Bird photography 101: Capturing flight (Part one)
Who’d have thought that three little words could instil so much fear? Yet time and again I am asked this question: How do you get a good shot of a bird in flight? Whether it comes out as a blur across a landscape, an empty branch on which a robin had been perched or a black outline against a sky, there are lots of ways in which a bird-in-motion photo can fail.
But don’t get disheartened. I am here to help! Set out below are some steps for getting great flight shots most of the time (there’s also a lot of luck involved!).
1) Good equipment
I won’t lie. The better the camera and lens, the better your chances. That means the odds of getting a great flight shot with a compact camera (or mobile phone) are about as small as the camera itself.
But that does not mean you have to sell your husband to buy a pro-grade camera. Any camera that has the following, as a minimum, will work: the ability to adjust for exposure compensation; a shutter speed up to, at least, 1/4000s, and the ability to shoot at five or more frames per second (fps).
Ideally, your camera would also have a superfast autofocus system (that works well even in low light) and lots of focus points, especially cross-type, extending across the frame (older models tend to have fewer, less accurate, focus points and slower
An ideal lens would have, at least, 300mm focal length and work well with the camera’s autofocus system. It’s not as important to have image stabilisation (vibration reduction) as you will be shooting at fast shutter speeds anyway.
You should also ensure you have the fastest camera card for your camera’s capabilities. This will increase the number of shots you can take before the “buffer” kicks in. There is nothing worse than seeing amazing action and your camera stops because it’s run out of memory! Make sure it’s also a decent size card – 32GB to 64GB is ideal.
2) The settings
The three main settings to adjust before you shoot are aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Different combinations of these will be required depending on whether you are working in Manual or one of the Semi Automatic modes (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority). Let’s start with Manual mode.
The number one reason people get blurry flight shots is because they don’t have a fast enough shutter speed. Often that is because they have an aperture that is too narrow, and an ISO that is too low. I’m going to keep it simple for you. Light permitting, set your aperture between F5.6 and F7.1 and your shutter speed between 1/2500s and 1/4000s.
As to ISO, this is the most flexible of all your settings. If it’s a sunny day, start with between ISO 200-320 and if it’s a cloudy day, ISO 640-800. Take a test shot. Is it too dark or too light? Then adjust your ISO range up or down accordingly. Don’t skimp or be obsessed with keeping it as low as possible.
Your priority is getting a sharp shot. Remember that by setting a range of ISOs that the camera can shoot between will improve your chances compared to just setting one ISO.
As you get experienced, you can lower your shutter speed but always try to keep it in the “four digits”, that is 1/1000s or faster, unless you have extremely low light and you have already adjusted your ISO as high as you can, given your camera’s digital noise limitations.
In this last scenario, this is the time when you should start to experiment with slower shutter speeds. Sometimes these can produce pleasing artistic effects in their own right.
If you are shooting in a semi-automatic mode, then you should use shutter priority mode and set the shutter speed as outlined above.
However, be aware that in shutter priority mode, if the camera’s widest aperture (eg, F5.6) is not enough for the set shutter speed in the available light, it will still take the photo. If you see the aperture number “blink”, this is the camera telling you that you are going to underexpose at that shutter speed.
The way to get around this is to set the ISO to Auto ISO so the camera will automatically increase ISO when it can’t get the aperture to match your nominated shutter speed. You can also choose an upper limit for this setting.
Regardless of the mode you use, you are still going to have to apply exposure compensation. That is, override your camera’s meter and increase or decrease exposure, according to the circumstances.
For a bird flying against a bright sky, unless the bird itself is in the direct light, you will invariably need to increase exposure by two to three stops.
In semi-automatic modes you do this by turning the + or - dial. In Manual, you do this by adjusting your ISO up or down.
Conversely, where you have a white feathered bird flying against a dark riverbank, for instance, you will need to decrease exposure by up to three to four stops to ensure you do not lose detail in the bird.
Alternatively, you can change to spot metering mode. However, be aware that even in this mode, some degree of exposure compensation may be needed and it also requires accuracy with your selected focus points, which can be a problem with fast moving birds.
AF selection points
Last but not least, set your auto focus (AF) points. Go on – I know you’ve seen them and the chances are, many of you have never changed them.
Well, now’s the time to do it. Getting to know how to change your focus points (both position and quantity) is one of the simplest, but greatest steps forward you can take in your bird photography.
The rule of thumb for birds in flight is that the busier the background, the less focus points you use.
If you are a beginner or casual bird photographer, you should select the configuration which has a central focus with about eight surrounding AF points (roughly square-shaped) for birds in flight with busy backgrounds. As you get better, you may want to cut back on the number of surrounding points.
Conversely, if you have a plain background behind the action, make sure you have all AF points selected. This maximises your chance of acquiring focus and is especially great with erratic moving birds.
With the setup out of the way, keep an eye out for part two next week where we'll look at some field techiques.
About the author: Georgina Steytler is an award winning nature photographer with a passion for ethics and bird conservation. You can see more of her work at georginasteytler.com.au.