Playing Around, Small Birds in Flight
This week saw some weird weather here with some hot humid days mixed with wonderful, sunny, yet dry and comfortable days, then some showers and high winds thrown in to keep us on our toes. This seems to have discouraged a lot of visitors from showing up, but, of course, did nothing to discourage the birds from still coming in to feed every day regardless of weather conditions. With few human visitors, I decided this was as good a time as any to begin playing around with trying to capture some of these colorful small birds in flight.
As always, click on any image for a larger, sharper version.
I have had a fair amount of success photographing large birds in flight ( click here to see diving Pelicans, and here to see shots of Bald Eagles in flight, or here to see Sandhill Cranes at Bos del Apache NWR ) but this was my first serious attempt at getting small birds in flight, and as I soon discovered, this is an entirely different game! The degree of difficulty is much higher here and it is going to take some adjustments and a lot of practice before I manage to capture truly good shots, but for my first couple of days of hit and miss techniques, I find some of these images to be at least half way decent.
As I soon discovered, lighting conditions here in the yard are not terribly friendly for this type of photography. First off, there are large Mesquite tree limbs hovering over the area where these shots are taken and the tree’s limb shadows keep creeping over the shooting area as the sun moves across the sky, making exposure adjustments constantly changing. Trying to find a decent uncluttered background is also challenging.
I decided to start my first practice session concentrating on the ever entertaining Kiskadees and set a three foot long Mesquite log on the ground about 25 feet in front of me, positioned so the early morning sun was directly behind me, and the log perfectly perpendicular to my line of sight.
Then I made up some half inch balls of our peanut butter/lard/cornmeal mix ( their favorite food ) and laid a half dozen of them on top of the log, then sat back and waited for the Kiskadees to discover them and start their common feeding technique of diving down to the log and picking off the bait in flight as they would normally do off the ground.
The trick here is to be able to correctly guess where and when the bird will pick off the bait, and then be sure that it is in focus and properly exposed, no big deal … right? Wrong! No focus system that I am aware of can seize onto something so small traveling at such a great speed, so one has to prefocus on where you think the bird will be and then fire off a quick series of shots when you first see the bird start his move for the bait, then hope you guessed right and that one of your series of clicks happens to catch him at the optimum spot.
Turns out that seldom happens. If only one in ten shots happen to catch the subject right where you wanted it, you then have to factor in the possibility that the wings may well not be in position for what you want to capture, for instance, they may be covering the head, or may be straight out as opposed to vertical.
The poor, as in limited, light in the yard makes it impossible to get any kind of DOF ( depth of field ) so I am always shooting at F4 or just a little higher if the light is cooperating, so getting all of the bird in focus is pretty much impossible. The rule of thumb for freezing a bird’s wings in flight is that a shutter speed of 1/1500th of a second is about the minimum that will work, and, with big birds I find that to be true. But with these little guys, you really have to be talking about something closer to 1/3000th and even that won’t do the trick sometimes.
Then there is the noise factor as you move up in speed with what ISO you need to use to be able to get the proper shutter speed to freeze movement. My D810 will produce decent results as high as ISO 800 and sometimes up to ISO 1100, but beyond that, the noise is just too much to be able to produce a decently clean image.
So, with all these facts to take into consideration, and the degree of difficulty that results, I am reasonably happy to get several images that are almost what I would consider good … but unfortunately, none that I would consider good enough, not yet anyway.
But it is going to be fun trying to figure this all out!
And I am fortunate to have all kinds of cooperative, read hungry, subjects that will show up any time I need them.
In case you were wondering, these Kiskadee images were the result of two sessions over two days totaling about 8 hours of shooting. I erased probably 5 of every six shots I took directly in camera as I took them because the bird was not in the image or was completely out of focus. Even eliminating that many shots before downloading images to the computer, I still downloaded about 500 shots to further check out on the computer screen, so it turns out that I probably took 3000 shots to get 20 half way decent images. I surely hope I can find a way to improve on that.
Next up, Green Jays in Flight
These birds require a different setup to shoot. I placed a tray feeder filled with sunflower seeds on top of a small table in an effort to get it high enough off the ground to give me a decent background of OOF ( out of focus ) bushes.
I then place the table and tray feeder about two feet in front of and about 4 feet below an overhead branch that the jays can land on before dropping down to the feeder.
I then can prefocus somewhere behind the feeder yet in front of the limb so as to perhaps catch the jay in focus on his flightpath down to the feeder. Needless to say, the odds of one of your shots catching the jay in the exact right spot, and with the proper wing position, are not all that high. Yet, shoot enough shots and eventually some of them do work.
Again, DOF is an issue with these shots also, as there simply is not enough light here to be able to get the birds in focus from beak to tail, especially in the type of shot shown just above.
The shot above, though certainly not in proper focus, is exactly why I would like to be able to perfect my technique. Some of the flight positions randomly captured are simply fascinating to me.
Altamira Orioles, An Unexpected Subject !
Shown above is the mesquite log slathered with our peanut butter/lard/cornmeal mixture ( bait ), as I had it set up for the second day of Kiskadee shots. And I was very pleasantly surprised when the Altamira Orioles decided that they wanted in on the feast.
These brilliantly colored birds are going to be fun to capture once I figure out how to advance my small birds in flight technique. Stay tuned!
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