Birds In Flight

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.

“Sit Spot”

Indigenous people for eons have used the concept of a sit spot for better hunting, ceremonies and to just plain collect their thoughts. It is a fairly straight forward idea that can be applied to photographing wildlife or even street photography. In this blog I will go over the idea of a sit spot and how to apply it to local surroundings and to a lesser extent when on distant locations. There are no set rules with a sit spot but you will find that with consistent and intelligent application your opportunities to photograph elusive and common wildlife will increase greatly. You will not have to get closer to your subjects. They will come closer to you!

Hunter-gatherer societies both past and present use a variety of skills and coordinated efforts to put food on the table. One these skills involves a “sit spot” or a place to simply go and spend time at in frequent intervals. Sitting quietly in the same place that has good food, cover and water for wildlife will habituate most wildlife to human presence. Animals that aren’t threatened and feel comfortable with going about their daily business will not mind you and your camera quietly observing and capturing images. You will also find just as the ancients did that this repeated exercise, prize or no prize, is a quietly active form of meditation. Who knows, maybe the calmer brainwaves put the wildlife at ease.

“Landing” Chickadees are the first to closely greet you at your sit spot. When the birds have accepted your presence others are soon to follow. (Canon 7d2, 100-400mm ii)

Look no further than National Parks to see a grander scale of this idea working. Wildlife have learned that they are protected in the parks and hence, the chance of photographing a bear in Yellowstone NP is much higher than photographing one in the National Forest where they are hunted for sport etc. In the parks they have accepted human presence and for the most part go about being themselves. The same thing can happen if you choose your sit spot wisely and go there often.

The following are the finer points of using a sit spot to increase your chances of photographing wildlife:

  1. Pick an area that has good food, cover and water for wildlife. Sometimes this can be in your backyard, city park, public land etc. These resources do not have to be on top of each other. Just in the general area or so that you are in an area were wildlife are coming and going to these resources. Just make sure that it is a spot that you are willing to go too frequently. Which brings us to number 2.
  2. Frequency: The more quiet time that you can spend at your sit spot the greater chance of wildlife accepting your presence. They have to have time to accept your presence into their daily rhythms. If you are an infrequent and cumbersome visitor you will be alone on most outings. This is why your sit spot location will work better if it is local. You have to be there often for this concept to work.
  3. Pick an area that is safe from human threats and comfortable etc. and one that is relatively quiet. Don’t worry that your backyard or local park is too small. It is just as easy to spot a bobcat or coyote in town as it is in a National Park. I have a relative that lives in the suburbs of the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex and he records bobcats weekly with his security door cams. Sometimes 2 or 3 at a time. He even had a bald eagle dive for a rabbit in the common area of the neighborhood.
  4. Wildlife periods of activity vary but your best bets are early morning and evenings. These time periods also can offer better light and side lighted subjects. Being at your sit spot at the same times will also let the “locals” know when to expect you. But don’t let schedule conflicts keep you from going out. The most important thing is to simply be “there” frequently.
  5. If this technique fails for all other subjects it will not fail for birds. Birds will eventually land on you. (hard to photograph while they are on the brim of your hat)
  6. Beginner’s sit spot: a bird feeder, bird bath or garden pond and a comfortable chair. This is a great way to practice with birds in flight, nature portraits (a future blog) and familiarize yourself with your equipment.
  7. Must have: Patience
Cinna color phase of black bear. Walking through native wildflowers (hand sowed) on way to small pond. (Canon 7d2, 100-400mm ii)

You can also apply this concept on vacation or chosen photo destinations. The same principals apply. The main thing that changes of course is the time scale. Do your research on your chosen subject(s) and when you arrive go to those locations and sit often. People are amazed at what they see without ever expecting to see it at their sit spot. If you practice these concepts long enough in the same area you will eventually start to see wildlife while doing your own daily activities. My “backyard” is a tad bigger than most but being immersed in it has led to bear, coyote, raptor, hummingbird photos etc. galore. The included photos have all come from applying the sit spot idea to my backyard. Cheers…..

Sometimes wildlife is not the prize. Solitude and a gorgeous sunset ruled the day!