Advice Needed - Photographing Birds in Flight

Discussion in 'Digital SLR' started by Cockpit Colin, Sep 13, 2005.

  1. Hi All,

    I've been having a bit of fun with a borrowed 70-200 F2.8L (Non IS) lens
    attached to my Canon 20D. I've been trying to get some good photos of birds
    in flight, but only managing to get about a 1% success rate at the moment.

    I'm shooting a burst of photos ISO 400 (would prefer 200) - F5.6, with
    shutter speeds being typically 2000 - 8000. Biggest issue I'm facing is that
    although I can get them sharp enough at a distance, I'm not getting the
    detail that I want until the bird is flying past, and filling up 70 to 80%
    of the screen (from perhaps <10% when I first start focusing) - and at the
    end of the day, the focusing system just isn't keeping up. Essentially, the
    bird is getting closer and closer to the camera. I've tried 1 shot
    auto-focus - AI Servo and Servo - I've tried setting only the centre focus
    point, or enabling all 9 and letting the camera choose, but nothing seems to
    be working reliably) (By the way, the field of view behind the bird is clear
    sky (infinity focus) so the camera isn't locking on to back ground trees or
    anything like that).

    I'd appreciate any advice others can offer.

    Additionally, is the speed of the autofocus mostly in the lens or the
    camera, and is it a parameter that can be compared with other cameras (eg
    would a 5D or a 1DS II focus faster - or are there faster focusing lenses I
    should be looking at?)

    Many thanks,

    Cockpit Colin, Sep 13, 2005
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  2. Cockpit Colin

    Don Guest


    buy Arthur Morris' book on the Art of Bird Photography and subscribe to his
    web bulletins (at no cost). You will be amazed by the good advice etc. His
    site is:

    I have a 20D and get pretty good result with the larger birds and with small
    stuff my technique is improving so my success rate is up. I use mainly the
    400 fixed focal F4 on a tripod (ball head) and will move to the type of rig
    recommended by Arthur as the bucks become available. Running through the
    shots from his site and bulletins will blow you away. His Art of Bird
    Photography is the best text I have seen . Another text is "an essential
    guide to bird photography" by Steve Young. This is also pretty good but
    doesn't carry the same amount of technique hints as Morris.


    Don from Down Under
    Don, Sep 13, 2005
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  3. Cockpit Colin

    piperut Guest

    Hi CC,

    My niece is taking biology at BYU. I loaned her my old Canon Film
    Rebel along with a 70-300 lens, and a 500 mm lens. I actually had a
    roll of film in the camera, and she was going to try and use that roll
    up first. I told her she really should trash that roll, and start over
    with fresh film... but being a poor student ... well, I guess they
    think saving on a roll of film is a good plan.

    Anyway, I have no idea what she has managed to shoot with it yet.

    piperut, Sep 13, 2005
  4. Cockpit Colin

    eawckyegcy Guest

    The keep-rate for this sort of thing is low to begin with. Don't
    expect miracles.

    Use a longer lens. 300mm is probably the minimum, but longer is
    preferred. You need further "stand off" distance, since by the time
    the bird is close enough for a 200mm, it has a much larger angular
    velocity -- hence the lack of focus.
    It's all in the lens. Canon super-telephotos have "range" switches to
    reduce the focus travel times. If you have the physique that can
    support a 500/4, it makes a nice "flight lens".
    eawckyegcy, Sep 13, 2005
  5. Thanks for that. I always thought it was fighter pilots and elite athletes
    who had to work out the most - guess we need to add photographers to that
    list! :)
    Cockpit Colin, Sep 14, 2005
  6. Thanks Don - I've ordered a couple of Arthur's books from Amazon this
    morning - looks like he knows more than just a think or two about the
    Cockpit Colin, Sep 14, 2005
  7. Thank you Roland for your interesting diversion into your nieces film
    purchasing habits!
    Cockpit Colin, Sep 14, 2005
  8. Cockpit Colin

    Jan Böhme Guest

    An alternative: If your physique - or your pocketbook - can't stand a
    500/4, or if it is impractical to shoot the birds you want to shoot
    with a tripod setup, is to get a good superzoom P&S, like the Panasonic
    FZ20. The autofocus certainly is't good enough to try autofocussing in
    mid-flight with high angular and radial velocity, the way you try to do
    with your 20D -but then, this doesn't seem to work with the 20D either,
    so there...

