This article discusses three BIF fundamentals and shares some recent photographs captured handheld during the same visit to LaSalle Park in Burlington Ontario. These three fundamentals are common with a wide range of photography genres: knowledge of the subject, physical skills, and camera gear attributes. Of course there are nuances when it comes to BIF (birds-in-flight).
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
Knowing your subject.
Success photographing birds-in-flight is increased through acquiring knowledge of your subject birds. There are reference books, manuals, and online sources that can provide information about particular species, their habitat, and some of their behaviours. Understanding various bird species can also assist a photographer to adjust their shutter speed appropriately.
Integrating these sources into your approach is certainly helpful, but nothing can replace actually observing birds in the moment, and watching their behaviour. Birds will communicate their intentions through their body movements before they take flight. To a large extent they are creatures of habit. They tend to use the same flight paths and frequent the same feeding areas.
Observing birds helps to build up some practical knowledge about their behaviour and can help a photographer anticipate what may be about to happen. For example, many water fowl will only tolerate a certain number of other birds in their immediate area. Once they feel encroached upon some physical threat displays such as the lowering of their head can be a precursor to a physical attack.
Watching for these early signals can help a photographer select a subject bird and prepare to photograph some pending behaviour. Regardless of the camera gear that we may own, anticipating bird behaviour is the single biggest factor in successfully capturing action in our images.
Many bird species fly in groups. By observing the behaviour of the lead bird in a formation you can anticipate when the rest of the group will change flight direction or bank in the air. These types of group movements can produce some interesting images.
Depending on the style that an individual photographer may prefer, some people will focus their efforts capturing images of birds either taking off, or coming in to land. Typically these actions offer more variety of wing and body position. Birds can also appear more intense from an emotional perspective.
Photographing birds-in-flight requires some specific physical skills. These include good eye/hand coordination so a photographer can find an incoming bird in their viewfinder. This can be challenging as long focal length telephoto lenses are used for this type of photography. Being able to smoothly pan with an approaching bird to keep in properly framed in the composition is also important.
Shutter release timing can be critical if a photographer is trying to capture a bird banking in mid-air, touching down on some water, or landing in a tree. Technology like Pro Capture L can play an important role with these types of images. Birds doing straight fly-bys are obviously much easier to photograph and can still be interesting opportunities. They can also serve as good practice subjects.
To build and maintain the physical skills needed for birds-in-flight photography, ongoing regular practice can be very beneficial. This is especially true prior to prime bird migration seasons. Pushing ourselves during practice sessions can help accelerate skills uptake.
Camera gear attributes.
To get the most out of our equipment we need to understand the features and performance attributes of our kit. Technology is certainly advancing with new auto-focusing modes being introduced on a more frequent basis. The challenge for some of us is that we change cameras before we we fully understand how to use our current gear. This pushes us back down the learning curve.
It can take some time to experiment with our camera gear to determine which settings and features work best for our approach to birds-in-flight. I know when I first starting using my E-M1X I experimented with continuous auto-focus (C-AF), continuous auto-focus with tracking (C-AF +TR), cluster area auto-focus, and even tried using my camera’s airplane AI subject tracking.
Once Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking was introduced I concentrated on learning how to use that technology. After a number of months I decided that using Bird Detection AI in combination with Pro Capture L worked best for my style of bird-in-flight photography. This is a personal choice and may not be the best approach for other people. (NOTE: the mallard below is a different bird than the one above).
As is often said, there is no thing as a perfect camera. Equipment comes with its own strengths and challenges. The key for each of us is to leverage the strengths of the camera gear we own, and adjust our technique to try to minimize the challenges it may have.
For example, when I was using my Nikon 1 kit for birds-in-flight I made it a habit to pre-focus my 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom as a subject bird was approaching whenever possible. Other photographers likely thought I was nuts initially focusing on some trees or a bush instead of on an approaching bird… but pre-focusing my lens worked very well for my purposes.
Capitalizing on opportunities.
At the end of the day we’re all trying to capitalize on our photographic opportunities. We never know when Mother Nature will give us a few seconds to capture a special moment.
Northern Pintail ducks are not very common in my area. It is a special treat to even capture a photograph of one on the ground. I’ve never had the opportunity to capture any images of a Northern Pintail in flight. During my recent visit to LaSalle Park Mother Nature was feeling generous.
I was watching a lone Northern Pintail duck as it swan in amongst hundreds of mallards, Canada geese, and swans. It suddenly did a quick, short flight to get past some swans and I was able to capture three useable photographs as illustrated in this article. The images themselves aren’t fantastic, but I still had a feeling of accomplishment being able to capture them.
Knowing your subject, practicing physical skills, and understanding our camera gear attributes all contribute to us being successful photographing birds-in-flight.
Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. Crops are noted. Photographs were resized for web use. This is the 1,141 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.
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