One thing that is different about where I live now (Southern Utah) versus where I lived before (Florida) is the opportunity to photograph birds in flight. Like any other skill, doing it well requires practice, and that lack of practice is clearly evident as I browse through images I made last week in New Mexico. The images from the first couple of days have a higher percentage of failures to successes than those from later in the week. In Florida I would frequently be somewhere shooting at least a few images of herons, egrets, pelicans, etc. in flight every week or two, while here those opportunities just don’t exist.
The most important part of great flight photography is nice, smooth pans. Even if the camera’s autofocus is locked, if the pan is too slow or too fast, or the panning motion is moving up and down rather than straight and level with the subject, you will get motion blur. The best way to deal with the former is to identify the subject early, get the camera pointed in that direction, and begin panning as the subject approaches, but still some distance away. Bear in mind that, as the subject gets closer, its apparent speed will increase as it looms larger in the viewfinder and your panning speed will have to steadily increase, too. This is where hand/eye coordination comes into play while you endeavor to keep the subject centered in the frame, and practice is the only way to perfect this skill.
The trick to the latter, up and down motion while panning, is cured with practice, too, but how the camera and lens are supported or held is what is really critical here. Most of the time, of course, I use a Canon 500mm F4, a lens that falls into a class known as “super-telephoto”, basically anything more than 400mm focal length. It is heavy, not easy to handhold (though I do sometimes for short periods), and most of the time I use a tripod with a Wimberley (in my case the original version) tripod head. The right hand is on the camera body used to move the camera/lens while my left hand is placed on top out near the lens hood to stabilize everything while panning. Similar techniques would be employed if using a ball head on your tripod. Though expensive, the Wimberley is well worth the investment – if spending $6,000 or more for a super-telephoto, what’s another $600 (and the Wimberly isn’t a big jump in dollars from a high quality ball head that could support the weight of a big lens)?
Truth be told, I really prefer shooting birds in flight (or other animals in motion, as the same techniques apply), while handholding my gear using a shorter lens, as I feel I have more control most of the time. Plus, with longer focal lengths, even the slightest movement is magnified. With shorter lenses, the subject needs to be much closer, of course. When handholding shorter focal length lenses, I hold the lens with my left hand placed nearly at the end of the lens barrel (where the lens hood attaches), gripping it from underneath, and brace my elbow against my body for support. My feet are placed about shoulder width apart, my body squared to the point where the subject will pass directly in front of me. Now I swivel my hips in the direction of the approaching subject, with my feet still firmly planted on the ground. Once the subject is in the viewfinder, I simply rotate my hips in the direction of travel, and begin shooting as soon as the subject nears the point directly in front of me.
Whether tripod mounted or handheld, I always shoot at least three (often more) exposures in a sequence, continuing past the point directly in front of me, though the last frame(s) will be throwaways, as birds that have flown past really don’t make great photographs (though they are worth a look before tossing, as you may end up with something interesting or unusual!). So, you might ask, if you’re just going to throw the images away, why keep shooting? The answer is “follow-through.” Whether swinging a bat, hitting a puck, driving a golf ball, or out hunting ducks, the follow-through is important in sports, and it is just as important for great flight photography. If you stop just as your camera is taking the last exposure, your bird’s head may be out of the frame or you might release the shutter before you get the best possible image. The follow-through is a must!
The techniques I’ve described are mainly for photographs when the bird is in front of you, flying left to right or vice versa. Directly overhead (pretty much impossible if using a tripod) or coming toward you will be somewhat different, though there will still be panning involved. Just be careful if the bird is directly overhead and flying from front to back – if you follow-through too much you may fall over backwards! <smile>
Something else to bear in mind is to have the sun at your back (see my post It’s All About the Light) and be mindful of the wind direction if the birds are taking off or landing. Just like an airplane, a bird will take off or land into the wind, so place yourself appropriately to get the best shot angle. Particularly dramatic are images of birds landing as they are coming toward you and, to make that scenario work, the wind has to be at your back.
Many years ago, when I was first getting started with racing photography, I asked one of the old pros what’s the secret to success, and his short answer was “Shoot, shoot, shoot. Critique, critique, critique.” What he was saying was take a lot of photos, analyze them thoroughly, and determine what went right and what went wrong. Don’t throw an image away until you understand why – zoom to 100% magnification in your image editing software, which you should be doing to check for sharpness (“100% zoom” means that each pixel in the image is rendered by one pixel in your display) and analyze it. Here are 3 different Sandhill Crane shots (click) I’ve made, all in flight, cropped at 100%, and the purpose is to look carefully at the catch light in the eyes. The first is round but fuzzy – this is a focus miss. The second is fuzzy, but, more importantly, elongated; this is motion blur, so I messed up on the panning (because of the angle the catch light is streaked, I not only had some upward motion – not panning straight and level – but the pan was also a little slow). The third is where I nailed the shot – perfectly focused and my panning motion was spot on – it’s a keeper.
In the case of the first, it is to be expected that the camera’s auto focus is going to miss sometimes and there will be throwaways (though it could be misplacement of the primary focusing sensor – they are user adjustable and a topic for another day). The second, motion blur, is all about technique and that can only be improved with lots of practice. Of course, I must point out that shutter speed is very important here too. You can develop the best panning skills in the world, but have lots and lots of motion blurred images if the shutter speed isn’t high enough. Aim for shutter speeds of at least 1/1000 sec., though preferably higher. I normally set the camera to ISO 400, though sometimes 320, with the aperture set to f/8 using Aperture Value (Canon) or Aperture Priority (Nikon). If there is enough light, getting high shutter speeds will be no problem with these settings.
Feel free to ask questions in the comments or by contacting me directly!
Good luck & great shooting!