Outdoor Photography Tips 44 - Birds in Flight & Other Moving Subjects


Recently, I received a request from a visitor on my site. He has been capturing wildlife with his camera and obtaining satisfactory results. Since he has an attraction to birds...and who doesn't, he has been able to procure shots of birds feeding and perched in various positions, but is having difficulty in capturing sharp images of birds in flight. His images have a softness to them. The next step is what to do about the ones that are moving about. And what I am referring to are the birds in flight. He wanted to know how I am able to capture such sharp images as illustrated in my photos.

I could have answered, "Just lucky, I guess." and I would only be partially telling the truth. There are very specific things you can do that might help. First of all, you need to address where the blur is coming from. I always recommend reviewing your photos closely with the computer. First check to see if your lens itself is sharp. You can do this by zooming in during post processing. Are your images somewhat soft? Even those of stationary subjects? If so, you might want to use higher shutter speeds or a tripod. If you don't have a tripod, set the camera on a stationary surface and use your cable release or self timer to take a picture. Focus on a specific subject and take the shot. If the subject is still soft, it might be the best image you are going to get with that lens/body combination.

I have found that the equipment is usually not the cause. It is usually that the techniques implemented were not secure enough for a sharp image. Which means the shutter speed was not fast enough to freeze the bird, insect, mammal, or other subject. So how fast is "fast enough"? This is a complex question to give a single answer because it is dependent upon many properties: subject speed, photographer's distance from the subject, and lens focal length to name a few. But here is what I do before going into the field.

I grab a helpful assistant - wife, husband, son, daughter, friend, homeless person, the neighbor you like next door, the neighbor you don't like next door, dog, cat, and the list really degenerates from there. Hopefully you will be successful at obtaining one of these from the front of the list. Provide them with a small object like a soccer ball. The reason I suggest a soccer ball is that the subject has plenty of contrast. I'll explain this later.

You can have the camera set to "auto, shutter speed priority". You will now make changes in the shutter speeds. The camera will make all of the necessary changes to ISO and apertures. Select a shutter speed to start, let's say 1/500 second.

Have your assistant stand with the ball at the distance that you normally find the moving subject to be in your photos. I say 30 feet would be a decent place to start. Have them drop the ball while you shoot a burst of shots. You may also have them use a flag on a stick, like someone with a checkered flag at the end of a race. Once they have done this, have them bounce the ball faster or move the flag faster. Take a burst of shots for each ball speed. When finished with each burst, take one shot with your hand over the front of the lens. This indicates the break for the next series of shots to compare. It will be easier to review the process when the bursts are separated by one black shot.

( Clean background soccer ball test. see above)

Set your camera to 1/1,000 second and do the same thing... and again at a 1/2,000 second. You may want to use 1/3,000 second as well. Now bring all these back to the computer and see which ones are the sharpest. I have found that under sunny conditions, ISO 500, f8, and 1/2,000 second provides good results. It will leave just enough blur on the flapping wings of small birds to provide some sense of motion to the photo.

Back to the next test series. Grab that assistant again, or a new assistant if the old one is now adequately bored with your testing. When you have determined what shutter speed will freeze the subject, have them throw the object towards you. This is a much more critical test as it will help you to understand how well your camera/lens combination will compensate for subjects that are changing distance between you and the subject. In effect, it will illustrate the capabilities your lens/camera combination can handle. That is why I recommend you try to capture birds or mammals as they move across in front of you before shooting them approaching or running away. You may find your camera is not capable of tracking and establishing focus quick enough for the subject coming directly at you, but is able to track and focus on one that you are panning as it passes by.

(Ball thrown toward the camera to test the ability of the camera/lens combo to focus while something is moving toward the lens.see above)

The next concept is where you may be having your issues with the blur in pictures of moving subjects. It has to do with scene contrast I have touched upon at the beginning of the blog. I am always amazed by the ability animals have to blend into their background. That is one of the reasons I spend a lot of time in a single specific location when shooting in the field, instead of moving about. It takes time for the animals to get used to you and make their presence known.

Cameras use the contrast in the scene in order to focus on a subject. If the animal blends in to the environment, the camera may not be able to track the subject. Cameras locate and focus on subjects flying against an uncluttered sky way easier than focusing on ones with foliage and busy backgrounds. The camera sees too many things it can focus on in the foreground and background. This leads to out of focus images because the camera chose to focus on something else. Or it may have been searching for the proper focus at the moment you had your shutter button depressed.

( This deer was moving through the dried twigs and grasses. I had to manually focus on the subject because the autofocus was unclear as to what lines to focus on. see above)

(This picture illustrates how a subject is easily located by the autofocus because it has well defined contrast between the subject and the background. see below)

If you are shooting flocks of birds, pick out a single bird and keep on that target. Usually it is the goose in the front of the formation. Pan ( follow the subject, keeping it in the same part of the frame) with the subject. This gives the camera's autofocus the same subject in the smallest amount of the frame while capturing a series of shots. Take as many shots as possible, because your window of opportunity is very short on moving subjects. This is where the little bit of luck comes in. Hopefully, if you have practiced and have the camera settings correct, one or more of the images will be sharp.

When shooting on a sunny day, I will set the camera to manual mode. This means I have control over the ISO, the shutter speeds, and the f-stops. Why is this important? Many of the species of birds have white in their plumage. Once it is overexposed, you cannot get the textures in the highlighted areas and the white becomes a blob or spot on the bird. When shooting birds in flight, as you are panning, the background may change and become much darker due to a change of foliage or soils. Your light meter will communicate with the camera body, adjusting it to let in more light for the darker area in the frame. This will render the whites overexposed. It is easier to bring up the darker areas in post processing than it is to reclaim lost highlights, which you usually can't do. If you are in manual mode, all of the bright sunlit areas will be exposed for the daylight conditions regardless of background changes.

(Loads of white in this bird. If this was photographed with the camera in auto mode, it would have eliminated all the detail in the plumage of this beautiful bird. see below)

When I am shooting waterfowl and many shorebirds, I will position myself in a spot where they had previously been observed flying to and from. This will ensure a higher probability of capturing them when they return. This plan also works for animals that are standing or feeding. I can set up with them already framed, and when they decide it is best for them to leave, I am prepared to take the images.

This is one reason I suggest the use of a tripod. Long lenses will become heavy after waiting. It will then be difficult to track the moving subject when necessary because your arms get tired of holding the lens.

Now, if you have performed the tests mentioned above, it is time to test in the field. Find a local park where some birds are abundant and used to people. If you are still acquiring blurry shots, it may in fact, be an equipment based issue.

Here is a strategy you could take. I have a friend, Sam, who is not only an avid bird photographer, but he can consistently capture wonderful shots of birds in action. He will head down to the river at, or just before, sunrise, then find a likely spot for passing birds and sit there for 3 or more hours. Patience is one of the most important tools in a wildlife photographer's arsenal (as discussed in my previous blog "The Three P's").

I hope this article inspires some of you who have become discouraged with your photographs of fast-moving subjects, and you find yourself out once again attempting to capture precious moments for us all to enjoy later.

And, as always, Happy Shooting.

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