This article discusses flying into focus which is a technique that can be achieved using some common approaches. Flying into focus can be extremely helpful when trying to capture birds, insects or other animals in flight.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Photographs have been added to support specific information, and also to provide visual breaks.
The basic idea behind flying into focus technique is the same with all of the approaches used to achieve it… a photographer concentrates on a specific focusing area or focal plane through which their desired subject will hopefully fly.
Various camera formats can be used when practising flying into focus, as can both handheld and tripod assisted photography. This is a fairly lengthy article… so grab a coffee or other beverage.
Back Button Focus
Some photographers like to specifically lock their focus and often use back button focus to help accomplish this task. I don’t use back button focus so I don’t have any first-hand experience that I can share. From what other photographers have told me, using back button focus separates the focusing and shutter release functions.
A common situation that has been described to me is when a photographer is waiting for a bird to take flight from a concealed, or partially concealed, perch. The photographer can pick a focusing point that represents a focal plane through which the bird is likely to fly once airborne. Back button focus is also often used when a bird returns to a specific perch.
Using back button focus allows a photographer to pre-select a focusing distance then lock it in. After that they are free to use the shutter release button to fire off a burst of shots once the bird has taken flight, without having to worry about reacquiring focus.
I know that some nature photographers also prefer to use back button focus for birds in flight to lock their camera’s continuous auto-focusing on an incoming bird.
Obviously there are many ways to use a camera. Ultimately it comes down to personal choice about what feels most comfortable and natural for a photographer. And, is most effective in terms of them creating their desired images.
Technology like Pro Capture is incredibly powerful since it allows a photographer to store images in temporary memory then commit them to their memory card after the desired behaviour has occurred. Pro Capture can be used when a subject takes flight or when it is coming in to land. Either approach is a flying into focus technique as the in-focus area was pre-determined by the photographer.
In a recent article I described how Pro Capture H was used to capture a dragonfly coming in to land. In this case I placed my auto-focus point on the edge of a leaf that was consistently being used as a perch by a subject dragonfly. After the dragonfly took flight,
I acquired auto-focus on that portion of the leaf and waited for the dragonfly to return. As soon as it landed I fully depressed my shutter release to fully lock in the Pro Capture H images that had been stored in temporary memory.
Pre-focusing Pro Capture on a branch, leaf or nest and half-depressing the shutter to continuously spool images is a very easy way to achieve flying into focus photographs. Using both eyes open technique in conjunction with Pro Capture H can help improve shutter release timing and overall effectiveness.
Another variation with which I have been experimenting is to pre-focus Pro Capture H on a specific landing point, but then shifting my image framing away from that focusing point so it no longer appears in my composition. A photographer must keep their shutter release half depressed to keep the original focusing point locked in.
Often when a small bird flies through this pre-focused area it appears as little more than a blur. Eye/hand coordination and shutter release timing need to be extremely quick to be successful using this approach. Adding some additional Pre-Shutter frames can help improve success.
I’ve been practising with some sparrows in my backyard, using a close-by bird feeder as my auto-focusing point. While I’ve been having some very limited success it has been tricky as the flight angle of the bird approaching the feeder needs to precisely fit the pre-focused area I’m monitoring in terms of depth-of-field. The further the bird is away from the pre-focused point, the likelihood of success with this approach diminishes.
When done correctly, and with a bit of luck, the advantage is being able to get a subject bird in flight larger in the frame, and with a pre-chosen, pleasing background. I may have an article on this technique at some point in the future.
General Area Pre-Focus
I regularly use a general area pre-focus when photographing birds and insects in flight. This is another very simple technique that can be used with a wide range of camera gear. The key is to pick a pre-focus distance that will approximate where you think an in-flight subject will be. For example, the dragonfly in-flight in the above photograph kept returning to the same general area over a pond, and hovering in mid-air momentarily.
There was nothing in that specific shooting area that I could use to pre-focus my lens, so I used a tree branch at 90-degrees from that point instead. I half depressed my shutter to acquire auto-focus on the branch, and removed my finger from the shutter release. I then pointed my camera towards other subjects etc. without touching my shutter release again.
