Happiness is a Sharp Bird in Flight
I love bird photography. It's the chase, the pursuit, and the elusive nature of the birds who intentionally keep their distance from us humans. Yet, if you are patient and position yourself in the right place at the right time, you can capture their behavior with your camera. This means setting that alarm well in advance of sunrise, and getting out there early! Can you go at sunset? Sure, but in my experience, birding is better in the morning.
Besides waking up with the roosters, the other problem most people face is blurry birds in flight. It takes a bit of practice, but here are four basic keys to sharp bird photos.
Above: Black Skimmer - Camera Settings: 1/2500, f5.6, ISO 400
1) FAST SHUTTER SPEED: You want to use at least 1/1000, and if possible even faster. This will ensure that the wings will be largely frozen. Extra points if you can capture water drops and ocean spray.
Above: Black Skimmer reflection - Camera settings: 1/2500, f5.6, ISO 400
2) TRIPOD: Yes, I know it may seem a bit awkward at first, but a tripod is a necessity for long sessions of shooting birds. Remember, the goal here is to come home with tack-sharp photos that can be blown up huge, and hung on a wall. If you've already spent the energy to wake up and drive there, go the extra mile and use a stable platform. If you are not sure which tripod is for you, check my article "Finding the Perfect Tripod."
Above: Black Skimmer hunting - Camera Settings: 1/2500, f5.6, ISO 320
3) WIDE APERTURE, BUT NOT THAT WIDE: At f2.8 it's a bit too shallow to keep the entire bird in focus. Instead, go for something with more depth of field like f4 or f5.6. You will still be able to blur the background nicely and bring attention to your bird.
Above: An Oyster Catcher runs from the wave - Camera Settings: 1/2500, f5.6, ISO 320
4) PUMP UP THE ISO: Don't worry about noise/grain. Since you are shooting with such a fast shutter, you will absolutely require a higher ISO to get enough light into the camera. The wider aperture helps, but at sunrise, there just isn't enough light to shoot at ISO 100 or 200. Think more 400 or 800.
Above: A Tern carries a nice catch in his bill - 1/2500, f5.6, ISO 250
Above: A Tern hovers while scanning the ocean for food - Camera Settings: 1/2500, f5.6, ISO 320
Again, photographing birds in flight takes time to master. The more you do it, the better you'll get. When you finally see that crisp, sharp prize winning photo on your computer screen, you'll be hooked!
Here's a short video I made to help get you amped up and ready to go!
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