Birds in Flight - Nailing the BIF

Crested Tern in flight with fish

 

BIF... who'd have thought that little three letter acronym could be the stuff of nightmares?

Sure, to get the perfect BIF in every situation most of the time will require a lot of hard work (and luck). But let's stick to the essentials.

KISS
Keep It Simple Stupid.

In this article I'll help you to focus on the three basic requirements: equipment, key camera settings and technique. Make sure you understand these first and only then should you venture, if you are so inclined, into the darker depths of BIF, like depth of field charts, tracking sensitivity and AF point auto-switching  (as to which, see Further Resources, below).

There are, of course, no rules set in stone. Many bird photographers have experimented with deliberate use of slower shutter speeds for BIF, with varying degrees of success. I'll devote a future article to this creative aspect of BIF. I am a firm believer in breaking the 'rules', but only AFTER you have learnt them, hence this article.  

A Decent DSLR and an Even Better Lens 

Now this doesn't mean you have to pay a fortune for the latest camera. But because cameras have come so far in terms of digital noise control, you should try and get one made in the last ten years (making sure that it's compatible with the kind of lens you want to use).

On a trip to Darwin (Northern Territory, Australia) a couple of years ago my camera, the very expensive Canon 1Dx decided to die. Panicked at the idea of being camera-less in such amazing birding country, I had no option but to buy a second-hand camera through Gumtree. I ended up with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II which cost me $700 and I absolutely loved it. To be honest, I couldn't tell a lot of difference in the resultant images between this camera and the one that died. 

White-bellied Sea-eagle landing

Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm IS USM Lens II, F8, 1/2000, ISO640 (Buffalo Creek, Darwin, Northern Territory). The colour in the background comes from the early sunlight on the sand. The bird was in the shadows, so I had to lighten it in post-processing. You can see that even though an older model this Canon EOS 5D Mark II did a reasonable job with noise control.

Fixed or Zoom Lens?

Whilst prime (fixed focal length) lenses are generally preferable (something to do with focus being faster and more accurate), they are also generally expensive and often heavy. With BIF, using a tripod or mono-pod is only really an option if you have a gimbal head (which allows fluid movement). Even with a gimbal head you are not going to get the same freedom to track flying birds as you will by handholding. Therefore, for BIF photography, you should get a lens that you will be comfortable handholding at least some of the time.

Image Stabilisation: Image stabilisation, or vibration reduction, is a key feature of most modern long focal length lenses. It's very important for general bird photography as it means you can handhold a lens at much slower shutter speeds than you could with a conventional lens . 

There are normally two types of image stabilisation on lenses, vertical or horizontal axis. For BIF, choose the vertical (that is Mode 2 on Canon lens), which is designed for panning.  

NOTE: many BIF photographers suggest that you should turn off your IS/VR during BIF photography unless you are strictly panning. This is because, they say, it slows down the autofocus and, at fast shutter speeds, it is unnecessary.

On the IS II super-telephoto lenses Canon has added a new IS Mode 3 which is designed for BIF and sports photography. This new stabilization mode is similar to IS Mode 2 in the respect that it can detect and correct for panning by shutting off IS correction in the panning direction; but the difference is that IS correction occurs only during the actual exposure in IS Mode 3. As a result, the image in the viewfinder moves more naturally while panning, and battery power is conserved.

 

Australasian Grebe running across water

 Australasian Grebe (Avon River, Western Australia): Canon 1Dx, Canon F/4 600mm IS USM Lens II, F5.6, 1/2500, ISO800. 

 

What to choose?

It comes back to what you can afford and how serious you are about bird photography. If you are just starting out, or if it's always just going to be a hobby, then I would avoid a large prime lens and stick with a good zoom lens as this will be cheaper and prove much more versatile for all aspects of wildlife photography.

What is the Minimum Focal Length lens need for BIF?

There is no escaping it. If you want to take BIF photos, you're going to need a lens with a decent focal length: the bigger the focal length the better (unless you are on a pelagic birding trip or similar - stay tuned next month for my article 'Top Tips for Pelagic Trips' to find out more about this). The maximum focal length of the lens should be at least 300mm.

Here are some suggestions to increase your focal length without spending a fortune. 

Cropped Sensor Cameras:

For someone who has a limited budget buying a cropped sensor camera body is a good way to get increased focal length.

