As promised, here is my technique for photographing "birds in flight" (or "BIF" for short). The information that follows may seem somewhat lengthy and daunting, but I think when you strip away the wordiness, you'll find the procedures quite simple, and very effective. I wish I could claim to have invented these techniques, but I didn't. I learned them from some of the best Nature Photographers around. By the way, the techniques I am sharing with you are the same ones used by virtually every pro Nature Photographer I have ever been out with (and there are many!)...So hopefully that drives the point home when you start hearing conflicting advice about how to photograph BIF images. I made the simple choice to do what the pros do. There are several important areas that will be covered. As with many things...the devil is in the details. Each is an important aspect of getting the BEST BIF images possible. Missing any of the elements will definitely take away from the overall quality of any image you capture. I am writing this with the assumption that everyone reading it wants to capture professional level BIF images.
First, I'll cover choosing the location. that's right. BIF Photography is NOT a product of opportunity. Pro photographers CHOOSE the location based on the light direction, habitat, species, and last but not least (but most often neglected)...wind direction. Study your birds! they are creatures of habit, and very predictable. If you see them flying a certain way, then note the conditions so you can return when the light is right and take advantage of it. Learn which of your locations are best for morning or evening flight photography (again - Light and wind direction are the biggest keys here). Learn how to read the light! This is such an important element that I could write entire threads about just this one thing! Lastly, study the location for the best backgrounds.
Habits- Second, learn to read their behaviors so you know when they are about to fly (most birds take a pre-flight "poop" before taking off!). This gives you the ability to be "ready" when they launch. Learn what time of day they are in certain places (again, they typically follow a daily routine just like we do!). Many birds come in and roost in the same area every night. These are easy BIF opportunities as they are flying to the roost. Likewise, they like to feed in the same areas as long as food is there. Pay attention to these little details, and you significantly increase your chances of great images.
Ah yes...The essential technique in obtaining BIF images. This is probably the only topic I'll discuss that you really need to practice to get good at. The others will come with time....this one you actually have to work at. I'll cover the camera setup details in another area, so for now let's just discuss the proper posture, camera holding technique, and motion involved with capturing birds in flight. First off, I'm assuming most will be hand-holding a medium length telephoto lens of some sort. It doesn't matter if its a zoom or not. You always want to hold the camera with your left hand cupping the base of the lens from underneath. Most intermediate telephoto lenses or zooms have a tripod shoe on them. Either remove it, or at least turn the shoe up to the top of the lens so you can grip the lens properly with your left hand. I remove mine for handheld shooting. The only exception to this hand position is if you are manually focusing the lens, in which case you obviously need to be holding on to the focusing adjustment with your left hand. I always use auto focus, so my hand is always at the base of the lens. Second, I'll cover the proper stance. You must be on-balance at all times. For me, this means feet shoulder width apart, body is just off-square to the target (my left foot just slightly forward of my right foot). The motion must remain smooth and steady throughout. I have observed that most beginners are "jerky" in their panning movement...especially when the shutter starts clicking. Don't worry about anything other than a smooth, fluid motion, and keeping that bird in the middle of the frame. Block out all other things. Follow that bird all the way through the range....even if your buffer fills and you camera stops shooting....just follow that bird with a slow, even, steady motion. In the old days, instructors used to tell students to practice their panning by going out near a busy road, and following cars. I definitely would NOT do that in this day and age! If you have birds in you backyard, practice on them. Don't worry about taking pictures....just follow them with the camera for practice. If you have kids, or a dog, just have them play out in your yard, and follow them with the camera for practice.
OK, now down to the technical stuff. First, the lens. Let me begin by clarifying that I shoot Canon gear, so I will include the settings for Canon. Each manufacturer has their own version of the same features, so the rules apply across the board. The first setting to be concerned with on the lens (for Canon and Nikon folks anyway) is the Image Stabilization mode. For Canon, you want to be in IS Mode 2 (and turned "on") for BIF imagery. If your camera has in camera stabilization, read the manual for the correct setting for panning shots. Second, you want to make sure the "Focusing Limiter" is set to the appropriate setting. As an example, I'll use the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L as my model here. There are two "Focusing Limiter" settings on this lens. One is for 1.8m to infinity, and the other is 6.5m to infinity. For most BIF work, I use the 6.5m to infinity setting. Why? Because that allows the lens MUCH faster focusing acquisition at normal BIF distances! IF you use the closer setting, the lens may hunt through it's full focusing range before locking on (Much slower). Now obviously if the birds are flying within a few feet of you, you'd need to use the closer setting...but that is definitely the exception, not the norm.
Well here we go. The area that probably sparks the most debate in BIF imagery. Manual versus Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority modes. Most folks in the digital camera age never had to shoot an old manual camera, so consequently they simply do not understand manual settings very well. There is a definite time and place when manual mode is the best choice...and BIF photography is definitely one of them! The reason here is simply that the camera has no idea what you're doing when you are following a moving bird through the air. It is just rapidly adjusting the exposure settings to a rapidly changing environment that is moving across it's sensors. It has no idea that you want to properly expose that small object that is drifting in and out of the sensor grid! By pre-setting the proper exposure, you take complete control of the process, and significantly increase your chances of capturing great images. Adjustments on-the-fly in Manual mode are MUCH faster than trying to fiddle around with exposure compensation settings! Here in Florida, we typically set up our exposures for "white" birds (since that is what we have the most of), and work down from there. I know that I'm never more than three clicks away from proper exposure in manual mode. In fact, when I'm shooting with any of my experienced friends....we "call out" the colors on the approaching birds. That way, we can quickly adjust the exposure by simply rotating the Main Dial (the one by the shutter release) to the appropriate setting as we acquire the subject in the viewfinder. For instance, If I am set up for proper exposure of a white bird, and a black bird is approaching....I simply move the Main Dial three clicks counter-clockwise and shoot. It takes some getting used to....but it's incredibly fast and accurate once you get the habit. You'll also be rewarded with a MUCH higher percentage of keepers.
Lastly, the compositional elements must be right as well. Everything from head angle to wing position are imperative to creating a great BIF image. Having the head cut in two my a wing, or having shadows across critical parts of the image typically do not work. Just as in non-flight shots....the eye is very importent. The better the contact (connection) with the viewer, the better the image. Wing positions should be either all up, or all down. Typically, the "halfway" images don't have quite the impact. As with all things, there are exceptions to the rules.
Hope you've found this helpful. By no means did I cover every conceivable detail here, but I hope to give you at least one option that I know works, and a foundation of knowledge in that technique.
Here is the "very easy" way to determine your manual exposure setting:
1. Put your camera in Aperture Priority mode, and open the aperture up as far as it will go.
2. Point the camera at something that is close in color to the subject you plan to photograph (I usually choose something white, as most birds here in FL have white in them), and depress the shutter release just enough for the camera to give you the settings.
3. Then just take those settings and set them manually in the camera (by putting the camera in manual mode, of course).
4. Take a "test shot" and verify the histogram (again, for Canon, you want data to go just barely into the fifth bar in most cases).
It's really that simple. You will note that I didn't mention the light meter. You don't need it! The histogram tells all.
After that, just verify your histogram and make adjustments to the shutter speed accordingly. I had set my manual exposure up on a bird that was on the ground before shooting the flight sequences. Since these birds have very white whites, and very black blacks.....you have to get a bit daring in your setup. In this case, I push the data in the histogram as far to the right as I can without "clipping" or causing the "flashies". That keeps the whites barely under control, yet allows detail to come out in the blacks. I could care less about the sky. Why? Because I can easily select the sky in Photoshop and create a quick adjustment layer to either lighten or darken it is I need to.