    Howvever, because of the small actual focal length, you can do it quite
    differently in the FZ20. I usually stop down maximally, focus manually
    beforehand at my desired distance of shooting, keep the focus that way,
    and shoot as soon as you get the bird at the desired size in your
    viewfinder. If the desired distance is 15 m, I have a DOF going from
    12,5 to 18 m, which more than enough for me to be able to tell when I
    can get a sharp picture from the size of the bird in the viewfinder.

    Maybe you could try to do a simliar trick with your setup. Stop down
    three stops to f16, by raising ISO and lowering the shutter speed. At
    least ISO 800 is decent in the 20D, and besides, you say you
    essentially don't get your shots as of now, so a noisy shot is better
    than no shot, right. Also, your shutter speeds can be slowed down
    somewhat, at least in the higher range. (If 1/2000 is too slow to get a
    sharp bird, then I daresay the bird is moving so fast that you will
    never react fast enough to frame it properly anyway. Birds ar not like
    racing cars, running at an almost predictable speed, and in a very
    predictable direction...) If you do, you will get a DOF similar to mine
    at full zoom.

    You won't have the same reach as I have, though. My FZ20 has a 35mm
    focal equivalent of 432 mm at full zoom, your setup will only have 320.
    And even 432 is a bit short for most bird photography, as Don points
    out in his post. Avid bird photogs who use a superzoom P&S purchase a
    teleconverter with it. I got myself a Raynox DSC-2020, which multiplies
    focal length by 2.2x, giving me an focal length equivalent of 950 mm.
    I'm not certain that I want to recommend it - not with an FZ20, anyway
    - though. Reasonably sharp stopped down, but an ugly vignetting, low
    contrast and considerable CA. People say much nicer things about the
    Olympus TCON-17, which has a multiplier of 1,7x or Minolta's ACT-100,
    which is 1.5x. I was probably too greedy for focal length :).

    Why this OT info about how you shoot birds with a superzoom P&S? Well,
    put it this way: An FZ20 (or perhaps an FZ30, these days) with a good
    1.7x teleconverter costs at least six times less, and weighs at least
    three times less than the telephoto lens alone that would allow you to
    shoot the same frame with a 20D. Even if money wouldn't be an issue,
    flexibility and portability might. Sure, the heavy expensive Canon lens
    would get you much nicer bird pictures on your 20D than anything I can
    get with my Panny. (Panasonic's line strategy seems to be to make
    really nice cameras with class-leading optics, and lots of nice and
    practical features, and then stick crummiest possible sensor into it.)
    But would you actually have the occasion too shoot them? Would you
    really bring this setup with you every time you go out for a walk in
    the countryside, the way I bring my FZ20?

    And most of my good bird shots have been impromptu shots as the
    occasion arose, not shots taken when explicitely out to shoot birds.

    The way I see it, if one really wants to go into bird shooting, a good
    superzoom P&S is an almost necessary complement to one's DSLR.

    Jan Böhme
    Jan Böhme, Sep 14, 2005
  9. Cockpit Colin

    Clark Martin Guest

    Try going to fixed focus, either at infinity or not far from it
    (depending on just how close the birds are). I've found for my main use
    (photographing trains) that the AF is more of a problem than solution.
    The subjects are almost always 10+ meters away and usually there isn't
    enough of a difference in focus between that and infinity to bother
    about. But the AF sitting there trying to lock on is a problem as I get
    way out of focus shots sometimes.

    Even if you are focusing at something short of infinity then fix that
    focus in (focus on a point on the ground the same distance), then wait
    for the birds to get close and shoot off several shots. Hopefully one
    or two will be sharp enough.

    Also try trading f-stop for speed. I know with film I never found
    anything that had motion blur at 1/1000 S (fastest speed on that camera).
    Clark Martin, Oct 4, 2005
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