Saturday, June 30, 2012

Five Critical Techniques for Photographing Birds in Flight

Five Critical Techniques for Beginners Photographing Birds in Flight

Lisa Langell, Photographer

"Sailing Above the Surface"
©2012 Langell Photography, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Want to increase the “wow” factor of your wildlife photography portfolio?  Consider branching out by photographing birds in flight (BIF)!  Flight shots can add drama, impact, and emotion to your portfolio. 

There are five essential techniques needed to get started with photographing birds in flight.  Though there are more advanced and refined techniques that will augment your skills, the following basics should get you nicely started without over complicating things.

"Stilted Viewpoint"
©2012 Langell Photography, LLC.  All Rights Reserved.
First, do you have the proper equipment?

  • DSLRs: Though you may have limited success with point-and-shoot camera models, you will likely increase your “hit rate” if you choose a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera that can shoot at least 3 frames per second.
  • Lenses & Magnification: You will need a lens capable of magnifying the image of the bird to an acceptable level.  In most cases, minimally 250mm is needed to magnify a BIF bird meaningfully.  The smaller the bird, typically the more magnification is needed unless you are able to consistently get close to the birds safely and ethically.  For tips:  "The F-Words of Bird Photography:  Buying the Right Lens for your Budget"
  • Auto-focus lenses.  Though possible to shoot BIF with manual focus gear, auto-focus will increase your hit rate.  The faster the focusing ability of the lens, the better--with prime lenses typically focusing more quickly than zooms.
  • Camera body: Mid-range bodies or better tend to be able to pick up focus on the BIF you intend to shoot more quickly and accurately than inexpensive models.
  • Acratech Ball Head
  • Gimbal head  (my preferred),  or ball-head for your tripod.  A tripod isn’t necessary for all lenses, but if you cannot hold the lens and pan smoothly, or for longer periods of time due to your gear’s weight, use a tripod. 
    Wimberley Gimbal Head
    Version II

Top 5 Techniques for Shooting Birds in Flight: 

  1. Finding the bird through the lens:  The more magnification your lens has, the harder it will be to put your camera to your eye and locate a bird in flight.  The narrow field will make it feel like you are searching for it through a drinking straw.  It takes practice to put your camera to your eye, locate, and track a BIF. 

    When starting out, try to find birds that fly perpendicular to you (i.e., across your scene, not toward or away from you).  You will have an easier time focusing.  Additionally, observe the birds you wish to photograph.  Get to know their behaviors, perches or roosts they return to, etc.  Often birds return to the same perch.  Learn to anticipate their moves. This will help you know where to expect them to alight, and thus prepare for your next shot!

    To build skill, go to a marsh, field, feeder, or other area where birds congregate.  Starting with larger or slower-moving birds, practice spotting a bird with your eye, then putting your camera up to your eye, spot it through the lens, then focus.  Building your skill in this very basic aspect of BIF photography will be one of the single greatest techniques you can add to your repertoire.  If you cannot locate the BIF through the lens quickly and focus, little else matters.  This is also true for small perching birds that flit incessantly through trees.

    Lastly, if you lock onto a bird that is traveling back and forth across your scene, follow it through your lens for a few minutes.  See how long you can track it before it flies out of your view.  Not only is this good practice, but birds such as terns, swallows, hummingbirds and more often “hang out” in one area and move back and forth while feeding.  Sometimes they interact unexpectedly with other birds—and if it happens while you are focused on them, you will be sweetly rewarded:

    "Fancy Footwork"
    ©2012 Langell Photography, LLC.  All Rights Reserved.
    "Twists and Terns"
    ©2011 Langell Photography, LLC.  All Rights Reserved.

