BIFs or... Birds in Flight
Getting a sharp, clear image of a bird in flight (or BIF) is a goal of most avian photographers. Some people seem to have a knack for finding and following birds in a blank sky while the rest of us struggle. This is a situation where gear matters as much as technique. You must have a lens with enough range to zero in on the bird and a camera with good auto focus. Holding the long lens steady while following an often erratic bird's path is a skill that only comes with practice.
A lot of practice. And more practice. And then even more practice.
And one of the best birds to practice on is the Great Blue Heron. He is BIG, he flies slow and usually in a fairly straight trajectory. The trick is to get one to fly toward you, not away. And, of course, keep up with the flight.
So... we were on our crates with tripods at an old pier in Surfside watching two Great Blue Herons do a territorial strut waaaaay off in the distance. Really too far to get both of them in focus and besides they kept moving behind some foliage.
You would need about f/22 to maybe get both in focus. Sometimes you can focus on one bird, then the other and do a composite in post-processing but it is still tricky. Mostly you just admire the action at this distance.
And then one decided to leave.
This was just about perfect. The light was behind us so the shadows under his wings were not too bad and he was facing us.
Now, how cool is that? His wing span is over six feet, and he is streched out about as much as possible. If he was closer, wings or feet or something would have been clipped.
I was able to follow and keep him in focus over the marsh as he flew slow, steady and low. I really like this one of him announcing his intentions. These are the biggest year-round birds we have (only the Sandhills and Whooping Cranes are larger) so he is really King of the Hill.
And then sticking the landing. This series of 20 or so shots was taken from a tripod. My camera, the Nikon D810 shoots 5 fps, slow for newer cameras, but it was plenty fast for this guy. Take off to near landing was 21 seconds; I shot several short bursts as he passed in front of me and kept him in focus the entire time. That is an average about one shot per second. And the fact he was at a distance helped as well. Close moving objects need more depth of field and move in and out of your view much faster.
There were several Great Blues flying in and out of the shallow marsh. We were treated to another territorial display at much closer range. This time, they were almost always over lapping in the frame, not much luck in separating the two birds for a fancy post-processing composite. Funny how they mimic each other's behavior and posture with this very ritualized behavior.
After missing some close shots as the GBHs flew toward us at an angle, one finally flew straight across in front and I kept up with him. Since they are such BIG birds, you will need at least f/8 to get both wings in focus when they are close. Tripod BIFs can work if the bird is near eye level. Think about Smith Oaks at High Island where you are on the platform and the Great Egrets and Spoonbills are flying across your line of sight. Much harder to shoot UP at a flying bird with the tripod.
Hand-held BIFs are a bigger challenge. Again, try to find a big, slow steady bird flying toward you for practice. If you can't find a cooperative Great Blue Heron, then Brown Pelicans are great subjects. This one was at Anahuac, but you can find them easily at Texas City Dike. They fly slow and straight, except when they turn to dive.
One thing that I am finding very helpful for BIFs is changing my auto-focus mode from a single spot to a nine-spot matrix. Here is a long and technical article about auto-focus settings you can wade through if you like, but the gist of it is:
You choose an initial focus point and once the camera acquires focus on the subject, it will engage the surrounding focus points to track subject movement. The number of surrounding focus points to use can be selected in camera menu.
For me, having the nine surrounding focus points active compensates for my less than steady tracking with a 10 lbs rig. Try it if you are used to using a single spot focus for BIFs; you might be surprised with the results.
And success breeds confidence. As my keeper rate climbs, I am game for trying all those flying birds I used to skip. This is the Red-tailed Hawk we are calling Snaggle Tail over near the Intracoastal Canal at Surfside. He was on a pole when we came up and obliged us by flying toward us as well. When you get a chance to get out of the vehicle for a perched raptor, crank up the shutter speed as much as you can because he is going to fly. Learn to make your adjustments ahead of time, or by feel; you shouldn't waste time looking at your settings because he is going to fly.
As we were leaving Brazoria National Wildlife late one afternoon I saw something white waaaaay off in a field. And then another blotch of white. There are no feral cats out there that I know of, it wasn't a Caracara so Bill stopped and backed up. Looking through the binoculars I realized it was a bird.
On the ground.
There were TWO White-tailed Hawks out in the field and we managed to get a few good shots at an extreme distance and in the fading light. This is where gear really really does matter. The 500mm f/4 plus the 1.4 teleconverter gives a focal length of 700mm and the D810 36mp sensor still allows for a good sized crop (10mp in the image above). And the fact this flight image was shot at ISO 2000 at 5:18 pm on a dark winter's day. We had just been laughing that sometimes our best shots, the best opportunities happen late in the day.
Do you take a lot of BIF shots? Are you happy with your results? Are you just happy you know what BIF stands for now? Let me know in the comments below!