Feathers Friday

Great Blue Heron in Flight
(Nikon D7200-Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR @500mm, f/7.1, 1/2500 sec, ISO 640)

It’s Feathers Friday and as good a day as any to talk about bird photography.

I’ll admit, I’m not a “birder” by definition. Oh, I have thousands of bird photos, most of which are junk but I keep plugging at it. I think good bird photographs are one of the more difficult objectives in photography. At least if one wants to become effective and efficient in generating the kind of images that sell. Most of my best selling bird photos are birds in flight.

It has only been in the last few years, since I switched to Nikon, that I’ve improved my results to any meaningful degree. There are a number of reasons for stumbling on the subject, most of them being my techniques and perseverance to pursuing the subject, but camera equipment does play in to the equation and in no small way.

For starters, birds are seldom where you want them to be. They are generally skittish creatures and can’t be approached. They are also small subjects, which makes getting close all the more important.

Skies and environment matter a lot too. Cloudy days with boring grey sky are not the best time to get good birds in flight photos. The bright back light kills the foreground detail of the birds feathers, generally resulting in silhouette photos that are of little interest. It’s those white, puffy cloud days that I like best.

Sometimes, I use a tripod with a gimble head, particularly effective with nesting birds, flying to and from the nest. The trick is to anticipate what they will be doing and get the shot when it does. That’s a waiting game. It’s hard to keep ones attention focused though. When working around other photographers, we, as a group tend to get a little bit chatty and often times are flapping our lips when we should be hitting the shutter button. Reaction time is critical. That extra second or two it takes you to move from a conversation to finding, tracking and then capturing the bird doing something can be make or break in most situations.

To me though, my best bird in flight shots come when I’m hand-holding my camera. Shooting hand-held, it’s easier to get an out of focus image, so one must learn the best way to hold the camera and how to pre-focus the lens and how to accurately track a flying bird. It takes lots of practice.

Canada Goose In Flight With Reflection

My biggest mistake as a beginner was to zoom the lens all the way out to get a full frame of the bird. What I discovered is that’s a terrible way to do it. I came to the realization that by zooming all the way out, I was far more likely to chop off part of a bird’s body in the frame or completely lose track of the animal before I could establish a good tracking solution. These days, I try to keep the lens set at about 1/2 of it’s focal length. I normally use the 200-500mm zoom lens, so that means I have to pay attention and keep the lens set for about 275mm – 350mm when I’m sitting idle and then work the zoom to get the bird filling more of the frame as I track it with the camera. The first instinct is to start shooting as soon as you lift the camera, but getting the bird in the frame and in focus is far more important. I figure it’s better to have a smaller subject in the frame and work my way in than it is to have the top of the birds flapping wings cut off in the frame, thus wasting the image.

Double-crested Cormorant

Another thing I try to avoid is jumping on photos of birds that land in nearby trees. I’ve had limited success doing this, as once again, the first instinct is to get photos. The problem is, there are very few good bird photos with a bird sitting on a tree branch with a bright background a lot of tree branches in the scene and the bird just sitting there looking around. Maybe, if one is exceptionally close and can really get in on the detail of the bird, those images are worth the effort. Most of the time, they are not.

No, it’s the bird in flight shots I like to go after more than anything.

I’ve found that my best bird in flight photos are shots I’ve taken from at or above the same height as the bird is flying. There’s better light and less foreground shadow when you are looking directly at or down on a flying bird.

How does one get above a flying bird? Well, that’s a question you should be asking yourself when you are trying to situate yourself to get birds in flight shots. Look for raised platforms to shoot from, or hills to shoot from, or from the top of buildings. What ever it takes. Find a vantage point that may result in a level or downward looking perspective. Keep the sun lit side of the bird facing the camera and avoid those environmental distractions.

Today’s photo was taken from a raised viewing platform and the heron was flying by me with good light on his face and back. I wouldn’t have seen this type of shot if I were looking up into the sky. You won’t either.

In photography, subject lighting is the make or break issue almost all the time. One must learn to understand where the light will be and how to make use of it. Anything else is just a snapshot.

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