There is a lot of talk about "cropped sensor cameras". This refers to a range of DSLR cameras which have a sensor that is smaller than the traditional 35mm film format (Full Frame cameras). In Canon’s 7D Mark II, for instance, the sensor is 22.4 x 15 mm compared to the Canon 1Dx sensor which is 36 x 24 mm (full frame).

What does this mean?

Because a smaller sensor is capturing the same image, it has a similar effect on the resultant image as ‘zooming in’ on a subject or ‘cropping in’ a photo to make a bird larger in the frame. This is the so-called ‘crop factor’. Canon’s cropped sensors have a crop factor of 1.6, whilst Nikon’s have one of 1.5. This means that you need to adjust the focal length of your lens by the crop factor of the camera in order to find out the new focal length. So a Canon 70-200mm lens on a Canon 7DII body will have a longer effective focal length of ...wait for it... 112 - 320mm (70-200 x 1.6 crop factor)!!!

The downside is that there is a small compromise on image quality and high ISO performance (ie noise in low light situations) and sometimes the crop factor is a BIG negative, such as when you want to use your super duper wide angle lens!

 

Nankeen Night-heron

Nankeen Night-heron (Alfred Cove, Perth, Western Australia): Canon EOS 7D Mark II (cropped sensor), Canon F/4 600mm IS USM Lens II, F7.1, 1/5000, ISO640, Handheld.

Teleconverter: You should also consider buying a teleconverter.  A teleconverter is essentially a magnifier than sits between the camera body and your lens.

Canon offers two sizes, a 1.4x and a 2x teleconverter. With a 1.4x teleconverter on your Canon 70-200mm lens you will get a focal length of 98-280mm. Nikon has three sizes: 1.4x, 1.7x and 2x.

There is lots of discussion across the internet about teleconverters but the best, and most comprehensive, article I have seen for bird photographers is by Nasim Mansurov in Photography Life titled 'What is a Teleconverter'. I highly recommend you read this before making any purchases. 

My Advice: No doubt about it. If its a choice between one or the other, I would recommend the 1.4x.

The image at the top of this page of the Crested Tern with a fish  (Bremer Bay, Western Australia) was taken with a Canon EOS-1D X, Canon F/4 500mm IS USM Lens I with a 1.4x Canon teleconverter (before I left it on the roof of my car and drove off), F9, 1/4000, ISO1250, Handheld.

Reasonably Fast Camera Card

As I've mentioned before, camera cards can affect the shots per second your camera takes. Why? Because, for each photo you take, the camera has to 'write' that photo's digital information onto the camera card. Camera cards come in different speeds.  If you are still using the 2GB card you got with your camera then it's not going to matter what you do as you will likely not get the BIF photo you want because your camera will have a long 'buffer' between shots (you will also run out of space pretty darn quickly!!).

So, sorry, but moral of this story is get the BIGGEST card with the FASTEST speed that you can afford.

As an example of the type of card you want, a Sandisk Extreme Pro CF 32GB with 160 Mb/s, retails at around A$80-$100. As a percentage of your overall costs, this is quite small for what is an essential part of being able to capture birds in flight.

Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike flight to catch bug

Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike about to nab a flying bug (Toodyay, Western Australia): Canon 1Dx, Canon F/4 500mm IS USM Lens, F7.1, 1/2500, ISO1600, handheld from my veranda. 

Shooting Mode

    Manual! If you are not sure, then read my article Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or Manual? and watch Sigma Pro Roman Kurywczak's awesome YouTube video: Optic 2016: A Paradigm Shift in the World of Bird Photography.

    Metering Mode

    You could write a whole book about metering modes, what is the best to use when etc; but, in the true spirit of KISS, here is what I do: I set my metering mode to Evaluative (Canon) and I don't change it (ever).

    A good article about the basics of different metering modes, by one of my favourite writers on photography, Nasim Mansurov, is Understanding Metering and Metering Modes.

    Shutter Release/Drive Mode  

      Continuous High Speed (Burst) mode and don't EVER change it!

      AF (auto-focus) Mode

        Al Servo (Canon: This focusing mode is designed to track and analyse movement, 'and focus the image based on where it predicts the subject will be at a given point in time').

        AF-C (Nikon***).

