Thursday, August 9, 2012

Capturing Birds in Flight

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wildlife photography is challenging and bird photography ranks among the most challenging.

Birds in flight photography is the ultimate challenge for bird photographers. I will use this blog to share tips and techniques that I have found helpful over the years. Most of my discussion will be related to Canon and Olympus, but that’s easily transferred to Nikon and other cameras. The most important thing in bird photography is finding birds! You may possess the finest camera equipment on the planet and be a professionally skilled photographer, but you need to find birds. You need to stalk and study birds, know their behavior and habitat. The more you know about birds, the more opportunity you will have to photograph them well. Another point to keep in mind is any bird can make a fantastic or even award winning photo. You don’t need to seek out exotic birds in Costa Rica or Africa for that spectacular photo, any one of your backyard or supermarket birds can reveal to your camera that one of a kind photo.

The next important tip, carry you camera at all times, you have to be ready when that split second opportunity presents itself to you. Some people think their great shots were lucky because they happened to be in the right place at the right time. It’s not as lucky as you may think, you had your camera and you knew how to use it, without that there is no chance to make the shot. Some luck but a lot you. Your camera.........don't leave home without it!!!!

White-crowned Sparrow
Equipment: I'm not going to go into a lot of detail about camera equipment at this time but just a brief overview. Most bird photographers use Canon or Nikon with with a sprinkling using other brands such as Olympus, Panasonic and Sony. Both Canon and Nikon offer a wide range of bird type lenses(wish they were bird like in weight). A good bird photograph can be obtained with inexpensive equipment even an IPhone if you can get very close to the bird.  However, unless the bird is in a cage or dead, the likelihood of getting close are remote indeed. So what this means is your probably going to spend a good amount of money on equipment if you get hooked. 

Both the camera and the lens are important. In the digital photography world today, manufacturers are bringing out new camera bodies every several years with more bells and whistles and performance improvements.  Choose your lens carefully, that's one piece of equipment that will define the quality of your photos. Once you have a lens that you adore and gives you the WOW pictures, you will probably own it for life plus about 3 or 4 or more others.

Two important characteristics of lenses are focal length and aperture.  When digital cameras were designed the sensor size was changed in relationship to the 35mm camera for some cameras.  Cameras that use a sensor size the same as the 35mm film are called Full Frame Cameras.  In that case when a 300mm lens is put on a full frame camera, it's a 300mm lens just like in the film days.
Cameras with smaller sensors such as the Olympus E-1, E-3 and E-5 have a 2.0 Crop Factor. Therefor in the case of an Olympus E-3 placing a 300mm lens give it the equivalent of a 600mm lens.  You will find much technical discussion on a full frame system compared to a reduced sensor size system.
That's beyond the scope of this discussion. However, a reduced sensor size such as the Oly E-3 or the Canon 7D (crop factor 1.6) is a definite plus for the bird photographer. You gain a smaller and lighter lens with a longer focal length. Here is an extreme example. Take a full frame Canon Camera and attach the $14000 9.9 pound Canon EF 800mm F5.6 lens and you have an 800mm system.
Take the Canon 7D camera, attach the EF 1.4 extender and the EF 400 F5.6 lens and you have a 896mm system with a cost of about $2000.00 (lens + extender) and a weight of about 3 pounds.
Have you ever tried to swing a 10 pound lens around hand held to catch a bird in flight?

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