Light & bird flight photography
Text and Photos: Diana Andersen, Animalinfo Publications
Despite considerable advances in focus tracking technology, bird flight photography remains a challenging subject. It is easier for photographers to achieve a sharp capture using DSLR and Mirrorless cameras. However, getting an image that engages the viewer can be considerably more difficult. A bird frozen in flight against a blue sky holds little interest for the audience, past admiration of the technical skill of capturing a fast-moving target that is perfectly in focus.
On the other hand, an engaging image in terms of light capture, story, and visual impact that is soft in focus can also be disappointing. Capturing a striking frame with visual impact requires a balance. Achieving technical skills and the ability to see your subject in a setting adds to the story and captures the viewer’s imagination. Capturing this type of image is tremendously rewarding. Understanding the behaviour of birds is also essential, or you can find yourself taking a lot of shots of their rear ends as they fly away from you!
Capturing a striking frame with visual impact requires a balance between technical skill and a story that captures the viewer’s imagination.
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A bird frozen in flight against a blue sky holds little interest for the audience past admiration of the technical skill.
Understanding Your Subject
The behaviour of birds is affected by whether they are predators or prey. However, all birds are vulnerable to apex predators, and humans fall into this category. Few birds, other than large flightless birds like Ostrich, are likely to hold their ground on the approach of a human. The further down the food chain they are, the more rapid their flight response. As a result, for many flock species, the slightest threat will result in the immediate mass departure of the birds.
For many flock species, the slightest threat results in an immediate mass departure of the birds creating a challenge for the photographer.
While the objective may be to capture the birds in flight, it is preferable if they are flying towards the camera or across the frame rather than away. To begin with, choose clothing that is dull and blends into the environment. If you are carrying a mat to sit or lay on, make sure that it is not a bright colour.
Birds are less likely to depart if you approach quietly and choose a location to sit, lay, or stand. Given time, they may even come closer after they have had the opportunity to assess whether you are a threat. Birds also tend to alter their behaviour in preparation for flight, so understanding and observing this can help you anticipate the potential for a flight shot.
Assessing the Scene
It is preferable to arrive before the best light to avoid disturbing your subject’s natural behaviour and get into the best position. For example, arriving before dawn or earlier in the afternoon gives you time to assess the scene. Rather than approaching the first birds you see, take the time to ascertain the direction of the light and other shooting possibilities. Using the environment, shadow areas, backlight, golden light, and other assets like reflection can add interest and drama to your images.
Look at where the birds are and what they are doing. Are the birds in the water, on the shore, or high in the trees? Birds in the water can potentially give you great reflection shots as they take off. If they are faced away from you, they are more likely to take off in the same direction, so try creeping around your subject to get ahead of them before they fly. Going wide around them is preferable to potentially scaring them and causing them to fly away from you.
Deciding to sit, lay down, or stand depends on the location and the position of the birds you are hoping to photograph. For example, I love getting as low as possible if I hope to get birds flying low over the water, but this position is not practical if the birds are close to you and high in the trees.
In addition, avoid getting too close so that your shots become cramped. Moving subjects need space in front to balance the image and prevent the appearance of colliding with the edge of the frame.
Watch birds that are flying and landing. Their wings often catch the light in a particular area showing beautiful translucent feather detail. You need to be ready with your exposure settings to capture that moment in this situation.
If your potential subjects are close to the background, you can try using a shallow depth of field to help isolate them from the background clutter. For example, if there are a group of birds, you may need to increase your aperture to ensure that you get more of them in focus.
Essentially, you establish the scene’s narrative and select your camera settings accordingly.
Achieving the Correct Exposure in Bird Flight Photography
Getting the correct exposure for birds in flight is not easy and can be one of the more complex aspects of bird photography. A bird flying out in the open may not be too tricky, but a bird flying against a varied background of light and dark can be another matter. Unless you are shooting fully manual, you will need to be ready to use exposure compensation. Full auto, aperture priority, shutter priority or auto ISO will result in blown highlights or unintentional silhouetting unless you learn to use exposure compensation.
Exposing for White Plumage
One of the most challenging aspects of bird flight photography is avoiding blown highlights resulting in loss of feather detail. Many birds have white plumage somewhere on their bodies that can blow out in bright light. Even in the early morning and late afternoon, rays of sunlight can create ugly bright areas with no detail in your image. Rim lighting and the setting sun can easily cause blown-out patches in your photos. In landscapes, you can bracket shots, but in a flying bird, this will not work. Also, if you intend to enter wildlife photography competitions, images must be a single capture, so composite shots are not allowed.
Many cameras have a highlight alert function available which causes highlight areas with no detail to blink when reviewing the image you have just taken. It is essential to have this function turned on. In addition, it is vital to take some test shots in the area you hope to capture your images to ensure you have your exposure settings correct. Finally, review your captures frequently to check for a highlight alert in rapidly changing light.
