This article discusses using 60 FPS (frames per second) to photograph BIF (birds-in-flight) and shares an extensive collection of handheld images captured a few days ago.
I should apologize in advance for the overall quality of the images in this article. These photographs were captured under very dull, overcast and windy conditions. Not the best for image quality… but very good test conditions if one is inclined to push their camera gear hard as I’m apt to do. 🙂
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.
As photographers we can get hung up on various aspects of the auto-focusing performance of various cameras. From time-to-time debates about the relative merits of various camera brands and models can get heated, and sometimes aggressive. All of this is rather pointless and silly. There is a lot more to a camera then how it happens to perform in a particular auto-focusing mode.
Rather than get fixated about a particular auto-focusing mode it is instructive to ask ourselves what our objective is when we capture a run of photographs, rather than an individual frame. When it comes to photographing birds-in-flight our basic goal is to capture a variety of wing positions with our image run.
The auto-focusing function that we happen to choose to accomplish that task is irrelevant, as long as we meet our goal. Many photographers fixate on using continuous auto-focus or continuous auto-focus with tracking for their birds-in-flight photography.
Another good option is to use an auto-focusing mode that provides a very high frame rate… such as 60 FPS (frames-per-second). Many mirrorless cameras offer high frame rates. The challenge is that these very high frame rates typically lock auto-focus and exposure based on the first frame. Sometimes we overlook the benefits of using this type of auto-focusing for birds-in-flight.
All of the photographs featured in this article were captured using Pro Capture H, set to 60 frames-per-second. My Pre-shutter Frames and Frame Count Limiter were both set to 15, which is my standard setting. After using 60 FPS for BIF during this test, I will likely adjust both of these settings to about 8 as that should be adequate for my bird-in-flight needs. This is the first time I did an extensive test using Pro Capture H set to 60 FPS to photograph birds-in-flight.
Let’s look at our first Pro Capture H run of 15 images of a longtail duck in flight. I’m not a birder, but my best guess is this is a female. As you view these images pay specific attention to how many frames it takes for the duck’s wing motion to repeat itself.
Using 60 FPS for BIF enables a photographer to get a good variety of wing positions with a longer repeat cycle. This can help reduce the effects of rhythmic motion. At this fast frame rate a bird doesn’t travel very far before my 15 frames are captured, i.e. 1/4 of a second. This helps reduce the risk of the bird flying out of focus.
Birds flying parallel to the sensor in my camera have the best chance of yielding a successful 60 FPS image run. The most difficult challenge is when a bird is flying directly at the camera, as it will quickly fly out of focus.
Let’s have a look at a set of 12 consecutive images of a longtail duck flying parallel to the sensor of my camera.
When using 60 FPS for BIF with Pro Capture H, I use a single, small AF point. This allows me to be more precise when composing an image. This can be critical when capturing a run of images of a subject bird landing in amongst other birds as seen in our next sequence of 15 consecutive images. Given the dull, overcast lighting these images are not ideal, but they do demonstrate the benefit of using 60 FPS for BIF.
The subject bird was about 56.9 metres (~187 feet) away from my shooting position. It was coming into land in amongst three other birds as you can see with the photograph above (note that this image was cropped to 3405 pixels on the width). Using a single, small AF point enabled me to place it on the merganser, acquire focus, and fully depress my shutter release once. This generated 15 consecutive Pro Capture H images. I didn’t have to worry about continuous auto-focus getting confused and jumping to another bird in the area. Let’s look at the other 14 photographs in this run.
When I was shooting exclusively with my Nikon 1 kit I photographed birds-in-flight at 60 frames-per-second on a regular basis. If your camera offers a fast frame rate I’d encourage you to do some experimentation with it. Using Pro Capture H at 60 FPS is more productive than using the same frame rate with Nikon 1 gear, as the number of frames per burst can be controlled precisely.
I will need to do more testing in the weeks and months ahead, but I anticipate that using a series of Pro Capture H pulse bursts will generate far more usable images when compared to shooting a very long continuous auto-focus run of a bird in flight.
During this test I was able to capture initial image runs of 15 photographs, then reacquire auto-focus up to 3 additional times and fire off more image runs when photographing the same bird. Buffer management is very important when capturing back-to-back image runs.
I’ll need to invest in some faster UHS-II memory cards if I end up using Pro Capture H at 60 FPS for BIF on a more regular basis with my E-M1X. My current cards can write at a maximum of 180 MB/s and I did fill my buffer on a number of occasions. Moving to cards that can write at 250 MB/s or higher would help with buffer management.
Our final image run using 60 FPS for BIF is of a merganser. This set of 15 images was my favourite from my photography test session.
Hopefully you didn’t mind the inclusion of so many photographs with this article. I thought it was important to demonstrate the practicality of using 60 FPS for BIF by showing a number of sample image runs. Using this approach does take patience, practice and some discipline in terms of technique.
Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. All images were created using Pro Capture H at 60 frames-per-second. Images were created from RAW files using my standard process. Crops are noted. This is the 1,094th article published on this website since its original inception.
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