Birds In Flight (BIF)


By Wing Tong
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Seeing a bird of prey soaring freely in the open sky, swooping down to snatch its prey is a sight of beauty and elegance and I feel privileged everytime to have witnessed it. Capturing this moment in time and being able to share it with viewers is truly a pleasure.

A number of viewers have asked about how the Birds In Flight (BIF) photography was done and though there are many experts in the field out there with varying techniques, here is my personal experience. If nothing else, three basic things, good equipment, alot of practice, and a bit of luck. Sounds simple and it is once you get the hang of it. This Blog will be broken down into a number of topics including “Equipment”, “Camera Settings”, “Technique”, “Post Processing”, and anything else I can think of as I write so come back often.

1. EQUIPMENT

For equipment, I shoot with a Canon 40D which is a 1.6x crop camera. The 1.6x crop is helpful in giving you a photographic result of longer reach relative to any given lens you are using. Note the longer reach result is somewhat technically debatable but for the sake of this writing, let’s just agree this is what we get out of the 1.6x crop cameras. I’ve had the 40D for a little over a year now and since then, there’s been the higher resolution model of the 50D and as of this writing, many photographers are awaiting the 60D model (update 2009-0901, Canon just announced today the availability of the Canon 7D which some speculate is the replacement for the 60D with a different nomenclature, or it may be a completely new species!). As important as camera bodies are, this kinda tells you how disposable they are as well. You can also use Canon’s Rebel line of cameras which is also a 1.6x crop camera but without some of the niceties of the xxD models. A number of wildlife shooters will use the 1D series which comes in a 1.3x crop factor but has a much better everything especially in the Auto-Focus category. There’s also the 1Ds series which is a full-frame (1.0x) camera along with the 5D, also a full-frame, that sits somewhere between the xxD models and the1D/1Ds models. Of course there are other capable brand names out there like Nikon but I don’t own any of those so we won’t get into that. That’s about as much as I want to say about camera bodies.

A good lens is about as good an investment as you will ever have in photography. In BIF and wildlife photography in general, the longer the better, well most of the time (we will touch upon this “most of the time” statement various times later in this writing). Canon offers a solid line of long lenses to choose from and a solid pricing scheme to match! Minimum requirement of a 300mm f/4L IS will run you about $1,250, and the 800mm f/5.6L has a pricetag of $12,500. Then there is the exotic 1200mm f/5.6 which is NOT very realistic for BIF, weighing just over 36 pounds and costing a whopping $120,000! And that’s a used price! This one would fall in that category of “(the longer the better) most of the time” statement I made earlier. …but I digress. OK, so some of you will chime in and say I can shoot BIF with my Canon 70-200L or 70-300IS and so forth. Very true but believe you me, you will enjoy shooting BIF much more with a longer more capable lens. So what lens do I shoot with? The 400mm f/5.6L. A lens used by many BIF shooters which has many advantages and some disadvantages. But why not the 500mm f/4L or the 600mm f/4L or the 800mm f/5.6L? Well, for one thing, I don’t have that kind of cash to spare. 🙂

The 400mm f/5.6L runs about $1,300 but as with most good lenses, you can save 10-20% by buying used. Most of Canon’s long lenses are labeled “L” not for long but to designate their professional grade lenses and is distinquishable by the red ring around the end of the lens (as of this writing, I think the 400mm f/4 DO IS is the only long lens that doesn’t carry the “L” moniker). These lenses tend to be relatively indestructable (knock on wood, as soon as I say this, my lens will surely fall apart!) so buying used is not a bad idea as long as you find a reputable dealer. KEH.com tends to be pretty good. The advantages of the 400mm f/5.6L are many. It’s relatively inexpensive, it’s relatively light weight at 2.8 pounds, it’s relatively compact at 10.1″ length and 3.5″ diameter, it gives you 400mm of native reach, and it has a built-in lens hood. The downside is, well, it’s “only” 400mm reach, the aperture opens up only to f/5.6, and it has no Image Stabilizer (IS). My personal experience with this lens is that it makes for a very good walkaround wildlife/BIF lens because of its lightweightedness and for BIF, the IS has little effect (I know, this is also a subject of discussion but we won’t discuss it here 🙂 ). For most BIF photography, I am shooting in good outdoor light so f/5.6 does not come into play that often. Only when the bird flies into a darken area is when the lens/camera pushes the limits of required shutter speeds. But then again, today’s cameras offer very good high ISO performance and I find myself shooting at ISO800 very often without worry. I sometimes even push ISO1600 but at that high ISO, I tend to do a bit more post processing. A tripod is a good idea especially for those even longer and heavier lenses but I haven’t needed to use one yet since a tripod or even a monopod will restrict your movements to a certain degree and when I shoot BIF, I tend to be everywhere.