Spot metering and Exposure Compensation
The recommendation for bird photography is often spot metering. However, while it may give you the correct exposure for the bird, keeping the metering spot on the bird while it flies past varying backgrounds can be challenging. Therefore, I prefer evaluative metering and auto ISO combined with exposure compensation for the bird in difficult variable situations. However, some cameras do not have the option to apply exposure compensation in Auto ISO. You should read your manual to ascertain if this is possible.
ISO and Problematic Backgrounds
When the light and the scene change rapidly during a bird’s flight, it is not easy to adjust your exposure settings quickly in full manual mode. Auto ISO adjusts quickly to the changing background increasing the chances of obtaining the correct exposure throughout the flight. In addition, applying negative or positive exposure compensation for the bird itself helps maintain the correct exposure for the main subject.
For example, a white bird flying in a dark location can easily result in an overexposed bird. I would use negative exposure compensation to avoid losing detail on the white bird in this situation. The background will then be very dark, but this often enhances the image rather than detracting from it. Dark birds against the sky or a lighter environment will tend to silhouette unless you use positive exposure compensation.
A white bird flying against a dark location can easily result in an overexposed bird unless you use negative exposure compensation.
I have my exposure compensation function applied to a dial on my camera’s top right, making it easily accessible with my thumb. This position allows me to alter the exposure while shooting quickly. Whatever method you choose, learn to monitor your settings in your viewfinder so you can make alterations if any of the exposure parameters need adjusting, such as preventing your ISO from climbing too high.
If your subject is in a shadowy area and is stationary or doing very little, you can afford to use a slower shutter speed to keep your ISO low, so you have less digital noise in your image. However, birds can often take off without much warning, so I tend to keep my shutter as high as possible, but I have also set up my dial functions to allow me to change the shutter speed rapidly with my index finger while shooting.
Ideally, a shutter of at least 1/2000sec, preferably 1/2500sec or faster, is desirable. In bright, sunny conditions, achieving these settings is not too difficult to do, but this becomes more difficult in pre-sunrise or cloudy conditions without shooting at higher ISO. However, higher ISO is better than soft-focus shots unless you are experimenting with motion blur.
In manual or aperture priority, choosing your aperture will affect your depth of field. There is no absolute right or wrong in the choice of aperture for birds in flight photography. You should choose the setting based on the subject and the surrounding environment combined with your personal creative decisions.
If two or more birds are flying, you must decide whether you want both in sharp focus or just the one closest to you. Capturing both or an entire flock may require increased aperture, especially if you are using a long focal length and your subject is close to you, filling your frame.
The background will also be affected by your focal length. With telephoto and zoom lenses, the closer the subject is to you when the lens is at its longest focal length, the greater the magnification of the background, resulting in a softer appearance.
My preference for most flight images of a single bird is to use as wide an aperture as possible to help isolate the bird from the background and allow as much light as possible into my lens. In addition, keeping your lens wide open helps keep your shutter fast and your ISO low.
Bird Flight Photography Focus Mode
CONTINUOUS AF (Continuous autofocus)
For subjects in motion, use CONTINUOUS AF focus mode. In this mode, the camera focuses continuously on the subject in the AF-area brackets while pressing the shutter release button halfway. If you have a back-button focus set-up, you can continually autofocus by pressing and holding the back button while using the shutter button to capture the shots. If you release or lose focus with either technique, you will need to refocus on your subject. For Canon users, continuous AF is known as AI SERVO. On Nikon, the mode is AF-C. Other brands may use a variation on AF-C or C-AF.
Single or Expanded Single Point Focus
Expanded single point focus works well for birds where the bird may be too small to track easily. However, you can use single point focus for larger birds if you are accustomed to following or panning with a moving target with a single point. In addition, single point struggles to find enough contrast in dark subjects, so a small expanded group helps grab focus. If your camera does not have a single point or expanded single point option, choose the smallest group or zone available.
Ideally, we want to select the bird we wish the auto-focus to track while ignoring other objects that enter our viewfinder. If you are unfamiliar with how to choose single or small group focus points on your camera, I recommend consulting your manual. Try to focus on the animal when it is further away before it begins moving towards you. If you have subject-tracking options on your camera, ensure that you have the subject to track set to ‘ANIMALS’.
While focus tracking, or eye tracking, has made capturing a bird in flight easier, it is not without its shortfalls. For example, when a bird is in an area with little tonal contrast, the camera can struggle to locate it and repeatedly focus on an object nearby with more contrast. This problem can be highly frustrating. Therefore, I have a second button allocated to AF that uses continuous AF applied to the single point or small group method selected in my settings. If my back-button focus tracking method struggles to grab the desired target, I switch to the other AF button using the standard focusing method to make the camera focus where I want.
Next Level Bird Flight Photography
Without question, bird flight photography requires skill, hours of practice, and some measure of luck. However, it also requires thought, preparation and an artistic eye to take it to the next level. It’s more than just settings; it’s about understanding how to use location, setting and lighting, and then timing your shot for that perfect capture!
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