Nailing High Action Daylight Bird Photography


Read how AndyR doesn't believe in the word "impossible" as he sets out the way to nail really high action bird images in daylight



I’ve made my career by taking images that others think are impossible. In my view there is nothing that is impossible with photography, it’s just a problem that needs to be thought out and solved, like any other. That’s always been my attitude and many times I’ve been sitting photographing stuff whilst others look on, usually tutting and talking about what I’m doing (because they have no vision or imagination). I just ignore it, get on and then get tremendous satisfaction from wiping their smiles away when I show the images I’ve nailed. I remember when I was doing my Little Owl project for the book that getting a Little Owl swooping seemed impossible. No one had done it. But I sat down, thought about it, and got these.....

The seemingly undooooooo-able. Done by a bloke who supports West Ham and as usual now copied by everyone else. When I did them they appeared in the national press, then around the world, as they were in daylight. No flash, no tricks just daylight shots. So how did I do them? Well first I refused to give up and refused to think it was impossible, that's what I want you to get a grip on first. So look it's a simple case of problem solving to do this. I sat back with a cup of tea and worked it all out, here were the facts:

1) Fieldcraft - The owls were swooping down onto a post from their nest. They emerged from the darkness into the light and the whole flight took about a second and a half. Since they emerged silently from darkness I could not predict when they would come, therefore no AF system in the world would work. But I could control where they came and the angle at which they landed. This was vital as you will see.

2) Aperture - Since the AF had no time to lock on I had to resort to an old fashioned method to get the images. After watching the owls swoop down onto the post I gradually edged it backwards until they were almost coming straight down onto it. Initially I did this so they came fully wings out towards the camera then as the success rate improved I got them to give me sideways shots. In all cases I worked out, by more observation, where the point was that they put the brakes on and threw their wings out. That was my focus point. And since I'd moved the post backwards, the distance between when I first saw them and the post was small, enough that an aperture of f11 would get it sharp. In fact more that get it sharp, it would allow me some latitude either side to account for my reactions and changes in the owl's flight path. So as long as they flew straight, and I could trigger it at the right moment, I had a 50-50 chance of getting it sharp. Now that's the aperture sorted, f11.

3) Shutter speed and ISO - I worked out from trial and error that I needed a shutter speed of 1/4000th to stop the owls in flight. So to get f11 @ 1/4000th second I needed to set an ISO of 4000. Now you many think OMG that kind of ISO is madness, but it's not. Modern cameras can do it. They can do it and do it very well indeed. You just need to remove this limitation from your mind and ignore the naysayers on the web that just dream about taking pictures rather than doing it.

That was that. I was fully setup, all I had to do was trigger it at the right moment (which I did myself) and it was in the bag......well that and a lot of pictures! But the impossible wasn't impossible. Now that's a manual focus example, let's look at AF........

High action bird photography is nothing new. For years protagonists of the dark art of high speed flash have used highly complex setups to get amazing images of birds in flight, amazingly lit and beautifully captured in mid flight. They are incredible pictures for sure, but they suffer from a few limitations. The first is that it’s a camera trap that takes them, i.e. a beam trigger. Yes it’s skill to set it up but you haven’t actually pressed the trigger yourself and in my opinion that disconnects you from the subject. The second is that it’s very very limited to a bird coming out of a nest hole or another very predictable place (such as a kingfisher diving into a bucket of fish). The third is simply that most of us cannot be bothered with all the setup, cannot afford the kit and don’t have the time to be this specialist. I’m in this crowd. I want the shots, I want the action but I want to do it with me behind the camera taking the shot. With me so far? The issue with all this is that technically it hasn’t been possible to get the shutter speeds required to stop the bird in flight without incurring so much noise that it’s not worth it. Hence why flash is used. Well no longer. With modern DLSRs like the 1DX2 and D5, plus the new stars like the 5D4, it’s never been easier to get these kind of high action images. The AF is fast enough now to keep up with almost anything and shooting at high ISO no longer presents a challenge to be scared of as most cameras produce stunning results upto ISO 6400. So now the only excuse not to try high action bird photography is one coming from a lack of confidence and I’m gonna give you that in spades so read on…..

Now perhaps at this stage I should differentiate high action bird photography from flight photography, as it’s very different. Flight photography, the art of getting a bird in open flight, is pretty easy as it’s usually against a simple background like sky and the subject is moving very consistently and usually pretty slowly. Any camera can handle this kind photography. What I am talking about is the high action erratic flight behaviour that birds exhibit during their daily lives, such as swooping, drinking etc.

Let me show you an example from India that I just did......

This incredible image shows a Blue Tailed Bee Eater swooping down into the water, I am guessing to drink. It’s motion was erratic and unpredictable, it appeared from a different place each time and plunged in only a few times. It was one of the toughest images that I have ever considered taking, but I decided to do it and what’s more I got all my clients to try too. As it’s fun!

Here's another from the same sequence:

Simple, iconic and so tough to get right? Impossible right? Nope. Entirely "Doooooo-able". You just gotta know how so here's my step by step little guide....

1) Set a high shutter speed - As with the Little Owl I worked out by trial and error I needed between 1/2500th and 1/4000th second to be sure of freezing the motion. To get this took an ISO of 1600 in daylight, and I gotta say this here, you have to do this in daylight as you need the speed! I feel the need, the NEED FOR SPEED!!! A small homage to Goose and Maverick for the Metal Pigeon Club out there. Now a lot of you will not want to setup such a high ISO because you are worried about noise. Sure that’s true it’s a noisier image at ISO 1600 than ISO 100 but with most modern cameras it's really not an issue. So don't worry about it, set ISO 1600 or 3200, set an aperture of around f5.6 - f6.3 (to keep the shutter speed high) and get a shutter speed of at least 1/2500th second. If you have a 1DX2, 5D4 or D5 then you can push the ISO to 3200 and bump up the shutter speed. Like leather studded miniskirts, you can never have too many in your wardrobe. Ok a bit weird.

2) Select a zone based AF selection - you are going to be photographing a very small bird zipping around the water, randomly. It will be quite small probably in the frame, less than 50% anyway. So forget all grand ideas of using just one focus point for accuracy, it won't work and you will just get a lot of lovely sharp shots of water and nothing else. Selecting all the AF points I found was also a recipe for disaster as the contrast of the water dominated the scene, plus selecting all the AF points slows down the AF slightly. So instead I selected the central group of 9 points, which gave me some latitude for getting it wrong but kept the AF fast enough to react. Groups certainly work better for this kind of photography.

3) Tuning the AF - you have to get the AF working at maximum sensitivity to do this, so if you can tune it I suggest you do it. Canon people just put the tracking sensitivity to 0 or +1 and select the Cross Hair type AF points for maximum speed and accuracy.

That's the hard bit, then you just gotta knuckle down to hard work. If you are a right eyed photographer, i.e. you use the right in the viewfinder then do what sports photographers do and keep the left one open too. It will allow your peripheral vision to alert you when something is flying into view, as your eye is a 50mm lens and much wider than the 500mm range you will have your right eye fixed to.

Here's a few more from the same shoot....

You can see the kind of things that it's possible to get, cool stuff that you can only dream of. All you gotta do is try, and then keep trying when it looks impossible, especially when the talentless tell you it is. Nothing is impossible with photography, it's just a question of working out a plan......