  2. Light:  Low (e.g., morning or evening) side light (see my tutorial on Designing Your Images with Light) works beautifully for many BIF images.  Watch for harsh light, especially on light or white areas of the bird, to avoid overblown images.  
  3. File Types  & Memory Cards:
    1. Raw:  If possible, shoot in RAW to preserve as much data as possible, enabling you maximal flexibility during processing. Shooting in JPEG will compress the file and prevent you from getting the most out of the image.  Yes, it will allow you more space on your memory card, but that is a poor reason to choose RAW over JPEG.  That’s like buying a bicycle instead of a car because it will leave more room in your garage.
    2. Memory Cards & Burst Rate: Note that you will need memory cards capable of writing quickly (i.e., 60mb/sec or faster) if you do not want to pause during shooting while the camera writes the data to the card.  Your burst rate capabilities of your camera will also dictate the number of shots you can take before the data needs to be written to the card. 
  4. Focus on the Eye:  In virtually all cases of BIF photography, if the eye is not in focus, little else matters.  Even with motion-blurred or panned shots (intentional or otherwise), the wings, tail, background, etc. can be blurred, but the eye must be clear and sharp.  Be careful so that your camera does not focus on the body or outer wings, leaving the eye out of focus.  Changing your aperture to f/8, when possible, will help add clarity because you have increased your Depth of Field.
  5. Camera Settings: 
    1. Al Servo (Canon) / AF-C (Nikon):  This “artificial intelligence” engages the camera’s predictive focus settings.  Once in view and in focus, the camera will be able to predict where the bird will be as you pan across the sky with the bird in view.  It tracks and continually auto-focuses to help ensure a clear shot.  For BIF photography, Al Servo / AF-C  is recommended in most cases.
    2. ISO:  For beginners, Auto ISO gives you the most flexibility.  Though ISO introduces noise at higher levels, and ISOs above 800 may not be desirable, a blurred photo is not a better alternative in most cases.  In poor light, the image may not turn out anyway, but at least you have a fighting chance by leaving ISO on Auto, as opposed to underexposing or not getting the shot at all.
    3. Manual (M), Shutter Priority (Tv) or Aperture Priority (Av)?  All are excellent, but for different reasons.  Some say Aperture Priority can overexpose BIF images.  Others say Manual takes too much time when you only have split seconds to capture BIF images.  My first choice is to use Av either when I need to blur a cluttered background or have low light conditions (e.g., f/4) to maximize possible shutter speed with correct exposure, or when I want the BIF to be sharp from wingtip to wingtip (e.g., f/8, which is my recommended aperture for birds against skies or uncluttered backgrounds).   If you are using Av and not getting the shutter speeds you need to stop the action, consider widening the aperture, increasing ISO, or moving toward settings with better direct or reflected light.

      In cases where light is excellent and I want to ensure I’ve fully stopped action, Shutter Priority (Tv) may also work well.  You will need at least 1/500sec. when shooting slower moving birds and up to 1/1200+ for hummingbirds and quickly moving birds to stop action at the wingtips.
    4. Continuous shooting mode:  Enable the continuous shooting mode on your camera to ensure you have the potential to capture multiple images within a sequence.  Once you have found the bird and focused, you do not want to be limited to one frame at a time via single shooting mode.  You will inevitably miss “the shot” more times than not.
    5. Metering:  For beginners, Evaluative metering will give you the best results in most (not all) situations.  In situations where you have high contrast (e.g., a white egret against a dark background, or a crow against a white sky), spot metering may work better.  Just remember to change your settings back to your preferred mode when you have finished, otherwise future shots may be poorly exposed.  (This rule applies to all shooting situations!)
"Dragging Your Feet"
©2010 Langell Photography, LLC.  All Rights Reserved.
In all cases, experiment in the field.  Try different settings with different light, subjects, and backgrounds.  See what works best for you.  There is no single “correct” way to approach BIF photography.  Practice repeatedly on easy-to-locate subjects so that when you find yourself in a situation where a stunning bird is suddenly zooming past you, you’ll be ready to locate, focus, and click like a pro!

-Lisa Langell

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The F-Words of Bird Photography & Lens Purchase

The F-Words of Bird Photography & Buying the Right Lens for your Budget

Lisa Langell

Birds move.  Often fast.  They Fly, Fight, Float, Flit, Forage, and Flee!

With all of these “F-words” one needs to think carefully about quality, magnification, and budget when selecting the right lens for your Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera.  I will help save you money as well as help you make informed decisions about the lenses you buy

FIRST: Ask yourself the right questions:

Equipment and technology constantly evolve. Recommendations for specific equipment are obsolete in months.  Your best bet is to always ask yourself the right questions to guide your purchase. I’ll bend my response toward lenses for bird and wildlife photography; however, the logic behind your purchase will generalize to other categories of lenses and photography as well.

(Note:  All prices are in US Dollars and estimated as of June 3, 2012)

  1. What is your short and long-term budget:  What is your budget today?  What if you saved for 6 months? 12?  Saving to dedicate even $300 more can improve the quality of lens you buy-- especially for lenses under $1000.
  2. Rent or Own?  Could you save money and increase image quality by renting the lens locally or through a mail-order rental company?  Especially if you only will use it a handful of times a year or for a special trip?
  3. New Body vs. New Lens? Does your body have a sensor less than 8-10 megapixels? An upgrade to a newer body with a higher quality sensor or more megapixels (for better cropped results), better autofocus, higher ISO, etc., could compensate in ways that would allow you to attach a less powerful telephoto or zoom lens and still retain good image quality. 
  4. New Lens vs. Used Lens?  Check out the Used Departments of your camera store. Most evaluate and assign resale gear a rating based on its condition, and sell it typically for 10-50% off the “new” price—sometimes even with an optional warranty.  You could get a 400mm lens for the 300mm price!

