Flight Path...

This is a post I've wanted to do for a while now and with the recent request of one of my readers I decided it was time to put this together. In this post I will list my settings and techniques for bird inflight shots. I would like to state I'm in no way a pro in this category and I personally still have lots to learn and years of practice a head of me. I've captured many inflight images and these are the settings I've used. I will list the most important settings/techniques and then talk more about each one:

1. Manual Mode

2. Getting the right shutter speed for your subject


4. ISO

5. Focusing Mode/Points of focus

6. Prefocus

7. Limiting your Focus search distance

8. Focus Bumping

9. Focus Tracking with Lock On

Well lets jump right into it......

1. Manual Mode - For a number of years I only used Aperture Priority mode but found in certain situations like backlit subjects I just wasn't able to achieve the images I wanted or it was to much playing around with my settings to get the image right. So finally I jumped to Manual Mode. I love being able to control ever part of the camera. From ISO, Aperture, to Shutter speed. Using this mode comes with patients and knowing how light affects your settings. I'm slowing getting to the point where I can pretty much determine my settings in a scene before I take a shot and pretty much nail the exposure. Again this comes with practice. Once you understand what shutter speed you need for your given subject you can lock that in, then determine what Aperture(F stop) you want and the ISO to get enough light into the camera.

2. Getting the right shutter speed for your subject - Getting the right shutter speed is all about knowing the subject. A large bird that has a slow wing beat can be frozen at 1/500s if you have steady hand holding techniques. I prefer to have my shutter speed at 1/1000s as a min and prefer 1/1250 if possible. Smaller birds you need even higher shutter speeds up to 1/2000s and higher like hummingbirds. Again this all depends on available light and how high you want your ISO to go.

3. Tripod? - I personally rarely use a tripod for any of my images. I love being able to belly crawl up to my subjects and stay low to the ground and in many cases using the foreground to create a nice blurr in front of my subject. A tripod limits a lot of that and for BIF(Bird Inflight) shots the tripod will limit your movements when trying to track the bird. Can it be done?Of course and some people do it very well but for the handful of times I've tried it I don't like it at all nor did I even get a shot.

4. ISO - As technology advances ISO in many cameras even the low end ones are getting good. An ISO of 800 in many cameras is still fairly clean and usable. For me personally I set my ISO from 400 to 800 depending on light. Again with practice I have a general idea of what my ISO should be to expose a proper image at the shutter speed I've chosen. In saying all this some cameras now have Auto-ISO were by you set the MIN and MAX ISO, lets say 100 to 1600 ISO. Then lock in your shutter speed and let the camera pick the ISO as the lighting changes to achieve a properly exposed image..I personally haven't played with this setting much but it's something I will in the near future.

5. Focusing Mode/Points of focus - I personally use a single center point of focus in which I can move around if needed. With 9-point dynamic focus set. Meaning you will only see one focus point on your screen in which you can move around but their are 9 points around that one focus point that are active so if you slip the one focus point off your subject slightly one of the surrounding points should retain its focus for you. Many cameras have a number of Dynamic points you can select from, 8, 21, 36, 59, or even 3D tracking. I personally find 9 points is plenty and doesnt slow the autofocusing system down or create confusing for the camera when having too many points to pick from.

6. Prefocus - This is something I do very often. What I mean by Prefocusing is when the opportunity arises and you have time I like to prefocus on and area in which I think my subject is going to fly by or land. I prefocus an area so that I can aid the autofocusing system to lock on to the subject faster and more accurate. If I try and allow the autofocusing system to do all the tracking on its own you will find your camera will often just search back and forth and the moment will be gone before you get locked onto your subject.

Here is an example below of what I mean. In this image I prefocused on the fish in the water(this was a fish we caught and threw out for the eagle) Once the eagle left its perch to come and get the fish I pointed my lens at it and once it got close to the fish I pressed the trigger button and the camera locked on the bird without any issue. If I didn't prefocus the fish first there is a good chance the camera would have had difficulties finding/locking onto the bird with such a detailed background and the moment would have passed.

7. Limiting your Focus search distance - On many pro level lens there is a setting for which you can limit the focal search distance of the lens. You have two settings..Full or Infinity - 8m or 6m depending on the camera. What this does is it tells the camera to either search the full distance for the subject from front to back or to only search from 8m out to Infinity. Anything within the 8m mark your camera will not focus on it. So in theory Infinity - 8m is best because it is unlikely you would have an eagle fly in front of you closer then 8m. This helps the camera focus much faster on your subject since it has less distance to search.

8. Focus Bumping - Focus bumping is something new I have been trying as well. I personally am not a burst shutter. Meaning I don't lock on to my subject and just let rip hoping I come away with one focused image. I personally choose when I think the best moment will be and then shoot a small number of shots. Focus bumping means as the subject approaches you half press your shutter button occasionally until you feel the moment is right and then you fulling press the button which should in theory lock onto the bird and you get the shot. Many of us lock onto the subject as it approaches and attempted to track it(while holding half way down on the shutter button) as it approaches. In many cases through out this movement we slip the focus off the bird and the camera loses focus to the background or surrounded objects. So in theory if you lock focus as it approaches let go of the shutter button, keep tracking the bird even though by now its slighting out of focus then once the moment is right press the shutter button again and the camera should grab focus and you can shoot away. Again this takes practice and its something very new for myself.

9. Focus Tracking with Lock On - Focus tracking with lock on is another feature which I'm testing and you can read more about this on my last blog post so no need for me to repeat this here.

Sorry for the lack of images to go along with this post as its more of technical article then a visual one.

If you have any suggestions, comments or other tips on inflight shots I would love to hear them so please leave a comment below. Also if you have any ideas for a blog post or topics you would like me to cover please let me know.

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