I spent an hour today stalking a Red-shouldered Hawk trying to get a good shot of her in flight. Here’s what I learned:
Shoot in Manual or Shutter Priority mode
I had plenty of light, and a fast (F/2.8) telephoto lens, but I had the camera in Aperture priority at F/4.0, so my shutter speeds were in the 1/1000 to 1/1600 range most of the time. I thought that was fast enough, but it wasn’t. If I had to take the shots over again, I’d have it set to 1/4000 or maybe even faster. Remember, Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization only helps counteract hand shake. You’re still tracking a fast-flying bird with a long lens. I had plenty of ISO “to burn,” so I should have used that to get a faster shutter speed.
Use 3-D tracking for autofocus
Obviously I was in “C” Continuous focusing mode, but I had selected the “use all points” mode for picking the focusing point. That’s the one that looks like a white rectangle. It wasn’t fast enough, and it got confused by things like trees and power lines that came into the scene as I tracked the hawk. I got some much better pictures of another bird using the 3-D tracking mode, which looks like a cross-hair. How that works is that you have a focus point highlighted in the viewfinder (it defaults to the center one). As the action starts, put that focus point on the subject, and press and hold the AF-ON button. That tells the camera what you want to focus on. Keep that held down, and track with the camera. Watch as the focus point moves around, following the subject as it moves around within the frame. Shoot away. I found this mode to be extremely accurate, and it didn’t get confused when a bird flew over a power line.
Before and After
Here is a shot of the hawk at 1/1250 with “use all points” AF selection:
And here is a shot of a Blue Jay at 1/2500 in the 3-D AF tracking mode: