Thursday, April 30, 2009

Birding Nirvana

Photographing Birds in Flight

On Tuesday I went out with the intention of getting some bird images and testing my camera that was just back from Canon sporting a brand new shutter. In my previous post, I used my backup camera and was pleasantly surprised at how well it tracked moving birds.

63622 Roseatte Spoonbill 1/3200, f5.6, +2/3EV
But this day I was happy to have my main rig back in my hands, and I also took the 40d just in case. I set out early to drive to my venue of choice, the rookery at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, which is about an hour away. This day would prove to be the best day ever for flight photos. The conditions were nearly perfect and the birds were so numerous that often I had to choose which one to follow and shoot. If there is such a thing as birder's nirvana, this must have been it. In this post I will show camera settings on each photo for the benefit of anyone who might be wondering. All photos in this post were shot with a Canon 1D-Mk2N body and 100-400L IS lens at iso 400. Aperture and shutter speed, as well as exposure compensation (if applicable) are shown above each photo. If exposure compensation is not shown, the photo was shot in full manual mode. Near the bottom of this post, I have shared some additional shooting tips for birds in flight.

I started off looking for an opportunity to photograph some perched birds, but I quickly abandoned that idea when I realized that there was such an abundance of flyers. To me, flyers are the ultimate challenge and I find it difficult NOT to try and photograph them, especially when the conditions are good and the backgrounds are sweet. Most of the morning, I was fortunate to have both.

63837 Great Egret 1/2500, f7.1
By the mid-afternoon, I had shot about 800 images, which is very unusual for me. Normally I will shoot till noon at the latest, and generally will end up with less than half that number. But the action was non-stop and I took advantage of it.

63594 Wood stork 1/2000, f5.6, +2/3EV
I watched as this wood stork repeatedly flew to a tree to rip off a branch, then carry it back to the nest. I loved the look of the wing spread just before he took flight. Below is another shot of him flying with a different branch.

63602 Wood Stork 1/1600, f5.6, +2/3EV
As is usually the case, there were more great egrets in the air than any other species. I did try to capture a cattle egret and snowy egret flyer, but the opportunities were rare. I was fortunate to capture a few shots of roseatte spoonbills in flight, mainly because I just happened to notice them coming before they got too close. There were only two or three chances to get spoonie flyers all day. My favorite shot was the first one posted at the beginning of this post above. The shot below is of a younger bird.

63560 Roseatte Spoonbill 1/1250, f5.6, +1EV
63664 Great Egret 1/2500, f6.3
The next few images are great egrets. I had a blast photographing these guys and even though I felt like I was taking a lot of shots that were almost identical, I never tired of doing it. I had a nice conversation with another bird photographer while I was shooting, and after a while learned that he is Kevin Karlson. Kevin has published several books on bird photography, and you can see his website HERE . Since we were both shooting right next to each other, we got many almost identical shots, and we had fun comparing them on our cameras.
63638 Great Egret 1/2000, f7.1, +2/3EV
63654 Great Egret 1/2500, f6.3
63552 Great Egret 1/2000, f5.6, +1EV
When I am shooting birds in flight, I find that it's generally best to shoot in full manual mode, but sometimes I also use aperture priority. No matter what exposure program you choose, you always have to overexpose the shot by about 2/3 to 1 stop if shooting against a bright sky background. Otherwise you will end up with a dark silhouette instead of a well exposed bird. If shooting white birds against dark foliage, the exact opposite is true and you must underexpose by approximately the same amount. The advantage of using full manual is that you can take a few test shots and set the exposure, and it will be the same no matter what the background. This eliminates the need to keep changing the exposure compensation depending what the background is. Since you never know exactly where the bird is going to fly, manual mode yields a lot more keepers and far fewer missed opportunities. I also prefer using flash rather than relying only on natural light. What I try to do is use just enough flash to fill the shadows, but not so much that the viewer can easily tell that flash was used.

63655 Great Egret 1/2500, f6.3
63693 Snowy Egret 1/2000, f7.1

63995 Snowy Egret 1/2500, f7.1
63833 Tricolor Heron 1/2500, f7.1
I was hoping to get a nice shot of a tricolor heron in flight, but unfortunately the only decent shot I think I got was this one looking almost straight up. Perhaps I'll get a better opportunity at a later time. I was not especially crazy about the wing position of the great egret shot below, but other than that I love the detail and sharpness. I am posting a 100% crop below the full shot, so you can get an idea of what I am seeing on my monitor.

63724 Great Egret 1/2500, f7.1
63724 Great Egret 100% crop
Snowy egrets and cattle egrets always seem to fly very erratically compared to the larger great egrets. This makes capturing a flight shot especially challenging. On this outing, I only saw 2 or 3 cattle egrets building nests, so the chances were limited. The shot below was my best effort.

64128 Cattle Egret 1/2500, f7.1
Shooting birds in flight is great fun, and it's also rewarding when you have a good day. I've had my share of frustrating days in the past, but this particular outing made up for a lot of them. This is the kind of day that keeps me coming back.


  1. ...your flight photos are gorgeous. The enlarged versions are stunning. I can never get enough of the Great Egret's breeding colors. Thanks for the technical info also.

  2. Stunning Tim. I cannot choose a favourite, they are all top class. Looks like you had a fabulous day. The joy of flight shots is difficult to better.

  3. Beautiful shots, Tim!
    We can all only hope for photography days like you've shown.
    These shots are an inspiration to me and others!

  4. Tim, that's an awesome set of flight photos plus some very helpful info & tips. All I need to do now is practice. Thanks, Frank.

  5. Hi Tim,
    I'm really glad you found my blog, because now I can look at yours... And I will only say wooow, this is a magnificent blog. All pictures are awesome with a very good sharpness, an excellent light and a superb bird attitude. This is just marvelous to watch. I will definitively come back.

  6. Beautiful series of photos - I loved how you explained your photo tips!

  7. Amazing shots Tim, love the close crop showing that beautiful pastel green colour.

  8. Well you obviously had one of your better shots at the AF. Nice collection of images Tim and wish I could have joined you this year. Your photo tips are quite informative and to a novice valuable information. Blue Skies.

  9. Amazing snaps and waht a variety.

  10. Spectacular flight shot Tim. I thoroughly enjoyed watching each of them...Thomas

  11. congratulations!
    you have excelent photos!!

  12. Thank you for the comments on my bird blog.

    I really like your birds in flight photos. I can't get them here. I almost never get to photograph birds unless they are in my small city backyard. So one flying over, for example, would appear and in one second or less would be gone out of view. But now and then I will catch one like the pileated woodpecker in the right sidebar of Brookville Daily Photo

  13. Great pictures!!! Really beautiful!!!

  14. Beautiful snaps. Pink feathered bird is amazing

  15. Just an amazing group of photos of one beautiful animal. Above all, an accurate light and a natural kind of work. Congratulations.

  16. Great collections of photographs; you are lucky to have such a sharp 100-400 mm lens. Great egret 63664 is my favorite.

  17. A wonderful collection of photographs Tim. I have to agree with Jose on the choice of the best one here even if they are all excellent.

  18. Great photos. Color is so vibrant!

  19. Very Nice Photos Tim

    Do you turn the IS off when using the 100-400?


  20. For Leo, about whether or not to turn off Image Stabilization on the 100-400....

    I never turn it off because I never shoot from a tripod with that lens. Since it's the older style IS, if you shoot from a sturdy tripod, you would do well to turn it off. For birds in flight, I always shoot hand-held, even with the 300mm f2.8.