14 January 2023

Effect of Low Light in Birds in Flight Photography

Canon Birds in Flight Photography at Intaka Island 

Effect(s) of Photographing Birds in Flight in Low Light
African Sacred Ibis : Intaka Island, Cape Town

An in-flight image of an African sacred ibis during Wednesday's low-light client training session at Intaka Island.

I personally would have wanted less blurred wingtips, but it was a trade-off in the given conditions, dark background and distance to subject wrt selected exposure settings (compared to my usual Woodbridge Island sessions with selective sunny conditions, brighter backgrounds and general closer proximity to fast flying birds flying relative close to my own positioning).

Quality of light
While (good) light is one of the most important factors in photography it is not always possible to have the best light at your disposal. There will be many occasions where 'what you see is what you get' in terms of low / poor light conditions if there is no proper understanding of the impact of light and / or how to control the camera for still getting satisfactory image results. 

One of the biggest and challenging variables to manage to is to achieve the best possible exposure (under any given light / inclement weather conditions). Today, many high-end enthusiast and all professional Canon EOS / EOS R cameras / lens combinations are suitable to shoot in the rain, just make very sure about your own kit's weather-sealing in terms of both the body and the lens (and the weather-sealing as a pairing). Personally I don't risk any of my kit in the rain (even if it is certified as weather-sealed) - except when shooting from a hide / or other environmental protection. 

In good light (for in-flight photography) I normally use my default exposure settings: Manual Mode: Auto-ISO / 1/3200's / f/5.6 - with no problem. In low light I change the shutter speed to 1/2500's (or lower) to lower the ISO. The trade-off is that faster subject movement could cause wingtip-blur or if I have used an aperture of f/6.3 would have increased the Auto-ISO and in turn (could) cause additional pixel noise (also considering the dark background) - depending on the available light / random background in any given moment - i.e. darker trees, bush or other obstacles.

Environmental Variables for Improved Birds in Flight Photography >>

What f-stop to use?
Many photographers shoot birds in flight at a default f/stop of f/6.3 - which will ensure a slightly sharper image (with less potential for wing-blur as well) - especially (also) if there are two birds in the frame / or if the single bird is quite close to the lens (in filling a large part of the frame).

A question I'm often asked: why do you shoot birds in flight at f/5.6 and not f/6.3? There are 3 main considerations in terms of personal preference and specific body / lens pairing:
  • f/5.6 allows more light and therefor increase intentional background blur
  • More light improves the Autofocus (AF) operation of my camera / lens combination
  • At f/5.6 all 56 AF-points of my camera / lens pairing are utilised as cross-type AF points for bird tracking potential vs. only 75% cross-type AF-points at f/6.3 - therefore ensuring a higher precision / faster tracking probabilities

Canon EOS 7D Mark II / EF 400mm f/5.6L USM lens Cross-Type AF-Points
Source: Canon EOS 7D Mark II User Manual - PDF Download 

Note: With the Canon EOS 7D Mark II / EF 400mm f/5.6L USM lens the are many different combinations available AF-Point expansion or Zone-areas. In any selection at f/5.6 the AF points will be activated a cross-type points. At f/6.3 this is not possible in terms of covering all cross type AF points (across the AF grid). 

Auto-ISO for high-speed action photography is recommended by Canon for many of the enthusiast / professional EOS camera bodies (Full Frame or APS-C) since the EOS 5D Mark III / EOS 7D Mark II and higher-end bodies entered the market.

Auto-ISO application reference: "In Manual exposure mode, a pre-set shutter speed and lens aperture can be continually maintained, even if the light changes. This allows the photographer to have full control over stopping motion and depth-of-field, while still allow the camera to react to any changes in light". (Source: Taking Advantage of Auto-ISO)

Most new EOS R Full Frame / APS-C bodies will handle much higher Auto-ISO's due to the new DIGIG X image processing sensor (for even higher ISO data in-camera processing). Post-processing of Raw images should ito of selective cropping and noise management reduce luminance noise reduction even more (while preserving a natural look).

Good light is important for 'ideal exposures'. Any combination of exposure settings will have more of an impact in low / poor light conditions. I spend quite a substantial amount of time explaining 'ideal exposures' to my photography students / clients - this is in essence a personal objective and subjective acceptance choice for each individual photographer - without this the photographer may never find acceptance in how he / she should appreciate and / or present their own images.

Setup and Tips For Birds in Flight Photography >>

Modern EOS R bodies should assist the photographer more when the maximum lens aperture is f/5.6 - especially in low light conditions (and fast moving birds in an Auto-ISO selection option).

Canon Camera / Lens Settings Intaka Island Canon
  • EOS 7D Mark II Body
  • EF 400mm f/5.6L USM Lens
  • Manual Mode
  • Auto-ISO: 250 - 800
  • Aperture: f/5.6
  • Shutter Speed: 1/2500
  • AI Servo: Case 1: Large Zone
  • 10 fps High Speed Continuous Mode
  • Handheld

Lightroom Post-Processing
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic CC 11.4: Cropping. Colour correction / noise reduction / lens profile correction and a few spot removals.

Image Copyright
All Images Copyright Vernon Chalmers Photography

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