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BIRDS AS ART ON-LINE BULLETIN #37, DECEMBER 11, 2000

PHOTOGRAPHING BIRDS IN FLIGHT

I am often asked questions about photographing birds in flight, most recently by Bulletin subscribers Lance Kreuger and Ray Amos. What follows is everything that I know about photographing birds in flight that is not covered in "The Art of Bird Photography" (hereinafter referred to as "the book.")

For handheld flight shooting I use either the Canon EF 100-400mm IS (Image Stabilizer) L zoom lens, my beloved "Toy Lens:" the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L, or infrequently, the Canon EF 300mm f/4.0 L IS lens. Recently, because of the 1-4's great versatility, I have been using that lens almost exclusively for flight photography. With all IS lenses, I try to remember to set IS mode 2 (for panning), though I most often use shutter speeds that are fast enough so that the IS is not a factor in making sharp images. If I forget, and attempt to pan with IS mode 1 set, the image in the viewfinder will usually jerk backwards in the frame as I pan and remind me to switch. I almost always remove the tripod collar from the intermediate telephoto lenses to reduce the weight and to make hand-holding more comfortable. (I do not use a shoulder stock.) It is important to place your left hand well out on the lens barrel so that the lens cam be easily and properly supported. Many folks place their left hands on the lens barrel too close to the camera; some even put two hands on the camera! This is like trying to pick up a log by the end. As for the secrets of panning successfully, I do not know of any. Simply pick up the lens, point it at a suitable subject, depress the shutter button half-way to acquire focus, swing the camera (pan) as the bird approaches you, and make the image by depressing the shutter-button an instant before the subject is in an ideal position. Oh, and I forgot to mention: practice. (You can practice with no film in the camera; gulls make ideal practice subjects.)

For flight shooting with big lenses, I use either the tripod-mounted Canon EF 600mm f/4.0 IS L lens or the Canon EF 500mm f/4.0 IS L lens that I purchased recently. Anyone who does not use a regular Wimberley head for such flight shooting is a total dunce (and I said that long before I became a Wimberley dealer). See the book for details as to why. I place my right hand on the shutter button and my left hand on the swing knob as this makes panning easier.

(Snow Goose, Bosque Del Apache NWR, NM  Canon EF 600 mm f/4 IS L lens, 1.4X TC, EOS 1v body, central sensor.  Wimberley head on Gitzo CF 1548 tripod. Fuji Provia F 100 rated at EI 320 pushed two stops. Sunny 16 exposure for brilliant white set manually:  1/1600 sec at f/5.6.)  Perfect technique plus an understanding of light and wind direction will help you to create images like this.

Those who have followed my writings will know that I insist on having my shadow pointing almost directly at the subject for all photography involving front-lit subjects. Additional factors come into play here. When flight shooting with the sun directly behind me, and birds flying from left to right, I will only photograph subjects that are flying into the light. I will try to acquire focus while the bird is 20 to 40 yards to the left of my position (and my shadow line). I will pan with the bird and try to make an exposure (or two at most) as the bird approaches my shadow line. (Unlike many who make ten or twelve or even 15 images of a bird on a single pass, I never hold the hammer down when flight shooting, trying instead to anticipate the ideal pose and subject position). Once the bird passes my shadow line I stop shooting and so should you. Once the bird passes the shadow line, its tail will be closer to you than its head. With rare exception, each and every image that is made after the bird has passed your shadow line and begins flying away from the light (and from you as well) will wind up in the trash can. (For birds flying directly towards your position, do try to acquire focus as early as possible and track the subject on the way in.) Not an IPT goes by that does not find me yelling out repeatedly in my soft, gentle voice, "Stop shooting; the bird is past you." When folks, who are delighted to have any bird in focus in the viewfinder, keep on firing, I try to discourage them by telling them that I will charge them 37 cents each time that they make an image of a bird that is past the light. This represents the approximate cost of making a single image on color slide film. When the wind is opposite the sun and the birds are flying directly away from you or landing with their backs to you, "over-the-shoulder" portraits can work. I love shooting Sow Geese flying away at slow shutter speeds with the 2X TC on a big IS lens

I do not hesitate to use my 1.4X teleconverter with either of my super-telephoto lenses when flight shooting. Results are similar to those achieved with the prime lens alone although Initial Focus Acquisition takes slightly longer. At times, I will attempt to do some flight shooting with the 2X TCs. Results here are spotty; I have made some incredibly sharp images flight shooting with the 2X, and many marginally sharp and just-plain-soft ones as well.

(Immature Bald Eagle, Bosque Del Apache NWR, NM.  Canon EF 600mm f/4 IS L lens, 2x TC, Canon EOS 1v, central sensor.  Wimberley head on Gitzo CF 1548 tripod. Fuji Provia F 100 rated at pushed two stops.  Evaluative metering + 1/3 stop: 1/1000 at f/5.6.)  With practice, it is possible to maintain focus on birds flying below the horizon, even with the 2X TC.

