12 tips for Practicing Your Bird Flight Photography

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Bird portraits are rewarding to photograph, but once you have good portraits it’s time to move onto action. Flight photography is dynamic and exciting, but technically a bit more of challenge. So where do you start?

  1. PRACTICE – In order to get good at anything you need to practice, practice, practice. In order to practice flight photography you need a pool of several birds that will fly. Song birds are not a great choice, they are small and really fast. I highly recommend a trip to the beach to practice on seagulls. There are a lot of them usually, they fly often, are a good size and don’t move terribly fast.
  2. EQUIPMENT –  I assume you have a SLR camera with a long lens, something in the order of 400mm or longer. Fixed lenses with 1.4x or 2x extender can get you a good start. A sturdy tripod with fully maneuverable head that is taller than you supports the weight of the lens and allows free movement to pan with a flying bird.
  3. CONDITIONS – You want to shoot for a blue sky day with lots of light. Morning and evening light are prettier but you need a good amount of light to get fast shutter speeds. I also don’t want to shoot against a bland white sky. Avoid windy days as the vibration in the lens and tripod can lead to lack of sharpness.
  4. SHUTTER SPEED – I prefer a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second. You can never have too fast of a shutter speed to stop action.
  5. ISO – adjust as needed to get faster shutter speeds, but try to keep as low as possible for quality.
  6. APERTURE –  You do not need a high aperture for flying birds, I usually shoot around F4 – F5.6. If you have multiple birds and a lot of light up to F8 sometimes.
  7. EXPOSURE – What to do about exposure? Go to manual, set the exposure for the sky and you should be good to go. Typically plus 1 should do it. Make sure you don’t blow out the highlights on a white bird. Try to shoot the bird in even light or slight side light, avoid shooting into the sun for now. As long as the lighting conditions don’t change, clouds moving across the sun for example, the exposure shouldn’t change regardless if you have a dark bird in a blue sky or a white bird in a blue sky.
  8. FOCUSING – I tend to center focus my flying birds, as I find the center focus point to be faster and more accurate than the side points. Several cameras allow you to cluster a set of focus points, this allows for more accuracy over a wider area.
  9. AUTO FOCUS MODE – Continuous shooting combined with AI Servo or AF-C enable the camera to track a moving subject better.
  10. IS/VR – many long lenses have 2 or more IS or VR modes. Read the instructions that came with your lens to see which mode fits your shooting situation.
  11. WHITE BALANCE – set for existing lighting conditions.
  12. REVIEW – review images as you shoot and make any adjustments to settings.

So head to the beach and enjoy shooting those gulls, they can still make for some great shots!

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Photography Tips for Birders Part 3:Shooting Tips for Advanced Users

Mourning Dove, ISO 250, f 5.6, 1/1250th second

Last time I spoke to the Beginning camera user, in this post I’d like to give some tips for Advanced SLR users on shooting birds. Birds are a wonderful wildlife subject, since regardless of where you live there are probably birds around. They may not be brightly colored exotic birds, but you have birds and home is a great place to practice.

When shooting any kind of wildlife, I prefer shooting in Aperture Priority. This allows me to maximize my shutter speed based on current lighting by adjusting the aperture setting. I find manual mode to be too slow, however if you have light that is not changing on the subject then manual is fine. However, I often find myself in situations where the bird is moving around from shade to sunlight too quickly for manual mode. I rarely use shutter priority unless I’m trying for a blur technique. Shutter priority can get you into trouble in low lighting or when you have changing light. As a bird moves from sunlight to shade you may no longer be able to use the 1/500th you had it set to. If you don’t pay close attention the image will go dark and you’ll get home with a bunch of underexposed images. Instead I use aperture priority so I can adjust the aperture to get the fastest possible shutter speed for the light I have.

I start with an ISO setting of 400. Current SLR cameras have good quality at ISO 400 and this helps to get a fast shutter speed. For birds I want at least 1/125th second when they are posing. If I’m shooting flight at least 1/500th of a second.   I set my aperture to 5.6 to start. If I need to increase shutter speed I’ll open up if possible. Once aperture is maxed out you will need to increase ISO. A sharp grainy image is always preferable to a blurry or slightly out of focus shot, unless of course you are trying some blur technique. Current cameras do well at 800 and 1600. I try to avoid anything higher. If you need to use something higher you probably don’t have good light anyway, so identification shots are all you should shoot for.

