A 'Birds of India' feature

Bird Photography for beginners - II by Sumit Sen     

Part - VI                                                                        

Flight Photography


Photographing 'Bird In Flight' of 'BIFs' is the ultimate challenge of bird photography. Many will argue that this is one of the most difficult of photographic subjects and capturing pleasing and crisp images of birds in motion with a degree of certainty require training and skill. And practice, lot s of it! But the rewards are great, especially to the photographer. Not only are birds in flight aesthetically pleasing because they capture the essence of the life form, getting a sharp and attractive BIF is a great adrenalin boost to almost any photographer. However, there are hurdles to be crossed before you capture BIFs well with regularity. And these start with equipment.

 Equipment:  It is entirely possible to get an occasional image of a large bird with a compact camera, and digiscopers have shown that they can make good launch and landing shots on occasion. But capturing the motion inherent in BIF photography really requires a capable DSLR and a fast-focusing telephoto lens. Photographing birds in flight calls for fast focus acquisition, focus-tracking and retention - all at high-speed. Plus you need a capable lens which can resolve detail. These are best done by a modern DSLR and a fast telephoto prime lens. Here the better the DSLR, the better the results (though you can use low-end DSLRs once you have attained a degree of skill). As far as the lens goes, it all depends on how you want to do BIF photography. If you are like me and do hand-held BIF photography, then you have to use a lens that you can effectively hand-hold. Those who want to use longer lenses have to consider a sturdy tripod and a Wimberley or Manfrotto gimbal-type head. By and large the BIF photographers community either use a 400mm F5.6 lens or a 500mm F4 lens. The first is generally used by those who do hand-held photography, and the second by tripod users. I manage with my Nikkor 300mm f/4 because I have developed some skills of closing distances with my subject and I prefer the additional flexibility of a fast and light lens. As in all BIF photography, I miss some opportunities but get some others due to my equipment choice. But there is little choice about the DSLR. I depend on my Nikon D200 to deliver every time I raise the lens to focus on a flying bird.

This 17cm Small Pratincole was photographed from a moving boat that allowed me to come close to the bird

In summary, you need will need a DSLR capable of high frame rates, with a large buffer and one that has a capable and fast focusing system with low shutter lag (when I used to shoot BIFs with my older D100 camera, the bird generally passed the centre by the time the shutter recorded it, not so with the D200), the more sophisticated the better. High megapixels and DX multipliers are an added advantage as you have more to work with. As far as the lens goes, get the longest and fastest prime that you can afford if you are using a tripod, and a 300 or 400mm prime if you want to do hand-held BIF photography.

 Settings: Most BIF images are all about stopping motion or presenting it as an art form. Standard BIF photography requires you to stop a flying bird in a manner that it is properly exposed and you have a sharp and well-composed image. Stopping birds in flight is a function of the speed of the bird, its wing-beats, your distance from the bird and the direction the bird is travelling. Speed is not uniform. A Peregrine Falcon can travel at over 100 miles and hour, while a duck might do something like 45 miles an hour in the usual course. But more than the directional speed, what is of material interest to the photographer is wing-beat speed because that needs to be stopped by the camera (on most occasions) as well. This differs from bird species to species with the rule of the thumb suggesting a slower speed for larger birds. As an example, birds such as vultures have a flapping speed of one flap per second, whereas the hummingbird has a flapping speed of ten flaps per second. So the shutter speed required to freeze one will be different from the other. Distance also adds another metric. The closer the bird, the higher the shutter speed required in the normal course. But these are areas that you can dwell on as you go up the skill ladder. For beginners it is good to know the following:

 > In most cases a bird in flight will be completely frozen on camera at shutter speeds above 1/2000th sec. Slower moving larger birds like eagles, herons, swans etc can often be stopped at as low as 1/500, while fast moving and small swifts and swallow can show blur even at 1/1500 or even higher. There is really no hard and fast number, but over 1/1000 is good and the higher the safer.

 > Slow shutter speeds can also be employed for special effects in BIF photography. One deals with creating blur on a moving bird by panning with the bird. Here you can start from 1/60 and go up to 1/200 in most cases. A word on panning, try practicing panning by rotating from the waist and always follow through with the camera by continuing to pan even as the shutter releases.

