Birds in flight photography, Nikon D700

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:

The bird's feathers are blurry

And here is a shot of a Blue Jay at 1/2500 in the 3-D AF tracking mode:

The bird's feathers are sharp

8 thoughts on “Birds in flight photography, Nikon D700

  1. westi (subscribed)

    Nice details Mark. I too usually shoot in Aperture priority mode and had similar problems shooting the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run last weekend. It doesn’t help that my ageing Canon 300D doesn’t have a tracking autofocus mode apart from when you have it in sports mode.

  2. Gropius

    Very nice! Is your subject matter typically birds? Several photographers with Sarasota Audubon would be interested in your work & blog…will forward them a link.

  3. Mark Post author

    Gropius,

    Not usually, but I’m considering doing more bird photography. They make for challenging and rewarding subjects. Unfortunately, to do it right, I’d probably need to spend a lot more money on lenses (and maybe even a DX body for the crop factor).

  4. Birdzilla

    Saw a picture of a WESERTN KINGBRD in flight in RANGE magazine this must be one of the more dificult pictures to get showing a bird as agile as the KINGBIRD in flight

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