Swallow BIF Technique

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 227 mm, efov 454 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-500, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 3065 pixels on the width, distance to subject 11.5 metres

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.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko 1.4X teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/5.6 1/4000, ISO-640

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!

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-320, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 3096 pixels on the height, distance to subject 16.2 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-250, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2363 pixels on the width, distance to subject 16.4 metres

Shooting angle

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.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko 1.4X teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/5.6 1/4000, ISO-400

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 321 mm, efov 642 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-800, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2411 pixels on the width, distance to subject 17.2 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 381 mm, efov 762 mm, f/8.7, 1/1600, ISO-500, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2382 pixels on the width, distance to subject 26.8 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-200, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 3966 pixels on the width, distance to subject 14.9 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 3533 pixels on the width, distance to subject 8.8 metres

Shutter Speeds

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.

Auto-focus performance

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 227 mm, efov 454 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2527 pixels on the width, distance to subject 16.1 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 227 mm, efov 454 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2248 pixels on the width, distance to subject 15.5 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 227 mm, efov 454 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2489 pixels on the width, distance to subject 14.9 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 227 mm, efov 454 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2823 pixels on the width, distance to subject 14.1 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2205 pixels on the width, distance to subject 21.8 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 3612 pixels on the width, distance to subject 8.5 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 361 mm, efov 722 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 3331 pixels on the width, distance to subject 16.7 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-400, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2976 pixels on the width, distance to subject 21.6 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 400 mm, efov 800 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-500, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2792 pixels on the width, distance to subject 17.4 metres

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.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko 1.4X teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-800

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.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko 1.4X teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-640, subject distance 7.5 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 276 mm, efov 552 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-320, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2974 pixels on the width, distance to subject 16.1 metres

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.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm @ 220 mm, efov 594 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-450
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm @ 220 mm, efov 594 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-450
Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm @ 220 mm, efov 594 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-450

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 374 mm, efov 748 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-800, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2840 pixels on the width, distance to subject 16.7 metres

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.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS @ 300 mm, efov 600 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 2507 pixels on the width, distance to subject 17.5 metres

Eye/Hand Coordination

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.

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, 1/3200, ISO-2500, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 4.2 metres

Leveraging Technology

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.

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/8, 1/4000, ISO-1000, Pro Capture H mode, subject distance 4.8 metres

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.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/5.6 1/4000, ISO-800

Technical Note

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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6 thoughts on “Swallow BIF Technique”

  1. Thanks, Thomas, as usual very good tips on technique and settings. The images are really good. As with Ray I would be interested in how you calculate subject distance.

    1. Hi Jerry,

      I responded to Ray in an earlier comment on this posting.

      Here is some additional information supplied by one of our readers (John The Keen Amateur) which you also may find helpful:

      Create a folder anywhere on your system; named, say, “ExifToolGUI”

      Download .ZIP file from here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/78rffzxdoultrnr/AAAeL0FnqZEbaDJYOn2GpU5ha
      … and simply unZIP its contents into your new folder.

      Double-click on ExifToolGUI.exe to start the application – it will open by default to your Users folder.

      1) BEFORE you navigate to a folder containing your images, change the drop-down at the top from “Show ALL Files” to one of the other options (else it will include .dop/sidecar files and will look rather messy)

      2) Navigate to a folder containing your .ORF files … They’ll then be listed in the centre panel.

      3) Select any image/.ORF file and its EXIF data will appear on the RHS.

      Note:
      – You may occasionally see a pop-up with a message something like “List index out of bounds” – – Just click OK and ignore (The app is a bit “flakey” !!)
      – Also, it can get quite busy before it properly shuts-down .. just let it do its thing !

      Tom

  2. Greetings, Thomas!
    Very well researched and clearly written post! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience through these posts..

    I have tried to find the subject distance in my ORF files but can’t seem to locate it. Could you please advise how you find the subject distance?

    Cheers,
    Ray

    1. Hi Ray,

      The distance to subject measurements are estimates done by my E-M1X. For me, these are visible after I process an image and save my files in Windows Explorer. I right click on a jpeg, then left click on properties, then left click on details. Not all cameras provide this information. For example, none of my Nikon 1 cameras provide this.

      Tom

      1. Hi Tom,
        I noticed that not all raw developers were transmitting Subject distance BUT THAT DxO Photolab 4 .dng and /or .jpg files were including it in their exif, appearing clearly in Adobe Bridge (free download and stays fully operational after “trial period ?” since a couple of years already)

        Go to Bridge Menu / window, select Metadata panel and Subject distance will show in Camera Data (Exif) sub listings.
        Photoshop Psd files also keep it when made from DxO .dng.
        Olympus Workspace doesn’t seem to deliver it but Darktable does.
        By the way, nice shots, as usual.

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