Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Wing & A Prayer

So you think you've got a fast shutter finger, eh? Faster than a speeding Chickadee? Well, we'll see about that. It's high time we talk about your timing.

Speedy Black-capped Chickadee (c) John Ashley

People are slow, birds are fast.

Bird wingbeats are even faster. Capturing birds in flight with your camera is challenging, to put it gently. But there are at least two ways that you can succeed. You can rely on luck, as in winning-lottery-ticket luck. And you can practice.

Practicing your bird photography isn't hard (or photos of any fast, wild animals -- like children). But getting good at it takes patience and concentration. And if your camera is a digital species, practicing will only cost you a few electrons, a handful of sunflower seeds, and some time. If you're still using film, well, we need to talk. This might finally be the season for you to migrate over the digital divide.

For this particular exercise, all you need is an active bird feeder. Pick one perch to focus on, then shift your aim so the perch is just barely in one side of the viewfinder. (If birds are few, you can temporarily remove/block the other perches.) Leave at least three-quarters of the frame empty to start with. It's best if you can practice with the camera on a tripod. You can hand-hold the camera, but your arms will get tired and you'll be tempted (trust me) to aim straight at the bird on the perch.

Now it's time to earn your wings. All you have to do is squeeze the shutter fast enough catch the whole bird in your frame. Right away, you'll notice that you're learning bird behavior as much as bird photography. They go hand in wing. By watching body language and head tilt, you'll start to anticipate movement.

Don't be surprised if most of your first photos are empty frames. Delete them. Don't tell anyone about them. You're in training, young Grasshopper.

After a while, you'll start getting pictures of bird parts. A wing here, a tail there. When you eventually start getting more birds than parts, it's time to start thinking about critical focus. The closer you stand, or zoom in, the less depth-of-field you'll have. Now you need to figure out the patterns and ratios of flight path directions and decide where to focus. When the birds leap from the perch, do they fly left or right? Up or down? The correct answer is "all of the above," but there's usually one or two preferred paths. Play the odds and manually focus there.

Autofocus, you ask? It works better for big birds than little songbirds, and you'd have to aim at the bird before it flies, but you can test and see if it works for your situation. Motordrive? At close range, small songbirds are too fast for more than one frame. (But go ahead, I know you're gonna' try it anyway.)

While you're at it, go ahead and practice moving your camera location to give your images a clean, uncluttered background. Look for a color that compliments or at least contrasts with the birds -- this will help to give your image more depth and visual interest.

With enough hungry models at your feeder, you can practice your timing 'till you're Catbird quick. Now go wild, literally. Trade the domestic feeders in for wild tree branches and nest cavities. And if you're shooting digital, you get to delete your duds for free.

That by itself is reason enough to retire your old film camera, oh enlightened master of flying fowl photography.

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As a newspaper photographer, I practiced my timing by shooting baseball pitches -- predictable behavior but still difficult to time. The practice I put in back then helps me photograph birds now. I'm moderately fast, for an old guy, but there's still a long ways to go to before I achieve "Nuthatch Ninja."

Behind the lens: I used the method outlined here to photograph this speeding Black-capped Chickadee, above. A pair of them were repeatedly leaping out of a tree trunk while excavating a nesting cavity (note the wood chips in its beak). I moved the camera location to get the cleanest background possible, which still isn't all that clean. But notice that I couldn't get a contrasting color for a background, and the bird blends in a little too well.