For a while I’ve been keen to try out one the purpose made low level photography blinds. Therefore, I was very happy when Tragopanprovided me with the Hokki V2 Ground Photo Blind to test out. Here’s my initial thoughts on the blind:
The blind comes in a small carry bag – easy to carry and weighs just over 2.5 kg. Not a problem to take on journeys.
I found this blind one of the easiest to put up so far. The dome part works with folding poles that click into place via pulling on a cord – clever, quick and efficient. There are only two poles needed (included) – one which gives shape towards the back of the blind and one at the very end. Ground pegs are inserted at various points to anchor everything. An extra cover provides further protection over the dome section, which neatly clips into each corner. It really is like putting up a tent.. but easier!
The front opening of the photo blind can be used with various windows such as snoots and mesh. This gives options of more or less concealment depending on your preferences. Windows fit to the front opening by attachment of velcro on the inside.
A low level blind is never going to super comfortable but here a groundsheet is included to help reduce exposure to cold and damp. Ventilation has also been considered – with vents both at the top and rear of the blind and separate small zipped windows on either side.
Taking the Blind Down
This was really as simple as putting the blind up. First take out the ground pegs and make sure you’ve removed the poles and the extra roof cover. On the dome section – push down where the arrows indicate and the poles will collapse. These can then be folded up. I found that I could then fold the entire blind up easily and fit it back into the bag.
This was the first time I’d seen Tragopan’s blinds and I’m impressed. There are many excellent design features, including the clever ‘pull and click’ mechanism to get the main section into place. I was also pleased to see extra coverings to prevent rain getting inside, such as the roof section – and flaps over zips. These may seem like insignificant things but they can really make a difference. Vents, both on top and at the rear of the blind, seem a sensible inclusion too.
My latest YouTube video is an advanced photography tutorial on photographing birds in flight. I discuss how to set up your auto-focus for flight photography and how to use the AF case settings. Whilst aimed more at Canon users it’s also useful for photographers with other equipment. Click the image below to watch the video.
Fill-in Flash can be a wonderful tool for improving your images. Whilst I’d always advocate using purely natural light, occasionally we just need that extra little something to boost our images. Fill-flash is a great technique when used carefully, and thoughtfully.
What Flash do you need?
If you’re close to the subject then a pop-up flash on the camera can actually make a difference. However, I’d advise investing in an external flashgun that will give you greater power and put out more light. I use the Canon Speedlite 580 EXii – a powerful flash unit that ‘talks to’ the camera via its ETTL mode. If you’re looking to purchase a flashgun, check out the relevant Guide Numbers (GN) to get an idea of how powerful the flash is; this is particularly important when working out in the field with wild birds and animals.
What are the Benefits of Fill-in Flash?
There are four main benefits of using fill-in:
Where the bird or animal is on the ground. The majority of the body may be lit but it’s quite common for the underside to be in shade. A touch of fill-in flash can brighten up this shadow area, giving a better balance to the image.
This is similar to above, but more extreme. When shooting strongly back-lit, all of the subject facing the camera will be in heavy shade, often losing detail. Using fill-in flash will again brighten up the shadow, bringing back detail. It can also help restore colour balance.
For birds with iridescence. Iridescent feathers appear to reflect all kinds of colours, often greens and blues. Good examples are Rooks, Magpies, Starlings and male Mallards. Using a small amount of fill-flash can help to bring out this quality of the feathers.
To add a highlight in the eye. In addition to the above, a touch of flash can add a catch-light to the eye which helps to bring the subject to life.
What’s the Technique?
Essentially you want to use the same exposure settings you would for natural daylight and aim to expose for the highlights. The fill-in flash then brightens up any shadow areas but won’t affect the lit areas. Once you’ve set your exposure you want to reduce the flash output from its automatic setting. If you’re using on-camera flash, with the TTL option, reduce the power of the flash by around -1 and 2/3 EV. This is a good setting to start from. If filling the frame with dark subjects such as a purely black coloured bird for example you might need to reduce the flash more, even down to -3 EV, as the flashgun will want to put out too much flash. It’s often about experimenting; remember – the idea is to add just enough flash to improve the image, with it barely being noticeable. Alternatively you may be able to change the flash output manually in which case you could try around 1/16 of full power. On my camera, the Canon 1DX Mark i, I can actually change the flash output in camera using the flash +/- compensation dial – this is perfect as it means I don’t need to take my eye away from the camera.
