Birds and Airshows


So far, all of the photographs that I’ve shared have been either long exposure or, at the very least, low light landscapes. In any case, each of them required a tripod and I think I mentioned that in each post. This installment will be a little different.

While landscape and long exposure photography call for certain techniques and methods, there are other types of photography that is much more fast paced and it doesn’t involve a tripod. In fact, a tripod would make it impossible to get the shots that you’re after.

This type of photography is fast, handheld and challenging. When you attempt to photograph fast moving, and in this case, flying object, there are certain and very different techniques that need to be employed. Some of this is equipment based, so some people will be limited by their camera. These types of images are possible on a camera phone, but they would be very difficult to achieve.

The first requirement, at least it would be nice, is to use a long lens. In my case I’ll use a 70-200mm f=2.8 lens. This is actually about half of what professional wildlife photographers use. They usually will have a 400MM lens to get in really close.
Still, 200mm is what I have and that’s the best I can do. The f=2.8 is important because that’s the speed of the lens. Lens aperture is probably the most complicated aspect of photography for new photographers to grasp, because its kind of backwards. The way it works is; the smaller the number, the larger the opening in the lens. The f= number that is given is the fastest the lens will open. Most people aren’t concerned about the slowest or smallest opening as most lenses will go down to at least f=22, which is a very small opening.

I’ll get more into detail about these numbers as time goes on, but that’s enough to understand what I’m doing in this post.

So, a max 200mm lens that opens up to f=2.8. For fast moving objects like birds or jets at an airshow, I’ll shoot wide open, which would be f=2.8. I’ll try to shoot with the lowest ISO possible. This is another technical detail, but the easiest way to understand for now, is that the lower the ISO number, the better quality the image will be in relation to noise in the photo. Now, this is where we get into using a camera in manual mode or at least an aperture priority, or whatever you particular camera manufacturer calls the mode that allows you to set the aperture and the camera will set the necessary shutter speed.

Shooting in burst mode, I had several images of these two birds, allowing me to select the one I liked the most.

The most important thing that your camera is going to need in order to get successful images of a fast moving, flying object is a burst mode. This is what will separate people based on what equipment they own. Once you have your settings all adjusted based on exposure and the conditions that you’re shooting in and your camera in burst mode, you’re ready for action.
If you don’t have a burst mode, you can try to follow the subject and hit the shutter at just the right moment. Is it possible to get a great shot doing it that way? Yes, but the odds are certainly against you.

The first thing I do is watch, especially in the case of birds. Pelicans, for example, will often follow a certain path that will, in time, become quite predictable. As far as jets at an airshow, I’ve been to many airshows and know the routine of the Blue Angels, for example, almost by heart. This allows me to be in position for the next pass and at least have my camera already pointed in the general direction.

The Blue Angels fly at hundreds of miles per hour. Often, they’re already gone by the time you get the camera up to your eye. You have to be ready before they even get there.

For birds, it’s important to keep both eyes open. I put my right eye to the viewfinder of the camera and attempt to track the subject with my left eye. It takes a bit of practice and, often, you’ll miss what you’re photographing. However, with time and practice, you’ll get pretty good at it!

So, the basic steps are; get your exposure settings set up, put your camera in burst mode and track the subject across the sky and hold your finger down on the shutter button, firing off images as the bird, of airplane, streaks across the sky.

One final tip. It helps to keep you feet in one place. For example, if the bird is coming from the left, you’ll start with your feet, body and camera pointed to the left. As the subject flies across your body to the right, track the subject while twisting at your waist. It sounds odd, but this will help you keep the subject centered in the frame. If you try to move your feet, while tracking the subject, you’ll find it more difficult to keep up with the object you’re shooting. This is especially true for jets!

As you can see, no tripod for this type of photography. In fact, trying to track a fast moving object while your camera is attached to a tripod would make the process much more difficult, if not impossible.

For this image, I noticed the vacant piling. I saw a pelican flying in from the right. I tracked the bird with both eyes while panning with my camera, snapping away. This was my favorite of the sequence as it was just before the pelican landed, adding some action to the photo. 

I hope this helps if you’ve been struggling with this type of photography. If you’re interested, I can go into more detail about the camera settings and what they mean in a follow-up post.

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