To check to make sure my camera was still locked on to that desired pre-focusing distance all I had to do was frame an image of the original branch again to see if it was still sharp and in focus.
Once I confirmed that my camera was ‘locked and loaded’ I turned my attention to the returning dragonfly and framed it in a few sample compositions without firing off any frames, or touching my shutter release (this would have changed my general area pre-focus point). I was now ready to fire off an image run the next time the dragonfly flew back into my general area pre-focused zone.
In this case I used a single auto-focus point to capture my photographs. The general area pre-focus is typically adjusted by my camera when I fully depress my shutter to capture my image run. Having this approximate auto-focusing done in advance helps a camera acquire focus more rapidly while also helping to avoid focus hunting.
Using this general area pre-focus technique in conjunction with Olympus Cluster Area auto-focus is a powerful combination that I have used to capture dragonflies in flight as well as birds. An example is the dragonfly photograph above. My general area pre-focusing was done on the tip of the branch. This was covered in an earlier article.
Depending on the camera gear you own, it may have a focus limiter function. Often long telephoto lenses will have a switch on the barrel that gives a photographer some basic control of the focusing distance at which the lens will operate.
For example, my M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS has three settings. These include 1.3 to 6 metres, 6 metres to infinity, and 1.3 metres to infinity. I use these all the time when I am out photographing birds and find that these basic focus limiter options are quite useful, but sometimes they don’t give me the amount of control I want.
I’m just starting to experiment with the focus limiter settings on my E-M1X to fine tune the auto-focus operating range of my camera. I know that some Olympus nature/bird professional photographers like Tesni Ward use the focus limiter options on their E-M1X cameras on a regular basis. Tesni has stated in some YouTube videos that using the focus limiter capability is one of the most powerful techniques she uses to increase the number of birds-in-flight keepers she gets.
For example, let’s say that a photographer is at a particular location where water fowl can be expected to land. Often these areas have busy backgrounds composed of bull rushes or low hanging trees. It is quite common for the auto-focusing of cameras to become confused when a bird comes into land in close proximity to busy backgrounds. Sometimes an incoming bird is out-of-focus because the camera grabbed focus on the busy background instead.
To help avoid this problem a photographer can spend a minute or two to check the focusing distance of the busy background. To do this they can go into their AF Limiter in-camera function and do some auto-focusing testing to discover how far away the busy background is situated.
For illustrative purposes let’s assume it is 35 metres. After determining this distance, a photographer can set their camera’s maximum auto-focusing distance to something shorter… 32 metres for example. Now, when a duck comes in to land in front of the busy background, the camera will not make a mistake and pick up the busy background in error. As long as the duck is no further away than 32 metres the camera should grab auto-focus on it and ignore the busy background. Watching the behaviour of subject birds is required so the proper maximum focusing distance can be correctly determined.
Again, I am just starting to experiment with the AF Limiter on my E-M1X. To adjust the AF Limiter distances on an E-M1X go to A3 under the gear icon. Switch AF Limiter to On and scroll to the right. This will give you three AF Limiter settings. Each of these can be programmed at different auto-focus distances by using the wheel on the back of the camera.
If you are using a lens like the M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS make sure the lens is set to 1.3 m to infinity. If you choose another AF Limiter setting on the lens it may override the in-camera programming you do. I don’t know about other Olympus cameras, but the E-M1 Mark III also has AF Limiter.
I anticipate using AF Limiter often, so I have included this under the functions in My Menu. At this point I have my three AF Limiter options set up as follows: 1.3m to 10m, 1.3m to 25m, and 10m to 75m. I will no doubt be adjusting these distance limits once I do some field testing under real world conitions.
I also anticipate that when I am at a specific location that I know very well, such as Hendrie Valley, I will change these AF Limiter distances to correspond to specific shooting spots that I typically use for my photography.
As part of my shooting discipline I will need to check to ensure that I have my AF Limiter turned to Off at the end of each photo session. That way I will not miss any images on my next photo session when the general AF Limiter options on my M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS may suffice.
Using flying into focus techniques and related camera technology can have a positive impact on a photographer’s ability to capture birds and other subjects 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. This is the 1,059th article published on this website since its original inception.
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