PSA Article: “Taking Pictures of Birds in Flight”
(published in the Photographic Society of America Journal, January 2011. To view the original article and the Bird pictures used to illustrate the article go to the PSA website, and log in if you are a member)
Modern digital camera technology makes it possible to photograph moving objects more easily than ever before. Despite these technological advances taking a sharply focused, well exposed and pictorially attractive photograph of a bird in flight can be a hit and miss affair as their flight is rarely predictable, often very fast and sometimes far from smooth. Rather than setting out with a “wing and a prayer” approach, advance preparation, developing and practising panning techniques when shooting, and a workflow suited to the subject matter will all help to avoid disappointing results.
Preparation could include research not only of the type of birds but the setting in which they will be flying. A weather forecast will give some indication of the strength of the light and the possibility of sun. Light coloured birds often present exposure problems particularly if they are reflecting very bright light. Advance information of wind speed and direction is also important as wind is influential in birds’ flying behaviour. Some birds will take off and land into the wind which is when their flight tends to be slower and therefore easier to photograph.
Digital cameras come packed with features and present, for some of us, a bewildering range of options and settings to choose from. Deciding in advance which camera settings to use will help avoid distraction whilst shooting when you often need to be reacting quickly to the flight of the birds. The choice of settings will come down, in the end, to a trade off between shutter speed, depth of field and digital noise. The key settings most useful for bird in flight photography are, arguably, Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority.
For Shutter Priority, the desired shutter speed is selected and the camera automatically adjusts the aperture depending on the available light and the ISO setting whilst with Aperture Priority the aperture, and hence the depth of field is selected and the camera varies the shutter speed. Shutter Priority for bird in flight photography has many adherents, who argue that a shutter speed of 1/1000 second is sufficient (see Gerlach and Gerlach, 2007 p54). Depending on the focal length of the lens used and whether handholding or not, a faster shutter speed may be required. A faster shutter speed can freeze even birds’ wings, whilst a slower speed can give some blurring of the wings making for a dynamic image with a sense of movement. Recent digital cameras seem able to cope with an ISO setting of up to 800 without producing unacceptable levels of noise, and so in reasonably bright conditions an ISO setting of 800 combined with an aperture of 5.6f can give a shutter speed of 1/4000sec.
Fast shutter speeds in combination with autofocus will help give a sharp image. Autofocus tracking systems (Canon calls this A1 Servo) are designed to focus on moving objects and using this setting makes focusing on a moving bird easier. Autofocus systems work by detecting contrasts (see www.cambridgeincolour.com website for more on this topic), and so the camera will track a bird with areas of easily detectable white (e.g. a Barn Owl) more successfully than other birds which are well camouflaged and tend to blend into the background (e.g. a Buzzard). If your camera has a burst or continuous option this will enable you to take a series of images once focus is achieved.
Another setting to consider is whether to use a single focusing point or the camera’s multipoint system; whilst a single point may be a good option for a stationary bird or even slow flying birds, for a fast erratic flyer it will be a real challenge to track the bird successfully. Similarly, although spot metering may overcome exposure challenges set by a very white bird, keeping a bird in the ‘spot’ may not be possible.
The settings used for most of the images to illustrate this article are aperture priority, usually 5.6f, with an ISO of 800, A1 servo and Evaluative Metering using Canon equipment with a zoom lens of 100-400mm. These settings, though, represent one set of choices and there are many possible variations for different sets of circumstances. Once the implications of the various permutations have been thought through and the choices made it can be useful to register the settings (if that facility is available on your camera) so that that you can recall them easily.
Once at the shoot, practising a panning technique handholding the camera is a useful skill to develop. Using a tripod is often not practical due to the speed and altitude of the birds in relation to the camera. It is better to try and anticipate the flight of the bird so that your most comfortable position is when you are actually shooting not when you begin panning. With tracking autofocus once a bird is in the viewfinder press the shutter half down and if the camera picks up the bird, the image becomes sharper in the viewfinder; sometimes you have to release the shutter and try again, but if you pan successfully and the bird remains sharp then a series of images can be taken. This process is likely to happen very quickly so be prepared to take a lot of images, particularly at first, as improvement will come with experience and practise.
Some lenses have a range limiter which can be useful to prevent the autofocus ‘hunting’ or trying and failing to seek a target. A zoom lens of 100-400mm gives a lot of flexibility and some like the Canon lens have a stabilizer especially designed for panning.
It is a good idea to periodically check the camera’s histogram, especially with very white birds in sunshine which will reflect bright sunlight and may lead to overexposed highlights, and you may need to adjust the exposure by using the exposure compensation setting. Beware of over compensating as you will want to record as much highlight detail as possible. Also the cameras highlight warning is only accurate for jpeg capture not Raw capture (Evening, 2009 p154), and if you are shooting in Raw the highlight detail may be intact. It makes sense, therefore, to resist the temptation to delete any but the most obviously poorly exposed images until the post production stage.
The benefits of shooting in Raw become apparent in the post production stage. Firstly, there is the facility to check the white balance using the white balance eye-dropper tool or adjusting the white balance slider. Secondly, problems of over exposed highlights can sometimes be remedied by using the recovery tool. Thirdly, there is the possibility of reducing digital noise by using the Luminance and Color Noise Reduction sliders (Evening, 2009 p255) if high ISO settings have been used.
Whilst some other global adjustments can be carried out in Camera Raw such as Brightness and Contrast, for some of the more detailed enhancements, opening the image in Photoshop offers more flexibility. For example if a bird’s eye is captured in an image but is in shadow it could enhance the pictures pictorial quality if the eye is brightened even though it may be a very small part of the overall image.
To make these very specific adjustments to an image the Curves Tool is especially useful and substituting the default white layer mask with a black mask makes it relatively easy to apply adjustments to small areas of your images with no need to use any of the selection tools. To do this, open up a Curves Adjustment Layer, make the changes you want to the specific area even if at this point they apply to the whole image. Click on the layer mask and pull down over the delete button at the bottom of the layers palette to delete the default white mask, and then press on the create new mask button whilst pressing Alt (or Mac equivalent) to create a new black mask which , because it masks the whole image, has now hidden the changes made. With white as the foreground color, brush on the specific area to unmask and reveal the changes you made earlier. Varying the opacity of the brush or layer and the ability to go back and change the curves adjustment makes it easy to modify the changes made. This mask can also be copied to another adjustment layer by clicking, pressing Alt, and dragging over another adjustment layer’s mask should you wish to make further adjustments to one area (for example a Hue and Saturation adjustment as well as a Curves adjustment). Applying localised enhancements using adjustments layers in this way can be an important way of improving the pictorial quality of the image by helping to focus the viewer’s interest on the bird.
Whilst modern digital cameras possess incredible technology, the range of features and choice of settings can be intimidating unless you are technically minded, making it difficult to decide what might work best. If, however, you find birds in flight a compelling sight, then taking a technically accomplished and pictorially interesting picture is very satisfying. This article sets out one possible approach, but to increase your chances of success it will help to prepare in advance, think through what settings will suit your own particular approach, and utilise those features of your image editing software that will best enhance your bird in flight images. There is, of course, no substitute for going out and practising.
Gerlach, J and Gerlach, B (2007) Digital Nature Photography: the Art and the Science, Focal Press, Burlington, MA.
Evening, M (2009) Adobe Photoshop CS4 for Photographers, Focal Press, Burlington, MA.
Bas Montgomery, PPSA, AFIAP