01 November 2018

Tracking Variables for Improved Birds in Flight Photography

Red-Eyed Dove in Flight - Capturing / Tracking Variables for Improved Birds in Flight Photography
Red-Eyed Dove in Flight  :  Woodbridge Island, Cape Town
During my Birds in Flight  and Canon AI Servo AF Workshops in Cape Town I generally start with a slideshow of a variety of in-flight images (with different Canon EOS bodies / EF prime / zoom lenses) for pointing out basic EXIF data, location and other relevant information.

Important Birds in Flight Photography Considerations
The slideshow is followed up with the highlighting of important individual considerations and settings. Outcomes will depend on current gear, skill level, shooting style and exposure settings:
  • Gear (Body / Lens / Tele-converters)
  • Autofocus System
  • Shooting Modes
  • Fps / Buffer Speed / Memory Card Speeds
  • Image Stablization (IS)
  • Handheld vs Tripod / Monopod
  • Exposure Settings
  • RAW vs JPG (Buffer Speed / Post-Processing)

Reed Cormorant in Flight - Capturing / Tracking Variables for Improved Birds in Flight Photography
Reed Cormorant in Flight : Canon EOS 70D
Ensuring the best possible images
After spending a fair amount of time with various Canon EOS bodies / Autofocus systems and technique during the workshops I discuss the Capturing / Tracking Variables - this is generally a list of 10+ criteria for assisting the Birds in Flight photographer with the following in mind:
  • Expected outcomes
  • Pre-planning
  • During the shoot
  • Post-processing

Many photographers are of opinion that only the high-end enthusiast and professional Canon EOS bodies and EF lenses are good enough for capturing birds in flight images. During these discussions and demonstrations the focus is on how to extract the maximum value out of most Canon EOS bodies and even 70-300mm lenses.

Capturing / Tracking Variables for Birds in Flight Photography
Listed capturing and tracking variables are based on my own shooting style and techniques at Woodbridge Island, Cape Town. All the images in this Canon EOS 7D Mark II Gallery was captured over a 4 year period using the Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM lens.

Sandwich Tern in Flight - Capturing / Tracking Variables for Improved Birds in Flight Photography
Sandwich Tern in Flight  :  Canon EOS 7D Mark II
The interpretation and application of the listed variables are not necessarily always going to provide for extraordinary results in every situation, but after quite a few years as a Birds in Flight photographer the following criteria are some of the most important factors / decisions (for ensuring great looking in-flight images):

  • Weather / Light conditions: I stay opposite Woodbridge Island and have a substantial view of the weather conditions, wind speed and quality of available light. I will only go down to the island if the weather / light meets my specific requirements.

  • Position of the sun: For ensuring the best possible exposure I go out early morning with the sun at my back for providing direct exposure on the birds. The quality of the available sun light is important - in some cases I don't mind the odd cloudiness - just for some softer diffusion in strong sun light.

  • Distance: When photographers are new at birds in flight they tend to shoot at every bird flying at any distance and any height. With experience this will be dramatically toned down wrt distance from lens (for best / sharpest image quality). I only should within my mental geographical boundary lines ito specific Woodbridge Island sub-locations.

  • Bird Species knowledge: Getting to know the individual bird species and their behaviour (in a specific environment) can take a while. It took me more than a year to really understand and anticipate the movements of the various bird species at Woodbridge Island. On this website is a Bird Species Index to where I add every new species that I personally encounter in / over the Milnerton Lagoon, Diep river and the Table Bay Nature Reserve.

  • Size and speed: For the developing photographer small and / or fast flying birds are extremely challenging to track and frame. This becomes easier with experience. Autofocus speed is not (always) the reason for not getting a framed captured - inexperience in general camera handling, tracking and general speed anticipation is more likely to be the problem. Canon's modern Autofocus  systems will assist in various configurations for faster and smaller birds.

  • Flight direction: The majority of the birds I capture around the Woodbridge Island area flies from left to right towards the sun and mostly close to the water. This is for ensuring better exposure, limiting the shadows under the wings and to provide for a slight glint in the facing eye. This is not to say I do not capture birds flying away from the sun.

  • Movement: In most cases the birds around Woodbridge Island / Diep river flies on the same plane across the water. Very easy to capture them this way as the wide open spaces provides for good and early sighting ito to their approach (and to prepare for the shooting burst). however, there are various super-fast and erratic flying challenges (diving for fish) with the terns and kingfishers.

  • Focus on the eye: With many fast and / or smaller birds I do not use this as such a strong criteria. I use a shooting style of shooting most birds from behind until I can see the Focus Points covers the eye-area. In most cases this is more than good enough. For some larger birds, such as a stretched-out flamingo, focusing on the eye at i.e. f/5.6 may  results in other part of the body being slightly out of focus.

  • Blur options: You do not require a large sensor full frame Canon body (i.e. EOS 6D) and the EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II lens for getting sufficient background blur when photographing birds in flight. I spend a lot of time in my workshops discussing this and demonstrating the possibilities with an APS-C body (i.e. EOS 7D Mark II) and the EF 400mm f/5.6L USM lens. More about background blur considerations

  • Background: With background I really mean what is behind the flying bird. Is it just blue sky or is it a nice bokeh of green grass or purple bush? Some of the challenges we have here are houses, cars and golfers that could become a huge distraction / part of the captured bird image. What I do to minimize this is to shoot in specific areas with certain (unfortunately, very narrow) windows of natural background opportunities.

  • Contrast: Black birds (i.e. oystercatchers and  red-knobbed coot) are at times difficult to track and capture. We've seen on occasion how even the advanced Canon AF systems sometimes struggle with some of these black feathered birds against a dark blue water / dark tree background. The Canon AF system needs contrast for the AF points to lock i.e. bird against the darker bush backgrounds will be more challenging than a white egret against the blue water. In most cases the AF points lock on without any issues.

  • Composition: For the new Birds in Flight photographer composition is one of the last things to think about. A much bigger challenge at this stage of the learning curve is just getting a small / fast flying bird in the frame. With time the attention will shift to be more mindful of the type of compositions that could be achieved with flying birds. Cropping in post-processing will also provide for some compositional adjustment.

  • Post-processing:  Its far easier to import a good capture (ito exposure and various of above criteria into consideration) into post processing than a poorly exposed images /not meeting the photographers expectations. I do not spend a lot of time in Adobe Lightroom and generally apply cropping / noise reduction and a few other tweaks. I shoot in RAW and then over time (if required) will work on an image for a final JPG outcome.

Expose requirements, technique and AF settings
The above listed criteria is not by any means the only criteria for learning and excelling with Birds in Flight Photography. For instance, I did not discuss the various exposure requirements (ito ISO / Aperture / Shutter Speed) in this article. Neither did I discuss any specific technique or autofocus settings. During my Birds in Flight Photography / AI Servo Autofocus workshops and private training I discuss these settings and configurations in more detail.

A comprehensive understanding and application of the modern Canon AI Servo Autofocus System (with all the different configurations and settings) can take months to master. Like all other photographic genres Birds in Flight photography requires experience, patience and trial and error in learning the fundamentals and applying the learning for achieving required imagery outcomes. More on the Setup and Tips for Birds in Flight Photography.

Article / Images Copyright Vernon Chalmers


Capturing / Tracking Variables for Improved Birds in Flight Photography
Canon EOS 7 D Mark II / 400mm Lens - Woodbridge Island / Cape Town

Birds in Flight Photography Cape Town