I got a message from a subscriber of my YouTube channel today about taking photos of birds in flight. This individual expressed problems of getting a fast enough shutter speed, especially due to how cloud cover often blankets the location this person is from and reduces light intensity, which has resulted in some blurry shots. Hopefully my advice to follow will be of some assistance and those blurry shots will turn into some detailed and stunning captures of those featured creatures gliding gracefully through the air. To make this a more complete post about this topic, I've added more detail about shooting birds in general. Please keep in mind too that these suggestions and techniques are what I tend to use and as such they may not work for everyone in every case. So always feel free to experiment.
One of the first steps to ensuring a nice sharp image is to get the scene/subject in focus. Birds swooshing through the air can make this somewhat more challenging, so here are a few suggestions I'll offer based on what the background is like.
Bird Against Clear Sky or Even Cloud Cover: The clear sky bit makes sense here; simply imagine a nice blue sky without any clouds. But by even cloud cover I mean a sky that is cloudy, but fairly evenly throughout; in other words there are no puffy or wispy clouds contrasting against a blue sky, but rather that dull light grey tone up everywhere you look.
In cases like this there are a couple of modes you can try to get a sharp lock on your feathered subject. The first mode is to employ the center focusing dot on your camera, aim at the bird and start clicking the shutter button. Overall this method has worked fairly well for me, but I've noticed some issues. It's hard enough as it is to track a flying creature, so I've often ended up with the center focus dot on the sky next to the critter. Since there's nothing much the camera can focus on, the lens starts hunting unsuccessfully and by that time the bird is long out of focus and out of frame.
Instead of using just that single dot, I've instead found myself selecting all targets (or area focusing mode) more often for birding. Since the background is simple and lacks contrast, the bird wonderfully stands out against the evenly toned sky. So even if its off center, one of the those many focus points will register the bird and the focus should lock. Some sources say this mode is somewhat slower than just using a single dot, but in my experience --specifically in this case-- I've found that point fairly moot (in cases where the subject and background are more complex, then indeed the system needs more time to focus... keeping in mind that time is generally very small, around one or two tenths of a second).
Busier Backgrounds: Things get more interesting when the background is busier. Take for example a bird flying against a scenic landscape (e.g. a forest, mountains) or city skyscrapers. In this case, area focusing mode may not be a great choice as the focus could very well be hit and miss... mostly miss. In such situations, I've either gone back to using the single center dot for focusing and tried my best to follow the subject or have used manual focusing. Manual focusing is tricky on the fly but if a bird is at rest, like on a street light post, it's a cinch to perform. So when the fellow takes flight, you are already have perfect focus. Now this is not with its downside though, because if the bird flies towards or away from you, it may go out of focus. Therefore, one has to hope the bird flies more or less parallel to your position. I recommend trying out a few of these techniques and I'm pretty certain you'll find one that you favor and works quite well.
Lens, Camera Mode and Settings
Shooting birds can essentially be called a sub-category of action photography, so many of the considerations you find there can be applied here.
Lens: It pretty much goes without saying, but with most photographs of this nature a long lens is required (unless you want tiny dark specks as birds). Thus, we're likely looking at a range of at least 300mm to 600mm or even larger if you have access to such equipment. A fast lens can be beneficial too, as less light loss will allow you to use faster shutter speeds in situations where, for example, cloud cover is blocking sunlight. On the other hand, shooting stopped-down a little, like around f/5.6, might yield slightly sharper images and a bit more depth of field (DOF), although that's not as critical; the distance most birds would be at means the DOF will be fairly large anyway. Even an aperture around f/8 will very likely provide a sufficiently blurred background, but as usual, take a few shots and adjust to your liking.