        Back Button Focus. Most professional bird photographers use Back Button Focus and highly recommend it. If I am ominously silent on this its because, I am ashamed to say, I have never tried it!  How embarrassing?!  One of my New Year's Resolutions is to finally sit down and work out how to do it (yikes you mean I have to read my camera manual?) and when I do I promise to let you know exactly what I think about it.

        In the meantime, there appears to be some debate about whether or not it is useful for BIF. If you have an opinion, I would love to hear it.

        It is not available on all DSLRs.

        AF Selection Points 

          Go on. I know you've seen them and chances are, many of you have never ever changed them. Well, now's the time to do it. Getting to know how to change your focal points (both position and quantity) is one of the simplest and greatest steps forward you can make in your bird photography.

          If you are a beginner, or casual bird photographer, you should select the configuration which has a central focus with about 8 surrounded by AF points (roughly square-shaped). 

          However, when you get more confident switch to the very BEST configuration for BIF photography, which is slightly more defined with a central focus with only 4 surrounding points (roughly star shaped). In fact, I use this configuration for 99% of my bird photography.  

          Shutter Speed

            To guarantee a sharp shot set the shutter speed anywhere between 1/2500 and 1/4000 sec, depending on the light conditions. 

            Once you are more experienced, you can use lower shutter speeds. Anywhere down to 1/1000 sec can still get you sharp BIF if you have the right technique.

            Aperture

            Set an aperture range between F5.6 and F7.

            There will rarely be any need to go beyond this. If you are not sure, experiment to see what works. Nothing teachers better than experience. But if you're obsessed with ensuring that you have the perfect aperture to capture the whole bird in focus, then there are plenty of depth of field charts on the internet. Personally, I wouldn't bother. KISS!

            ISO

            ISO is the most flexible of all your settings. Don't skimp or be obsessed with keeping it as low as possible. Your priority is getting a sharp shot. If you can't get an appropriate exposure with the minimum settings for BIF above, then up the ISO. I routinely shoot at 640 ISO on my Canon 7D Mark II and 1600 ISO on my Canon 1Dx.

            NOTE: Different camera sensors have different abilities to handle digital noise in low light situations. DxOMark has a lens and camera sensor database and has rated the sensors of almost every camera model out there. According to them, the highest ISO I can go to without really affecting image quality in low light situations is 2786 for my Canon 1Dx (click here for full test results) and for my Canon 7d Mark II it is 1082 (click here for full test results). NOTE: According to my friend and BIF guru, Ian Wilson, camera manufacturers routinely overstate ISO figures. In other words, a DxO recommended low light ISO limit of 2786 is equivalent to 3200 ISO on the actual camera.  Confused yet? This is the rabbit hole down which you will tumble if you start getting technical... terrifying isn't it?

            New Holland Honeyeater taking off from flower

            New Holland Honeyeater taking off (Albany, Western Australia): Canon 1Dx Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm IS USM Lens II, F6.3, 1/4000, ISO1250. I held my focus on the bird/plant and clicked the shutter before I saw it take off. That is to say, I anticipated the movement.

             

            In the words of Roman Kurywczak,

            Set it and forget it!

             

            1. Don't wait for the action to start. As soon as you arrive at a location, dial in the settings for BIF as per the above.

            2. Take a test shot of something white in the direction that you will be shooting (unless you are doing silhouettes of BIF which is a whole other article in itself). Check the image. How is the exposure? Are the whites flashing black? If so, adjust your settings within the above parameters until they stop. [By doing this you will ensure that you have the right exposure if a white bird, such as the spoonbill below, suddenly takes off.] 

            3. To get the best BIF, if possible stand so that the wind is at your back. Why? Because 99% of the time birds will take off into the wind. 

            4. Pre-focus on something that is roughly at the distance where you hope to catch the BIF. This will make it quicker for your camera to lock focus when the time comes.

            5. Apply a focal range limiter, if you have one on your lens so that the AF system doesn't spend time hunting for an object too close to you.  

            6. When you see a bird, first get it into focus. If the bird is coming towards you, without actually taking a photo, keep lightly touching the shutter to ensure the focus stays fairly accurate. 

