second. Especially when on many cameras, the first frame locks focus for the balance of the run. Most of us have been taught to use continuous auto-focus when photographing birds in motion, and our natural assumption is that a very fast frame rate of 60 frames-per-second is more of a marketing gimmick, than a practical shooting technique.
I started shooting with the Nikon 1 system back in August 2013, but it wasn’t until the past 6 months that I really started using a 60 frames-per-second-frame rate with any regularity. As strange as it may seem, when photographing birds in motion, my ‘new normal’ camera setting is now 60 frames per second. During my past couple of outings I had both of the cameras I brought with me set to this frame rate. I never changed either camera’s frame rate for the entire duration of my photo shoots. And yes… it is possible to capture individual frames even when your camera is set to 60 frames-per-second.
Since early May I’ve been spending quite a bit of time doing field work for an upcoming eBook on bird photography. That project enticed me to push my Nikon 1 gear in a few new and different ways, with using a frame speed of 60 frames-per-second being the biggest experiment I’ve done over the past 5 months.
I initially discovered that this fast frame rate was ideal for very specific types of situations like a bird landing on, or leaving, a nest. Then, the more that I experimented, the more that I discovered that using 60 frames-per-second wasn’t a gimmick at all. It became a very practical technique to use on a regular basis. I began to use it to photograph birds-in-flight like the Great Blue Heron in the following series of 6 images. All of these images would have been captured in a total of 1/10th of a second. If I was still shooting with my Nikon D7000, I would have captured only one of the following images, not 6, during a burst time of 1/10th of a second.
All of the 6 images below are 100% captures without any cropping done to them at all.
As readers look at the first set of images, some of you may be thinking, “What’s the point of shooting at 60 frames-per-second? There’s hardly any difference in wing or body position.” And, that is the exact point! Using a fast frame rate like 60 frames-per-second enables us to capture more precise moments of motion differentiation than would be possible with slower frame rates. There is also less chance to get a stream of repetitive wing positions (up, down, up, down, up, down) that can often happen when shooting AF-C runs at slower frame rates.
To better illustrate the importance of capturing more precise, differentiated motion segments let’s have a look at 6 consecutive images of another Great Blue Heron taking off from some shallow water. Again, these 6 images were captured using a frame rate of 60 frames-per-second. It would have taken a total of 1/10th of a second to capture all 6 images. Pay special attention to the position of the heron’s feet in the water, and to the amount of water spray coming off the bird as it becomes airborne. These next 6 images were cropped to 4,000 pixels on the width, then resized for web use.
You can see that each frame shot at 60 frames-per-second provides some subtle differences in wing position, leg distance from the surface of the water, and the amount of water spray coming off the bird. Rather than hoping for one, decent image when shooting at a slower frame rate… I would much rather shoot at 60 frames-per-second and feel more confident that I will get a range of potentially usable photographs.
Our last set of example images will (hopefully) demonstrate why it can be advantageous to have the first frame lock focus for the balance of the run, and NOT use continuous auto-focus. Let’s have a look at the first photograph in this image run captured at 60 frames-per-second. All of the following images are 100% captures without any cropping at all.
All of us who have done bird photography have faced the situation in the image above, i.e. a target bird in behind branches and other birds. This makes it difficult to acquire and hold focus when doing a continuous auto-focus run as our cameras can sometimes be ‘tricked’ by something in the foreground, and grab focus on a different element in the image. In the case of this sample image run, I was able to acquire focus on the egret’s head and neck just before it took flight. Since I shot at 60 frames-per-second this focusing would be locked for the balance of the run, regardless of any obstructions caused by foreground elements entering into the frame. Now, let’s have a look at frame 5 from this image run.
Yikes! Our target bird is now directly behind a cormorant resting on a branch. If I had been shooting using continuous auto-focus there would have been a significant risk that my camera would have picked up on the cormorant and dropped focus on the target egret. You can also see how far the egret’s wings have moved in 5 frames. Now, let’s look at frame number 10 from the image run.
