Sandhill Crane In-Flight - Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, NM
Doing any long lens photography is a challenge regardless of what you’re shooting. I wrote a an article discussing the basic of long lens technique. The short version of this article is to handle your lens like you would a rifle. The same skills and techniques useful to sharpshooters will be beneficial to anyone shooting with a long super-telephoto lens. This is even true for shooting birds in flight.
Let’s consider the problem of shooting birds in flight. What you have is a relatively unpredictable subject that’s rapidly traversing your field of view. There are tremendous challenges with this fast moving object. First, you have to suitably frame it. The classic rule of thirds come to mind. Next, the bird has to be in focus. I’m not taking just anything on the bird but the bird’s eye. This can be a challenge when the focus sensor you’re using is on the bird’s wingtip. Finally, everything has to be properly exposed. Many, many birds are black, white, the extremes of photography and a problem for just about any meter.
This doesn’t sound very easy does it? I agree, it’s not easy. In many respects, it’s about luck whether you get that jaw-dropping image. So, this article is about improving or maximizing your luck.
Let’s talk about the basics. Shooting birds, flocks of birds can be extremely difficult. If you ever wonder why the whole fish schooling thing works, you’ll begin to understand when you start shooting thousands of birds that might be flying by at any one time. The key here is to be specific. This means specifically visualize what image you want. This means pick a background. Then pick a type of bird. Then pick a pose. Choosing the background will specifically define what direction you’ll be shooting your subject. This directly leads to you adjusting your exposure based on the background, ambient light, and the subject. Choosing the specific bird will allow you to skip all the non-interesting subjects while specifically allowing you to concentrate for the one you’re interested in. This is called focus. Finally, visualize what you want you bird to be doing when you get his picture. Do you want the wings up? Do you want them down? There are many options, too many to choose while shooting birds. The best thing to do here is make all your choices prior to actually choosing.
What about the background. When you pick it, you now have an idea of how you want to position your equipment and your body to maximize your opportunities, your physical stature to shoot these birds in-flight. Picking the background allows you to choose an exposure method. Without using the whole world--i.e. 360 degrees around you--a specific metering setting can be chosen. I personally set all my exposure settings--i.e. shutter speed, aperture, ISO, White Balance--manually. I do this about 90% of the time. The beauty of this when you have the correct exposure, regardless of how the background changes, your subject will always be correctly exposed. Your meter won’t be fooled by the changing background light.
Some flock of birds have different color variations. Among Snow Geese, there are Blue Geese. There are Ross’ Geese. In a flock of thousands of birds, waiting for that one you’re interested in to fly through the background allows you to stay focused. By choosing your subject ahead of time, you can devote more time to making your image/shooting count than to try to shoot every bird that might fly through your chosen background. The idea here is to simplify as much as possible.
At a moments notice, birds change a lot. As they fly along, they may change formation with the other birds in their formation. Their wings flap from up to down. They may raise or lower their legs like an aircraft’s landing gear. The goal here is to define how you want your subject to look prior to actually shooting. Like picking the specific background and the specific type of bird, by choosing a pose for your bird ahead of time you minimize how much you’re thinking while actively shooting.
Do you notice a theme here? The theme is to do as much ahead of time as possible to avoid having to make too many choices while shooting.
Now that you’ve got all these things figured out, what about how you actually shoot that bird in-flight. Like my long lens article, the idea here is to pretend you’re shooting a rifle. If you understand the basics of shooting a rifle, you’ll understand what you have to do when using your long lens.
The concepts I mention here are not only applicable to using a rig setup on a tripod but also when you’re handholding your equipment. The methodology is identical.
You already know the background of your image if you’ve followed the recommendations at the beginning of this article. With that knowledge, plan on how you’ll position your camera when your subject flies through the chosen background. When you know how your camera will be pointed when shooting your image, you now can pre-position your body so it’s the most relaxed right at the critical moment.
To me this means my body/feet are about 30 to 45 degrees away from the background. What this means is if you position your body so your left shoulder is pointed right at your chosen background, then you move another 30-45 degrees left of your background, you’ll be in a great position. The goal here is you want to be able to follow through your chosen background. Secondly, you want to be able to start well prior to your background to track your subject early on. Having your body 30-45 degrees away from your subject gives you a lot of flexibility to shoot either to the right or left of your chosen background. Being able to shoot to the left or right of your background comfortably makes how you pan your camera as the subject flies by very smooth. Smooth is the name of the game here and having an ability to rotate your torso or your camera rig to the left and right will pay off big when shooting fast moving objects like birds.
