Wildlife Photography Tips 7 - Birds in Flight

Capturing birds in flight can be a difficult prospect for the novice, or even the more advanced photographer, for that matter. This particular set of captures was procured with some rather techy equipment, but there are other attributes which come into play in providing a reasonably sharp clear shot of a bird in flight.

The following set-up is not necessarily the only option for the photographer. There is quite a mixed bag of accessories on the market that one can acquire that could increase the capture “keepers” in your catalog of shots. I use Nikon D610 and D810 DSLR bodies. As long as your camera has a remote flash release, you are good to go. I used both the Nikon 105mm micro and the Sigma 150-600mm Sport lenses for these captures. You can experiment with different lenses you own.

The key to any bird capture is having a bird to photograph. As obvious as that may sound, I have met individuals, especially in the field, who seem to lack the knowledge of where to be to view bird species. Subsequent results reflect their deficiency in this respect. Read up and talk to anyone who is knowledgeable about birding before going out. Your capture numbers will increase dramatically with this knowledge.

That being said, this location was at a friend’s bird feeder. Advantages? The birds would be at a known location and specific landing and launching site, and you know they will return in a reasonable time for multiple shots. Other sites include, and are not limited to, feeding site such as plants in bloom or fruiting, hunting perches, nesting locations, etc. Caution should be exercised at nesting sites as to not disturb the birds’ daily routine. If you are not an accomplished birder, working at a nesting site would not be the first place I would encourage you to set-up and shoot.

Fig. 1 is a drawing showing the path that most of the birds were using to get to the feeder.

Figure 2 shows the set-up at the feeder I used. After an initial assembling of the equipment, I observed the changes in bird behavior before shooting. This included the change in speed and direction for the approach to the feeder. After a short time, I noticed the goldfinches were landing on the apparatus and some altered their course, before actually going to the feeder.

Fig. 3 illustrates the change in positioning to allow for the birds to approach through the area I required to the final capture. This is IMPORTANT, as small, fast-moving targets, require advanced planning to have successful captures.

Now onward to the techy stuff. I purchased a laser triggering unit from online. There are several companies offering triggering set-ups, so you should spend a bit of time researching pricing and functionality before purchasing. I purchased the StopShot from Cognisys.I will mention this, though. If you are interested in shooting hummingbirds at feeders, they are the easiest of the birds to work with, and I wouldn’t even go to the trouble of using this set-up as you can just wait at the feeder for subjects.

The laser units send a beam of light to a sensor unit. When the beam is interrupted (blocked), by something in the path, the control unit uses your remote shutter release outlet to trigger your camera for the exposure. Think of something out of a James Bond movie. I prefer to envision the “Mission Impossible” scenario as it seems pretty impossible as you are getting all this gear to actually do what it needs to do at the precise moment you require it. Fig. 4 (below) shows what this rig might look like as viewed from above.

I have multiple flash heads to supply the power to illuminate the subject. This is also in conjunction with the camera being set in manual mode, and the lens pre-focused to where the laser light beam path is located. NOTE THAT THE FOCUS POINT WILL NOT BE EXACTLY WHERE THE BEAM IS AS THE SPEED OF THE APPROACHING BIRD IS IMPORTANT. Your camera takes a small fraction of a second to receive the triggering, raise the mirror, open the shutter, and close it again. During that time the position of the bird changes. Experimenting with the unit with your first series of captures should provide you with information that will help you decide how far to lead the subject. Focus plane will also help in timing adjustments. It is much more difficult to acquire sharp “in focus” images when the subject is flying towards the camera (fig 5 below)), than it is if it is flying parallel to the sensor plane (fig 6 below).

As for exposures, the flash units will be plenty fast enough to capture a sharp image. If you are shooting in bright daylight, you might want to move your feeder to a more shaded area. It will reduce the amount of ghosting, or slight blurring from wings etc., if you are looking to achieve that effect. I find a moderate amount of blurring provides more movement in a photo. It is all in what you want as a final result.

I hope this is somewhat helpful. Be sure to send me any questions or concerns you might run into, and I will attempt to help you if I have a possible solution. Enjoy yourself. This is not an easy setup and the number of "keeper shots" will be low as well, but the results can make it worth it.

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