Photographing Small Birds-in-Flight Made Easy

This article discusses how the challenge of photographing small birds-in-flight can be made easy by a combination of technology and technique. All of the photographs featured in this article were captured handheld using an Olympus OM-D E-M1X with its Pro Capture H mode.

I started my morning yesterday at the Urquhart Butterfly Garden in Hamilton Ontario, hoping to capture some images of hummingbirds as well as some butterflies. Unfortunately my intended subjects did not cooperate.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-4000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 6.2 metres

Before leaving Urquhart Butterfly Garden I did manage to capture some nice images of a sparrow in flight.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-4000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 6.2 metres

I noticed the sparrow in some dense foliage and managed to place a single autofocus point on its head. Wanting to capture the bird in flight in the centre of my frame, I positioned the sparrow on the right hand side of my composition. After waiting for the bird to take flight, I fully depressed my shutter release after it exited the left side of my composition. This locked in the photographs stored in temporary memory.

Using the Pro Capture H mode in this manner is one of the easiest ways of photographing small birds-in-flight.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-4000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 6.2 metres

Deciding to move on, I packed up my gear and took the 10 minute drive over to the trails at Hendrie Valley.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, -0.7 step, 1/2500, ISO-400, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 6.5 metres

It was a quiet morning at Hendrie with no large birds like herons, osprey or egrets in the vicinity. So, I decided to concentrate on photographing small birds in flight with Pro Capture H. The photographs above and below utilized the same composition technique as used with the images captured at Urquhart Butterfly Garden.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, -0.7 step, 1/2500, ISO-400, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 6.5 metres

Anticipating the flight direction of a bird is a key factor when photographing small birds-in-flight.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, -1.0 step, 1/2000, ISO-2500, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 6.3 metres

The sparrow in the photograph above was perched in dark shade. I could tell by its body position and the angle of its head that it was intending to fly upward and through some patches of sunlight in the leaf canopy. After it launched into flight, then exited my composition, I fully depressed by shutter release and captured my anticipated photograph.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 164 mm, efov 328 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-4000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 3.9 metres

Photographing small birds-in-flight can be challenging as they often make quick, short flights in and around branches. This can make shutter release timing difficult.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 164 mm, efov 328 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-4000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 3.9 metres

When using Pro Capture H, a photographer can wait for the desired bird behaviour to occur before fully depressing the shutter release on their camera. This makes photographing small birds-in-flight much easier and more predictable, especially for quick interbranch flights.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 250 mm, efov 500 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-800, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 5.9 metres

The female cardinal in the photograph above lauched into flight directly towards me. Knowing that the bird would fly out of focus quickly, I fully depressed my shutter release much faster than I normally would.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 230 mm, efov 460 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-640, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 6.2 metres

Photographing small birds-in-flight can also yield some interesting images of birds launching themselves from branches while their wings are not yet extended.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-500, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 7.3 metres

When using Pro Capture H I always set my E-M1X to the maximum of 60 frames-per-second. This helps ensure that I get a number of potentially usable images from each Pro Capture H image run.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-500, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 7.3 metres

Photographing small birds-in-flight when they are in heavy foliage is very simply done when using Pro Capture H.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-5000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 5.6 metres

The resulting images can have a more natural feel to them.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-2000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 5.1 metres

Choosing subject birds that are positioned against an unobstructed background can help bring some emphasis to the bird’s body and wing position as we can see in the following three photographs.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 212 mm, efov 424 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-320, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 4.5 metres
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 212 mm, efov 424 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-320, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 4.5 metres
Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 212 mm, efov 424 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-320, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 4.5 metres

While I don’t typically like to photograph birds-in-flight that are approaching me head-on, if a dark bird is flying into the sun and towards me, it can help bring out feather details.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-1600, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 7.3 metres

As we can see in the photograph below, it can also be beneficial to capture some good light on the back and wings of dark birds as this can help reveal more details. Watching birds move about on their favourite trees can give a photographer a good idea of their typical movement patterns.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-320, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 19 metres

The image above was captured after I noticed that a number of red winged blackbirds were using the same branches as perches. They would often fly upward and bank into the sun as they moved to other branches. I waited for a bird to perch on a thick branch that appeared to be a common launching point. After it took flight I fully depressed my shutter release which produced the photograph above.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 194 mm, efov 388 mm, f/5.6, 1/2500, ISO-4000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 5.5 metres

Sometimes it is apparent that a small bird will be flying on an angle away from my camera. In these situations I will often get in as tight as possible to capture extended wing positions before the bird flies out of focus.