Shutter Speed and Mode: Not only would the person who asked the birding question like to get sharp photos, but so would most of us when shooting these airborne lifeforms. Therefore, to ensure a quick enough shutter speed, I strongly recommend shutter priority or manual mode. With shutter priority, you can force the camera to use a specific shutter speed and the machine will adjust the aperture and sensitivity (if set to auto) accordingly in order to get a good exposure. For focal lengths of around 300mm, 1/500 of a second should freeze the action, but of course use 1/1000 or even 1/2000 if you're noticing that blur is still occurring or if you're using a lens with a longer focal length (... err, just because you're using a longer focal length lens doesn't mean you have to use a faster shutter speed, but if you're hand holding, it can help prevent hand-shake effects for some photographers).
Now I also mentioned the use of manual mode, where you can force the camera to use whatever shutter speed and aperture you want. The advantage with this mode is that if you want the aperture to be something specific (e.g. you want f/5.6 because the lens is sharper in that range, or you want f/2.8 to ensure the lens stays wide open), then you can force the camera to entirely do your bidding.
Whichever of these two modes you choose, you'll likely have to play with the numbers to get the right exposure on the bird; not too dark (details lost or too noisy when processed to be lighter) nor to light (loss of contrast and details washed out). In addition, don't be afraid of pushing the sensitivity higher up if needed if you're finding the exposure is too dark. Many cameras, even some models a few years old, still produce good quality images up to 1,600 ISO and if you shoot in RAW, you'll have a fair amount of control at your fingertips to eliminate much of that noise (or you might already have software/plug-ins dedicated to noise reduction). Of course if you want to keep noise at a minimum, then try either a larger aperture or slower shutter speed setting first.
And before moving on, remember to use the high speed sequential shooting feature on your camera. Pressing the shutter button repeatedly while panning will make things more difficult than they need to be. This is also where traditional mirrored DSLRs still have a major advantage over the electronic viewfinder (EVF) types. Although the mirror slapping up momentarily blacks out the picture, you can still see the subject moving along quite clearly, whereas EVF cams generally show you the last photo taken for a split second.
Funny how manufacturers haven't caught onto the idea that if you're in sequential shooting mode on an EVF type camera, why the heck not just keep showing the image as normal to the photographer? I mean think about... seeing the last image taken for a split second is basically useless, as it's not enough time to give the photos a good examination for anything in particular and it's of little to no help in keeping up with the subject in motion (especially for more unpredictable movement). Personally, and I have a feeling most photographers would agree with me, as long as I can trust that the machine is capturing images while I'm pushing down the button (ok, show me a bloody red blinking dot in a non-intrusive spot), I don't need to see the screen blacking out or the last pic displayed momentarily; I'm more than happy to review the results afterwards. And if any of you manufacturers out there implement my idea, I'll gladly let you know where you can make my royalty payments to! :)
Tripod/Monopod vs. Hand Holding: Whether you choose to use a tripod/monopod or hand hold your camera plus lens is mostly up to you and is generally a personal choice. However, if you have a fairly long lens, it can become tiring to hold the thing for an hour or two, and panning along with the subject can be smoother (but perhaps not as flexible as hand holding).
Almost any type of tripod can be used but certain types might have better results. For example, less expensive tripods with the head build-in might not allow fine control over tension and might not have a quick release plate, thus making removal of the camera more cumbersome and slow (e.g. maybe a quick change in position is needed to capture another subject or a bird in an usual location). On the other hand, more flexible tripods that can be fitted with various types of heads may be more to your liking. Perhaps a ball head can give you the freedom you need to quickly pan around with a single tension control, or a three-axis (aka three-way) head is more to your fancy as you can constrain the panning to a single plane (e.g. horizontal, thus keeping bobbing to a minimum; could help keep a certain composition too, as you wouldn't pan to high or low).
A monopod may offer a more compact and lighter weight solution to help with panning and I've certainly found them great to use, especially for horizontal movement as you can simply rotate the thing left or right. But adjusting the camera's gaze vertically is a bit unusual, as it can place one in an uncomfortable position.
So that concludes my quick post on shooting birds in flight. There's certainly more information out there that could be applied, but I believe this is a good starting point for those interested in this subject matter. Good luck and happy shooting! L8r!