…next up, CAMERA SETTINGS

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2. CAMERA SETTINGS

All dSLR’s today will have 3 light metering mode (shutterspeed/aperture combinations) similar to Canon’s Av, Tv, and Manual modes. Av allows the photographer to control the aperture opening and having the shutter speed automatically set by the camera based on the available light meter reading by the camera. On the other hand, Tv allows you to set the shutter speed and allow the camera to set the aperture. Then there is the Full Manual mode which allows you the photographer to control and set both the Aperture and Shutter speed. Toss in an ISO setting which controls the sensitivity of the camera’s sensors to light and you have a well refined tool to capture and expose a balanced amount of light onto your final photo. Sounds simple enough and it really is but the amount of light in any given BIF situation can change dramatically unlike studio photography where most light is artificial and well controlled by the photographer.

So what camera settings are optimal for BIF photography? There are as many schools of thoughts on this matter as there are metering modes on the camera to set, and many will use a combination for varying situations. For me, I started using Av and then gradually moved onto Tv. Some would argue this to be a step backward, but my argument is that by using Tv mode, I control the shutter speed to match the required shutter speed of BIF. If there isn’t enough light, the worst that can happen is my photos are underexposed and to a certain degree, this can be corrected in Post Processing. Whereas if I was to use Av mode which allows me to control depth of field among other things, the worst that can happen is the shutter speeds get too low and I get a blurred photo. Well, I can’t readily correct a blurred photo in post processing as I can with an underexposed photo. But even with underexposed photos, I am talking only about up to 1 stop of light, thereafter, even the best post processing techniques would have a difficult chance of saving the photo. For ISO, I am very confident in using up to ISO800, anything higher and I would hesitate but if you must get the shot and you don’t have enough light, then by all means, use as much ISO as you need. The downside of high ISO settings is of course with the sensor’s higher sensitivity to light comes a higher sensitivity to anomalies that show up in the photo as noise or grains of odd colors. To some degree, this noise can be corrected in post processing but at the same time, noise correction results in some level of image detail degradation (I know there’s also been arguments here but that’s for another blog 🙂 ). For BIF photography, using my 40D+400mm combo, I need a minimum of 1/1,250th of a second shutter speed. I oftentimes try to get as high as 1/1,600th of a second. Those with ice in their veins can get away with down to 1/800th of a second but I bleed red blood so I know my limitations. So to sum up so far, I use Tv mode, confidently use up to ISO800, and set my shutter speed anywhere from 1/1,250th to 1/1,600th of a second.

There are three other very important settings on the camera for BIF photography, namely the Focusing modes, the shutter burst modes, and the selection of AF points. For BIF photography, set your focusing mode to AI Servo. That’ll allow the camera to continuously and automatically update the focus as you move your camera tracking the moving bird (assuming you have the moving bird locked on target). So a camera with a good AI Servo engine and reliable Auto Focus along with a fast focusing lens is essential for BIF photography. The 40D’s AI Servo capabilities are sufficient but Canon’s 1D series shine in this category as it does in most other categories. I also set my shutter to Multiple high speed shots. Multiple shots allow you to shoot an action sequence but it also allows you to shoot a series of photos of the same situation so that you have the option to choose the shot you like best later. Some have suggested that multiple shutter bursts also limits the effects of camera shakes, this may be true, at the very least, it gives you more chances of getting that perfect shot. The 40D again does decent with up to 6.5 fps and a buffer of up to 17 RAW files. Typically, I shoot about 2-3 bursts at a time unless I want to shoot an action sequence, then I shoot as many as the buffer will hold. Note the reason I shoot 2-3 bursts for non-action sequences is to conserve the camera’s buffer. I tend to shoot those 2-3 bursts and then find I need to shoot 2-3 more bursts a couple seconds later and then again and again – you get the picture. You never want to use up your camera’s buffer unnecessarily because as soon as you do, Murphy’s Law requires that the perfect photo opportunity will appear and there is no worst feeling for a photographer to be waiting for your buffer to clear in this situation! Finally, for AF points, I select the center point only as this is normally the strongest AF point and the center makes finding your target in the viewfinder much easier.

…perhaps one more setting to identify. I shoot in RAW format. This allows me to fine-tune the photo in Post Processing using the originally captured data from the camera. If I was to shoot in JPG format, the camera would have already processed the photo, the original data would have been compromised, and my post processing workflow would not have a reliable starting point from the JPG file. So shoot RAW!

