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.
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!
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