Wild Black Kite: Carbarceno

One of my favourite bird in flight images was taken by chance at Parque de la Naturaaleza de Cabarceno in Northern Spain.  By chance I mean it was not an image I had set out to take that day.  Some of best images have come from opportunistic moments, its always a good idea to keep a look out for these moments and not turn these opportunities down when they present themselves.

COPYRIGHT ROB CAIN

On our first day we had noticed the high number of wild Black Kites circling in the thermals above the wildlife park, they were so high up that there were no good photo opportunities.  Just before leaving the park at closing time on the last evening we noticed a number of Black Kites were flying low around the bird display arena.  I quickly grabbed my camera, attached a 300m f4 telephoto lens and grabbed my 1.4 teleconverter from my camera bag in the boot of our hire car.  Whilst walking across the to arena I was able to set up my camera to the bird in flight settings I thought would be a good starting point.  Thankfully previous experience and practice with birds in flight allowed me to quickly take this opportunity.  As it was close to closing time we only had very limited time (less than 20 minutes) to make the most of this opportunity. 

The Technical Stuff

Bird in Flight photography requires you to set up your camera a certain way to be able to capture an image.  I'm going to go through how I set my camera up for the image above.

  • Exposure: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO.

Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO are critical to producing a properly exposed image.  From previous experience I started with an aperture of F8 and a shutter speed of 1/1250 second hoping to keep within the ISO400-1600 range, preferably ISO400-800 if available light allows.  A fast shutter speed is required to freeze the moment of the bird to give a sharp image.  That said some movement of the wings tips can be good as it shows movement.  Shutter speed depends on the speed at which the bird is flying, the fast it is moving the faster it needs to be.  Aperture controls the depth of field, the width of the focal plane where the bird is acceptably sharp.  The wider the aperture  (f2.8-f4) the shallower the depth of field is.  The aperture, focal length of the lens, distance to the subject and the camera sensor size all affect the depth of field.  For the above image the subject taken with a 300mm lens at a distance of 20m at an aperture of f8 giving a depth of field of 1.4m.  If the aperture was opened to f4 the field of field would have be reduced to 0.7m, meaning not all of a large bird like a Black Kite would be within the focal plane resulting in parts of the image being out of focus.  

Majority of the time I use Manual Mode (M) with the auto ISO function enabled.  This lets me choose the Aperture and Shutter Speed I feel is best suited to the situation, whilst allowing the camera to vary the ISO setting to give a properly exposed image for the available light.  Creatively I find being in control of the aperture and shutter speed and the effect it has on what I'm trying to achieve with the image more important to me than noise created by higher ISO's.  Modern cameras are quite good at high ISO, I happily push ISO up to ISO1600 on my Nikon D7000, even ISO3200 if required to.  I would rather capture a noisy but sharp image with the right amount of depth of field, rather than a clean but blurry or incorrectly focused image due to a slow shutter speed or limited depth of field.  I constantly monitor the ISO setting via the viewfinder and adjust the shutter speed/aperture settings as necessary to give the optimum ISO value for the available light.

Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO is always a compromise to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze movement, a large enough depth of field to ensure the bird is sharp and a low ISO to ensure as clean and noise free image as possible for the available light.  The camera settings for the above image were f8, 1/1600 second at ISO640.   I was able to increase the shutter speed slightly from my starting settings as the available light a couple of hours before sunset in northern Spain was quite strong, and it allowed me to keep within my target ISO400-800 range at f8, 1/1600 second.

  • Metering, Focus and Release Modes

Selecting the correct metering, focus and release modes can be critical for birds in flight photography.  One wrong setting can make it difficult or nearly impossible to capture birds in flight.  

Selecting the the right metering mode and understanding their uses in different situations is helpful.  Majority of the time I find 'Matrix Metering' (also known as 'Multi Segment Metering') produces acceptable exposure in most situations.  Spot or centre weighted modes can be helpful when the subject is dark and the background is brighter (a bird on a blue sky).

Focus is critical with bird in flight, the key is to get at least the eye and head sharp.  Ideally you want to get the whole of the bird in sharp focus.  To do this I use Continuous-Servo AF (AF-C) to allow the camera to constantly focus whilst the shutter button is depressed halfway.   The focus point and number of focus points that are active to also important.  I personally use single-point AF majority of the time.  I like to ensure I know which focus point the camera is trying to use rather than let the camera select the focus point used.  If I find it hard to track the bird using single focus point I may then use 9 point Dynamic-Area AF to give more chance locking a focal point onto the bird.   I do not really ever use all of the focus points (39 point Dynamic-Area AF).  I find this allows the camera to select the focal point, this could be the foot, tail or a wing tip rather than the eye where I want the focus point to be.  Each of the 39 focus points the Nikon D7000 has can be individually selected.  I prefer to use the centre focus points as on most cameras the central focus points are the most accurate than the focus points around the edge of the AF area.   The central 9 central focus points on the Nikon D7000 are the more accurate cross-type sensors.

