Photographing birds in flight can be a challenge, and it's important to adjust for several factors quickly in order to maximize the number of photographs that are both sharp and properly exposed. I normally shoot birds in Aperture Priority Mode
, and usually I shoot wide open (at my widest aperture
), which on my lens is f/5.6. I tend to break up how I approach shooting birds in flight in terms of four main factors.
Color of the Bird
When shooting birds in flight, you need to take into consideration the color of the bird and use the appropriate exposure compensation
to account for it. White feathers will become overexposed very easily in bright sunlight. So if a bright bird is brightly lit, I'll under-expose by perhaps 2/3 stop
. If I'm shooting a bird with dark feathers, like an immature Bald Eagle, I'll over expose a little, especially if I need to get detail in the shadows under the wings.
Position of the Sun
Whenever shooting birds in flight, you need to pay careful attention to the relative brightness
of the background and the bird. When the sun is behind you, the bird and the background will likely be lit by the same light. On partly cloudy days, this general rule may not work for you, since the bird may be shaded and the background may be lit. As the bird flies, his position relative to the sun may change. When the bird is side-lit, you may have to add exposure compensation to make sure the shady side of the bird is properly exposed. If the bird is back lit, you will have to add even more. I generally find that bird photos back lit by the sun, especially on sunny days, end up in my recycle bin. So if I want to shoot a back lit bird in flight, I'll often expose for the sky instead of the bird and let the bird become a silhouette.
The amount of exposure compensation to add depends in part on the color of the bird. A side-lit bird will be half in shadow and half-lit. If you get the shadowy side properly exposed, you may over expose the sunny side. This is especially likely with white birds. So I generally add less exposure compensation for white birds than for dark birds. On my DSLR, I'll often shoot a bird in flight and move the exposure compensation dial as the bird moves, raising it by a stop or more as the bird become increasingly back lit. If it looks to me that the bird will fly where I can have the sun behind me, I'll just wait for the bird to be where I know I'll have the most success.
Direction of Flight
When a bird is flying toward you or away from you, your camera must constantly change its focus. I usually have my camera on AI-Servo focusing mode
so that it can help me keep the bird in focus. But I also pause between bursts to let the camera focus on the bird without me shooting pictures. I find I have more success this way.
When a bird is flying perpendicular to you, the relative distance between you and the bird does not change much. This usually makes things much easier on you. You don't need to make sure that your camera changes its focus; you just need to make sure it maintains its focus. I generally don't trust the camera to choose the right focusing point, so I choose the center focusing point and put the bird in the center of the frame (I then frame the shot in my computer). I find it much easier to keep the bird in focus this way.
When shooting birds in flight, you need also to be concerned about the background. Generally speaking, when shooting with the sky behind the bird, the sky can be very bright and give you very fast shutter speeds. If the bird dips below tree level, you may find that your shutter speed decreases. You may also find that your camera decides it likes the trees more than your bird. You have to be extra careful to make sure you have the bird in the center of the frame so that your camera focuses on the bird. I often find that bird photos are more pleasing when there is something other than sky in the background, especially if you can get the background nice and blurry to separate it from your subject.
I set my ISO
based on the overall brightness of the day. On bright, sunny days, I'll set it between 100 and 250. On cloudy days, I'll set it between 320 and 500. On darker days or early mornings, I'll raise it even higher, but I try not to go more than 800 if I can help it. On newer cameras, you can get away with shooting at higher ISOs, but my goal is to get a shutter speed at least 1/800 sec, and preferably 1/1000 sec or faster. If you find you are getting shutter speeds significantly faster than 1/2000 sec, consider lowering your ISO. You may find that your photos will be less grainy.
Really great tips Scott, and fantastic images to with them!ReplyDelete
My camera LOVES the trees more than the bird. So annoying. Good stuff in here, I need to start playing with my ISO more.ReplyDelete
I think I superficially get it...but its still kinda overwhelming to remember all that in the field. I think I need a field trip to spend a day photography birds with one of you experts who can talk me through it.ReplyDelete
Sounds like fun! If you're ever down here, we'll make it happen. For myself, I never had anyone write it out for me like this. I learned by making mistakes and wondering why. It may be helpful to take one of these four factors and work them individually. Start with bird color and practice overexposing dark birds and underexposing white birds until you get a sense of that. Then move on to position of the sun, etc.ReplyDelete
I also suspect, as far as exposure goes, if you concentrate on bird color and put the sun behind you, you'll find you get a high percentage of properly exposed photos.