It's a bird, it's a plane! Ok, they're just birds, not superman. But with Autofocus Tracking techniques like this, you'll feel like you've conquered a lot in getting those epic shots. Photographing small birds, fast in flight, is one of the most difficult things to photograph. Learn how you can overcome this challenge, and practice practice!
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.
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.
As my frustration increased, I tried just about every autofocus combination possible on my Nikon camera. I have never come across an autofocus situation so difficult in all my years as a photographer. But, I wasn’t about to give up!
I was photographing with a number of advanced photographers and the group of us finally arrived at a solution that worked fairly well. By fairly well, I mean that we were able to achieve an in-focus shot of a flying puffin once every three or four attempts.
So, here are my recommended settings for photographing flying birds against a cluttered background such as grass or trees. These settings are based on a Nikon DSLR camera, but similar settings also apply for Canon DSLR cameras.
1. Set your camera on Single Area AF. Normally I use 21-point autofocus, but in this example, since the camera couldn’t distinguish between the bird and the background, I had to go to single area.
2. Set your autofocus delay for Long. This prevents the autofocus from jumping quickly between foreground and background objects.
3. Set autofocus servo for AF-C (a.k.a. continuous servo). Obviously, since the bird is moving, the autofocus system needs to continually track its motion and AF-C tells the camera to do this as long as you are pressing the AF-ON button or the shutter release button.
4. Start tracking the bird a long ways away by pressing your AF-ON button or half-pressing your shutter release button. Giving your autofocus system a few seconds to track the flying bird will greatly enhance the number of keepers you get.
5. Work hard at keeping focus sensor directly on the bird. This is undoubtedly the most difficult part of the equation and requires the most patience. Because puffins and small birds move so fast, you might have to resort to hand-holding your lens so you can react quickly to their changes in direction.
6. If you lose focus, then lift off your finger, and try to reacquire focus on the bird. Sometimes, you’ll need to lift and reacquire multiple times.
Seagulls, raptors and gannets are much easier to capture in flight because they relatively big and slow birds. Because of their slower speeds and larger sizes, the camera’s autofocus system has a much easier time tracking their movements. When photographing these birds, I strongly recommend Dynamic Area – 21 point autofocus. I’ve had great results with this setting and got very consistent focus tracking in most circumstances.
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