My main flight shooting film is Fuji Provia F 100 pushed one or two stops (rated at EI 200 and 320 respectively). When shooting the 500 or 600 mm lens without a TC, I will use Fuji Velvia pushed one stop. Though I often have lots of extra shutter speed available when using fast film, I utilize the wide open aperture 99% of the time. The faster the shutter speed, the sharper the in-focus images will be. On my recent Bosque trip I frequently found myself using shutter speeds as high as 1/4000th of a second.

For photographing single birds in flight, I almost always use the central sensor only (the exception being in extreme low light when I will resort to using AFPS).

(Snow Geese, Bosque Del Apache NWR, NM  Canon EF mm f/4 IS L lens, EOS 1v body, AFPS (45 sensors active).  Wimberley head on Gitzo CF 1548 tripod. Fuji Provia F 100 pushed one stop. Evaluative metering +2/3 stop: 1/125 sec. at f/4.)  Here, with two birds in the frame, the EOS 1v's AFPS system worked to perfection in a situation where central sensor only might have failed to hold focus.

For small in the frame subjects, I will choose a side sensor so that the bird will be placed pleasingly off-center. With Canon’s 45 point AF pattern, I advise that you never use the AFPS mode for single birds in flight (except as noted previously) as I have found that it does not focus very accurately at all. (Note, however, that some other very competent photographers, Cliff Beittel for one, prefer to use AFPS for some flight shooting situations. With cameras that feature the 45-point AF system, I do not set the custom function that allows surrounding sensors to help in attaining and maintaining focus. Why not? I want the fine AF control that is attainable when using the central sensor only. For subjects that fill roughly half-frame, I simply strive to place the central sensor on the bird’s eye, face, or neck; this will yield a pleasing composition and will leave lots of "flying room" in front of the bird.

(Sandhill Crane, Bosque Del Apache NWR, NM  Canon EF 600 mm f/4 IS L lens,  EOS A2 body, central sensor.  Wimberley head on Gitzo CF 1548 tripod. Fuji Velvia pushed one stop.  Sunny 16 exposure for a middle tone: 1/1600 sec. at f/4.)  In this image, placing the central sensor on the bird's neck yielded a perfect composition. 

Many folks (and that includes both Canon and Nikon shooters) often ask why their AF system fails when the bird drops below the horizon and the background switches from sky to mountains, fields, or distant woods. The fact is that the fault lies not with the AF system, but with the photographer. If you keep the central sensor on the subject and do not let it slip off, accurate focus will be maintained. If you allow the sensor to slip off of the subject, even for an instant, the system will focus on the background. (With the sky as background, the AF system simply does not see the sky.) Keeping the sensor on the subject while panning requires lots of practice and more than a bit of fine motor control as well. (One IPT participant asked me in a serious manner if Canon sold that, "that" being fine motor control. "Unfortunately," I responded, "they do not."

For photographing groups or large flocks of birds in flight, I do recommend using one of the array AF patterns if your camera offers an array pattern. This would be the five-across sensor pattern in the Canon A2 or 1n, the 45 point AFPS mode with the Canon EOS 3 or 1v, the seven-sensor AF layout in the new Elan 7s, and the dynamic AF mode with the Nikon F-5 or F-100. (Note; several Nikon-using IPT participants have stated that they feel that AF tracking accuracy with F-100 is better than with the F-5 where many have indicated that there is a problem with the AF picking up middle-toned subjects against middle-toned backgrounds.)

(Sandhill Cranes, Ed Krane Pond, Bosque Del Apache NWR, NM  Canon EF mm f/4 IS L lens, EOS 1v body, AFPS (45 sensors active).  Wimberley head on Gitzo CF 1548 tripod. Fuji Provia F 100 rated at EI 320 and pushed two stops.  Evaluative metering +1 stop: 1/180 sec. at f/4.   A new pond right on Highway 1 provided great opportunities to create silhouettes of parachuting cranes coming into their evening roost.  Again, the 1v's AFPS system help focus perfectly. 

Even with the amazing predictive AF systems offered in many of today’s top cameras, flight shooting is--like skeet shooting--a difficult task. I would say that under good conditions more than half of the flight shots that I make are either acceptably, very, or exceptionally sharp with the latter probably accounting for about 10% of the flight image that I create. (When flight shooting conditions are perfect with birds flying into the light and hovering into the wind, it is often possible to have nearly all of the images on a roll turn out either very or exceptionably sharp.) Under most conditions, however, AF--as wonderful as it is, ain’t perfect. Note however, that before AF, I made only 3 sharp flight images in about a decade.........

Best and great picture making to all,

Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Listing of Archived Bulletins



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