Capturing birds in action is one of the most difficult areas of photography and it’s one that even experienced professionals struggle at. So what makes photographing birds in action so difficult, you ask? Well, birds are incredibly unpredictable and capturing a good frame with the perfect head angle, lighting, and wing position is like winning the lottery. Moreover, capturing these speedy creatures is extremely demanding on the camera system’s autofocus capabilities and the photographer’s hand-eye coordination. There are also the camera settings and background that you need to keep an eye on. The worst part? You need to do all of this in a matter of seconds. If you’re too slow, you’ve missed the shot, as simple as that.
Now, I don’t want you to be discouraged after reading that paragraph. There are some factors, such as the camera settings and hand-eye coordination, that come to you as you gain experience. If you have a camera that can shoot at high FPS, then you can improve your chances of capturing an image with good head and wing positions. The background and the light angle can also be removed out of the equation (at least partially) by changing your position with relation to the subject.
Focal Length – 420mm
Shutter Speed – 1/4000s
ISO – 1,400
Aperture – f/5.6
Let’s take a look at this example of two Common Moorhens in combat. I used a very high shutter speed of 1/4000s to freeze the action and used Nikon’s excellent Group AF focus mode. In a burst of around 50 frames spanning over 15-20 seconds, I only managed to capture 2-3 frames where the focus was on the moorhens and where the head and wing positions were acceptable. On the rest of the sequence, the focus was either on the water droplets or the head and wing positions were off. The background is a pleasing palette of blue and green, and is free of any distracting elements. But remember, I had a success rate of around 5% in this burst sequence. Sometimes, it’s even lower, depending on the complexity of the scene, the type of action, and the bird species.
Focal Length – 300mm
Shutter Speed – 1/4000s
ISO – 320
Aperture – f/4
This shot of a Common Coot was arguably more difficult to capture than the shot of the fighting Moorhens because this bird was running at a very high speed towards me as opposed to being parallel to the camera in the other case. Moreover, the trail of water that the bird left in its wake acted as a distraction and wreaked havoc with the camera’s autofocus system. This was the solitary image that was in focus out of the 10-shot burst sequence. Moreover, the sun angle wasn’t ideal, being slightly harsh and lacking warmth. Nevertheless, the image works because of a couple of reasons:
- The bird’s symmetric wings act as leading lines, drawing viewers to the focal point, i.e. the head.
- The trail of water adds depth to the image, transitioning from slightly in-focus to a smooth blur near the edge of the frame.
Tip: Limiting the focus range of your lens helps improve its autofocus performance because then it doesn’t have to cycle through the entire focus range; only the range set using the focus limiter. Pre-focusing on the approximate spot where you expect the bird to fly by also helps the lens lock focus easier.
The key to capturing BIA shots is the 3P’s of photography – Patience, Perseverance, and Practice. The more time you spend shooting, the more experience you will gain. For beginners, try photographing sea gulls and herons at your local beach or pier. They’re great targets as they are both interesting and easy to photograph. As you get better at tracking these birds, you can look at moving on to more difficult species, such as songbirds, ducks, and birds of prey. It will be a very frustrating journey and you will encounter many hurdles along the way, be it camera gear or your own skill level, but once you do manage to regularly capture these critters in action, there is absolutely no better feeling.