All of the images that you have viewed thus far were all captured in less than 2 hours on the same morning.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/5.6, -0.3 step, 1/2500, ISO-6400, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 9.4 metres

The final image in this article was captured in my backyard later that afternoon. Using Pro Capture H can make photographing small birds-in-flight an enjoyable experience even when we are in our own backyard or photographing very common small birds.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Image were produced from RAW files using my standard process. Photographs were cropped to taste, then resized for web use.

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4 thoughts on “Photographing Small Birds-in-Flight Made Easy”

  1. Tom,

    I also realized the extent of what you’re saying about learning about smartphone photography (computational technology, et al) from using the Olympus E-M1X. I am wondering why the camera companies are slow to realize the lessons and applying them to the market niche-ing they need to undertake to survive the changing photography landscape. Whether we like it or not, technology would be crucial to keeping the industry alive. As you pointed out in a previous post comment, the profession is transitioning to a new model(s). Somehow, the pandemic serve as a gestalt to bring camera makers to take a really closer look at how to adapt to the changes, making niches of cameras that serve specialized needs beyond what the smartphones can offer.

    If I remember it correctly, Nokia was somehow among the first (if not the first big mobile phone manufacturer) to reframe the smartphone as standalone camera alternative with 41-45 mp cameras that came with more refine adjustment settings for aperture and speed. About 5-7 years ago, it seemed farfetched but the shift in how we consume/use images has drastically changed in the interim. Again, as you pointed out in a previous post comment, the heavier demand for online commerce now and in the near future has somehow ruled out/decreased the need for full sized/medium format photography.

    Anyway, back to birding, I really dig Olympus’s efforts. From a marketer’s point of view, their niche-ing strategy made sense to me even from many years back.

    Oggie
    http://www.lagalog.com

    1. Hi Oggie,

      I think most camera companies are fixated on hardware components rather than on software and artificial intelligence. This hardware fixation has caused many of them to overlook AI and other technology investments to some degree. I think many camera manufacturers decided to put bigger sensors in their cameras as a point of differentiation with Smartphones. Perhaps they feel that larger sensors will somehow ‘save’ the camera industry. Time will tell if they are correct with their strategy. I did some checking and you are right that Nokia was one of the first companies to incorporate a camera in the cellphones… in 2002.

      While sensor size will always be of interest to specific photographers because of the work they do, I think the future of cameras will be found in innovative computational photography technologies and with lenses. As you know, I love using Pro Capture H with my E-M1X as it allows me to more easily and confidently capture certain types of action images. I can only imagine the incredible potential of that technology coupled with the announced M.Zuiko PRO IS 150-400 f/4.5 with 1.25X integrated teleconverter and MC-20 shooting handheld at an efov of 2000 mm. To me, expanding what is possible with a camera is far more powerful and potentially sustaining for the camera industry, than just sticking a bigger sensor in a body. But that’s just my opinion.

      Tom

  2. Tom,

    The bird shots with their wings fully unfurled are just magnificent, simply poetry in motion. I know you’re just sharing your shots but I think you’re really making a strong case (and statement) for the niche that Olympus occupies (owns?) when it comes to birding.

    Oggie
    http://www.lagalog.com

    1. Thanks Oggie… glad you enjoyed the photographs!

      This may sound odd, but the more that I use my E-M1X the more I understand the success of smartphone photography. Smartphones have decimated the fixed lens camera market for two fundamental reasons… convenience and innovative technology, even though they use quite small sensors.

      Having technology-enabled features like Pro Capture, Live ND, HHHR, in-camera focus stacking, 7-stop of IBIS performance, as well as IPX-1 weatherproofing adds a huge amount of convenience and functionality to my Olympus photographic experience. After a year of use I cannot imagine using another camera system. For me, it comes down to convenience and innovative technology.

      After Olympus brings their planned 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 consumer zoom and PRO 150-400 mm f/4.5 with 1.25 teleconverter zoom to market the appeal of the system for bird photographers will increase significantly, especially when used with Pro Capture H.

      Tom

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