One of the best feelings as a photographer is the sense of accomplishment that comes from getting a tack sharp and perfectly focused image of a bird in flight. Why? Because it's not easy to do!
I've taken thousands of photographs of birds in flight, but only a small group of those are perfectly focused and sharp. This weekend I added another photograph to the collection when photographing a Blue Heron at Mason Neck State Park.
So how do you get sharp and well focused images of flying birds?
I don't have any secret formula, but there are two tricks. The first is to be ready for the action. You usually can't predict when a bird is about to take flight, meaning you have to be ready all the time. In the case of today's Quick Shot bird, I actually didn't see him until he was already in flight and I had only a few seconds to shoot before he flew past. If I wasn't ready, I would have missed it.
By being ready I mean having the camera (and flash) on, lens cap off, shutter speed and aperture dialed in (I was shooting in manual mode at 1/1000th of a second at f/6.7, ISO 400). The camera is in my hands and ready to be brought to eye level at a moments notice to shoot.
The second trick is a camera setting. I've spent alot of time lately playing with different autofocus settings to make sure I'm using the fastest and best one for the type of activity I anticipate photographing. Nikon (and Canon) have several focus modes to choose from, but I've recently been using one that has delivered great results.
I shoot in continuous autofocus mode, which means the camera attempts to lock and maintain focus on a moving subject. This works well for birds in flight, but can sometimes get jumpy on a bird sitting still. Thankfully its a quick flick of the finger to change between single shot and continuous focus mode.
There are also several modes by which the camera determines which point to focus on. In the past I'd been using Auto or the 51 focus point, but I recently switched to 3D (only when shooting continuous autofocus) and I've been really happy with the results. I thought my "keeper" rate in my prints has gone up significantly since I started to play with this mode.
So how'd I get this shot? I was standing on a boardwalk running through the middle of the marsh area at Mason Neck with the camera "ready to shoot." He swooped down particularly close and I fired off 5 shots before he flew behind some trees. This one was my favorite because of the Heron's gesture.
Shot with the Nikon D800, Nikon 80-400mm lens, and Nikon SB-700 flash with Better Beamer attached. Edited in Adobe Photoshop CS6 and black and white conversion done with Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.