Among the most challenging of birds to photograph in flight are the various swallow species, such as barn swallows, cliff swallows and tree swallows. These birds seem to live most of their lives on the wing, barely stopping to rest. This is because they’re “aerial insectivores,” the term for insect-eating birds and bats that forage while flying. Many times, I’ve attempted to freeze them in flight, without success.
On summer vacation in Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, I stumbled on a particularly good opportunity to photograph barn swallows in flight. Although this species probably once nested primarily in caves and on cliffs, they now tend to use manmade structures, placing their nests under the eaves of rooflines, porches and doorways. One day at the beach with my family, I discovered that several pairs of swallows were nesting in a very busy place: under the overhang of the public bathrooms.
I avoid photographing nesting birds unless I can be sure my presence is not a disturbance, and here I seemed to have found the perfect situation. The birds were swooping down over the heads of the constant parade of people going in and out of doorways next to their nests and were obviously very used to the traffic. Now I just had to figure out how to shoot these speedsters as they returned to their nests every few minutes with beaks full of insects for their chicks, who were fast outgrowing their mud cup nests and begging stridently and constantly for food.
Shooting with a full-frame DSLR, I had ample light, as it was a very sunny day, and the sandy ground reflected brightly on the underside of the birds. I knew I could use a very fast shutter speed to try to freeze these birds’ frenetic motion. At that time, my favorite lens was my 500mm, and I resolved to try that one first, shooting wide open at ƒ/4. I chose 1/5000 sec. as my shutter speed and situated myself in a spot where I would be on a more or less direct path to a nest that seemed particularly active. I was not blocking the nest at all, as it was high above me; the swallows were swooping in over my head, as they were with the passersby.
I could handhold the big lens pretty well, and I thought that since the birds were flying directly toward me, it wouldn’t be too difficult to get my sights on them. But I was wrong. These birds were so fast, and their flight so erratic, that by the time I had lifted the lens to capture them coming in, they were out of my lens’ field of view, and I couldn’t find them again.
I next turned to my 400mm ƒ/5.6, a solid workhorse that had always served me very well for birds in flight, but even that was not up to the task. Of course, it must be said that operator error may have been at play here, but I think it would have been tough for anyone to be successful in this situation.
Next, I tried my 70-200mm ƒ/4. I was quite sure this would fit the bill, that if I zoomed out, that 70mm would give me the field of view I needed in order to fix on the bird. Dang it! I was foiled again. The swallows almost seemed to taunt me as they whizzed by my head on their way to their nestlings. I just couldn’t keep up with them, even with that lens.
Frustrated, I turned to my camera bag. All I had left to try was my wide angle—a 24-105mm ƒ/4. When had I ever shot birds with a wide angle? Never. Not at that point. But necessity is the mother of invention. I attached the lens to my camera body, set my shutter speed to 1/5000 sec., assumed my position and waited. Suddenly, there was a single barn swallow returning to the nest. I raised my camera and shot. And then another. With my lens zoomed to 105mm, I could both see the birds as they flew toward me, and I could keep them in my sights! And the short lens made for a very maneuverable rig. I was able to lock focus by selecting multiple focus points that helped to grab onto the bird.
When I looked at the photos later, on my computer screen, I was thrilled to see that the birds were tack sharp in beautiful poses and that the cloud detail in the background that the wide angle was able to pick up added extra interest. I had to crop a moderate amount, but the images retained high enough resolution to stand up to later publication in magazines and as high-quality prints.
I share this particular tale of how I got the shot to emphasize that perseverance and flexibility are the keys to successful wildlife photography, particularly where birds are concerned. You just have to stick with it and think creatively when you meet up with challenges—which you inevitably will. Don’t give up!
Birds are extremely tough subjects. I think I had gotten fairly stuck in always reaching for the super-telephoto lens, blindly certain that was the best way to capture and represent a bird. It took a challenge like this to stretch me, a bird on the wing like a barn swallow to force me to “broaden my horizons.”