Photographing Birds in Flight Part 2 by Ossian Lindholm

Andean Condor. Perito Moreno Glacier, Los Glaciares National Park.
Province of Santa Cruz. Patagonia Argentina.

Nikon D810 + Sigma 150-600 f/14 1/2000 ISO640 @600mm

The Andean Condor, a majestic bird with a 10 ft, ( 3 meters) wingspan and a body mass that can exceed 26.5 lbs, (12 kg) Sexual maturity occurs at the age of 8 or 9, they are monogamous, and can live about 70 years. Their habitat is in South America ranging from Venezuela to Land of Fire (Tierra de fuego), Argentina. It feeds on carrion, so its principal function in nature is to clean up dead animals that could spread diseases. It has been mistakenly attributed the ability to kill animals; however the shape of its beak and the design of its claws show that this isn’t possible. The most important population of the condor is located in Argentina.

Photographing birds in flight. Part 2

In a previous newsletter ( Photographing birds in flight Part 1 ) we said that this type of photography is perhaps the most frustrating thing for those who start with wildlife photography. We talked about the importance of correctly selecting the shutter speed. In this Newsletter we will see other elements to consider when you are entering at the fascinating world of bird photography.

Semi-automatic Exposure Modes

In photography, when we want to talk about exposure modes we can go from the modes of full automatic exposure (AE) in which the photographer has little power of decision, to a full manual mode in which the photographer has total control. The manual mode is symbolized with the letter M in the mode dial, is important to use when we don’t have action and we have plenty of time to manually operate the camera. This is the reason I recommend to use manual exposure mode (M) for landscapes and portraits. But when the action and what is going to happen is unpredictable, we will not have time to operate the manual mode in the camera and that is when we use the semi-automatic modes. There are two modes to consider: Shutter Priority Mode (Tv in Canon and S in Nikon) and Aperture Priority Mode (Av in Canon and A in Nikon). My recommendation for beginners is the Shutter Priority Mode. In this mode we select an appropriate shutter speed following the previous newsletter and the camera does the rest by choosing the aperture necessary for the photo to come out well exposed. For example, selecting a shutter speed of 1/1000 or 1/2000 the subject in flight will be “Frozen”. If the bird flies between areas of different lighting levels, the camera will compensate for the light variation by opening or closing the aperture, but without lowering the shutter speed. Then, in a future newsletter we will see what other exposure modes the photographer with experience might use.

Águila calva. Bald eagle. Alaska.
f/9 1/1600 ISO1400 NikonD4S + Sigma150-600mm with 1.4x Sigma teleconverter @880mm
ISO sensitivity

The ISO expresses the level of sensitivity of our camera to the light. There is what is called the ISO base that is the lowest level of our cameras. In most of the cameras this base ISO is 100. But we can increase that sensitivity in the case where the light available does not allow us to use those high speeds we need to photograph birds in flight. The increase of the ISO sensitivity is of geometric type: We will have double the sensitivity in an ISO 200 compared to an ISO 100, an ISO 400 will have double that of an ISO 200, and an ISO 800 double that of an ISO 400 and so on. Let’s see how we can use this in the practice of bird photography: If for a given situation of light we use an of ISO 100 the maximum shutter speed we can reach is 1/500, by increasing the ISO to 200 we can take the shutter speed to 1/1000 and if we increase the ISO to 400 we can take it to 1/2000. So, we see that the management of the ISO is very important to maintain our high speed and at the same time to maintain an adequate exposure. Is comfortable for me to use the option of automatic ISO.

Automatic ISO


Great Egret. Pantanal, Brasil.
f/5.6 1/1600 ISO320 NikonD4 + Sigma150-600mm @300mm

An automatic ISO, allows us to think of one thing less and act quickly, something very important in bird photography. Contrary to another type of photograph in which we can repeat the shot, in action photography what happens is not going to repeat, at least not exactly. And as we must not miss a unique opportunity, for not having been able to raise the ISO in time, the resource of the auto ISO is very useful, but always keeping in mind the ISO sensitivity of the camera that is taking the photo. Depending on the model of our camera an ISO above the cameras limits can generate pictures with a lot of “noise” (visual distortion). The full frame cameras are more tolerant to high ISO.

Great Egret. Pantanal, Brasil
f/6.3 1/3200 ISO3200 Nikon D4 + Sigma 150-600 @600mm

The camera photo sensor is composed of a matrix of millions of microscopically sized photocells. A 24 Megapixel camera has 24 million of these photocells. Each photocell generates an electrical signal proportional to the intensity of the light it receives. Then comes an analog/digital process that will turn these electrical signals into an image, but it is not the purpose yet to understand how that happens. What is interesting now is to understand what is happening in our camera when we decide to increase the ISO above the base. And what happens is a process of amplification of that electric signal, which at the same time to increase the sensitivity to the light, also amplifies something unwanted and that is the digital noise. The digital noise decreases the quality of a photograph, therefore we need to consider the ISO as an emergency variable that we will only increase to the extent necessary, and so we will improve the quality of our photos.

But in bird photography we need to know the following: “It is preferable to take a photo with a little noise than to have a blurry photo with little definition”.

Note: The noise not only depends on the level of ISO that we use, also the size of the sensor, the quality of our camera, and the modernity or age of it.

Great Frigate bird, Adult-Youth Interaction. Turtle bay. Santa Cruz Island. Galapagos. Ecuador.
f/6 1/1250 ISO900 Nikon D4 + Sigma 150-600mm @480mm

All the photos in this newsletter were taken during Photo Tours organized by Travel Vision Photo Journeys : *Galapagos*, *Alaska*, *Pantanal (Brasil) y Patagonia (Argentina) *.

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