Birds in flight (BIF) make interesting and beautiful images. Capturing them can be difficult but made easier with the right equipment and camera settings. It is an interplay between available light, ISO, F/Stop and Shutter Speed. One should also be investing in a good telephoto lens that has great autofocus. Invest your money in the lens before breaking the bank on a camera. A great lens can serve you for decades. Cameras, even the best ones come and go every 3-5 years. I shoot BIF with a Canon 7d2 and 1Dxii coupled with L telephoto lenses. Partly because that is what I am invested in but mostly because although Canon is lagging with dynamic range and a few bell and whistles for me it is the best complete system for wildlife on the move. Your best start is to learn and shoot with the system that you have and go from there.
Bay hawk Canon 7d2, 70-200mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO 400
Let’s discuss the important physical parameters involved in getting good BIF shots.
Available light. The more light the better because with more light you can increase your depth of field and have a much faster shutter speed. A fast shutter speed is the most critical aspect of getting a sharp image with BIF. However, the harsh light at “High Noon” is not always conducive to a pleasing photograph even if it is a sharp one. If harsh light is the only light that you have, you still have a couple of options. With the best one being waiting until you have better light. The second one is to use a polarizing filter. I like Moose Petersen’s circular polarizer with an A-1 Warmer incorporated into polarizer. You loose some light with a filter but it is a good trade off with harsh light. To be honest a lot of bird in flight shots must be taken outside of the “golden light” times. One should also consider shooting for a bit of blur in the shot if light conditions are falling off. If done right it can give a the image a sense of motion. If done incorrectly it can just appear like an out of focus shot. Artistically either a very sharp BIF or one that shows motion will work. It depends on what you want as a photographer.
ISO: ISO is a cameras measure of light sensitivity of the camera sensor. Increasing the ISO will allow the camera to “gather” more light but it comes with the cost of introducing noise into the image. Prudent application of the concepts discussed here and your images will look great. Even at poster size prints. I normally keep my ISO between 400 and 600. Only going to 600 or a tad higher when it is the last option. If your end goal of the photo is small prints and social media increasing the ISO and associated noise increase is a workable situation.
Shutter Speed: This setting is the holy grail for BIF. I try and get the right available light, ISO and F/Stop that allows a shutter speed of over 1/2000. Ideally, 1/4000 – 1/6000 works superbly. Sometimes this depends of your subject. Freezing a hummingbird etc. works well at 1/4000 of higher but can be done with 1/3200 or even 1/2000 with informed persistence. A soaring hawk or eagle works at 1/2000 or even 1/1000 if you catch a meandering one.
F/Stop: More light? Higher f/stop number. f/2.8 allows more light to hit the sensor than f/6.3 but be mindful of your depth of field (DOF). Lower f-numbers give a shallow DOF and higher ones give more DOF. Birds in flight have several areas of focus that are important for a good shot. Things like eyes, beaks, talons, wing tips and tails. These are spaced far enough apart that depending on the bird can require an f/stop of 3.5 to 8.0 or so. Sometimes you may have to sacrifice a little DOF in order to freeze the bird with a high shutter speed.
Great isn’t it? This interplay between f/stop, ss & ISO is one of the many things that make photography interesting and an art form. These 3 parameters are what allow you to go from taking good photographs to creating art with your camera.
Study the posted images here and look at the interplay between these parameters. An important thing to do before stepping into the field is to adjust the settings for the “ball park” so that when that golden eagle streaks in front of you are not fumbling with camera buttons and dials.
I typically set my camera to these settings before leaving the cave:
Auto Focus Drive: AI Servo & High Speed
Focus Point: Single point and centered
ISO: I start at 400 and cross my fingers that I do not have to increase it.
F/Stop: f/6.3 or 7.1. If I need more light I will go to 5.6 or even 3.5 with the 70-200mm.
Shutter Speed: 1/3200 or 1/4000 if the light is on my side. If it’s one of the great days 1/5000 or 1/6000 is the setting.
Most modern cameras will have autofocus presets in the menu. I have found that for the most part with Canon that the factory setting works just find. Especially if I can get the shutter speed up.
Birds in flight and tripods? Soaring flocks of geese or a floating eagle lend themselves to tripod work. Quick song birds or raptors on the move lend themselves to hand held work. Let’s take a look at how I would shoot hummingbirds.
If I have a nice flower patch with multiple hummers and increased shot opportunities I will shoot from a tripod. If opportunities are limited and I will be moving often I will shoot them hand held. When using a tripod I will set my equipment up in front of one stellar flower with a nice fore and background. I will try and incorporate rocks, logs etc. that complement the subject. I will prefocus on a flower and patiently wait for the hummers to make their rounds. Chasing them with moving lens makes them skittish so I tend to just lay back and count daisies.
Calliope Norwood, Colorado Canon 7d2, 100-400mm ii, f/7.1, 1/4000, ISO 500
Magpie, Norwood Colorado, Canon 7d2, 70-200mm, f/6.3, 1/2000, ISO 600
In order to get closer to birds and wildlife in general read my blog post, “Sit Spot”. It has good ideas to help with this. I will post more BIF photos with camera settings so that your brain will start to put the numbers with the different scenes.