American Kestrel © David G Hemmings
I quite often get asked about which settings are best on the Canon Mk 1V for bird in flight photography. With that in mind, here is a quick how to guide geared towards users of the Canon 1D MK 1V. These settings can apply to other cameras and other camera manufacturers they are just labeled differently on and in the camera itself.
Here are a few important tips to get you started:
I almost exclusively use manual modefor exposing birds in flight. I do this because the backgrounds and the contrasts within those backgrounds often will change quickly and dramatically when tracking and shooting a moving subject such as a bird in flight. Aperture priority will tend to make too many exposure mistakes in this situation in my opinion.
Shooting in AI servo is highly recommended for photographing birds in flight and other fast moving subjects. Having my camera set to this focus mode will help the camera to track and acquire focus on fast moving subjects like birds.
For this setting I shoot in high speed continuous drive. Depending on the make of your camera, this allows the photographer to shoot in frame bursts of up to 10 frames per second on the MK 1V.
Focus point settings:
I use a couple of different focus point settings for shooting birds in flight for a couple of basic reasons. I will shoot with the center AF point only when I am photographing birds in flight against a busy or varied background. This will increase my chances of focusing on the bird only and not having the camera confuse the subject and hunt back and forth between background and bird. When I am shooting against a background such as a clean sky or water background or backgrounds that are farther away I will use center point focus plus surrounding AF point expansion. Usually I use 9 expansion points.
Great Egret © David Hemmings
I have the tracking sensitivity set to slow. This will stop the camera from changing the plane of focus too quickly to any object that intersects your camera/lens from the subject.
Focus technique is a factor that is overlooked when it comes to birds in flight photography. Keep in mind that this is the most difficult type of photography I have ever done (and I have done a lot!). There are little tricks that make your chances of getting a great bif shot possible. One of those tips is what I call bump and runfocus technique. The first function of doing this is to prefocus, acquire and lock focus on the bird. Prefocusing at the anticipated distance of my subject is a big help in allowing me to find and lock focus quickly. When you are trying to track and photograph a bird in flight quite often the focus will miss the bird and lock on the background. When this occurs, I will “bump” the focus button lightly to attempt to focus again on the bird. Doing this will override the delay that is set by the tracking sensitivity function.
One other technique that I use in conjunction with the bump and run is to follow the bird visually after first acquiring focus and not try to refocus on it until it starts to go out of focus (by changing plane or distance) or until I know that it is at the point where I want to make the image. You have to actually let go of, or take your finger off the focus button and just observe and track. Once I am sure the subject is at the critical point I shoot a couple of bursts and hopefully end up with some great shotsJ This technique is so important for bif shots and requires tons of practice.
Lens focus limiter switch:
I will always have this set to the longest distance as this will improve the lens focus speed capabilities. Very seldom is a bird in flight ever inside the minimum focus range of your lens! the focus to get it in focus again. I do this repeatedly as I'm visually tracking the bird. When the BIF gets to the spot I want to start making pictures, I will focus and shoot all at once. I shoot in short controlled bursts trying to time the critical moments with the best wing positions, etc. Because I have bumped the focus along, the focus is very close to where it needs to be when the moment to make pictures arrives. Then when I focus and trip the shutter it happens very quickly. If I tried to focus constantly while the bif approached I would likely miss, focus on the bg, and miss the critical moment. My goal is to keep the bird close to in focus and in the viewfinder without focusing on the bg and to do this up until the critical moment arrives. Then I try to maintain the focus while making great pictures. Bumping takes lots of practice, but if you develop this skill, it will make your keeper rate go way up.
Great Horned Owl © David Hemmings
Written by: David Hemmings. David owns and operates Natures Photo Adventures and has been published by National Geographic and many other magazines and books.