Photographing Birds in Flight: Part 3 by Ossian Lindholm

It is impossible to pretend to desire good results in a sustainable way without knowing photographic techniquesThus, it is essential to know our camera in depth and the digital technology available when photographing birds in flight.

Ecuador’s Cloud Forest is a region with abruptly changing topography wrapped by thick fog for at least part of the day. It is a region very rich in biodiversity: orchids, bromeliads, frogs, and birds. These include a huge variety of hummingbirds. 

Jacobino de cuello blanco. White-necked Jacobin. Bosque Nublado, Ecuador.
Nikon D4S + Sigma 150-600mm  f/6.3  1/2000  ISO7200  @600mm

Within the challenging field of photographing birds in flight, photographing hummingbirds is the most difficult. They are extraordinarily fast with frantic and erratic movements, testing the photographer’s technical ability and the equipment quality. To capture them with natural light in the Cloud Forest normally requires the use of a high ISO as a result of low light intensity. That is why many photographers use flash equipment. In any case, it is crucial to have a camera and lenses with a fast autofocus response. This is one of the issues to be addressed in this newsletter. 

In previous newsletters, we mention that this type of photography is perhaps frustrating for those who start with wildlife photography, and we learned the importance of properly selecting the shutter speed. Further on, we discussed exposure modes and ISO sensitivity. In this newsletter, we will consider other elements to keep in mind when entering the fascinating world of bird photography.

Focusing Systems when photographing birds in flight

Cameras basically have 2 focusing systems: Manual and Automatic or Autofocus. Therefore, there are 2 types of Autofocus: one designed for stationary subjects and another for moving subjects. The latter is the one we are interested in for bird photography. In Canon, it is called AI-Servo (Artificial Intelligence), and in Nikon and other brands, it is known as AF-C (Autofocus Continuous). These are very complex systems able to predict the speed and movement of the focused subject. In this system, the camera will keep the moving subject in focus by half-pressing the shutter button. This system (AI-servo or AF-C) is one of the keys to photographing birds in flight.


Garza Mora. Cocoi Heron. Iberá, Corrientes. Argentina.
f/6.3  1/1250  ISO900  NikonD4 + Sigma150-600mm @600


Back button focus

It is important to remember that the shutter button of the camera has basically 3 functions: half-pressing it activates the light metering system and, at the same time, it activates the autofocus system; finally pressing to the end you take the photo. Moreover, on the back of the camera, there is an AF-ON button. When pressing this button it also activates autofocus, the same as the shutter button. There is a technique called “Back Button Focus” that many photographers use and which I find very useful.  This technique makes it so the shutter button doesn’t control the focus activation at all, leaving this function only to the AF-ON button. Requires a lot of practice to get used to; you have to forget to focus on the shutter button. But once you start using it, you will see it is extremely useful.

Verde-Coronada Woodnymph Colibrí. Selva Nublada . Ecuador.
f/6.0  1/1000  ISO6400  NikonD4 + Sigma150-600mm @460mm

Autofocus Area Mode when photographing birds in flight
To further complicate matters, we have to choose not only the focus settings but also the focus area. Regarding this matter, there have been numerous technological developments that have had a significant impact on cameras. Nikon has basically 4 Autofocus area modes: 1. Single Point AF, 2. Dynamic Area AF, 3. Auto-Area AF, 4. 3D-Tracking, and 5. Group-area AF.

To photograph birds in flight I use Dynamic Area AF.
In this system, first we choose one Single Point but then we select the surrounding focus points. We can choose among several options depending on the camera model: 9, 11, 21, 39, 51 and the new models up to 153 AF points. The system works as follows: we focus using the single point on the bird; if the bird is in flight we try to keep it always on the single point. However, as this is very difficult to achieve, the camera will automatically activate Dynamic Area involving other selected points on the tracking of the bird.

The Group-area AF system, which appears in the advanced models of Nikon, takes a group of focus points, and can also be useful in certain cases of birds in flight, for example, photos of hummingbirds. Nevertheless, be careful because this system will give priority to the closest subject.

Canon has similar systems with different names: 1. Single Point AF, 2. Point Expansion AF, 3. Auto Selection AF, 4. Zone AF.  As for the case of Nikon, the best thing is to use Large Zone AF: if the bird we are tracking moves from your single point, the camera will start using alternative focus points.


Where to focus when photographing birds in flight

We must do focus on the bird’s head since it is very important that the eye of the bird is perfectly sharp on focus.  It is also important, with grosbeak birds as this albatross, the beak to be perfectly in focus.

Further on, if the eye has glow is perfect.

Galapagos Brown Pelican. Ecuador.
f/6.0  1/2500  ISO360  Nikon D4 + Sigma 150-600 @500mm
Procesada a Blanco y Negro en Photoshop


Choosing a Release Mode
Our cameras have two options each time the shutter-release button is press:  to take one single photo or to take a burst of photos.
Then in some cameras, you can choose between a slow burst or a fast burst of photos. The latter is the one we use for the photography of birds in flight.
Depending on the models DSLR cameras can shoot from 5 to 14 frames per second increasing your chances of capturing an amazing shot.
This is a sequence of an albatross landing taken with a camera that shoots 10 frames per second in fast burst mode.


Light Metering Modes

In general, cameras feature 3 light metering modes, except Canon that has 4. The 3 modes in Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Lumix are Matrix, Center-weighted, and Spot. In Canon, the modes are Evaluative, Center-weighted, Spot and, there is a fourth called Partial.
For birds in flight, the metering mode I use is Center-weighted. Center-weighted Metering prioritizes the light in the middle of the frame.

Exposure Compensation

Many times we have to photograph birds of very shiny plumage in bright sunshine and to avoid areas of over-exposure in which we lose e.g. the texture of the feathers, it is best to compensate the exposure to -0.3 EV or -0.7 EV.



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