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on Jun 23, 2009 in Biological Tips

Photographing Hovering Birds

Capturing hovering birds on film is one of the funniest pastimes in wildlife photography. On my recent trip to Churchill, Canada, I had the opportunities of a lifetime to practice and capture incredible images while having loads of fun. Every time I ventured out with my camera, I learned new, better and more creative ways to shoot. A big part of this learning came from shooting with my good friend, Arthur Morris, truly a master of photographing birds. I want to share with you what I learned so you might also learn and better enjoy capturing hovering birds.


Those who have read my previous writings know I’m a manual focus kind of guy. At Churchill, I used three different setups for photographing flying birds, two manual and one autofocus. The setups were the F4e and 75-300 AF, F4e and 800f5.6 and Canon A2 and 400f5.6 Ultrasonic (head for Moose’s Camera Bag to see and understand what equipment he used today). I was able to get the same number of in-focus photographs with each system, but not the same quantity or with the same ease.

The F4 has never been regarded as a fast AF system and it isn’t. Its bright, 100% viewfinder though is great for manual focus. When used with the 800f5.6 for panning (to be covered in the next issue of the Journal) all the time, basically 90% of my flight shots came out tack sharp. The drawback though is its inflexibility. This is a system that is forever connected to the tripod. This limits my actions, so only birds that are flying basically parallel with the height of my lens can be successfully photographed. Birds directly overhead (some of the best light) just can’t be photographed. So flybys can be easily captured, but that’s shooting with your shutter release finger tied behind your back.

So to obtain mobility in capturing overhead flying birds, I switched to my 75-300. This sharp and lightweight lens does a great job of manually focusing on flying birds. In Churchill where birds are so close and in big flights, the 300mm focal length does an adequate job. But for the shy birds or flybys out in the marsh where they come out of nowhere, the 300mm is just too short. Now this setup used in autofocus mode works OK once locked on (something remedied with the F5). But that time delay in locking on the subject can be some of the best shots-lost. You must remember that with the F4 and N90s (but not the F5), you’re locked into having the subject centered when using autofocus. (This typically sucks compositionally!)

This brings me to the toy lens (as Artie calls it), the Canon 400f5.6 Ultrasonic. When it comes to birds in flight, you won’t find a better combo than the A2 and 400f5.6 (except for adding the EOS1n). The first big advantage is physical weight; there simply isn’t anything that hinders your actions with this system. Even the most inexperienced can swing up this system and get the bird in the viewfinder and in focus. Simply put, this combo was fast enough to capture everything I framed! And lastly, the A2 with its five AF sensors allows the photographer to compositionally place the subject while using autofocus. I don’t think you can find a better system at the moment for flying birds. There isn’t a place a bird can fly to escape this setup. (Sorry, I like this system a lot but not enough to switch to Canon. The F5 also makes a big difference and slight change in my plans concerning autofocus.)

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There’s no question that light is essential in good flight photographs. Actually more than any other photography, flight photography needs a certain quality and quantity of light. It can be summed up in just two words: blue skies.

Why are blue skies optimum? The vast majority of the time our subject is above us. When shooting a light colored bird such as a gull or tern against white, cloudy skies, the bird doesn’t pop (among other things). The subject, especially its primary feathers, blend in with the background. This is true for dark birds against dark, cloudy skies as well. And dark birds against white skies, I dread the thought! Properly exposing for any of this creates a nightmare as well as overexposed skies. Yuck!

Blue skies provide us with a background that makes the subject pop no matter if the subject is light or dark. Blue is also a great background because no matter how we expose for the subject, it looks good. Exposing for a light subject, the blue is overexposed, darkening it creating a deeper blue. Exposing for a dark subject against a blue sky, the sky is underexposed creating a light blue sky. But in either case, whether the blue is light or dark, it’s a blue everybody can relate to. There is no one blue we all think of for blue sky, any shade of blue is acceptable.


This brings us to exposure. This varies according to which system one is using, Nikon or Canon (and this changes with the F5). Keep in mind this info is in generalities and not carved in granite. There are a number of variables that could affect your results. For example, I rate my Agfa RSX 100 at 125 ISO slightly changing how “I” expose. Using the Canon EOS1n vs. the A2, there is also slight differences in the evaluative metering. The EOS1n is more sensitive to dark subjects and in some situations is right on while in others, it acts more like a spot meter opening up too much for dark subjects. The A2 only has 1/2 stop increments while the EOS1n has 1/3 stops. With all these examples, the subject fills at least half of the frame. Any larger doesn’t really change things, any smaller does which I’m not covering here. With all that in mind, let’s trudge foreword.

With the Nikon system, matrix metering with blue skies is pretty cut and dry (will be with the F5 as well). I point my camera up to what appears to be a middle tone blue and meter. A middle tone blue is not the lightest blue at the horizon or the darkest blue directly overhead, but at a point in between. I want my meter to give me a basic daylight exposure for this blue. So I dial in the exposure compensation needed to reach basic daylight and shoot away. Once this is done, whether a light or dark subject comes into the frame, the meter provides the correct exposure.

The Canon system is only a tad more complicated to understand. Nothing one can’t master in a relatively short time. Using the A2 and evaluative metering while shooting against a blue sky, for a white subject, dial in minus 1/2 stop and for a dark subject, leave set at zero. On a bright but slightly hazy, cloudy day, a white subject can be shot at zero or plus 1/3 (dialed in via the ISO setting) and a dark subject at zero. The Canon system opens up nicely for dark subjects, especially the EOS1n. But with Canon or Nikon, always watch what the meter is telling you.

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Photographing hovering birds, physical movement though being frozen in space must be communicated in the viewer’s mind. How can we do this when basically there is nothing in the frame that is blurred, the wings frozen in mid-beat? There are a couple of things to keep in mind.

The main thing is the well known fact that birds fly. Having them in a clear blue sky, the viewer of the image knows the bird is flying. The second thing is positioning of the subject in the frame. We want to provide our subject with enough room in the frame to continue on its path mentally.

This means that the subject’s tail is closer than its head to the edge of the frame. If possible, we want to provide a space for the subject to fly into in the frame mentally. Now this for many means shooting the flying bird in a horizontal format. While this works perfectly for “flying” birds, I suggest you try shooting vertically for hovering birds. While the subject might be a tad smaller in the frame, this format does give the photograph a new sense of drama. “Is the bird ringing up or diving down” is what the viewer of the photograph will ask themselves.

The Secret!

If I learned anything in Churchill, I learned this: to capture spectacular birds in flight photographs, you want the wind blowing away from the direction of the sun. This means the birds are flying against the wind into the light. This slows them down or makes them hover, perfect conditions for shooting. And with them heading into the sun, the sun on your back, the lighting is perfect. This makes for really easy, fun and successful shooting.

Since my return home from Churchill, I’ve put all I’ve learned into practice on many occasions. The magic I learned there works just fine down here I’m happy to say.