On many flashguns you’ll notice a zoom setting. This allows the flashgun to fire the flash at a similar angle of view (mm) to the lens being used. This should automatically change when the flash is attached to the hot-shoe – if not you can alter it manually. An important point to note is the flash synchronisation speed. Most cameras have a maximum shutter speed that will synchronise with a flashgun, often around 1/250 of a second. Use a faster shutter speed than this and the two won’t work together properly. To enable the flash to synchronise with a faster shutter speed you need to use the high speed sync option. On the Speedlite you will see the flash symbol and a ‘H’ next to it. When this is selected your camera and flash will work together with up to the fastest shutter speed available. This is particularly important due to the fact that when shooting wildlife, in natural light, you’ll often be using a fast shutter speed.
Recycle Time and Batteries
You won’t be able to continuously shoot with your flash unless you have an extra battery pack. I tend to do single shots and let the flash recycle; within a second or two it will be ready to fire again. Use rechargeable batteries in your flashgun. Better than alkaline, I’d recommend the NiMH (see Eneloop) – these hold charge better and have great reviews.
You may occasionally get ‘red-eye’ when using fill-in flash. This is where the light reflects from the retina and straight back through the lens. Using a flash further away from the camera will help to avoid this; in some cases it might be necessary to mount the flash separately to the side of the camera. I’ve also found that angling the flash away (whilst still on the hot-shoe) can also help if the flashgun has this facility.
See the slight Red-eye in this image of a male Mallard
A word about using flash with wild creatures: research suggests that flash used in daylight will have no detrimental effect on the subject. I agree with this and I don’t see issues using fill-flash on wild birds and animals. However, using flash as the main light source, e.g. shooting at night is very different. This has been shown to temporarily blind owls for example and should be seriously considered. You’ll find some useful information on this topic in these blogs from Tom Mason and Keith Elcombe A much better option in my opinion is to use LEDs.
Diffusers and Extenders
Using a diffuser on the flashgun is unlikely to soften the light at a distance; this is because the diffuser spreads light out rather than softens it. If you do use it in the field you’re also going to have to increase the flash output which will increase battery consumption. My own view is that a diffuser may improve the quality of flash light at a short distance. Extenders on the other hand work by concentrating the flash into a narrower field of view – they are more direct and therefore sensible to use in the field. Better Beamers are a popular option although they usually require a separate arm to move off camera to get the best effect.
There’s plenty to learn when it come to Fill-in Flash. The easiest way is to simply practice on a static subject outside, adjust your settings and see what works. Remember: you are still using natural light as your main light source – the flash just acts as a secondary light source to brighten the shadows, lift the image a little, and add a catch-light to the eye. Above all – don’t over-do it!
There’s many ingredients that make a cracking wildlife image. Today I’ve picked out just 5 tips that I think are particularly important if you’re just getting started.
Tip Number 1: Auto-focus Mode
You’re probably using auto-focus already, but it’s important to know which mode you have set in camera. Single shot, also called One Shot or AF-S is ideal for static subjects; with this mode, once the camera has focused on the subject the focus is locked. It’s particularly useful for re-composing without the focus changing. The Continuous Auto-focus mode, also called Servo and AF-C will continuously re-focus as a subject moves, provided you keep focus engaged. This is the best option for moving subjects, e.g. birds in flight and running animals. Make sure you understand the difference between the two and that you always know which one is set in camera. You can also use the Back Button Focus method, in which case you can keep the camera permanently on the Continuous Focusing mode.
