This article discusses some of the general considerations associated with developing a swallow BIF technique, and shares a selection of photographs.
Since earlier articles have already detailed my various bird photography setting options, my primary BIF settings, and how I use Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, that information is not repeated in this article.
Many of the images in this article were created during my recent swallow Bird AI test at Windermere Basin Park in Hamilton, Ontario. Others were captured during previous visits to this location. This is a lengthy article, so grab a cup of coffee or other beverage.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
Seasonality and Location
It is important to research your locale to learn about how seasonality may impact the number of swallows in your area. For example, in Southern Ontario we often have the largest concentration of swallows in mid April through to mid/late June. After chicks have fledged the swallows often move into a broader range of areas that provide a good food supply for them.
Just before the swallow chicks have fully fledged at Windermere Basin Park, I have experienced some quite aggressive behaviour with adult swallows diving at my head. Late in the nesting season is sometimes not the best time to photograph swallows near nesting boxes!
Locally we have a few locations such as Windermere Basin Park and the Mountsberg Conservation Area that provide nesting boxes for swallows. Doing an internet search will help you discover areas that may provide this type of shelter for the birds in your area.
Barns and other structures often provide sufficient protection from the elements for swallows to build nests underneath overhangs. To be successful photographing swallows a high concentration of birds is always helpful.
Once locations have been identified it is beneficial to scout the area in advance of the seasonal arrival of the swallows to determine the best times of day and shooting angles for your photographs. Since swallows typically have a dark coloured head, having the sun at your back is preferred. This will help limit the swallow’s head being in shade. Even a small amount of catch light in a swallow’s eye can bring a photograph to life.
It is easier to get usable images if you can find a shooting angle that puts a swallow in flight up against a clear sky. This type of composition is easier for a camera to acquire auto focus.
Given the very erratic nature of a swallow’s flight path it can be very difficult to get the exact lighting that you want on a bird. Sometimes it just is what it is.
Style of Photography
Determine in advance what type of photography that you are trying to accomplish with your images of swallows. Some photographers like images of perched birds. Others like action shots captured around nests and nesting boxes. Some folks like the challenge of trying to capture swallows in free flight. Your style of photography and image objectives will impact the choice of camera gear you use.
Use of Tripods and Monopods
Most of the photographers that I encounter when I’m out photographing swallows use tripods and monopods. Often this is due to the size and weight of the camera gear they are using. Larger, heavier cameras and lens can make it very difficult to track with swallows in flight when shooting handheld.
If you are going to concentrate on capturing images of swallows in-flight near nests or nesting boxes using a tripod or monopod can make a lot of sense. This type of gear will reduce arm fatigue and you won’t need as much movement flexibility as compared to trying to photograph free flying swallows.
Swallows are quick and erratic flyers so faster shutter speeds are needed to ‘freeze’ wing positions. If you want some wing blur to add a feeling of movement to your images shutter speeds of 1/1250 or 1/1600 may work for you. To ‘freeze’ wing movements many photographers would use a shutter speed of 1/3200, 1/4000 or even faster.
Photographing swallows in flight, especially free flying birds, can really be a challenge for the auto-focusing system of many cameras. The toughest challenges will be with swallows flying directly at your camera or when swallows make their very frequent and abrupt mid-air changes of direction.
During my recent swallow Bird AI test session I examined distance to subject estimates done by my E-M1X. When shooting at 18 frames-per-second, and capturing 4 consecutive images, a swallow flying directly at me came 2 metres closer in only 0.22 seconds. This converts to an air speed of approximately 32.7 kilometres per hour. Air velocity will vary by the species of swallow.
So, swallows may not be the fastest flyers but they change their flight path continuously and abruptly. This type of situation can be very challenging for many cameras to maintain continuous auto-focus performance.
It is important that you understand how quickly your camera can maintain its continuous auto-focusing performance with subjects that are fast approaching. You may need to adjust your shooting style and capture more profile images. Or, images captured at a 45 degree angle, rather than photographing birds flying directly at your camera. You also may need to drop your frame rate down so your camera can better handle the continuous auto-focusing frame refreshing you are demanding of it.
If you examine the four previous images in this section and their EXIF data, you’ll get a good idea of the importance of continuous auto-focus performance, frame rate, and distance to subject.
Focal length, field of view, and depth-of-field
When photographing swallows in flight it is very important to consider the focal length you want to use, and how this focal length will impact your field of view and depth-of-field based on the camera you are using.
