BIF Fundamentals

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 280 mm, efov 560 mm, f/8.4, 1/2500, ISO-1250, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 3392 pixels on the width, subject distance 19.1 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 293 mm, efov 586 mm, f/8.5, 1/2000, ISO-1600, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4640 pixels on the width, subject distance 16.2 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 334 mm, efov 668 mm, f/8.6, 1/2000, ISO-1000, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4796 pixels on the width, subject distance 16.9 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/8.1, 1/2000, ISO-1000, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4389 pixels on the width, subject distance 35.9 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 334 mm, efov 668 mm, f/8.6, 1/1600, ISO-1000, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 5048 pixels on the width, subject distance 128.8 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 359 mm, efov 718 mm, f/8.7, 1/2000, ISO-1250, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 3832 pixels on the width, subject distance 30.9 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 280 mm, efov 560 mm, f/8.4, 1/2000, ISO-800, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4157 pixels on the width, subject distance 20 metres

Physical skills.

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-1600, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4255 pixels on the width, subject distance 34.2 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 391 mm, efov 782 mm, f/8.7, 1/2000, ISO-1250, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4278 pixels on the width, subject distance 30.5 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/8.1, 1/2500, ISO-1250, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, full frame capture, subject distance 9.1 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 280 mm, efov 560 mm, f/8.4, 1/2000, ISO-400, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4436 pixels on the width, subject distance 241.2 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2000, ISO-1600, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, full frame capture, subject distance 34.2 metres

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).

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 280 mm, efov 560 mm, f/8.4, 1/2000, ISO-1000, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4916 pixels on the width, subject distance 17.7 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-1250, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4099 pixels on the width, subject distance 37.9 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 280 mm, efov 560 mm, f/8.4, 1/2000, ISO-1000, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4401 pixels on the width, subject distance 9.1 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 370 mm, efov 740 mm, f/8.7, 1/1600, ISO-1000, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 3500 pixels on the width, subject distance 27.8 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 370 mm, efov 740 mm, f/8.7, 1/1600, ISO-1000, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4314 pixels on the width, subject distance 28 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 370 mm, efov 740 mm, f/8.7, 1/1600, ISO-800, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4242 pixels on the width, subject distance 28.1 metres

Knowing your subject, practising physical skills, and understanding our camera gear attributes all contribute to us being successful photographing birds-in-flight.

Technical Note:

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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6 thoughts on “BIF Fundamentals”

  1. Thomas,
    I was out a couple weeks back along Lake St. Clair, late in the afternoon with low light. I had my MC20 on my 100-400 on an EM1X body. I had it fully extended to 400mm. I was a bit disappointed with lack of sharpness.

    Have you noticed this and do you have any suggestions? Thanks.

    1. Hi David,

      I typically only use my MC-20 with the 100-400 in very good light since that lens fully extended with the MC-20 is shooting at f/13. I wouldn’t have noticed a lack of sharpness as you have described since I wouldn’t shoot with the MC-20 under the conditions you mentioned.

      A number of factors could impact sharpness when using the 100-400 with the MC-20. The first one is shutter speed, especially if you were shooting handheld. If my memory serves you lose 1.5 to 2 stops of IBIS performance with the MC-20 so depending on your handholding skill you’ll need to keep the shutter speed at a decent level. Distance to subject can impact sharpness if there are any atmospheric conditions with which you need to contend. Subject motion can come into play if your shutter speed was not fast enough. I rely on the IBIS in my E-M1X and have the IS turned off on the 100-400 most of the time as I find the IBIS alone works better than with the IS on the lens, especially when using teleconverters.

      Tom

      1. Thomas
        Thanks. This is a big help. I am looking for an MC14 but even with the low light, I would have struggled.
        All good thoughts. Keep up the good work.

  2. Some folks are telling me that I NEED the new OM1 for the new autofocus capabilities, I beg to differ. I need to improve my technique. I have the EM1X, 300 f4, and the 40-150 f2.8. I am going to my local bird park, and with your help, have been working my technique. I am renting the 150-400 to see if that much $$$ will improve my birds in flight. Cheers!

    1. Hi Randy,

      By all accounts the OM-1 is a superb camera. Whether an individual ‘needs’ it or not is a matter of personal assessment. My needs are more than served by my E-M1X bodies and I don’t ‘need’ an OM-1 for the work that I do.

      Tom

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