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15 Nov 2013

I had taken quite a fair bit of birds photograph (i.e. typically birds that are stationary), and has been trying to take to great pictures of bird in flight. So I went down to the Singapore Jurong Bird Park yesterday to practice photographing birds in flight in a more "controlled" environment.

Weather wasn't perfect - it was rather cloudy and gloomy but sufficiently bright enough to accomplish my objective with a number of nice-looking pictures of birds in flight.

Location in Park Best for Capturing Birds in Flight

There are many species of birds at Jurong Bird Park, and the following are some of the areas in the park that are best to capture birds in flight:

Pelican Cove

Pelicans are huge in size - they can span up to 3 meters with their wings spread, which makes it easy to track when they fly.

Performance Shows

The "King of the Skies Show" provides an ideal opportunity to photograph big preying birds (i.e. owls, vultures, falcon and eagles) in flight at close proximity. There are 2 show times which means that if you have missed capturing them in the 1st show, you can still go for the 2nd one.

The other show, the "High Flyers Show", offers similar opportunity to capture Toucans, Hornbills, Macaws, etc. in flight. Perhaps the only challenge is that the size of these birds are rather small and the performance is a lot larger which means that it may be more difficult to track them and longer lenses are required. Likewise, there are 2 show times.

Wetland Area

There are a number of Storks and other birds that can be photograph at close proximity in this area which is located after the Flamingo Pool. Based on my observation, they tend to have short flight around the area.

Waterfall Aviary & Lory Loft

There are many small flying birds in these areas, and they flew around really fast. Photographing them in flight is definitely a lot more difficult and challenging.

Photographing Birds In Flight

Although I'm still learning and fine-tuning my skills on how to take great pictures of bird in flight, I will still share my experience so far.

Observing and Predicting

The key to taking a nice picture of birds in flight is often in predicting when and how they will fly. It is best if you understand the nature of the type of birds you are taking. If not, it often helps by observing their movement, nature and flight path first. This will help you to better predict when and how they will fly.

Positioning and Timing

Positioning and timing the shot is equally important. Photographing birds that fly across from left to right gives more interesting picture as compared to photographing birds that fly directly towards or away from you. When photographing birds that fly across from left to right, make sure the shot is taken before the bird fly past your point so that you do not end up capturing the "backside" of the bird.

Also try positioning with the sun behind you (and not in front of you) so that a nicely exposed picture of the bird can be captured.

Equipment & Accessories

Frames Per Second

Fast cameras that allow more pictures (or frames) to be continuously taken within a second (e.g. 4-5 frames per second) would be better.

Long Telephoto Lens

Ideally, long telephoto lens of 300mm focal length or more is ideal for birds photography. An extender can be used to increase the focal length, however do note that up to 2-stops of light may be lost when using extender.

Fast-focusing lenses

As tracking is needed when photographing bird in flight, a fast-focusing lens would help especially to regain focus when it's lost during tracking. Prime lens often offers faster focusing speed.

Tripods (if necessary)

I've taken all my shots on hand-held with my Canon 5D Mark II with EF 70-200mm F/2.8L IS II USM, the longest telephoto lens that I owned at the moment, and thus would not be able to comment much on how easy is it to track and photograph bird in flight on a tripod. Personally, I find it easy to focus and track birds in flight on hand-held given the weight of my equipment is still manageable.

Note: Longer telephoto (especially 400mm and above) would be too heavy to be hand-held and thus a tripod is definitely required.

Key Camera & Lens Settings

Shutter Speed

To have a good sharp picture of a bird in flight, it is necessary to maintain a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 seconds. Compromise on the ISO and aperture if the lighting condition is not ideal.

Aperture Priority (AV) or Shutter Priority (TV) Mode

Whether AV or TV mode is used depending on the lighting condition. If the lighting condition is good where obtaining a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 seconds is not an issue, I would go on AV mode with an aperture setting of F/5.6 - F/8 for a good depth of field (DOF).

However if the lighting condition is not as ideal, I would go on TV mode with a shutter speed setting of at least 1/1000 seconds, and compensate on the ISO if the aperture is already stretched to the widest by the camera's metering.

AI Servo Auto-Focusing (Continuous Focusing)

This is necessary for tracking the bird in flight which has a changing focusing distance by just depressing the shutter button half-way and moving the focusing point together with the bird.

Continuous Drive Mode (i.e. Continuous Shooting Mode)

Yes, the camera should be continuously shooting multiple photographs in a single shutter press as the bird in flight is being tracked and focused. Don't rely on just taking a single shot  and hoping it will coming out great.

Center Focusing Point

Set the focusing point on the camera to the center as this is the primary spot which will be used to focus and track on the bird in flight. This spot is also usually the most sensitive and accurate when focusing.

Set Minimum Focusing Distance to the Farthest on the Lens

On most long telephoto lens, there is a minimum focusing distance settings. Switching this setting to the farthest will allow a shorter searching time for the lens to get back into focus when the focus is lost during the tracking.

Focusing and tracking birds in flight is not as easy as it may sound, especially looking through the view finder of the camera. The window to focus, track and take the shots is a mere 2-3 seconds. Hence lots of practicing is required.

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