Photographing small, fast birds in flight is one of the most difficult things I’ve done as a photographer. On a recent Nikonians Academy Workshop trip to Iceland, our group had the opportunity to photograph puffins off the coastal cliffs and I came away with absolutely terrible results after my first day!
Small birds like puffins fly very fast in relation to their size, so are extremely difficult to keep in the camera frame. They often cut left and right while avoiding predators like the great skua, which makes it even more difficult to track them in your viewfinder.
Figure 1. This Icelandic puffin was very difficult to focus on because of the cluttered and high contrast background.
One of the situations I came across while photographing puffins in Iceland was an area where the puffins would fly across a cluttered background. In this case, we were approximately eye level with the birds as they were flying to their nests on a grassy slope. The sun was out, so the grass formed areas of bright highlights and dark shadows. As the puffins flew across the grass background, the camera’s autofocus system had a very difficult time distinguishing the bird from the background. Hence, the camera would jump from focus on the bird to focus on the background.