The egret has now left the water with nice spray coming off its legs and feet, but it is still partially obscured by the cormorant which still poses an auto-focusing risk if I had been using AF-C. Let’s move ahead to frame 15 of the image run.
Our target egret is still partially obscured by the cormorant, but it is starting to emerge into a less obstructed visual area, which was the ‘shooting zone’ I anticipated for this image series. Let’s see where the action has gone as we move ahead to frame 20 in the run.
Our target egret is almost clear of the cormorant on the branch and is almost perfectly positioned as it enters my anticipated ‘shooting zone’. Now, let’s look at the last 6 photographs in this image run that was captured at 60 frames-per-second. As you go through these images you’ll notice that the egret is in the ‘shooting zone’ and free of obstructions in 5 of the 6 following images. There is slight wing clipping in 2 frames, with the entire egret shown free and clear in 3 of the final 6 frames.
Shooting at 60 frames-per-second does take quite a bit of adjustment in terms of technique. Shutter release timing is obviously critical. The 40 shot buffers on my Nikon 1 V2 and V3 cameras fill in only 2/3 of a second when shooting at 60 frames-per-second. Typically I find that my buffer is already full and I’m checking my images when other photographers around me are just starting their AF-C runs, photographing the same subject bird. My panning motion needs to be much, much smoother and far more controlled, than when shooting at a slower frame rate since I have no margin for error given my 2/3 of a second image run time. I also had to adjust my shutter finger pressure, learning how to apply a very light tap to only squeeze out a single shot when desired, rather than inadvertently taking a burst of a stationary bird. Increasing my patience and waiting for my ‘moment’ to shoot also took quite a bit of practice, especially for birds-in-flight. I also had to learn how to shoot just a partial run of my buffer when birds are flying towards me to limit the number of potentially out-of-focus images.
Now that I am totally comfortable shooting at 60 frames-per-second I do not enjoy shooting birds in motion at slower frame rates with my Nikon 1 bodies (i.e 5 or 15 fps with Nikon 1 V2, 10 or 20 frames-per-second with Nikon 1 V3). I find these slower frame rates are not nearly as challenging to use… so they are not nearly as much fun… nor do they produce the same degree of satisfaction with the results they produce.
If you own a mirrorless camera that has high frame rate capabilities that you have not yet explored… I would encourage you to experiment with your gear to find out if you enjoy shooting in this manner. If you’re like me… it may become your ‘new normal’ camera setting when photographing birds in motion.
A quick apology to Photography Life readers for my relative inactivity here over the past little while. I’ve been juggling client video projects as well as working on several eBook projects. This week, I just published Balancing Eggs, a business parable about leadership communications, business coaching and presentation skills… and will soon publish my New Zealand photography eBook. After that I will be working hard to finish up my bird photography eBook to have it ready before year end.
All photographs in this article were captured hand-held using Nikon 1 gear as per the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.
Article and all images Copyright 2018 Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, adaptation or reproduction of any kind is allowed without written permission. Photography Life is the only approved user of this article. If you see this article reproduced anywhere else, it is an unauthorized and illegal use. Posting comments pointing out Copyright infringements on offending websites that steal intellectual content is always appreciated!
At 60 fps is it machanical shutter or electronic?
Hi Muhammad Omer,
I believe it is electronic at 10 fps or higher with all Nikon 1 cameras. Some models like the J5 use electronic shutter exclusively.
Hi Thomas, I’m curious. My experiences with fast electronic shutter settings on my J4 can result in a badly distorted image, I suspect from rolling shutter. Have you experienced anything like that? Thanks.
Hi Spy Black,
I only use very fast shutter speeds when photographing very small birds-in-flight or when photographing bees in flight. For example, a typical shutter speed I use for hummingbirds is 1/5000th and bees in-flight are usually shot at 1/10,000th. I do notice some slight warping of wings at these very fast speeds. This is most noticeable when wings are in mid-beat. I personally don’t find the distortion to be unpleasant as it can add to the feeling of motion. Other photographers may disagree of course. When the wing position is fully forward or fully back it is a non-issue in terms of this ‘warping’ distortion.