Tip Number 2: Focus Points and Zones
Your camera might be set up so that all the focus points (the whole viewfinder) is focusing. This is not ideal! You will have a number of focus points in the viewfinder – these are the squares that will light up red when activated. I’d advise using using one focus point or a small cluster. Depending on your camera you should be able to select different focus points depending on where you want to focus. More advanced cameras will allow greater options of clusters and zones and you should experiment to see what works in different situations. Watch my video on Flight Photography for more detail.
Tip Number 3: Aperture Priority
I always advise Aperture Priority for beginners. This exposure mode is a good choice for wildlife photography, also known as A or AV. You set the aperture, ideally a fairly wide aperture, e.g. f5.6; the camera will then select the appropriate shutter speed dependent on the available light and the ISO. Because you are using a wide aperture and letting more light in, this means that the shutter speed will be higher to balance it. The other benefit of selecting a wide aperture yourself is that it will help blur the background and make the subject stand out more clearly. ISO is also a factor here, so if you’re not sure about this then try the following as a guide: select between ISO 200 and 400 on bright days and between ISO 800 and 1600 on overcast days..
Tip Number 4: Avoid Underexposure
A common problem is when photographing a subject against the sky – resulting in dark, underexposed images. This is because the light reflecting back through the viewfinder causes the camera to reduce the exposure. To fix this, if you’re using Aperture Priority (or Shutter Priority) you need to find the plus/minus button; press this down and use the dial to increase the exposure, i.e. make it brighter. You need to go in the Plus direction; try around +1 as a guide. Each camera will vary how this works but there is usually a dial on the top, or perhaps a wheel at the back. If you want to understand more about exposure, watch this Exposure Tutorial Video
Tip Number 5: Continuous Shooting
When photographing birds and animals is advisable to shoot continuously, rather than one shot a time. You’ll increase your chances of a better image. Find the Drive setting and switch to a Continuous Frame Rate; you may have options of L and H which is low and high; this will vary enormously from camera to camera. It’s not always necessary to shoot at the highest frame rate. I’d suggest starting with a lower rate continuous mode which might be 3 or 5 frames per second. Wildlife is always moving so the more images you take the greater your chance of a pin sharp photo, and/or a particularly pleasing pose.
Tip Number 6: Extra Tip and Most Important!
Please put the welfare of wildlife first! No picture of a bird or animal is more important than its welfare. Try to learn not just about photography but also about the habits of your subject. Use your instinct and back away if you feel you’re disturbing it. Remember, the more time you spend with a wild bird or animal, the more you will learn – and the more it will come to trust you. If you find a great opportunity for regular photographs of popular species such as owls, or rare birds… don’t tell everyone! You can soon find the quiet location literally heaving with photographers, some who may not have the subject’s best interest at heart!
I hope these 5 tips helped you out if you’re just getting started in Nature Photography. Subscribe to my YouTube Channelfor future Tutorial Videos. Happy Shooting!
Ever since my first visit to Swaledale many moons ago I’ve been in love with Red Grouse. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve visited over the years. One particular location provides reliable opportunities with Grouse frequenting the roadside heather. Every day is different but it’s not unusual to get extremely close views if you use the car as a mobile hide. I recently spent a winter’s morning up on the moors, using my Canon 500mm f4 Mark i lens. The technique is fairly simple – just wind down the window and use a good quality beanbag as your camera support. Beanbags provide particularly good support for long lenses and I personally prefer this to using a tripod.
To increase stability I also push down slightly on the barrel of the lens with my left hand; with good technique you can use surprisingly slow shutter speeds if the bird is relatively still. Red Grouse are beautiful birds but they seem to have that kind of plumage that camera’s don’t like! If you’re using off centre focus points and the camera is struggling, try switching to the centre focus point and recomposing – you might find the focus more accurate. Above all try to spend as much time as you can when you find a photogenic bird: capturing some kind of behaviour will really lift your images.
A number of my images from my Serbian Owl project made it into BBC Wildlife this month, December 2018. I’ve been visiting Serbia, and in particular Kikinda, for a few years documenting the remarkable owls roosts.
