How to Photograph Birds at 60 FPS with Nikon 1

As discussed in a number of previous articles, choosing camera gear is an intensely personal decision. What may be a great choice for one photographer may not work well for another. Regardless of what someone chooses the key is to understand the capabilities of our camera gear and how to use it. This article discusses how to photograph birds at 60 frames per second with Nikon 1 gear.

Shooting at 10, 15 or 20 frames per second using a Nikon 1 camera is done using continuous auto-focus (AF-C). This does not restrict a photographer in terms of choice of subject matter.

It is a very different situation when using 30 or 60 frames per second with a Nikon 1 camera. At these very fast frame rates the first frame of an image run locks the focus for the remaining photographs in the run. This means that subjects that are moving towards or away from the camera can go out of focus part way through an image run.

To get the maximum number of usable images from a 30 or 60 frames per second run when shooting with a Nikon 1 camera, it is absolutely critical to choose a subject that is moving at a 90-degree angle to your camera.

This article features 40 consecutive images of a Great Blue Heron taking off. These were captured using a Nikon 1 V3 and a 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens. I shot in Manual mode and used Auto-ISO 160-6400 which allowed my ISO setting to ‘float’ to achieve a good exposure – in this case ISO-500.

When planning to capture a bird taking off it is important to allow for the wingspan of the bird as well as its wing stroke pattern. A Great Blue Heron has very large wings and uses quite broad wing strokes. This meant that I needed to allow quite a bit of additional space in my image framing. As a result I shortened the focal length of my lens to 198 mm (efov 535 mm). I had been shooting at 300 mm (efov 810 mm) when taking some individual photographs of the bird when it was walking or standing on the burm.

Another important consideration is shutter speed. Great Blue Herons, like other large birds such as pelicans and egrets, use large sweeping wing strokes when they fly. This allowed me to choose a shutter speed of 1/1600 and still be confident that I would not get any wing blur in my images. Smaller birds with faster wing movements would require much faster shutter speeds to ‘freeze’ the wing positions in photographs.

My Nikon 1 V3 has a 40 image buffer which is a decent size but not outstanding when compared to some other cameras. When shooting at 60 frames per second the buffer on my V3 fills in only 2/3 of a second. This makes the timing of the shutter release another critical factor.

Understanding the behaviour of a subject bird is important to achieve good timing with an image run. Having observed Great Blue Herons I knew that they signalled their intent to take off with a slight leg flex.

I also knew from observing Great Blue Herons at this location that they almost always fly inland when taking flight from a standing position on the burm. This meant that I would need to wait for my subject bird to face this direction before there was any real likelihood of it taking flight. Observation also taught me that these birds seemed to prefer to take off when standing on one of the posts adjacent to the burm. These factors meant that I needed to adjust my physical position vis-a-vis my subject bird as it roamed on the burm, in order for me to maintain a 90-degree angle to its probable flight path. After roaming about for about 15 minutes, my subject heron finally perched on one of the posts.

I observed my subject Great Blue Heron for almost an hour and 45 minutes, capturing various photographs of it as it remained perched on the post. For most of that time it was facing towards the lake so I knew it wasn’t likely to take flight from that orientation. As soon as it turned inland and began to fidget, I got prepared to take my image run. The moment I saw my subject bird start its leg flex I pressed my shutter and concentrated on keeping the bird framed properly as it took off.

Here are the 40 consecutive images I captured of the heron. Again, all of these photographs were taken in only 2/3 of a second. The images were cropped slightly to 4,500 pixels on the width, then resized to 2,048 pixels in width for this article.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Frame 1
Frame 2
Frame 3
Frame 4
Frame 5
Frame 6
Frame 7
Frame 8
Frame 9
Frame 10
Frame 11
Frame 12
Frame 13
Frame 14
Frame 15
Frame 16
Frame 17
Frame 18
Frame 19
Frame 20
Frame 21
Frame 22
Frame 23
Frame 24
Frame 25
Frame 26
Frame 27
Frame 28
Frame 29
Frame 30
Frame 31
Frame 32
Frame 33
Frame 34
Frame 35
Frame 36
Frame 37
Frame 38
Frame 39
Frame 40

Regardless of the camera gear that you may own, I encourage you to investigate the frame rate options that your camera provides, and experiment with your equipment.

While I don’t use a fast frame rate like 60 FPS very often when photographing birds I do find that it is a fantastic setting to use in specific situations where I want more choice of wing positions. For example, to my eye Frame 40 is far better than Frames 38 or 39, and Frame 34 is much better than Frames 35 or 36. Frame 15 has the heron’s toe still touching the post while Frame 16 doesn’t…and so on.

Technical Note:
All photographs were captured hand-held in available light using Nikon 1 gear as noted in the article. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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4 thoughts on “How to Photograph Birds at 60 FPS with Nikon 1”

  1. Tom:
    Great Blue Herons are always a joy to watch and photograph. In a 40 frame “run” there are some frames that stand out more than the others. My choice for best is frame 15 as it captures the GBH as it is still just touching the post and yet is “in flight.” There is some drama to this portrait which captures my attention. Thanks for your insights into the ways the Nikon 1 system can be effectively used for birds in flight photography. Photographing moving birds is always a challenge even with DSLR Systems with their large sensors and it is more so with cameras of such small sensor sizes like the Nikon 1.

    1. Hi Ray,
      Thanks for adding to the discussion and for your supportive comment! When I was reviewing this image run I was torn between images 14 and 15 as my favourite…with image 14 coming out ever so slightly ahead because of the wing position of the heron in that frame. Shooting at 60 frames-per-second isn’t something that most of us would do all that often. I like to think of it as a technique to use when a photographer wants a ‘precise moment’ capture.

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