Thursday, May 21, 2009

As I mentioned in my heading, I am an avid nature and landscape photographer. Since I "got serious" into digital photography, I have been practicing many different techniques to try to understand how the pros get such great images. I enjoy bird photography and have always wanted to be able to be successful with bird images. One thing I found out very quickly is that they are very hard to capture full frame - my initial attempts had the bird looking like a small spec in the image.

In this post, I want to focus on birds in flight - a difficult feat - at least when I try! I have attempted over the last couple of years to figure this one out. After many unsuccessful images (and I do mean many) and a few successful ones, here is what I found has helped to increase my shooting percentage.

A fast shutter speed is needed to freeze a subject in flight. A mistake I made early on was to try shoot at a mid-aperture under the assumption that I needed a large depth of field (I will get into apertures and depth of field discussions in a later post). I would try f11 in hopes to maximize my chance of a in-focus image. However, this actually worked against me since I suffered in shutter speed. My blurry images weren't a result of my inability to focus on a moving subject, but because my shutter speed wasn't fast enough to compensate for the camera motion and subject motion.

A larger aperture (f2.8 - f5.6) can help maximize the resulting shutter speed. Basically, it allows more light to hit the sensor (film) allowing a faster shutter speed. Ever since I realized this, my images have become more successful. A large aperture also helps to give a nice blur in the background to help the subject stand out.

An additional setting to help with gains in shutter speed is increasing your ISO. One thing that you have to be aware of in digital photography is that higher ISO's can cause more noise in the image. Some of the newer cameras are better at minimizing noise giving the photographer the ability of shooting at higher ISO without a great loss in quality. I tend to not go above ISO 400 with my current setup and have come away with some successful images. Although if the image is slightly under exposed and you need to brighten the image in post-processing, the noise becomes noticeable.

Focusing can be an issue with a moving subject as well. I use AI Servo AF (Canon) which allows the camera to track a subject that approaches or retreats form the camera at a constant rate and then predicts the distance from camera to subject just before the image is taken.

Finally, since you can expect to throw away a lot of images because of wing position, lighting, lack of focus, etc. I shoot in burst mode to maximize my chance of a "keeper". You end up with a lot of images, but you also increase your odds of being successful.

Well, I hope these tips make sense and help you become a better in-flight bird photographer. I have posted a few images here - yes they're only ring-billed gulls, but they are good examples of these techniques. They are also a great subject to practice on because they are readily available. All I have to do is go to the beach!

Cheers - Rob

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