Every winter huge gatherings of these birds arrive across towns and villages of Vojvodina. It’s an incredible experience and I’ve been lucky to spend time with these fascinating birds. Check out my Blog Post on Long eared Owls including my twilight images. If you’re interested in joining me for a winter bird watching and photography tour in Serbia Click Here
This is my review of the Canon 400mm EF f5.6 USM lens, having professionally used this lens for wildlife photography for a number of years.
When it comes to choosing the right lens for wildlife there are a number of considerations. It’s important to take them all in to account and also to think about the situations you are most likely to use the lens in.
This is often not considered enough, but it’s a really important one. If you are likely to be carrying the lens for extended periods of time and in particular, hand-holding, then weight is big consideration. With a bigger more expensive lens you might find it feeling quite a burden. The Canon 400mm f5.6 is extremely light, weighing in at 1.25kg. This makes it perfectly easy to hand-hold for most people and can be carried around for hours. Being so lightweight I find it ideal for flight photography – no need for support, I can simply use my left hand to support the lens as I follow and fire. Comparing this to my Canon 500mm f4 IS Mark i, at a whopping 3.9kg, and you can see the benefit!
Of course there’s no point having a light lens if the image quality is poor. When I first bought this lens years ago I was significantly impressed with the sharpness. In my opinion it’s of professional standard quality when paired with a good quality camera body. I’ve created images with this lens with both a Canon 1D Mark iv and a Canon 1DX Mark i. A number of these photos have been supplied to professional picture libraries and been printed large on calendars and magazine covers. Sharpness is always a difficult one to describe, without providing complex tests. To get the most out of this lens try to stop down to f/7.1 or f/8 – it will improve the clarity. I rarely use it at f/5.6 but then I wouldn’t do anyway. Use this lens in good light with good technique and you really shouldn’t have any complaints.
Speed of Focus
In good light this lens focuses quickly; you’ll have no problem for wildlife portraits. For action it performs pretty well in good light and I’ve made many sharp images of birds in flight, using a centre focus point and a small cluster. I also find changing the focus limiter switch to 8.5m – infinity can improve speed for flight photography. Where this lens begins to struggle is in poor light: in low sunlight or overcast conditions the focus definitely starts to struggle and you need to use the best technique you can. This is the main drawback of the lens for me. The minimum focus distance is 3.5m which is also a disadvantage in some situations. Note: this lens does not have any IS, however for me I don’t find it much of an issue.
Extenders and Extension Tubes
If you want to increase the magnification of the 400mm then you can attach extenders. I’ve never tried a 2x extender but have used the lens with the Canon EF Mark iii 1.4 x Extender. With older cameras you may use auto-focus completely. My current understanding is that Canon 1D and 5D bodies will accept the combination but only allow you a centre focusing option and don’t allow the choice of different focus points. You’ll also be down to f/8 once the extender is attached. Quality with a 1.4x extender is reasonable but it helps to keep the ISO low and even stop down the aperture a little more for optimum quality – I regularly use f/9 or f/10. I wouldn’t want to use this combination in overcast light with a high ISO.
In order to make small birds more frame-filling you can attach an extension tube. I’ve sometimes used the Canon 25mm extension tube with this lens in order to reduce minimum focusing distance and get closer. This also has the effect of diffusing the background slightly more. You lose a bit of light but still retain auto-focus and exposure control.
At the time of writing you can get a brand new Canon 400mm f5.6 for close to £1000 and a used one near £500. This is massively cheaper than most competing lenses and makes it ideal for those on a tighter budget.
There are many other options for bird photography. Heavier lenses with superior auto-focus include the Canon 500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4 and the Canon 400mm f/2.8. You could also opt for a Canon 300mm f/2.8 and use with extenders. There’s also the 400mm f/4 DO – light enough to hand-hold but with very mixed reviews. The Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-f5.6 Mark ii is also a serious contender due to flexibility, quality and weight. All of these lenses however come with an increase in price.
