Single Point Technique

This article illustrates the use of single point auto-focus technique when photographing a small bird taking flight, from an obscured position. The physical position of the female cardinal in this particular series of of photographs was not ideal in terms of producing a good number of useable photographs. So… readers will need to use their imaginations for some of the featured images.

When capturing a run of photographs of a bird taking flight my typical objective is to get one interesting image. If I happen to capture more than that… it’s a bonus.

To put the photographs featured in an article in context it is always good to explain the shooting environment. In this case, I was sitting on my back deck and focusing on capturing photographs of Monarch butterflies taking flight from one of our butterfly bushes. This resulted in me having a fairly low shooting angle.

Unexpectedly, a female cardinal landed towards the top of the butterfly bush, about 4 metres away from me. She was obscured by foliage and blossoms. Even though she was barely visible I was able to place a single point auto focus point on her eye, and anticipate her flight direction. The result was a reasonable run of images. Two of which I found to be interesting captures, and are shown below.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3900 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.2 metres
E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3336 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.2 metres

Now, let’s have a look at how this photographic opportunity looked at the start of the image run.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 4.2 metres

As you can see in the photograph above, the eye of the female cardinal was barely visible. There was enough of her eye showing for me to get a small, single auto focus point placed on it. Then, I half depressed my shutter release to begin recording Pro Capture H images into temporary memory. I used focus and recompose technique rather than trying to move my single AF point.

Obviously the roofline and eavestrough of my neighbour’s house was less than an ideal background. There was no reason that the cardinal would take flight with an upward trajectory. So, I was anticipating she would take a horizontal flight path and pass through the monochromatic area on the right hand side of the composition.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 4.2 metres

Using focus and recompose is something that I regularly use in combination with single point auto focus technique. It allows me to respond very quickly to photographic opportunities Within a couple of seconds the female cardinal noticed me and took flight.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 4.2 metres

As I had anticipated, she chose a horizontal flight path, moving from left to right through my composition. If the bird would have been positioned with a more appropriate background of natural foliage the wing position illustrated above would have created an interesting image.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3480 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.2 metres

The cropped image above will give you an idea of how this photograph could have been used if the background would have been more pleasing.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 4.2 metres

As the cardinal continued on her flight launch she began to enter the area in the composition that I thought could yield some useable images.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3972 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.2 metres

As you can see in the image above, using a tight crop gave the photograph better visual emphasis on the subject bird, and removed the urban appearance of the background.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 4.2 metres

In the photograph above the bird’s wings are still below the distraction of the white eavestrough. This gave me an opportunity to do a quick edit in post.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4068 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.2 metres

Someone with better skills in post would have done a much better job than I did with this quick adjustment… but it does help to illustrate the potential of an image.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 4.2 metres

As the cardinal continued flying from left to right I was able to capture a very nice image of its wings in an uplifted position.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3864 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.2 metres

If this bird would have been perched in completely natural setting with foliage behind it, you can imagine what the cropped photograph  above would have looked like.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 4.2 metres

I was using a shutter speed of 1/2500 to photograph butterflies in flight. This created more wing blur than I typically find acceptable for small birds.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, cropped to 4260 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.2 metres

In your mind’s eye you can imagine what this cropped image would have looked like if the background was totally natural, and if a faster shutter speed would have been used.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 4.2 metres

The female cardinal in the full frame capture above, and in the one that follows, appears in the composition almost exactly where I anticipated she would be.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3900 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.2 metres

Again, here is the cropped image that appeared at the start of this article.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, full frame capture, subject distance 4.2 metres

The Pro Capture H photograph above was the last one in the run before the cardinal began to exit the composition.

E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 200 mm, efov 400 mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO-3200, Pro Capture H, cropped to 3336 pixels on the width, subject distance 4.2 metres

And, here is another view of the cropped version of that photograph.

Using a single point auto-focus point can be very effective when photographing small birds taking flight when utilizing Pro Capture H. It allows us to acquire focus on birds that are almost completely hidden from view. If we correctly anticipate their flight path it can result in some pleasing images that we may have otherwise missed capturing.

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.  Images were resized for web use. I used my standard Pro Capture H settings: Pre-Shutter Frames and Frame Limiter were both set to 15. And, I shot at 60 frames-per-second. This is the 1,205 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

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