With the discussion on shutter bursts, I guess I’ve gotten ahead of myself and gotten a little into the next topic which is “Technique”, next up “TECHNIQUE”…..

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3. TECHNIQUE

The most fundamental basis of technique for any given subject is to practice practice practice! Ask questions, then practice practice practice again! …and again! With this in mind, there are many varying techniques for BIF photography and I too am constantly learning, practicing, and asking questions. So far, my accumulated techniques are pretty simple and adhere to what I have found that works for me so this is by no means a means to an end but a starting point.

Start by making sure your camera is properly set up. Since I don’t use a tripod on my relatively light Canon 40D+400mm f/5.6 equipment, I hand-hold the camera which offers me the freedom to hike around and react quickly to a bird that may come out of the corner of my eye – and I am always looking for wildlife every which way including behind me (by turning around of course, I don’t have eyes behind my back…as of this writing! 🙂 ). I am right-handed so I hold the camera with my right hand pretty much in a normal fashion, and with my left hand I hold and support the long lens. When I see a bird coming into view, I quickly raise the camera+lens and start searching for the bird in the viewfinder. Since I keep the tripod collar on the lens, it offers me a nice flat surface to rest the lens onto my left hand palm, keeping my fingers extended and supporting the far end of the lens. Basically try to get a comfortable and balanced position. Finding the bird in your viewfinder is actually more difficult than it sounds especially if the bird is really close which is usually where you want the bird to be, but for beginners, maybe practice finding more distant birds as the view through your viewfinder will cover much more ground which makes it easier to find the bird. Once you’ve located the bird in your viewfinder, press the shutter button halfway and the camera’s Autofocus (AF) will try to lock onto an AF point where you are aiming the camera. But since you, your camera, and the bird are all moving at the same time, the AF might lock onto something else especially if you have a busy background. If this happens, quickly release the shutter button, find the bird again, and try pressing the shutter button halfway again to lock onto your target. If you are successful, there are two basic ways to continue the AF tracking. The obvious way is to keep the shutter button suppressed halfway and continue following and keeping your focus point on the bird and then pressing the shutter button all the way to take the picture when you find the composition appropriate. The other way, and this is my preferred method, is to release the shutter button but continue following the bird in the view finder with the focus point on the bird. Press the shutter button halfway a few times as you follow/track the bird to keep the bird in focus. When the bird gets close enough to the composition you are looking for, press the shutter button halfway again to lock focus but this time keep it suppressed halfway as long as you need, then continue to press the shutter button all the way to take the picture. This pressing and releasing of the shutter button as you track the bird in flight helps in reducing the chances of losing the AF lock to something in the background. Now since your camera is set to shoot multiple bursts, keeping the shutter button all the way down while continuing to track the bird will result in multiple shots until either you release the shutter button or your camera’s buffer fills up. As I eluded to earlier, I tend to shoot in bursts of 2-3 then releasing the shutter button back to its halfway point, continue tracking the bird, and when another nice composition appears, I again shoot another 2-3 bursts. Repeat until the bird is out of range. Oh, by the way, all this happens in about a few seconds window. 🙂

A few perhaps debatable tips…

– Before a bird even comes into sight, prime your AF to a point close to where your birds will be coming from by pointing at something in that area and pressing the shutter button halfway then releasing it. This will allow you to have a pretty close focal area when the birds do arrive instead of a big blur!

– When I track a bird in my viewfinder, the prescribed focal point on the bird is the eye but since the eye is such a small target, I don’t worry too much about focusing exactly on the eye. Instead, since the eye is in a fairly close focal plane as the face and body while the bird crosses perpendicularly to my sight of view, I’m ok with focusing on the head/body at this angle. When the bird is coming towards my perpendicular view, the body is a bit askew but the head still offers a pretty close focal plane to the eye of the bird. As the bird flies away from my perpendicular view and if I wanted that angle for my shot (which I seldom do since it is not a very pleasing angle), I try to again focus on the head.

– For beginners and for practice, find a nice slow flying plentiful bird species like seagulls which are in vast numbers in my neck of the woods, and try to shoot them as much as you can. When I first started shooting BIF, I shot probably a few hundred seagulls everytime I went out shooting. Shoot anything that moves too! That’s one of the beauties of modern day Dslr’s, you can shoot as many shots as you like and it costs virtually nothing (except for the count against your camera’s shutter life which tends to be anywhere from 50K to 300K depending on your camera).

That’s it for Techniques for now. If I think of anything else, I will update this post. …next up, POST PROCESSING.

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16 Comments

  1. Hi Wing.:) I found this post so motivating and inspiring, that I spent the afternoon shooting birds. Thank you for posting this to Fine Art America. I really found it helpful!

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