Challenge: Birds in Flight

The best way to get better is to practice. After taking more than 1000 images with my new lens I felt ready for a challenge. We have all seen beautiful images of soaring songbirds and hunting raptors; what better for a challenge than birds in flight? After missing so many shots during my Lake Day, I knew I needed some more practice. I spent much of my time since then working on this challenge, and feel comfortable crossing off one of my short-term goals: learn about approaching birds and predicting flight patterns. So with today’s post I want to talk a little about some observations I made and lessons that I learned from this challenge.

First, I want to get something out-of-the-way. I am realizing more and more the deficiency of my camera body. Specifically, the auto-focus system. With canon systems the auto-focus is reliant on both the lens and the camera body. The lens is responsible for physically adjusting the configuration of the lens elements to bring the subject into focus. Meanwhile, the camera body is responsible for identifying what to focus on and telling the lens what adjustments to make. The camera body uses a set of auto-focus points to measure contrast. The stronger the contrast at an auto-focus point, the better the local focus. Higher level Camera bodies have more and better focus points, and faster processors to keep up with quickly moving subjects. For example, my camera, the Canon T3, has 9 focus points, with only the center focus point being the more advance “cross-type” geometry. In comparison, the wildlife standard Canon 7D mark II has 65 focus points, all cross-type. What this means is that to get a moving bird in sharp focus with the T3 requires keeping the bird over the center focus point. This can be understandably difficult to do. So, when I eventually have the means, my next purchase will be a used Canon 7D mark II camera body.

My current camera system may be sub-par, but I don’t view this as a liability. In fact, using the more limited camera for more advanced photography may help me to develop my skills faster, and avoid any bad habits that I may have picked up using more forgiving equipment. For now I am happy with my system, and choose to focus on learning how to fully utilize my current equipment rather than rushing to buy something more advanced.

Now, back to birds in flight! To begin my practice I started with songbirds. This may have been a mistake for two reason: songbirds are small, and songbirds are fast. Trying to get close enough to the birds while tracking their movements proved to be a real challenge. Nearly every shot was out of focus, poorly composed, or both. Usually both. I had to get creative in order to stand a chance at capturing a decent photo. Here are a few general tips, along with some of the lessons that I learned:

  • Use a shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second to freeze the motion of the bird.
  • (For entry-level cameras) manually select only the center auto-focus point. The poor auto-focus system of the T3 is was too slow and easily confused otherwise.
  • Predict the motion of the bird. If the bird is perched, put your field of view in the direction that the bird is facing. That way, when the bird leaps, your camera has a head start.
  • Be careful to use smooth movements. It is easy to feel the need to quickly jerk the camera to follow the bird, and accidentally blur the image.
  • Let the birds approach you. Use a hunting blind or even a kitchen window.
  • Patience!
Male Cardinal
Canon T3, Canon 300mm f/4L IS USM
1/2000th, f/4, ISO 3200
Male Red-winged Blackbird
Canon T3, Canon 300mm f/4L IS USM
1/2000th, f/4.5, ISO 640

After practicing with songbirds I decided to take a hiking trip to Hawk Mountain, and try to accomplish my goal of photographing a Red-tailed hawk, as well as practice capturing birds in flight. During the migratory season, many birds of prey conserve energy by using the unique updrafts around Hawk Mountain to gain altitude. During the peak season dozens of birds of prey, from Bald Eagles to Cooper’s Hawks, fly just over the main lookout point on the mountain. Unfortunately, being in the off-season, I only saw Turkey Vultures – possibly the least photogenic birds. So while I did not get any pretty pictures, I got a lot of experience and practice, and now feel comfortable crossing my first short-term goal off my list!


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