            7. When the bird fills most of your selected focal points press the shutter all the way and fire!

            8. Check your shots. Make any adjustments if needed and get ready for the next one!

            9. If you are waiting for a stationary bird to take off, then, using the same settings for BIF, pre-focus on the bird, or its perch, and try to predict the bird's actions before they happen. Why? Because chances are that by the time you react, the best BIF pose (eg wings up) will be over. With lots of storage on your camera card that costs nothing to delete, there is no reason to be stingy. Check out my mud-skipper image below (yes I said mud-skipper...). 

            10. And don't forget to have fun!

            Yellow-billed Spoonbill in flight

             Yellow-billed Spoonbill (Avon River, Western Australia): Canon 1Dx, Canon F/4 600mm IS USM Lens II, F6.3, 1/2000, ISO640. 

              

            Mud Skipper mudskipping with joy!

            Mud Skipping!

            Canon 1Dx, Canon F4 500mm Lens, F5.6, 1/6400, ISO1600, Roebuck Bay, Broome, Western Australia.

            Alright. Alright. So its not a bird? The point is the same. If I had waited until this mudskipper started to leap, I would have missed the crucial moment. I observed his behaviour, and guessing when he might move again, I pressed the shutter BEFORE any action started. In the end I have hundreds, nay, thousands, of mudskipper photos of mudskippers doing absolutely nothing BUT I do have this shot - and one good shot is all you need.

             

            There are many videos and articles on the internet about BIF photography. Not all of them contain the best information or advice (some gave me the shudders) so pick your source of information judiciously. In addition to the links set out above, you may also like to check out the following which are very good: 

            - Your Camera Manual - just hazarding a guess here, but it probably has lots of great information about how to take BIF on your camera. It's something I have been meaning to do for years...

            Ari Hazegi Photography - what this man doesn't know about birds in flight photography isn't worth knowing!  In fact, if you are a Canon user he has produced a guide titled 'Birds in Flight Photography: Basics for Canon EOS users' which explains the basic concepts and techniques behind BIF photography in detail and teaches you how to select the right gear and set it up for BIF photography (available in Digital PDF for US$55).

            Canon AF Settings for Birds in Flight by Arthur Morris

            Photographing Birds in Flight by Roman Kurywczak (sponsored by Sigma)

            Backlit Welcome Swallow against dark background

            Welcome Swallows (Laratinga Wetlands, South Australia): Canon 1Dx Mark II, Canon F/4 600mm IS USM Lens II, F4, 1/64000, ISO400. WARNING:  The smaller the bird, and the closer you are too it, the harder it will be to keep it in that centre focus cluster. Let me tell you they zip around at a million miles an hour so if you don't get a sharp swallow shot for a few years, don't be disillusioned! Small birds in flight are HARD!

            Australian Shelduck in flight against River bank

             Australian Shelduck (Avon River, Western Australia): Canon 1Dx, Canon F/4 600mm IS USM Lens II, F4.5, 1/2000, ISO500. 

               *** Apologies to photographers using cameras other than Canon and Nikon. So many cameras, so little time...

             

            Did you find this article helpful? Is there anything else you'd like to know about bird photography? If so, please be sure to leave a comment below.

             I would really love to hear from you!


            16 comments

            • Thanks Georgina. Stunning work you do.
              Nikon users can consult Steve Perry’s excellent ebook on the Nikon AF system.

              Ern
            • Oh Georgina, I am definitely a beginner. I should have read this first. Ignore my previous questions. So many good tips here I’m feeling Tipsy! Some wonderful examples of your work here, too. Thank you

              Richard Frater
            • I live in South Africa. Used to live in Perth and also Hobart. I found your article very helpful. Starting out on bird photography hobby and am on a mission to take good pictures. 😃Thanks again. xx

              Marlene Mahon
            • So incredibly helpful Georgina – thank you! You answer the questions I want to ask in such a way that they are easily understood and give me the confidence to just do it!

              Susan Harper
            • I am now retired and at the same time recognised as being ancient (over 70). I think that I am heading towards dementia (I hope that I am using my sense of humour here but one never knows when one hits my age). I have a new hobby called photographing birds. Thank you Georgina for trying to teach people like me to stimulate my brain and to endeavour to learn. My favourite quotes – KISS & Fail, fail and fail again.

              Carole O’Neill

            Leave a comment

            Please note, comments must be approved before they are published