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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How you can help keep this site advertising free
My intent is to keep this photography blog advertising free. If you enjoyed this article and/or my website and would like to support my work, you can purchase an eBook, or make a donation through PayPal. Both are most appreciated.
If you click on the Donate button below you will find that there are three donation options: $7.50, $10.00 and $20.00. All are in Canadian funds. Plus, you can choose a different amount if you want. You can also increase your donation amount to help offset our costs associated with accepting your donation through PayPal. An ongoing, monthly contribution to support our work can also be done through the PayPal Donate button below.
You can make your donation through your PayPal account, or by using a number of credit card options.
As a reminder to our Canadian readers, you can get a special 5% discount when ordering Tamron or Rokinon lenses and other products directly from the Amplis Store. Be sure to use my discount code when you make your purchase.
Word of mouth is the best form of endorsement. If you like our website please let your friends and associates know about our work. Linking to this site or to specific articles is allowed with proper acknowledgement. Reproducing articles, or any of the images contained in them, on another website or in any social media posting is a Copyright infringement.
Article and images are Copyright 2022 Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication or adaptation of any kind is allowed without written consent. If you see this article reproduced anywhere else it is an unauthorized and illegal use. Posting comments on offending websites and calling out individuals who steal intellectual property is always appreciated!