Remember that the best lens for you is the one that works for you. Are you likely to be sat in hides for hours with a tripod, or are you more likely to be walking around and shooting hand-held in the field.? It’s important to take this into account when choosing your lens. The Canon 400mm f5.6 should always be a consideration. It isn’t the fastest lens; it isn’t the sharpest lens. However it does offer a high level of quality for an amazing price. That’s why I’ve used it myself. The main drawbacks are reduced auto-focus speed in poor light, minimum focusing distance and lack of IS. If you can live without these things then buy it in a heart-beat – I still believe it’s one of the best lenses ever made by Canon for pure value.
To see more of my wildlife photography visit the Gallery Pages on my website.
For a long time I didn’t own a ‘big lens’ for my bird photography. I made do with shorter lenses and extenders. Finally the day came when I received my Canon 500mm f4 Mark i lens. I’m still using it to this day, but I’ve learnt a few tips along the way which help me get the most out of it.
Having serious pulling power is great when it comes to wildlife photography, but it can all count for nothing if you don’t use your lens effectively. Big lenses, by which I would consider anything from 400mm and greater, tend to be heavy pieces of kit and need a certain level of technique to manage them effectively.
You may not want to hand-hold, certainly not for extended periods of time, but there are situations where this is preferable. For birds in flight, I much prefer to hand-hold as I just feel more comfortable with my freedom and range of movement. To hand-hold with a big lens try to hold the camera and lens sideways, rather than point it in front. Place your hand under the lens and keep your elbow close to your body. Most people can only do this for short periods of time – when waiting for action you could keep the lens on the ground by resting it upside down on the lens hood. Alternatively I like to carry a beanbag then rest the camera on here whilst I’m waiting, knowing it’s more protected.
Tripods and Heads
Without doubt the best way to support a long lens is with a tripod. Carbon fibre is a great option as it is strong but relatively light. Not surprisingly, this also makes them expensive. To mount the lens I would advise two options – either a very solid ball head, or a gimbal head. Personally I think the gimbal head is a wonderful creation for big lenses. They provide a really solid base at the lens foot and the freedom of movement is perfect for following and recomposing shots. I use a Movo GH 700 Gimbal Head When attaching the lens foot to the gimbal head, slide it forward and back to find the centre of gravity – you want the lens to stay balanced without it being locked in place; this will help with balance. Once you have it in the correct place make sure it’s tightened up in place. You can then use the two tension knobs to get the desired amount of movement – both up and down (tilting) and left and right (panning). For following birds in flight you will want to slacken it off enough to allow fast tracking of your subject, whilst for more static subjects tightening up the knobs will aid in stability and reduce camera shake, but still allow enough movement to recompose.
When photographing static subjects and particularly with lower shutter speeds you should try to reduce vibration. Long lenses will magnify even the smallest amount of movement, potentially causing blurred images so it’s worth a bit of extra technique. Drape your non-shutter hand lightly over the lens barrel – around half way down then lightly push your eye into the viewfinder. This combination will help brace the lens and can definitely reduce camera shake. You can see me using these techniques with my 500mm, photographing birds in this YouTube video Using image stabilisation is another option too but with older lenses it’s best to have this switched off anyway if on a tripod.
Beanbags and Other Support
In my opinion the best way you can keep a long lens stable is by using a beanbag. This is ideal when shooting on the ground or on a car roof for example. Make sure that the part of the lens near the camera body is snugly into the beanbag. Use your non-shutter hand to push down slightly at this point. You can also pull down slightly on the shutter. With good technique you can achieve sharp images down to as slow as 1/15 of a second. Another option is to use a beanbag on top of a tripod. Take the tripod head off and put the beanbag on top, balanced evenly; then use the same technique. I’ve used this method successfully when photographing wild owls in Serbia – see the YouTube video and achieved sharp results at very low shutter speeds. Think out of the box too: you always have your knees with you so why not use one as a support when caught short?
A long lens is ideal for nature photography but you can’t be sure of sharp images without learning a little technique. Employ these tips and you’ll greatly increase your chances of pin sharp images!
When it comes to capturing strong images of small birds there are a few tips and tricks you can use to improve your bird photography.