    Local photography clubs and classifieds also often have a “for sale/trade” section on their websites or forums.  Be cautious if purchasing from unknown private sellers.  Test the equipment in advance (bring your camera to test lenses).  Take safety precautions when meeting a seller (or buyer, if you’re selling), and if a deal is too good to be true, there’s a good chance the item you’re buying is either stolen or the seller has ulterior motives.

  5. Double or nothing?  Teleconverters further enhance magnification of a lens and, if the quality of both the teleconverter and the original lens to which it is coupled is high, can produce beautiful, sharp images with minimal lens distortion effects.  Teleconverters are relatively inexpensive ($100-$500).  Though they are not compatible with all lenses—especially if you want to use autofocus—they do work well for certain lenses and bodies.

    1. Extends the utility of your current zoom or telephoto lens
    2. Increases magnification with relatively little additional cost
    3. Inexpensive (compared to cost of lens)

a.       Not compatible with all lenses (investigate compatibility before you purchase.)
b.      Certain teleconverters add/magnify lens distortion effects that impact your image.  Do your research.
c.       Most teleconverters result in a loss of light equal to 1-2 stops, depending on the magnification you choose.

Informing your Decision---What do you need to do the job:

  1. Remember:  Birds move.  Often fast.  They fly, fight, float, flit, forage, and flee.  The more “f-words,” the more one needs to remember how critical shutter speed and aperture (f-stop) are for bird photography in order to stop action and expose properly.

    Shutter Speed & Aperture (f-stop): To allow for useful shutter speeds of 1/500sec up to 1/1200sec (minimum for most birds in flight) the lens needs to let in enough light to expose the shot properly while freezing that action within the tiniest fraction of a second.
    Aperture (F-stops) adjust the size of the opening within the lens’ blades that permit light to reach the film or sensor, while shutter speed controls the duration in which the sensor or film is exposed to that level of light.

    Thus, being able to shoot at dawn or dusk (when birds are often most active) using maximum (lowest) aperture, (i.e “wide open”), will allow for maximal light on your sensor and thus permit you to shoot with higher shutter speeds to stop action and properly expose the image.  For example, a lens with a maximum aperture of f/4 will enable you to shoot and properly expose and stop action at dawn/dusk much longer than a lens with a maximum aperture of f/8. 

    Not all lenses offer the same maximum aperture, so this will be a factor in your final lens selection.  For a more detailed understanding of the relationship between light and f-stop (aperture), click here

  2. Birds are often “far away” and you want tight shots!  This does not mean you cannot achieve success in photographing birds with a 50mm or 100mm lens.  In fact, birds photographed when the photographer includes the environment can be very beautiful. The added context makes for compelling photographs that tell stories.  Take, for example, this Great White Egret peeking out from behind cypress trees in a Louisiana bayou (below):


In contrast, however, many bird and wildlife photographers want (and need) to get frame-filling shots of their subjects in order to have images valued by wildlife photography consumers (left):


Images ©2009 Lisa Langell

Unless you choose to regularly photograph birds in close proximity to you (difficult), your “hit rate” for capturing frame-filling shots will be relatively low in the wild without the benefit of a substantial telephoto or zoom lens.  Without one, you are at risk of spooking the bird and/or getting too close for the safety and comfort of both you and the animal.

Magnification:  Is more always better?
Not always.

Certainly, the close-up (tight) shots often draw the most “oooh’s” and “aaah’s!”  It was the renown photojournalist and war photographer, Robert Capa, who became famous for saying, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”  (Sadly, Robert lost his life while photographing the first Indochina war at close range.) 

To get closer, lens “length” (i.e. magnification) definitely plays a role; however, there are many more factors to quality “tight” shots than simply the number of millimeters a lens purports to magnify.  Speed of autofocus, maximum aperture, image stabilization/vibration reduction, and engineering/glass quality all play a role. 

    1. The cheapest way to fill the frame:  Typically, the cheapest means of getting those elusive “tight shots” is accomplished by simply putting one foot in front of the other.  At an average of about $16 to $21 per millimeter for a professional grade Nikon or Canon 500mm F/4 lens, respectively, one can save thousands of dollars by taking a few steps forward!   This rule is essential and yet often forgotten!
    2. All “mm’s” are not created equal.  
                                                               i.      Least expensive ($100-$300 US):  Mirror and refractor-style T-mount lenses.  These lenses start with a maximum aperture of f/8.0 and go up to f/32.   The average cost is around $150 (US).  You get high magnification (from 300mm, 500mm and up to 1000mm or more) for a low investment.  This type of lens is marketed under various brand names (e.g., Rokinon, Phoenix, Opteka, Bower, Minolta, etc.), but appears to be virtually the identical lens across brands. 
1.       Pros: 
a.       Inexpensive; Powerful magnification
b.      Light-weight; portable
c.       There are many reviews on these types of lenses available on the internet.  Read them before you buy.

