10 + Tips For Making Tack-Sharp Bird-In-Flight Shots
By Mike Stensvold
While Stephen Lang’s abstracts make for a unique take on bird photography, you may also be interested in these tips for getting more traditional sharp shots of birds in flight. (Right: Sigma 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 APO EX DG OS)
1 Use continuous AF and just the central AF point. The central point is generally the camera’s most sensitive and, thus, will produce the most accurate focus.
2 “Ballpark” focus the bird manually, then activate the AF system. That way, the AF system will acquire the subject much more quickly with no “hunting.” To do this, you need a lens that permits focusing manually while in AF mode, such as a Canon EF, Nikon AF-S, Olympus SWD or Pentax SDM.
3 Start tracking the bird with the camera before it reaches the point at which you wish to photograph it. Press the shutter button halfway to activate the AF system, and give the system a second or so to lock in on the bird. Then fully depress the shutter button to make the shot when the bird reaches the desired spot.
4 Many pro bird photographers set their cameras so that the thumb-operated AF button on the camera back activates autofocusing independently of the shutter button.
5 Be sure to keep the AF point on the bird (on the bird’s eye or head, if possible) at all times while tracking the bird with the camera. If the AF point moves off the bird, the camera will lose focus. Don’t worry too much about composition; generally, you’ll have plenty of room to crop the resulting shot when you process it.
6 Follow through. Don’t stop panning when you fully depress the shutter button to make the shot; keep tracking the bird as you shoot.
7Use high-speed continuous advance mode, and fire off several frames. That way, you’re more likely to get an ideal wing position.
8 I switch off stabilization for flight shots because it slows the camera operation. To stabilize really long lenses, use a tripod and a gimbal head.
9 Use a fast shutter speed, at least 1⁄1000 sec.
10Keep the camera steady. A tripod fitted with a gimbal head or a monopod can be an excellent tool. While handholding can give you good results, it can be easier to pan with the birds using a gimbal head that allows you to concentrate on moving the camera more than supporting it. Big, fast, powerful telephotos are heavy and awkward, so the more you can do to take the load off your arms, the better.
11Practice! It takes lots of practice to become good at tracking birds in flight. Put in the practice, and you’ll become very good at it!