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Birds In Flight: Location, Instinct And Gear All Play A Part
One of the biggest challenges in nature photography is taking a great frame-filling picture of a bird in flight. Just having the hand-eye coordination required to keep the bird in the frame is a big deal, but then you have to keep it in focus, watch the background so it’s not busy or distracting, use the right shutter speed for the effect you want, be aware of the light and get a decent exposure. And all of these things have to be considered in a very brief span of time—2 seconds or less.
Even if you are the most skilled of nature photographers, your ratio of great pictures to the number of frames you take will be very low. (You’ll have a higher keeper rate of lightning pictures!) The following is a list of things that go through my mind when I’m photographing flying birds so you can see the strategies I use to get pictures like (#1) a black-browed albatross in the Falkland Islands, and (#2) flamingos flying in formation at Lake Nakuru, Kenya.
If the birds are flying across your field of view, like the roseate spoonbills I photographed in Tampa Bay, Florida (#3), you will have a much easier time keeping them in focus because the subject-to-camera distance doesn’t change very much. You can pan with the birds and have a reasonable expectation that they will stay in focus.
However, the point of critical focus changes every millisecond if the bird is flying toward or away from you. The wood stork (#4), and the African white pelican (#5) are examples, and even though these are relatively slow flying birds, the focal point was constantly changing as they approached my shooting position.
This is especially true if you are tracking a bird that appears small in the frame. As they fly and you pan with the action, the bird will move off the central point of focus and then the autofocus mechanism goes haywire trying to focus on the sky. The picture is lost at that point. If all the focus points are chosen, as the bird spreads its wings many of the focus points will intersect with the wings or some part of the bird’s body, and the camera can lock focus on the subject. That’s how I photographed a black kite (#6) in southern Ethiopia, and a great egret (#7) in St. Augustine, Florida. As cameras evolve, they get better and better in many arenas, and one of the most important improvements is ultra fast autofocus tracking. Modern cameras do a great job of locking the focus on a fast flying bird and allowing you to get a shot.
If your autofocus mechanism isn’t as fast as you need it to be in order to hold focus on a bird in flight, you have another option. You can focus the lens barrel manually, and choose a point ahead of the bird’s expected flight path. Just before the bird comes into the focal point, start shooting—on motor drive—and hope you get a shot in focus. I have done this many times, sometimes I’m successful and sometimes not. This is how I captured the wood stork (#8) in focus.
Fill The Frame?
Shutter Speed And Depth Of Field
By comparison, the white-backed vulture (#11) had just taken off from a branch and I used a 500mm lens plus a 2x teleconverter giving me a focal length of 1000mm. Notice how the feathers in the middle of the bird’s back are sharp, but the wing tips are blurred. I used 1/320th of a second to shoot this and I needed a shutter speed of at least 1/1000. I was shooting wide open—f/4 minus 2 f/stops due to the teleconverter, which gave me f/8—and ISO 400, and this limited my shutter speed in the relatively low light. (I could have raised the ISO to gain more shutter speed but frankly the camera I was using at the time dropped quality beyond the ISO 400 setting—thankfully high ISO results in today’s cameras are much better.)
When you want to freeze a bird’s wings, depth of field is not a luxury you can afford unless you are shooting in bright sunlight. To get the fastest shutter speed, I set my Exposure mode on Aperture Priority and choose the largest aperture on the lens, or I opt to use Program mode. Program mode is programmed to give you the fastest shutter speed the light, the maximum aperture on the lens and the ISO setting afford.
The picture of the spoonbill (#12) required a fast shutter for 2 reasons: I was shooting a bird whose wings flap fairly fast, and I was taking pictures hand holding a 500mm lens from a small boat. All of that movement required a fast shutter speed to give me the kind of sharp detail I was looking for, and therefore I shot wide open at f/4 using Aperture Priority. That gave me a shutter of 1/1250 and the wing tips in this picture are sharp as everything else on the bird.
If you want to blur a bird to imply motion and/or to create an artistic abstraction, as I did with a seagull in San Francisco (#13), and an African white pelican flying past thousands of flamingos at Lake Nakuru, Kenya (#14), then the shutter speed must be chosen depending on the effect you want. For the seagull shot, I panned with the bird and used a shutter speed of 1/8th of a second. Notice how the trees in the background are much more blurred than the bird, but both aspects of the image are significantly abstracted. The same is true in the white pelican picture.
Working With A Tripod
My preference is to use a tripod and a gimbaled head such as the Wimberley Tripod Head II WH-200, www.tripodhead.com (#15). With quickly accessible knobs, you can swivel the lens like a gun turret and even a monster telephoto lens feels completely weightless. The movement is smooth and non-inhibiting, except if you are trying to shoot straight up.
First, if a bird is perched on a branch waiting to take flight, I can take a light reading on the blue sky or any middle toned area of the scene (such as tree bark, a gray rock, my jeans, etc.) and then lock that reading in place with AE lock or switch to Manual and set my camera to the f/stop—shutter speed combination dictated by the meter. Second—and my preferred method—I switch to Program Exposure mode or Aperture Priority and let the camera’s automatic metering system do its job. If you’re a little off, the benefit of digital is that you can make adjustments later, after you got the action shot you want.
Special Projects: Hummingbirds
The wings of hummingbirds beat 12-80 times per second, depending on the species. The range of shutter speeds that we normally use for fast moving subjects is typically 1/250 to 1/1250 of a second. This is too slow to freeze the wings. 1/2000th and 1/4000th of a second are not even fast enough to get sharp pictures to reveal the detail in individual feathers. Some cameras go up to 1/8000, but even if this were fast enough to get tack sharp pictures of hummingbirds, the light would be so reduced that you would be forced to shoot with a large lens aperture and a high ISO—neither of which are ideal solutions.
The technique that works is to use flash. However, it’s not straightforward at all. The typical “flash duration”—the length of time that the flash tube is actually illuminated during an exposure—is about 1/1000th of a second when used on Manual. When the power output of the flash unit is reduced to 1/16th power, the flash duration becomes about 1/16,000th of a second. This is definitely fast enough to freeze the wings of hummingbirds as you can see in (#16 and #17).
The set-up I use consists of 4 elements:
At 1/16th power (all the flash units are set to the same power output), the recycle time is very brief—about 1/3 to 1/2 second. That means I could shoot quite quickly to take many shots each time a bird came to feed. It is impossible to ascertain whether or not the wings are in an attractive position when I snap the shutter, so I had to take a lot of pictures to get a winner. With the rapid firing, I had a lot of great shots. (#18) is one of my favorites.
To vary the exposure from each flash, I simply moved it closer or farther away; 3-4” make a significant change in exposure. In this way, I could adjust the lighting ratio based on what I saw on the LCD monitor.
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