Birds on feeders rarely make for great photos; it’s much more natural, and fun, to photograph them on attractive perches. It’s important here to use a suitable perch, so if you’re not familiar with the species it might be worth a little research to understand the habitat the bird lives in – that way you can find an appropriate perch. When it comes to finding perches it’s simply a case of searching around. If you’re working in a woodland setting then hopefully you can find branches and logs covered in moss, lichens or even fungi; this is going to add some extra colour to your images. It’s also important to consider the size of the perch – a thick branch covered in lichens may look wonderful… but is it going to dwarf the small tits that land on it? Bigger logs and branches can be ideal for larger birds such as blackbirds and jays, but for small birds try using thinner more delicate branches and twigs.
Getting them on the perch!
So you’ve got a suitable perch for your chosen bird – how to you get the bird to land on it? The tried and tested method is to use food as bait. Garden birds for example will easily come down to bird seed, peanuts, fat-balls – and meal worms. Watch which direction the birds come from – they will often congregate in a nearby bush or tree. After watching their flight path you can then erect your perch near the food so that the birds land on it before they visit the feeders. This won’t work every time, some birds will ignore the perch (that’s nature) but you should get enough opportunities for photography. There are different ways to set up the perch, including poles, tripod attachments and pushing into the ground. Once the bird lands you need to be quick – focus, compose and fire a series of shots. You should be able to do this in less than 2 seconds – which is sometimes all you’ll have! If you’re interested in setting up bird feeders check out this YouTube Video where I set up a bird feeding station.
Perhaps equally as important as the perch is the background. A good bird photograph can succeed or fail depending on choice of shooting position. Try to avoid too much distraction behind the bird – this can take some experience but essentially you want a background that will go nicely out of focus when you focus on the bird. Tree trunks, light coloured branches, highlights and shadows can all cause problems. Try to shoot against an area that looks as smooth as possible – in the same light. Also try to find a background that is quite distant; this will instantly help to give a clearer backdrop. Another way to improve things is to use a wide aperture – this will blur the background more, but it won’t compensate enough if the background is just too cluttered.
A brief word about mini-ecosystems. Moving branches, logs and rocks can affect what grows there – lichens and mosses in particular thrive on very specific micro-environments. You may also be affecting small invertebrates that live there too. That said, we are talking about very occasional changes and I do not consider it to be detrimental to the environment. If you end up with a few logs and branches that have been used as perches, then create a new pile – and a new ecosystem! A word too on hygiene: if you are feeding birds, please wash your hands before, or at the very least give them a good rub. Birds are susceptible to germs just as we are!
There really is no limit to the types of bird photographs you can create given the multitude of perches out there. Think shape, texture, colour – and get creative! If you want to improve your bird photography skills consider joining one of my Bird Photography Workshops or a day of tailor made One to One Tuition
Photographing action is one of the toughest aspects of wildlife photography and none more so than photographing birds in flight. It requires practice and perseverance – along with a little technical know-how.
What Lens to Use?
For the majority of bird photography you’ll need a fairly big lens – probably 400mm or bigger; but for birds in flight a 300mm may suffice. The focal length however isn’t the only consideration. Are you likely to be hand-holding? In this case the weight is a significant issue. If you’re not sure, the best way is always to test one out – you’ll soon get an idea just how long you can hold it for! I’ve been a Canon user for a long time and the Canon EF 300mm f 2.8 (Mark i and Mark ii) has long been regarded as one of the best lenses out there for photographing birds in flight. Other options include the Canon EF 400mm f5.6 and the Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5 – f5.6 IS (Mark i and Mark ii). All these lenses are suitable for hand-holding and can be carried around for reasonable amounts of time. Longer lenses such as the Canon EF 500mm f4 IS (Mark i and Mark ii) and the Canon EF 600mm f4 IS (Mark i and Mark ii) can also be excellent for flight photography but can only be hand-held for short periods of time due to their weight It’s more appropriate is to use these larger lenses with a tripod and a gimbal head allowing for quick changes of direction when tracking birds.