The speed at which the camera auto focus system needs to track a moving bird can also be important.  The auto focus system speed can depend on the camera and lens you use.  A wide aperture lens like a f2,8 or f4 lens or a high end camera body with a fast AF module  will give a faster auto focus speed.  This of course does not mean you need the best camera equipment to capture birds in flight, you just need to be aware of its limitations and work within these by looking for where the bird is moving slower than it normally does, also known as the 'peak action point' (see below for more about this).  When a bird is moving towards you the cameras auto focus system needs to react faster to the rapidly changing distance between the bird and your camera.  When a bird is moving parallel to you the auto focus system does not need to react as fast as the distance between the bird and you is not changing as fast.  This means the focal plane does not need to move as much to keep the bird in sharp focus.  An additional help is a focus limit switch, if your lens has one it is a great idea to use it.  My Nikon 300 f4 has a limit switch that allows the auto focus to only change between infinity and 6m, meaning the focus does not have the chance to move between 6m-2m (a focus range I do not need to use with birds in flight).

  • Lighting

Lighting is very important as it is what makes a photograph.  Lighting can change the atmosphere of an image, from back lit, side or front lighting, each can give a different mood to the image.  One light that is not great for birds in flight is harsh overhead midday sun, it can be too strong and can give deep shadows on the underside of the wings.  It is hard to be able to light the underside of the wings,snow can be great as it acts as a giant reflector removing shadows.  One of my favourite lighting is side or front lighting close to sunrise or sunset.  You can great a great diffused soft light that can bring out the feathers nicely.  Positioning yourself in the correct area along the birds flight line can be important to be able to capture the birds in the right light.  By watching the birds behaviour and flight path you could find the ideal location to set up.

Top Tips

Here are my top tips to think about 

  • Backgrounds

Blue skies are great for clean backgrounds but sometimes getting some of the subjects environment in the background is better.  Unfortunately in this situation the mountains where in the direction of the sun and beyond the high trees surrounding the arena.  It was impossible to get the mountains and a nicely light Black Kite in the image together.

Whilst talking about backgrounds, they can make or break an image.  Having a fence post or building partially sticking out from behind a subject can ruin an otherwise great image.  Of course there are many photographers who would clone these out but there is a good point to getting it right first time.  Sometimes cloning can be seen to alter an image so much that it not a true representation of the actual scene when you took the image but I won't get into the cloning debate here.

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  • The Peak Action Point

When a bird is swooping up and down there is one point where the bird is moving slowly or is nearly stationary, this is at top of the climb where the birds turns and heads downwards.  Sports photographers call this the 'Peak Action Point'.  Not only is this one of the best point to capture a sharp image as the bird is moving slowly but it is also a point where you can capture a dynamic pose like the image of the Black Kite turning on right here.  The image is a more unusual pose to the normal bird gliding in flight image you normally see.  The tail feathers are sprayed wide along with the wing tips to act as air brakes to allow the bird to turn quickly. 

  • Composition- Space

Composition is something you need to think about when photographing birds in flight.  Although I like to use the central focus points, this still gives me some options with composition although it ultimately means I need to crop the final image to get a better composition.  If the bird in coming in from the left of the frame I try to use one of the left focus points of the 9 central focus points.  This allows me to compose the image so the bird has space to fly to into.  Allowing the bird space to fly into gives a better composition than having the bird central in the frame.  Another well known compositional aid is the rule of third's.  Imagine a grid splitting the photo into thirds both horizontally and vertically, if key focal points (eye, head, wings tips) were located on or near to where the thirds grid intersects is should give a better composition to the image.  The same Red Kite image is shown in both images below, the Red Kite in the left image is central in the frame, whereas in the right image it is located to the top left close to thirds intersection.  

  • Backgrounds

Blue skies are great for clean backgrounds but sometimes getting some of the subjects environment in the background is better.  Unfortunately in this situation the mountains where in the direction of the sun and beyond the high trees surrounding the arena.  It was impossible to get the mountains and a nicely light Black Kite in the image together.

Whilst talking about backgrounds, they can make or break an image.  Having a fence post or building partially sticking out from behind a subject it can ruin an otherwise great image.  Of course there are many photographers who would clone these out but there is a point to getting it right first time.  Sometimes cloning can be seen to alter an image so much that it not a true representation of the actual scene when you took the image but we won't get into the cloning debate here.

  • Remember Opportunist Moments

I only had 20 minutes with the Black Kites as it was very close to closing time.  Whilst photographing them I noticed the reaction of the display birds that were still out on their perches, the birds were all squawking at the Black Kites as they were trying to steal their food.    One bird caught my attention, that was the Bald Eagle that was quite animated in its response to the Black Kites and was trying to take off.  I quickly managed to capture the image below of the Bald Eagle's behaviour and it always reminds me to take those opportunist moments that can arise even if you you are short for time.

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Finally.......

When camera settings, lighting, backgrounds and bird poses come together you can get some great photographs that are more than a snapshot.  Please remember it takes a bit of knowledge, some time observing lighting and behaviour, a lot of practice and sometimes a little luck to capture great images.... its worth the effort.  But most of all enjoy yourself and the nature we live in.