2.       Cons
a.       Fixed aperture at f/8 (thus limits: depth of field, ability to shoot in lower light, ability to shoot at higher shutter speeds due to loss of light, ability to shoot moving subjects)
b.      Virtually always requires use of tripod. Users report difficulty hand-holding lens (lacks image stabilization/vibration reduction technology)
c.       All Manual:  Focus, aperture settings (may result in missed moments)
d.      Poor contrast; Images tend to be soft
e.       May result in unusual light patterns in out-of-focus backgrounds (bokeh)

                                                  ii.  Inexpensive Options ($300-$1000)  “Zoom” lenses with apertures ranging from about 4.5-6.3 and range between about 50-300mm focal length.  Examples include (but are not limited to):
1.       Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
2.       Sigma 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 DG APO OS
3.       Tamron SP AF70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC
4.       Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5 - 5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR
5.       Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED AF-S DX VR II

1.       Pros: 
a.       Inexpensive; relatively lightweight; portable
b.      Allow flexibility across a range of magnification, resulting in needed fewer lenses to frame the subject properly, plus fewer lost moments while you switch lenses during the action.
c.       Many offer Image Stabilization /Vibration Reduction technology

2.       Cons
d.      Maximum aperture may diminish as you zoom toward the lens’ maximal magnification.  Many zoom lenses have a “sweet spot” of aperture and magnification where optimal results are produced.  Commonly, users report that images taken with “zooms” in the “end” ranges of apertures or magnification often result in decreased sharpness, increased lens distortion, etc., than when compared to the middle ranges.  Do your research.
e.       With Canon, some are designed to work with the full frame sensors, while others only work with crop-frame sensors.  If you have both types of cameras, one lens may not work with both bodies.

                                                            iii.      Moderately Expensive Options ($1000-2000)  Available in both “zoom” and fixed focal lengths, with most of the highest powered lens options available only at a fixed focal length. Options in this include (though not limited to):
1.       Canon:
a.       300mm prime f/4 L
b.      400mm prime f/5.6 L
c.       100-400mm zoom f/4.5-5.6 L
d.      70-200mm f/2.8 L
e.       70-300mm f/4-5.6 L
2.       Sigma: (Available in Canon, Nikon, and other brand mounts)
a.       70-200 f/2.8
b.      50-500mm f/4.5-6.3
3.       Nikon:
a.       Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED VR AF
b.      Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8D ED AF Zoom
I suggest reading online reviews and specs on each lens carefully before making your final selection.

1.       Pros:
a.       Fairly portable; Medium weight
b.      Improved quality optics (glass)
c.       Aperture ranges from 2.8 to 6.3, allowing more light and control of depth-of-field.
2.       Cons:
a.       Cost
b.      More difficult to hand-hold successfully; may require monopod or tripod for best results

                                                           iv.      Serious Professional-Grade Options ($2000-20,000+)  These powerful lenses are all fixed focus (prime) lenses.  They often are nicknamed “fast glass” lenses because of their wider aperture, allowing in maximal light.  Options in this range begin to narrow, yet include (though not limited to):

1.       Canon:
a.       Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM
b.      Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II
c.       Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM
d.      Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM
e.       Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM
f.        Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM
2.       Sigma:
a.       Sigma 300mm f/2.8 APO EX DG
b.      Sigma 500mm f/4.5 EX DG APO HSM
c.       Sigma 800mm f/5.6 EX DG APO HSM
3.       Nikon:
a.       Nikon 300mm f/2.8G ED-IF II AF-S VR-II
b.      Nikon 400mm f/4G ED AF-S Vibration Reduction (VR II)
c.       Nikon 500mm f/4G ED AF-S Vibration Reduction (VR II)
d.      Nikon 600mm f/4G ED AF-S Vibration Reduction (VR II)

a.       High magnification
b.      Reduced little lens distortion (high quality glass);
c.       Quality build
d.      Wider apertures allow in greater amounts of light

a.       Cost; Portability—they are heavy and large
b.      Typically requires a heavy-duty tripod or monopod (hand-holding is possible for some, but for very short periods of time)
c.       Typically requires a Gimbal style tripod head and/or a tripod head capable of supporting at least 10-20 pounds.
d.      Homeowners insurance may not cover the cost of these lenses.  Consider special policies.

--Lisa Langell
Have a question you’d like Lisa to answer in a future column?  Submit your questions here.  Though Lisa cannot answer all questions submitted, she will respond to as many as possible.

 ©All content and images Copyright 2012 Langell Photography, LLC.  All Rights Reserved.