Make Swallows In Flight Easy

This article discusses how to make photographing swallows in flight easy through the use of technique and technology. Earlier this week I went out to the Biggar Lagoon Wetlands for about three hours with the intention to photograph swallows in flight. Suffice to say I had a very productive morning. After doing a quick cull through my resulting images I ended up with almost 900 useable images that I would realistically consider processing in post.

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 @ 381 mm, efov 762 mm, f/8.7, 1/5000, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3990 pixels on the width, subject distance 9 metres

At this point I’ve only processed a few dozen of of my swallow in flight photographs. It’s very likely that most of my potential keepers will end up getting deleted as I simply don’t have hard drive space to save all of them.

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, 1/5000, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3395 pixels on the width, subject distance 8.3 metres

My recent experience at Biggar Lagoon Wetlands is not unique. I firmly believe that anyone who owns an Olympus/OM System camera with Pro Capture technology can be very successful photographing swallows in flight.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 381 mm, efov 762 mm, f/8.7, 1/5000, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4519 pixels on the width, subject distance 8 metres

If you own an Olympus/OM System camera and have not tried Pro Capture I’d certainly recommend doing so. The technology will change the way many people approach bird photography.  Here are a few simple things that a photographer can do to make photographing swallows in flight easy.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 381 mm, efov 762 mm, f/8.7, 1/5000, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3597 pixels on the width, subject distance 8.2 metres

Do some research on birding sites in your area.

Swallows are seasonal visitors to Southern Ontario and the best time to photograph them is usually between mid April and the end of May. Various websites may provide details on local swallow migration status. You may also find that there are specific locations that have swallow nesting boxes.

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, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3715 pixels on the width, subject distance 9.2 metres

These represent the best opportunities to photograph swallows in flight. For example, in my area we have a number of good locations including Windemere Basin Park (Hamilton), Biggar Lagoon Wetlands (Grimsby). and Mountsberg Conservation Area (Halton Region).

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 235 mm, efov 470 mm, f/8.3, 1/5000, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4208 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.9 metres

Become proficient with Pro Capture H.

To get the most out of your Olympus/OM System camera it is critical that you become proficient with various technologies. To photograph swallows in flight I only use Pro Capture H as I find this gives me the highest number of potentially useable images. For my needs I don’t find that Pro Capture L’s maximum frame rate of 18 frames-per-second is sufficient. Pro Capture L certainly will work, but I don’t find it as efficient in terms of producing a good variety of useable images.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 403 mm, efov 806 mm, f/8.8, 1/5000, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, cropped to 2528 pixels on the width, subject distance 8.2 metres

Determine the best Pro Capture H settings based on your capabilities.

As regular readers will know I use Pro Capture H at 60 frames-per-second with my Pre-Shutter Frames and Frame Limiter both set to 15. I use the smallest, single AF point available. I typically have this set to centre frame and use ‘focus and recompose’ technique with small birds. My settings may, or may not work for you. If you find that you are missing a lot of frames you may need to increase your number of Pre-Shutter Frames. When photographing swallows I don’t see any practical reason to set the Frame Limiter for any additional frames beyond the number of Pre-Shutter Frames selected.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 403 mm, efov 806 mm, f/8.8, 1/5000, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3308 pixels on the width, subject distance 8.2 metres

Observe the swallows and take note of their typical behaviours and flight paths.

Swallows like most other birds are creatures of habit. They will typically approach and leave a nesting box, or other favourite perching area, in a consistent manner. Take note of the angle at which the swallows fly. You’ll need to allow for this in your anticipated composition. For example, on a calm day swallows will often come in to land at a nesting box from a lower angle and fly at an angle upward towards the nesting box entrance.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 381 mm, efov 762 mm, f/8.8, 1/5000, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3653 pixels on the width, subject distance 8.8 metres

The swallow nesting boxes used in our area have sloped roofs that point down over the entrance hole. As a result, most swallows will fly in a slightly downward trajectory when exiting a nesting box. It is also important to watch swallow behaviour when they are perched on top of a nesting box, or on other favourite perching locations. Some of your best image captures can occur when swallows take flight from more open spaces. When using Pro Capture H best results are achieved when a subject bird is flying at right angles to the camera’s sensor plane.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 381 mm, efov 762 mm, f/8.8, 1/5000, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3667 pixels on the width, subject distance 8.1 metres

Use faster shutter speeds.

Swallows move very quickly when taking flight so using a faster shutter speed will help produce better quality images. I typically use a minimum of 1/2500 and prefer using shutter speeds of 1/5000 or faster when I have enough light. Lately I’ve been experimenting using a shutter speed of 1/8000.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 381 mm, efov 762 mm, f/8.7, 1/5000, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4099 pixels on the width, subject distance 8.9 metres

Work on your skills in post, especially with noise reduction technologies.

Given the fast shutter speeds that are needed to photograph swallows in flight, chances are you’ll be using higher ISO values. I’m often shooting at ISO-3200 to ISO-6400. I use DxO DeepPRIME set to 15 for my initial noise reduction. At the end of my process I apply Topaz Denoise AI and find this dual approach works very well.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 403 mm, efov 806 mm, f/8.8, 1/5000, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, cropped to 2564 pixels on the width, subject distance 8.2 metres

Find a very active nesting box or favourite perch and stick with it.

To capture a high number of useable images you’ll need to find a location that has a good amount of swallow traffic in terms of birds landing and taking flight. If possible, be sure to position yourself so the background for your photographs will be creamy smooth. You’ll usually want the sun at your back so the swallows will be well lit. Working in some backlighting can work well and can add drama to your images. It all comes down to the best combination of background, lighting on the swallows, shutter speed and ISO value.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 235 mm, efov 470 mm, f/8.3, 1/5000, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3615 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.8 metres

Get in as tight as possible.

