Birds in Flight

by Steven Smith | Apr 15, 2021 | 0 comments

The first time I began thinking about freezing bird action was several years ago, while attempting to photograph hummingbirds. No matter how hard I tried to get those wings to freeze, I just couldn’t accomplish it. Then after much research, I discovered that I needed a fast flash to get the job done. That’s what led me to purchase my speedlights.

Blue Jay. Photo © Steven Smith.

Now, after using them for several years, I wonder how I ever got along without them. After successfully using them to capture great hummingbird shots as well as numerous other subjects (including freezing the action of water splashes), I decided to try something different. For many years, I used my speedlights to capture static songbird pictures, and I loved the results. Now it was time to add some flying songbirds to my portfolio. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was going to be another speedlight success story.

Feeding songbirds during the fall and winter months affords great opportunity to photograph them. The concept is a simple one—set up the speedlights to illuminate the path which the birds most frequently use flying to and from the feeder. Then fire off shots during the bird’s flight near the feeder. I use three Yongnuo YN560-III speedlights controlled by the Yongnuo YN560-TX flash controller, which slides into my camera’s hot shoe. These are powered by Panasonic eneloop rechargeable batteries, and I can shoot all day long when they are fully charged.

The speedlights themselves may be individually adjusted for power and zoom, and each can easily be set from the flash controller. One of the wonderful aspects of these flashes is the great distance from the camera at which I can fire them—over 125 yards away, which I find almost unbelievable! To support my speedlights, I use light stands which are adjustable to eight feet in height.

Although the concept is simple, the logistics of capturing flying songbirds at a feeder requires much planning and forethought. It all revolves around WHERE YOU ARE GOING TO BE SHOOTING FROM. Obviously, you must build some sort of a blind, or, better still, take advantage of an existing outbuilding or a window in your house. In my situation, the birds are flying to and from a platform feeder attached just behind and above the deck rail. I shoot from a bedroom window in my home. If you do not have a feeder within shooting range of one of your windows, you may consider relocating a feeder because of how handy this is.

Another consideration in the placement of your feeder is the background. The bokeh (out-of-focus part of the photo) should be pleasant and not distracting. Otherwise, you may want to build some sort of a background that is complementary. In my situation, I have open yard, then woods. The distance to the trees gives them a more pleasant soft focus. Of course, you could also consider making a composite by layering the bird into a completely different background in post processing.

Since my feeder is a large one that birds approach from all sides, I needed to narrow the entrance to encourage more birds to fly through my intended focus zone. I accomplished this by stapling a thin piece of foam board to the far side of the wooden feeder, making the right side the easiest path of entry.

Mine is not the perfect situation, because the window from which I am shooting does not afford an exact parallel shot to many birds’ flight. Also, I have a steep hill off my deck, restricting me from placing all of my speedlights where I would wish. Instead, I am forced to place two on the deck itself and the third some distance back in the yard.

The bottom line is to set up your speedlights parallel to and eye level with most birds’ flight, if you can. If you can’t, you will still be successful to some extent because of the birds’ erratic flight patterns and body angles. So, in the end, I have my first and second speedlights set up on the deck about six and eight feet from the outer edge of the feeder, aimed to illuminate the front and sides of incoming birds. The first is aimed about a foot in front of the feeder’s edge, and the second is aimed about five feet beyond that. The back speedlight is placed in the lawn at the bottom of the hill about eleven feet from the feeder, aiming straight into the front entrance of the feeder. This illuminates the backs of incoming birds and the heads of the outgoing.

I have two other feeders in my backyard which I close down on days I am photographing birds. I put a big chunk of suet in the platform feeder along with the sunflower seeds so that during photography time it is the only cafeteria open for business.

Now it’s time to capture some birds in flight! I always shoot on a somewhat dark, cloudy day, because the speedlights will give the best results when the ambient light is fairly low. After filling up the “cafeteria” with food, I set up my speedlights and turn them on. Then it’s off to my bedroom blind where I have my camera, with cable release attached, mounted on a tripod near the window.

Mourning Doves. Photo © Steven Smith.

My lens of choice is the Sigma 150-600 mm. At the distance from which I am shooting with my full- frame Canon EOS 6D, 450 mm is about right for capturing chickadees and finches, and about 350-375 mm for capturing larger woodpeckers, blue jays, and doves. You must leave plenty of wiggle room when framing, and plan on cropping later. This is because you don’t know exactly where in the frame your flying bird will be captured…and you don’t want to miss it!

I begin by turning the flash controller on and setting all of my flashes to wide angle zoom and 1/8 power. I set my camera to f/11, ISO 500, and 1/200 second shutter speed. On slightly darker days, I set my f/stop to 10 and lower the shutter speed to 1/100. I may also raise my ISO to 800, but I will not go higher than that. If the day brings more brightness, it may be necessary to raise the flash power to 1/4 and lower the ISO, but the results will not be as good. Nowadays I try to shoot only when I can dial in the 1/8 flash power with its corresponding settings.

Now the fun begins! I open the window to just above the lens opening. Since its winter and cold out there, I put a blanket at the bottom of the bedroom door to keep the cold from filtering through the rest of the house.

I auto-focus on my feeder at a spot (outside center) I am assuming will compare with the distance the bird is from the camera in its flight path. I then change to manual focus so the focus does not change, and compose the picture in the projected flight path. The feeder is just outside of my composition. The camera is set to continuous mode, and I am ready for action.

When a bird flies within two feet of the center of the feeder, I press the release. It is easier to capture incoming birds because they are moving more slowly. But with practice it is possible to capture great outgoing shots as well.

You will notice that your natural background will be very dark at my recommended settings, so make sure you capture a couple of background shots by themselves at proper exposure onto which you can then layer your bird in post processing, if desired.

Northern Cardinal. Photo © Steven Smith.

Even with careful planning and set-up, this system of freezing the action is still hit and miss—mostly miss. Many birds will fly just in front of or behind your area of focus, and many in-focus birds will be captured in unappealing positions. It is also normal to see a little bit of ghosting in the captures of the faster flyers (but this can be fixed in post processing). As good as your best pictures will be, they will still require skilled post processing to make them look exceptionally good.

Even with the many misses you will encounter, if you have steady bird traffic, the odds are in your favor of achieving some very nice shots.

If you are like me, you will quickly fall in love with this type of photography if you give it a try. Freezing the action will open your eyes to an aspect of God’s creation you cannot otherwise see—the acrobatic positions birds are capable of.

Pine Siskin
Pine Sisken. Photo © Cheryl Shank.

We got a head start, here at Nature Friend, trying Mr. Smith’s technique. This is a shot Cheryl captured of a Pine Siskin coming in for food.

We opened a window to shoot at birds about six feet outside the window. We used two flashes which were positioned inside our home shooting out through windows. The glass in front of the camera lens was open, so no flash glare could negatively impact the photo taken.

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