I received many comments and emails when I posted this image yesterday. People mentioned that they can never get images of moving birds this sharp or for that matter, anything moving fast. Some said they need to get a better camera in order to capture images like this.
They are actually right. You do need a camera and lens with certain capabilities to make these images. But there are also techniques that you need to know and know really well so you are not thinking about the steps as your taking them. You ask, "Jim, how do I get that proficient?" I answer, "Practice, practice and more practice."
Today, I thought I would take you through the steps I use to capture not one images but a series of images of a bird in flight. Let me tell you what equipment I am using and why. First, I should say that we spent this past weekend at St. Augustines, Florida (about a three hours car ride from our house). The reason we took this trip was to visit the St. Augustine Alligator Farm: a type of zoo. It has every species of alligator and crocodile but we were there for its rookery. There is a section with tress growing and waterways moving through the trees. In the water are many, many alligators and crocks. You walk on a wooden boardwalk above the water and the alligators.
Throughout the year, wild birds of many kinds have taken to visiting the rookery and building their nests and having their babies. It is a great place for nature photographers to photograph these birds and their nests. When I shot this sequence, I was standing in front of the area in the rookery looking at trees with literally hundreds of birds sitting in branches, building nests, sitting on eggs or tending to their newly born chicks.
My camera is a Nikon D300s. The lens I was using is a Nikon 70 -200 VR 2.8. What does that mean? It means that the lens will zoom from 70-200mm. It has a fixed aperture of 2.8 and also has a built in stabilizer. First, the stabilizer helps with camera shake while hand holding the camera, thus helping you get sharper images. The 2.8 is a very fast lens and when used in bright sunlight, (like I was on this day), it allowed me to shoot at speeds of 1/8000 of a sec. During the sequence of images that I will be showing you, the speed used was 8000 and 6400. Again this helps with making a sharp image basically stopping the action in 1/8000 of a second.
I am not going to get into all the intricacies of exposure but I was in aperture priority mode. If I am shooting outside and the light will be changing, I always shoot in that mode. When in aperture priority, I choose the aperture I want to use and the camera's meter selects the shooting speed and insures proper exposure. Do I ever use manual mode? Yes, I do when I know that the light is going to be constant. In this situation, I had birds flying in direct sunlight and into shade. There were a few clouds moving across the sky, also. I did not want to be metering constantly in the middle of shooting an action. It would be impossible to shoot in manual in those situations and get proper exposure. My camera is expensive and one of the reasons we use these cameras is because of the excellent built in meter. Why would I spend this type money and not trust the meter?
This sequence includes eight images. The first has an egret sitting on a branch. There was one image taken before this image but it was basically the same image so I will not use it. The time elapsed between the first image I took (not used) and the final image I used was eight seconds. That was eight images in eight seconds!!
In order to shoot this fast, I had programmed the D300's auto focus to be in AF-Continuous which means that the camera constantly tracks focus as the subject moves in and out. In this mode, the D300 (when using the optional MB-D10 multi-power battery pack) shoots eight frames per second.
Now let me recount my thinking and actions when taking this sequence. I had seen a few egrets and wood storks land on this tree (which was directly across from the rookery) and all the trees with nests. They would perch on this tree and then fly off to their nests or in search of twigs to help build their nests. One thing you need to develop if you're going to photograph birds is your power of observation. Can you just see a bird flying by and get a good image? Yes, I have have done just that but you have a better chance at getting a good image if you are ready for it. It takes patience and lots of it. To stand there holding your camera pointed at a bird looking through your lens, watching and waiting for a sign that it is about to fly off can be very difficult, physically and mentally. It takes a good amount of discipline and arm strength especially in an environment like this. A photographer could get whiplash here lol. As you're looking in one direction, an egret, wood stork, tricolor heron or spoonbill will fly right overhead or in some cases right beside you. Keeping your concentration is not always easy.
All right, I have seen the bird and am focused on it. I know my camera is set with the readings I need; 2.8 or 3.5 and 1/8000 of a second. What I do now is wait and wait. This bird sat there for over four minutes before it decided to move on. Then I saw a flinch in its body, a shift almost unnoticeably (unless you have been watching it for four minutes) lol. It reminds me of playing sports. If you're on first base and want to steal second, you need to keep your eye on the pitcher. As soon as you see a slight movement toward home plate, you take off. You need to get a jump on the pitcher and catcher. It's the same thing here. I'm trying to get a jump on this beautiful bird. The image above is when I saw the slightest movement. Then it started to rise and this beautiful large creature gracefully lifted off.
Up into the sky, its large wings in a seemingly slow ballet moved, driving it up into the blue Floridian sky. You could get mesmerized by the beauty of it and often do. If you allow yourself that second of looking and admiring, you've missed the shot. It's that simple. You take a second, just a second and let your concentration wander and you miss the shot!
Now the trick is to stay with this graceful bird as it flies off and track it through the lens. Birds do not always fly in the same direction or in a straight line. They can go up, down, right, left or any combination of those directions and you need to stay with them. Your focus point is on their body, photographing eight shots a second capturing the beauty that unfolds in front of you.
This birds flew up and started veering to my right and I had to do the same with my camera. I try this many times and am not always successful. I have many images of tail feathers, claws, tops of heads and beautiful blue sky; beautiful empty blue sky. But this time I was as one with the egret as it flew up and away. I shared his ride and enjoyed every second of it.
This is the last image and is slightly different than the one before it. Look at the wing tips.
Remember you can click on any image to see a larger view.