Now that you have your feet positioned so your body/torso is 30-45 degrees away from the subject, let’s talk about posture. Think firm core--core as the middle part of your body. This is your abdomen. I’m not talking frozen. I’m talking making sure your chest is out comfortably. You aren’t slouched over your feet or camera. Your shoulders aren’t drooped. It’s about having a firm but non-rigid posture to minimize fatigue as you’re shooting. As my long lens article states, body fatigue contributes significantly to missed shots. Having a firm core and good posture really reduces body fatigue.
The next step is to make sure you rig is at the right level and its legs are set for you to pan it both to the left and right without forcing an uncomfortable stretch. Your rig’s height and tripod leg positions should be setup to allow you to move your torso 30 to 45 degrees to the left and right of your chosen background. More importantly, you don’t want to rotate your gear on its tripod and end up tipping your body on one foot. That’s definitely not smooth. I personally like to straddle one of my tripod legs--the other two tripod legs being out in front of my legs.
The last setup technique I want to bring up is how do you hold your gear. If you’ve followed my Long Lens Technique article, you know how to hold your gear. In so many ways, good long lens technique is just like holding a rifle. This applies whether you’re using a tripod or handholding your gear. The same thoughts apply. There’s no difference on how you hold your gear whether you’re shooting a static or dynamic subject.
Now that you’ve made your choices, you’re pointed the correct direction, and you’re holding your gear correctly, what do you do now. Get ready to shoot.
That’s what you do.
Let me introduce a new concept if you’re not used to shooting anything. It’s the concept of follow-through. I already alluded that you need to be smooth when shooting. This becomes even more important when you’re shooting birds in-flight.
There are some folks out there than can instinctively pick up a camera and just fire away getting an unbelievable composition. Everything you’ve slaved over happens to them in a burst of happenstance. That’s unusual and a lot of their abilities is related to reaction time. Not all of us have incredibly fast, gun-fighter reflexes. Most folks like me take about 1/4 sec from sensory input to action. I know this because of my day-job, I’ve had my reactions tested lots of time through various means. I’m just about to slightly better than the average guy. Which means, all these techniques matter to me. And, I’m no longer disappointed by my inability to just pull the skills out of my rear to suddenly shoot a master-piece bird in-flight image.
So, I need something in my pocket that makes up for my lack of extra-ordinary reflexes. What I need is prediction. By predicting where the image will come together, I can preposition everything ahead of time. Then, with anticipation, I can pull the trigger to take the image. By tracking the subject early and smoothly, I can make moderate adjustments to bring the pointing of the camera at the right spot just as the subject gets to my predicted shooting point. As soon as I start to overly aggressively track the subject, I have a strong tendency to over compensate my camera/lens movement thus making it unlikely I’ll get the picture at the desired point. The goal is to smoothly track your target. Don’t over control the lens to track the quickly moving target. By using a little prediction, you smoothly move your camera/lens to the right point just as the subject gets there.
How does this look in practice. You acquire your subject at a distance. You bring your camera up to point at your subject. Using the auto-focus sensor you choose (see side-bar) you focus-lock your camera on the subject. As the subject moves up and down and traverses from right to left (or left to right), you smoothly follow the subject with a caution about over-controlling your camera. As the subject approaches your desired shooting point, you start squeezing the trigger with a goal of trying to maintain the rotation rate you’ve established previously when tracking the subject. As you pass your predicted shooting point and the camera is firing, you’ll lose sight of the subject momentarily due to the mirror swinging out of the way. The idea here is to following through the predicted shooting point for the purpose of ensuring a smooth track to minimize the effects of loosing sight.
Dependent on the situation, you may have only gotten five or six shots on a single pass when using a high frame per second camera like my D3. You aren’t trying to use the “machine-gun” approach to shooting where you fire your camera essentially indiscriminately. You’re trying to create the image by shooting a deliberate amount of shots at the predicted point.
All of this sounds really complicated but it’s not. It’s just a matter of practice, practice, and more practice. By taking a deliberate approach towards in-flight photography which includes predicting as much about the final image as possible, you’ll maximize your chances of realizing your vision.
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