Photographing Swallows in Flight Using AF-A

This short article features some test images captured while photographing swallows in flight using AF-A (Auto-Select AF) with Auto-area. If you’re like me, you may find photographing small, erratically-flying birds like swallows very challenging. This article features some initial test images with aggressive cropping used throughout…so be forewarned that image quality isn’t what I would ideally want.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

While I have had a bit of success photographing swallows in flight when they are approaching their nests, as seen in the image above, capturing them in free flight has been an ongoing challenge.

In the past I have typically used continuous auto-focus with subject tracking to attempt to capture these little, erratic speed-demons.

I went out today with a different plan in mind, that being to shoot my Nikon 1 V3 using AF-A (Auto-Select auto-focus) with the Auto-area setting. Using these settings means that I was allowing my V3 to choose whatever focusing point(s) the camera wanted to use, anywhere on the screen.

My rationale for trying this was pretty simple. Swallows are such fast, erratic flyers that I’ve found it almost impossible to keep my AF-C subject tracking point on a individual bird long enough for the camera to acquire focus on it. My thought was that as long as I could keep a swallow in the frame for about a second or so my V3 would at least have a chance to acquire focus on it when using AF-A. This meant that I would need to find shooting angles with clear sky in the background. Otherwise my V3 operating in AF-A would likely focus on a background element in the frame rather than on a tiny swallow.

I quickly discovered that I needed to pre-focus my 1 Nikon 70-300mm lens using AF-A, then track a swallow in flight that looked as if it may enter into this pre-focused ‘air zone’.

I chose a pre-focused area that was in the foreground, thus allowing swallows to fly forward into theĀ area. This involved some trial and error. Since I was only trying to test out a possible technique, most of the time I used a pre-focused area about 100 feet (~30 metres) away. This allowed me to track the swallows with my EVF a little easier, but it did necessitate aggressive subject cropping in my subsequent photographs.

As a swallow first approached the pre-focused ‘air zone’ it would appear as a hazy, small blob in my viewfinder. Then, as it flew closer toward the pre-focused area it would begin to get in focus and sharpen up in the viewfinder. This allowed me a tiny bit of time to prepare for my shutter release…not much mind you…but usually just enough to get off a quick, single image attempt.

Pressing the shutter too early, or waiting a split second too long would both result in missed shots. This approach did work pretty well though and I was able to acquire focus and capture images with about 2/3 of my attempts. This was a significant improvement from past experiences when I tried using AF-C with subject tracking.

The above image was my best capture of the morning. I used a pre-focused area only about 25-30 feet away (~9 metres). Being ‘quick on the draw’ with my shutter release was critical to capture the photograph. It also helped to shoot my 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm in the 150-200mm focal length range.

Based on the initial results from this short AF-A test, it does seem to show some promise when photographing small birds in flight. I’ll be doing some additional work with this approach in the future.

If you’ve been finding it a challenge to photograph small birds in flight, using an Automatic auto-focus setting on your camera may be worth trying.

Technical Note:
All images were captured hand-held in available light using a Nikon 1 V3 and a 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 zoom lens. The Nikon 1 V3 was used with Manual settings (Aperture f/5.6, Shutter speed 1/2500 or 1/3200), with Auto ISO-160-3200. Focusing was set to AF-A with Auto-area for all images. All photographs in this article were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO OpticsPro 11, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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6 thoughts on “Photographing Swallows in Flight Using AF-A”

  1. Excellent suggestions! Will try as soon as swallows and common swift arrive. We have snow today and I think they are a month away!
    I have mostly tried with AF-C. Subject tracking might be good in theory but it is just to slow to start. Or maybe it was never intended for small and very swift birds.

    1. Hi Johan,
      AF-C may work for small, fast birds for some folks…but my eye/hand coordination isn’t up to the task! Using AF-A seems to work better for me…and hopefully it will also work for you!

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