The longer the focal length you use, the tighter your field of view will be. Tight fields of view make it harder to pan with birds in flight, especially very erratic flyers like swallows. It is better to use a somewhat shorter focal length and allow a swallow to fly in closer to you while you are tracking with a bird, than it is to use a longer focal length.
Trying to photograph a swallow 16 metres away with an aperture of f/6.3 using a focal length of 227 mm on an E-M1X gives a photographer a field of view of 4.36 degrees. Photographing the same bird, using the same aperture with the same lens and camera, but at a focal length of 400 mm would reduce the field of view to 2.48 degrees. That difference of about 2 degrees makes panning with a flying swallow much more difficult.
A shorter focal length will also provide more depth-of-field at the same aperture, when compared to a longer focal length. For example my M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5.-6.3 IS zoom lens shot at f/6.3 using a focal length of 227 mm with a target bird 16 metres away would deliver a total depth-of-field of 0.93 metres. Roughly half of that depth-of-field would be in front of the bird. So, shooting under these parameters would give the lens more opportunity to deliver acceptable sharpness within that depth-of-field with a fast approaching bird.
Shooting with the same lens, at the same aperture, with the same subject swallow, 16 metres away… but using a focal length of 400 mm would deliver a depth-of-field of only 0.3 metres. Again, with roughly half of that depth-of-field being in front of the swallow in flight. Under this specific scenario using a 400 mm focal length compared to a focal length of 227 mm would have reduced the available depth-of-field by over 66%. This is a consideration that enters into all kinds of photography, not just when photographing birds.
Pre-focusing Your Lens
Once you have decided where to position yourself physically. and which swallow flight paths on which you intend to concentrate your efforts, it is beneficial to regularly pre-focus your lens during lulls in the action. Just pick any kind of surface or subject that is about the same distance away as you anticipate the swallows in flight will be. This will help your camera acquire focus on an incoming swallow much faster.
Use Focus Limiter
If you camera or lens has a focus limiter be sure to use it. This will help your camera gear acquire auto focus faster and help avoid your lens hunting for the subject swallow. When I use my M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS zoom to photograph swallows in flight I always have the focus limiter switch set to 6 metres to infinity.
Number of Auto Focusing Points
Every photographer will have their own approach to the number of auto-focusing points they use when trying to photograph swallows. A single auto focus point can work very well for perched birds. Most photographers would use some kind of multiple AF point array when attempting to photograph swallows in flight. Some may even engage all of their camera’s available auto focusing points.
Depending on your camera, you may have the option to custom design an auto focusing target grid to suit your specific photographic needs. For example our E-M1X and E-M1 Mark III bodies allow for a wide array of custom auto focus target grids.
Let’s say that photographer wanted some images of swallows that were hovering above a nesting box, They could choose to create a 3 X 9 or 5 X 9 custom grid and position it above the nesting box in their composition. Under this scenario they may also choose the Cluster Area C-AF mode on their E-M1X or E-M1 Mark III body.
This would allow their camera to continuously auto focus on any swallows that are flying anywhere in the grid pattern. Using this type of approach would eliminate the need to move an AF point grouping around, or try to keep it over a particular swallow in flight.
Your choice of auto-focusing points will be a personal decision based on your individual needs, your skill set, and the capability of your camera gear.
Equipment Size and Weight
As mentioned earlier, the size and weight of your camera gear will have a direct impact on how you attempt to capture images of swallows in flight. Shooting handheld is a personal decision based on your skill level and your physical capabilities given the size and weight of your camera gear.
If you decide that you want to shoot swallows in-fight handheld you will need to develop very good eye/hand coordination. These little pocket rockets are very challenging to keep in a camera’s viewfinder as they dipsy-doodle through the air.
Holding your camera in front of your chest, then being able to bring it up to your eye at the correct angle to quickly locate a bird-in-flight in the viewfinder is an important skill when shooting handheld.
Depending on the camera gear you own, it may offer you technology that can be extremely helpful when photographing swallows in flight. For example, my E-M1X has Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking which I have found to be very effective in tracking swallows and other birds in free flight.
Various OM-D camera models like the E-M1X and E-M1 Mark II and Mark III have Pro Capture H which is a wonderful technology to capture birds taking off and landing.
Practice. Then… practice some more.
Trying to photograph small, fast flying birds like swallows takes a lot of practice. In many parts of the world photographing swallows is a seasonal pastime. This means getting out with your camera as early in the season as you can, and to practice as much as possible in order to hone your skills.
Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.
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