The vast majority of my images are shot at much slower shutter speeds, with most birds-in-flight at 1/1250th to a maximum of about 1/2000th depending on light. I suppose every piece of camera gear comes with some kind of trade-off, and each of us needs to decide what trade-offs we are willing to accept.
I have recorded 30fps in 4K with my FZ80. The sad part was, I had to sort through them on the camera as they could not be downloaded as individual images. After a while they all began to look the same, and someone else looking at a selected image wouldn’t know or care about another 29 images almost identical being available. While I had that camera (gone now thank goodness) I stuck with the burst mode of 6fps (AF-C) or 12fps (AF-S) and usually got a frame that suited me.
If I was entering an international competition, then I would find 60fps more useful as a selection resource.
I have used the 4k 30fps video stills extraction function in my D500 a couple of times when shooting horse eventing. In good lighting you can set the shutter to the required 1/1000 sec for the stills, even though that doesn’t look good in video. There is a slight difference in dynamic range compared to normal photos, and the resolution is only 8mp, but being able to choose the ideal jumping position can be useful.
Thanks for sharing your experience and adding to the discussion! It all comes down to our individual needs and the gear that we own. I typically only fill my buffer at 60 fps when I know I have a very good opportunity to capture a range of interesting wing and body positions… for example if a bird is landing or hovering in mid flight. If a bird is doing a standard fly-by I would just lightly tap my shutter to grab a very short run of images.
The FZ80 had a lot of great features, but it is an entry level superzoom camera, and the noise levels were horrendous. I Have flogged it off and gone back to a Nikon D7000. Now, why did I EVER sell those dslr lenses???
These are great shots Thomas, mainly because you must have been fairly close to the birds to fill the frame I think, even at 700mm. In my experience, getting within about 100ft of a Heron or Egret is tricky.
The problem of 60fps is that the buffer is going to be full and I suppose the V3 takes a fair while to clear? Hence, the Egret shots you may have been watching some better frames disappear in front of you just after your group. Additionally, we can see that the small sensor does not allow a shallow depth of field to reduce the distracting backgrounds, especially in the Heron shots. It is very rare to have a really pleasing BiF picture when there are branches behind the subject, unless you are able to blur them out, or get lucky with the exposure and they are much darker or lighter than the subject.
Going forward, it won’t be long before cameras have 6k and 8k video functions, which will allow 20-30mp stills extraction, so the buffer will no longer be 2/3 second, but more like half an hour!
Thanks for adding to the discussion with your comments! As your comment points out, there are some challenges associated with shooting with a smaller sensor camera. Plus, my Nikon 1 V3 is technology that is almost 4 1/2 years old! It does take some time for the 40-shot buffer to clear in my V3, so I typically shoot with a pair of Nikon 1 bodies when birding so I can continue shooting as one buffer clears. I use SanDisk Extreme Plus micro SD cards which does help somewhat with buffer clearing time.
Being limited to 2/3rds of a second does make shutter release timing critical… but that does add to the challenge and fun of the experience.
Good points – they make me think. I usually shoot 9 fps CAF but can do 20 on the Panasonic G9. Will give it a try. SAF is going to work with a constant focus distance in the bird’s flight path – which wouldn’t be all that common?
Looking forward to your bird photography ebook.
Ideal situations to use a very fast frame rate are when a bird in flight is moving at 90 degrees to you, or when a bird is not going to travel very far when taking off or landing. The faster the frame rate used (i.e. 60 fps) the more forgiving your camera will be with regards to the movement angle of the bird. The images of the Great Blue Heron in flight were of a bird flying slightly towards me. As a result, images in the latter part of the run went out of focus. I initially did not use 60 fps unless a bird was flying at a 90 degree angle to me. As I used this very fast frame rate more regularly I discovered that I could photograph birds flying at various angle to me. The trick is to match the image burst length with the severity of the bird’s flight angle.
Shooting at 20 fps will give you less flexibility when shooting birds flying towards you or away from you, than when shooting at a very fast frame rate like 60 fps.