If you want a good amount of detail in your images it helps to move in as tight as possible, without being annoying to the swallows, or appearing as a threat to them. It is always better to have to back off your zoom lens than being too far away from the birds. One also needs to be careful after swallow chicks have hatched but are not yet fledged. Swallows can become quite aggressive at these times. I’ve had some birds ‘dive bomb’ at my head so closely that I could hear their wings as they zipped by. Suffice to say I very quickly moved back once I realized I was being perceived as a threat.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 381 mm, efov 762 mm, f/8.7, 1/5000, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3331 pixels on the width, subject distance 8.9 metres

Anticipate unusual flight angles.

Some of our best swallow in flight images are the result of birds taking off or landing using unusual angles. I know that some photographers focus their efforts on capturing swallows in free flight and not near nesting boxes.  These images are certainly possible to capture, but do require a higher skill level in terms of eye/hand coordination and appropriate camera gear auto-focusing performance.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 403 mm, efov 806 mm, f/8.7, 1/5000, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, cropped to 2465 pixels on the width, subject distance 8.2 metres

I’ve had some success photographing swallows in free flight and have published a few articles on this subject matter. On a personal basis I find that photographs of swallows in free flight are somewhat mundane and rather boring in appearance. In these situations swallows often glide and their wing movements are more restricted. I much prefer photographing swallows in and around nesting boxes and their favourite perching areas, as the resulting images have a wider variety of wing and body positions. I find these types of photographs to be more visually interesting.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 413 mm, efov 826 mm, f/8.8, 1/5000, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, cropped to 2984 pixels on the width, subject distance 8.1 metres

Compose your images with entirely clear backgrounds if possible.

Whenever possible I’ll acquire auto-focus on a subject bird or landing spot, then recompose my image so my frame is free and clear. Then, while I am half-depressing my shutter release (and recording images to temporary memory), I wait for a swallow to fly through this pre-focused area. Fully depressing my shutter release commits the photographs in temporary to my memory card. I use ‘both eyes open’ technique so I can see a swallow coming in to land, or leaving its perch. The resulting images require very little work in post in terms removing distracting elements.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 403 mm, efov 806 mm, f/8.8, 1/5000, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3516 pixels on the width, subject distance 8.2 metres

As you recompose your image it is important to pick a specific spot in your background on which to concentrate. This will help reduce the chance that your framing will drift away from your desired composition.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 381 mm, efov 762 mm, f/8.7, 1/5000, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3571 pixels on the width, subject distance 8.8 metres

Learn how to remove distracting elements in post.

When photographing in and around swallow nesting boxes it is quite common to end up with at least a small portion of the nesting box in our images. Using the ‘lasso tool’ in PhotoShop or similar features in other software can really help to clean up a photograph and make the subject bird the hero of our image.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 413 mm, efov 826 mm, f/8.8, 1/5000, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H, cropped to 2600 pixels on the width, subject distance 8.2 metres

It becomes very easy with practice.

Using Pro Capture H to photograph any bird taking flight is very simple to do. All it takes is some practice with shutter release timing. If a bird moves closer to, or further away from your focal plane, it is important to reacquire auto-focus. This helps ensure you’ll be using the available depth-of-field effectively. Pro Capture H and L have made bird photography more accessible for a wide variety of photographers.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 413 mm, efov 826 mm, f/8.8, 1/5000, ISO-2000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4213 pixels on the width, subject distance 7.1 metres

You don’t need super expensive camera gear to photograph swallows in flight.

If you learn how to use Pro Capture H effectively and follow the simple techniques in this article you can be successful photographing swallows in flight.

OM-D E-M1 Mark III + M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 II @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/6.7, 1/5000, ISO-1000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3571 pixels on the width, distance to subject 5.9 metres

I went out this morning and photographed some swallows in flight using my wife’s OM-D E-M1 Mark III and M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 II zoom lens using Pro Capture H. A future article may follow… but I have included some of my images from this morning at the end of this article.

OM-D E-M1 Mark III + M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 II @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/6.7, 1/5000, ISO-1000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3818 pixels on the width, distance to subject 5.9 metres

Technical Note:

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard approach in post. Photographs were resized for web use. This is the 1,166 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

OM-D E-M1 Mark III + M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 II @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/6.7, 1/4000, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3571 pixels on the width, distance to subject 5.7 metres

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4 thoughts on “Make Swallows In Flight Easy”

  1. Hi Tom, the big take away from your article is that you are targeting the birds at roosting spots rather than in free flight – which is what I’ve been doing with low success rates. So will now start researching local sites. Thanks!

    1. Hi Mark,

      Once you concentrate your efforts at roosting sights along with the use of Pro Capture H, you’ll find your keeper rate will grow exponentially.

      Tom

  2. Hi Tom

    Another excellent technical article.

    I am learning some of the techniques you describe here. I am practicing birding with my M1X + 300/4 lens, and one “problem” is processing so many photos. The other day I came back with 2k+ photos and it took me a couple hours to go through them — it took more time because I am learning the techniques and I needed to look at the photos more closely. But this is not a bad “problem” to have.

    Thank you & take care,

    Tony

    1. Hi Tony,

      I’m glad the article was helpful for you. The time spent culling through photographs is a challenge most of us face. Short of not using our cameras, or setting a maximum number of images per photo session, there’s no easy solution.

      Tom

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