Gold Finch, ISO 400, f5.6, 1/500th second

Continuous Shooting mode set to AI servo on Canons or AFC on Nikons helps the camera focus on moving targets. You will also need to take a lot of images to get a few good ones. Birds move a lot, so don’t be conservative with taking images, fire away!

White Balance setting depends on the lighting. Auto most of the time though.

These are the settings I start with: Aperture priority set to 5.6, ISO 400, continuous shooting and AI servo/AFC, white balance auto. Take a few shots and see what you are getting. I’m looking for a minimum 1/125th shutter speed for a perched bird. They move their little heads around a lot. Adjust settings as needed. Faster is always better, while too slow is problematic, especially during flight. I rarely go over F8 and then only when I’m trying to get more than one bird sharp in the image. So have fun, go practice on your boring hometown birds and you’ll be ready when you go to someplace cool like Costa Rica!

Jacobin Hummingbird 1/500th second, ISO 800, f 5.6

Photography Tips for Birders Part 1 Equipment

Carolina Wren

I am giving a talk to the Monticello Bird Club next week and thought I would share the information in my talk over a few blog posts. Many birders would like to capture images of the birds they see. They are out weekly, sometimes daily looking for birds, so the opportunity to capture shots is great. They also head out early in the morning, this is a great time for good light, if it isn’t a cloudy or rainy day!

Maybe you want to capture images for ID or maybe you want to get some good shots to print or use in presentations. Whatever the reason, I hope this series will help you get better bird images.

Digiscoping

Many birders already have scopes, so one option is to buy a camera and attach it to the scope. Essentially the scope acts as the lens and gives you good magnification. You can even stack the camera lens/zoom on top of the scope to get even more magnification! The better the quality of your scope the better quality images you can get.

There are 2 main types of cameras, point and shoot or DSLR. Point and shoot (P&S) cameras are smaller and cheaper. There are a number on the market compatible with a scope. Make sure you use a P&S with a short zoom of 3-4x, the longer zooms will create problems with vignetting (black corners in the view/image). You use stepping rings to attach the camera to the scope along with a digital camera adapter. You will need to do some research to find what works best for you and the scope you have.

DSLR cameras are larger and more expensive. You can get a good entry level camera for $500-800, so it’s not astronomical. There are obviously much more expensive cameras available as well, it all depends on what you want to do with the camera outside of birding. The advantage of a DSLR camera is much better quality of image, especially at higher ISO settings (I will expand on this in Part 2). They also focus faster and give you more control over settings.

You can attach the DSLR body directly to the scope using a T2 mount and digital camera adapter or attach it to a lens using stepping rings and a digital camera adapter. The lens must have threads for the stepping ring to attach to.

There is a lot of information on the internet regarding digiscoping, just google the name. A few websites I found helpful were:

http://www.digiscopediary.co.uk/digital-cameras.html  – a British bird enthusiast

http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/gear/Digiscoping/ – good basic info but written in 2006 so recommendations are outdated.

http://www.digiscoping.com/articles.shtml – from the guy who started digiscoping, has a list of scope/camera combos

Binoculars

There are Binoculars with a camera built in. This makes for a portable compact package and seems like the best option for ID photos. There is not a lot of control and image quality is probably on par with a P&S camera. I haven’t tried this personally, so you’ll need to read reviews to see if this is for you.   Bushnell is one brand reviewed in Bird Watchers Digest : http://www.birdwatching.com/optics/2011binocular-cameras/binocular-cameras.html

DSLR

Immature Black Skimmer

The final equipment option is a DSLR camera with traditional lens. This will most likely be the most expensive route, but will give you the higher quality images and more control. However, you will not get the reach/magnification you can get from a scope.

To photograph birds you need at least a 400mm lens.  I use this when I travel as it is smaller than my big lens. Bigger lenses give you more reach, but cost more; 500mm, 600mm, 300-800 and 1200mm are available sizes. You can also use teleconverters of 1.4x and 2x for more reach at a cheaper price, but they only work on certain lenses. A 1.4x on a 400mm = a reach of 560mm while a 2x on a 400mm -= a reach of 800mm. There is some loss of image quality, especially with the 2x. Make sure to read reviews prior to purchase.

When not flying for travel, I use a Sigma 300-800mm lens on a Gitzo tripod with Cobra head on my Canon 1DMark III. This setup runs around $13K, so it’s not cheap, but I’m a photographer first and birder second.

In part 2 we’ll look at some camera settings to use to get good images.