Flight Photography Technique
It’s tempting to try and concentrate solely on keeping the bird within the focus points. Whilst this is the idea, I find it best to try and match the speed and movement of the bird – so try and think of it more that way when you’re tracking. When hand-holding try to pan from the waist whenever possible; stay reasonably relaxed and fire the shutter smoothly: watch the YouTube video to see me demonstrating When using a gimbal head, make sure you adjust the resistance knobs so it is comfortable for you. It’s also important to be aware of relative speed. If a bird is in the distance you won’t have to move the camera as quickly but once it comes near you will have to pick up the speed of panning. Most modern lenses will also have image stabilisation/vibration reduction. It is sometimes believed that they help to get sharp images of action but in reality that’s not really the case. Using IS or VR won’t stop movement of your subject – and with fast shutter speeds it probably won’t have much effect on camera shake either. However, it can help by stabilising the viewfinder, thereby making tracking a little easier.
Shutter Speeds and Apertures
Above all you need a fast shutter speed for birds in flight. I like to be at 1/1000 or faster most of the time. However, every situation varies. Whilst 1/1000 is a good shutter speed to aim for, slower moving birds such as hunting owls can be photographed with slower speeds such as 1/500. On the quicker side, a diving red kite for example or a small bird in flight, and you’ll often need 1/2000 or higher.
As for choice of aperture, setting a fairly wide aperture will let in more light, helping to keep the shutter speed higher. That said, I like to stop down a little to ensure a greater depth of field throughout the bird. With a lens of 400mm or 500mm I’ll often use around f7.1. In terms of ISO it’s really a case of adjusting this to give you an accurate exposure without creating too much noise in the image. In bright light you might not need to go above ISO 400 whilst in duller conditions and when shooting near sunrise or sunset you might be closer to ISO 2000.
Focusing and Frame Rate
For birds in flight you’ll need the tracking auto-focus option. The will be AF-C on Nikon and AI Servo on Canon. So long as you keep the focus engaged this will track the bird continuously. You can focus with the shutter button (half pressed) or you can use the Back Button Focusing method. Experiment to see what works best for you. You need to have the frame rate set to continuous as you’ll want to take a burst of images. Modern cameras can shoot 14 frames per second and more but the majority of the time a frame rate of around 7 frames per second is sufficient. On advanced cameras such as the Canon 1DX you can set a maximum and minimum frame rate.
When it comes to the actual area of focus there are a number of options. A single focus point in the centre can often be accurate. However, a small cluster of 4 or 9 for example, around the centre is also a good option. My advice is to use less focus points if the background is a little ‘busy’ and if the bird is relatively small in frame. If the bird is more frame filling with a good clear background then you may be able to use all the focus points effectively.
This is probably the trickiest of all and you should experiment to find your favoured way of exposing for birds in flight. If lighting conditions are consistent then manual exposure can work well. In bright sun with clear skies, set your desired shutter speed and aperture, then point the camera directly above at the deepest part of the blue sky. Adjust the ISO until the exposure meter is in the centre. This will give you a good base reading; you may need to adjust slightly. The advantage of manual exposure is that you are in complete control of all settings. Aperture Priority, A or AV, can be ideal and certainly works well in changing light. Here you will set your preferred aperture and the camera will select the shutter speed. Adjust the ISO so you are getting a fast shutter speed of around 1/1000. One issue with this method is if the sky is quite light you will need to add some plus exposure compensation (overexpose) to stop the image coming out too dark. Shutter Priority mode can also be used but is more complicated to achieve consistent results.
Auto ISO is another useful exposure tool where the camera adjusts the ISO itself. In manual exposure you can set both the shutter speed and aperture then select Auto ISO; only the ISO will change. In Aperture Priority you set the aperture and the camera adjusts the ISO (and shutter speed to an extent).
There’s a lot when it comes to photographing birds in flight but like anything it just takes practice. Put all these skills to good use and you’ll soon be surprising yourself at the quality of your bird shots! If you want to improve your wildlife photography skills consider joining one of my Wildlife Photography Workshops or a day of tailor made One to One Tuition