Thank you for taking the time to read my blog article on shooting B.I.F. (Birds in Flight)
One of the hardest things to do in photography is to master shooting B.I.F! There are many different styles and settings used by the pro’s to attempt to achieve this humbling task. The technique you’ll use can vary greatly depending on the species that you’ll photograph. Each species of bird has its own unique flight patterns and characteristics, so you’ll have to adapt your technique to each species is.
Planning and scouting
This is one of the hardest and most disciplined key ingredients of shooting B.I.F. I spend a month in the field before the birding season starts to watch the patterns, and see what species is roosting where. When you do find the roosting areas, then it is very important to start learning their habits to be able to anticipate their flight patterns. You will find this very important in the months ahead. Being in the right place at the right time is much more than luck.
After you have found the birds of interest, the next step is to understand how you are going to achieve the best results possible using your scouting information. It is very important that you position yourself at a location that the sun is behind you and the flight patterns of the intended species are flying perpendicular to the front of your lens. You generally do not want to take flight shots of birds flying directly towards or away from your lens. Many camera auto focus systems cannot keep up with a moving target that is headed directly towards the camera, and more often than not, such images end up slightly out of focus. The best shots are those where the bird flies across your field of view and you are able to pan across the view with little or no obstructions. You want a view of the flight path where your background will be mostly blue sky, to keep the camera’s auto focus system from locking onto elements in the background instead.
Tools and gear
The best camera to use is the fastest camera you own. That is also true with the lens. You need to be able to shoot in burst, and you need to be able to focus fast for optical results. A SLR or a DSLR are highly recommended, with the advantage leaning toward a DSLR. The reason the DSLR gives you a huge advantage is for the simple fact that you can view your images and check the histogram on your cameras screen for instant feedback, and make quick adjustments as needed.
The lens should be in the 300mm range or higher. It should also be light enough that you can hand hold it. You’ll be a more successful bird in flight photographer if you can hand hold your lens. Nothing beats a good, fast prime lens for shooting B.I.F I personally use a 300mm f/2.8. I also have a 1.4, 1.7, and a 2.0 teleconverter that works wonderfully with me birding lens. So I can be at 600mm and f/5 with ease. But, I do not feel comfortable handholding anything longer that 420mm. Anything longer simply goes on a tripod.
If your lens is just too heavy to handhold, you’ll need a sturdy tripod and a gimbal style tripod head. There are many gimbal tripod heads on the market including ones by Wimberley, Bogen, Mongoose, and Kirk Enterprises.
The type of metering you need will depend on the situation. In low-contrast lighting conditions evaluative metering will do the job. If the birds are much brighter than the background or there are other sources of high contrast (reflections of the sun on water is something to watch for), you may need to use spot metering on the bird and perhaps some negative exposure compensation to avoid blowing out the highlights. On the other hand if you try to photograph a bird against a bright sky you will need positive exposure compensation of at least 1 stop. So there is no rule of thumb here. With a digital camera we are lucky to have a histogram to guide us. I always take a couple of test-shots to get the metering approximately right before I start with the real shooting. During the shoot I only adjust the exposure compensation a bit if necessary because of small changes in the lighting conditions. The histogram and the exposure compensation dial are my best friends during the shoot.
Shutter Speed and Aperture
As you might expect, you will need a fairly fast shutter speed to capture flying birds. The speed you need depends on the speed a particular bird moves his wings during the flight. Shutter speeds above 1000 freeze most motion in the wings. For smaller, fast moving birds I recommend at least 1/1000 of a second and 1/2000 if possible. For larger, gliding birds such as herons and raptors, 1/500 or 1/750 should be sufficient, but if you want to play safe choose 1/1000 for them also.
To get these shutter speeds you most times need to shoot high ISO and/or low aperture. This is a trade-off you have to make depending on the noise you want to accept or your camera can handle and the amount of background you want in focus.
I prefer apertures around f/6 so I set this first and then adjust the ISO until I get the shutter speed I need. Only if ISO goes to an unacceptable high level do I lower the aperture.
Fix the AF point to one of the available AF points ( I prefer the middle) and try to track the bird keeping this AF point on the bird. Needless to say this is almost impossible to achieve with small fast-moving birds. If you want to give it a serious try, raptors, herons and Egrets are very good birds to practice. You also need a shooting spot where you see the birds coming towards you so you have enough time to actually track them. A small pond in the city-park, where birds fly short irregular distances, in general is NOT a good spot for it!
Always use AF-C so the focus will change as you pan the bird on the autofocus spot.
Image Stabilization or VR
Because of the fast shutter speeds, IS or VR isn’t necessary on the lens you use for flight shots. In fact, some forms of IS can actually make it more difficult to track a moving target. It can also affect the creamy bokeh effect.
Although it is not the “desired technique” of a lot of the pro’s, I personally enjoy the challenge and the energy of capturing a little motion with some of me B.I.F images. The technique is not that complicated, but it does take a lot of practice.
To capture motion you simply need to use a single spot focus and metering and do your very best to get the head and beak of the bird sharp and allow the wings to carry the energy of the image, and keep your shutterspeed below 1/250
Thank you for taking the time to read my article and I invite you to join me on one of my South Florida bird workshops! You WILL enjoy the experience.