Keeping the feature points sharp is key to this type of photography. Here the head of the Black Kite is in perfect focus

The other type of creative and artistic BIF photography is where you show wing blur with key parts of the bird in perfect unmoving focus. Here something like 1/60 – 1/125th works well for me. Remember to put the lens stabilizer on for these kind of images.

This female Purple-rumped Sunbird was shot with equipment that was slow for this type of work. But that was in 2003! 

 > The second aspect that needs attention is focus point. I rely on a single Central Focus Point, as do many others in this line. On some very sophisticated DSLR's you can set all AF points as active with good results, but in general Central Focus is safe and recommended. While on the subject of autofocus, if your camera allows you to set how quickly an AF point will change focus, it is generally best to fix this setting to be slow.

 > Most bird photography is done with control over exposure and DOF using Aperture Priority, same applies in BIF photography. A special area to note here are the extremes of dynamic range that can occur in some species due to contrasting light underwing and dark body parts. Plus the problems of shooting against a bright sky. The rule of thumb for shooting against a bright sky (generally the sky is always brighter than the bird) is to increase exposure compensation by 1 or 2 stops depending on the degree of contrast. Backlit and dark images are a common problem with many BIF images, and paying attention to this aspect will solve the problem easily.

Exposure compensation was dialed in even when the Indian Roller was perched because of the well lit background

 > Most flight photography requires high shutter speeds which neutralize the need for lens stabilization. However, if you are using stabilization use the Mode that works in one direction (Stabilisation Mode II on Canon). Stabilization generally helps when you are doing creative slow shutter speed photography.

 > The majority of BIF photographers shoot on continuous mode once they have a flying bird in focus generating many images that they can sift through later. The downside to this approach is that you don't know what wing position you are getting and you may lose sight of the bird because of mirror movement blackout. I take single shots manually, as do many others though I do engage the continuous drive at times for a series of three or four shots. Irrespective, birds move so fast that it is almost inevitable that you will miss that moment no matter how fast your camera is!

I knew the gull was hunting, but still missed the actual catch. All over in 13 seconds! But the image is about making every shot count

 > Focus limiter. Most good quality lenses have a focus limiter. I usually always engage it to prevent the camera from focusing at distances I will not need. This helps focus acquisition and speed.

 > Flash is rarely used in BIF photography because it is either too weak or because it synchronizes at very low shutter speeds unsuitable for BIF images. But flash is widely used, and rather elaborately, in hummingbird flight photography.

 Technique:  The main technique is to spot the bird, focus on it while it is some distance away and tracking it (activate the AF by half-pressing the shutter release button) till it reaches the right spot before you press the shutter. This works mainly for birds that are flying perpendicular to your camera position but is also effective for birds coming straight at you.

Acquiring the subject from a distance is the key to successful BIF photography! 2 seconds is all it took to capture this Northern Pintail!

Another way to obtain good BIF images is to pre-focus the camera where you expect the bird to pass or land. This really works well when you are aware that the bird will land at the nest or a perch that it has previously used.

The most common form of BIF photography is to record take-offs. Birds will sooner or later leave the perch and that moment provides an ideal opportunity for the stretched wings image. Birds will generally signal imminent movement - watch for these signs. A word of caution, there is a limit to how long you can hold focus for this eventuality, so giving up is normal. And it is also normal that the bird decides to fly the moment you give up :)

Controlling exposure contrasts by underexposing and pre-focusing on a landing spot make this Pond Heron an easy target

 Some illustrated tips:

Gliding birds need lower shutter speeds, as is the case with this Amur Falcon. Note cloudless sky and exposure compensation added.

Clouds often add to the beauty of the image. The focus is on the head of the Black Kite, as it should be.

You the photographer determine the aesthetics. Generally birds flying away make poor BIF shots, not in the case of this Marsh Harrier

flock in flight is perhaps the holy grail of BIF photography. Different techniques are required.

There are no rules. If there were, then this White-eyed Buzzard image would not look right.

Quality BIF photography requires much skill and luck, and the skill element includes understanding your equipment very well. That takes us to the 3 P's of BIF photography – Perseverance, Patience and Practice, with practice being everything!

Good luck!





A presentation by Sumit Sen; September 2012
Image copyright with the photographers. All rights reserved.

 Last updated 17 Sep 2012