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10-07-2009, 11:22 AM   #1
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Photographing birds / birds in flight - hellllllp!

Hi All,

I decided to go out and try my hand at wildlife photography today, specifically birds and try some birds in flight.

It was not easy, really not easy at all. Here was the setup:

K20D mostly set to AF-C.
Monopod used at all times.
Sigma 100-300mm EX DG at f/4.
TAv mode, dialled in 1/1000 shutter speed with f/4 aperture.
Shake-reduction turned on.

The auto ISO functionality was sitting between 100-200 mostly as there was decent light, but when the sun dropped away the ISO was upwards of 400 peaking to 800 on the odd occasion which made me drop the shutter speed to 1/750 and even 1/500 on a couple of occasions. I reckoned that would be fine.

What I need help with is my focussing was just not good enough at times, I seemed to have missed quite a few shots (focus wise, not motion blur). The birds were always on the move, but even when shooting the odd stationary swan, the autofocus missed it by a whisker.

Here are two crops of shots where the focus was missed slightly (Imageshack might be slow):





Now, in the Swan shot, I was very close to the subject and trying to focus at 300mm using f/4 - am I handicapping my shot my making the DOF waaaaay too narrow? You can see the feathers on the neck of the swan are in focus, but the eye is not - the eye was the focal point in this instance.

Fearing that f/4 might be the issue, I stopped down to f/5.6 and seemed to have a better success rate regarding focus, here are a couple of resized shots (both are pretty sharp indeed at 100%):





My questions are:

- should I really be working at a slightly smaller aperature f/5.6 to f/6 to increase my DOF? What aperture should I be using for birds?
- does the same apply to BIF? I had the same focus issues with BIF, even when using 1/1500 shutter speeds to freeze the action.
- is the K20D autofocus simply not up to this task (K7 excuse!) ?

Any advice at all is most welcome, this is a new type of photography I'm dabbling in after being a landscape / long exposure man, so I could use a lesson or three.

Cheers

10-07-2009, 01:05 PM   #2
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The K20D is fully adequite, just look back 20 years when auto-focus hardly existed. Increasing DOF helps alot. In the cases you've shown, the camera or the bird might have moved slightly and the DOF might have been a bit too shallow, at least in the last photo. In the second photo you posted you can see that the picture is as sharp as it can get, but on the feathers in the bottom left corner. This might be due to as mentioned earlier, movement of either the camera or or the bird or a slight back focus. All this can be solved with a wider DOF.
When it comes to BIF, it's tricky. I've tried this without much success but my equipment is probably not good enough for such photography. Practice and knowledge of birds behaviour is the only tips I can give you. Technically, a bird in flight follows a very linear path which means, if you can follow it exactly in its movement you can have a rather slow shutter speed, then you will only have to account for stuff like flapping wings and head movement...
10-07-2009, 02:13 PM   #3
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Have you tested and calibrated your focus adjustment for that lens using the custom function in the K20Ds custom menu? I've found that most lenses capable of shallow DOF really need to be calibrated to AF accurately if they are to be used at aperture which would lead to shallow DOF (300mm f/4 certainly counts).

I'm no expert, so take the following with a dash of salt...Lately I've been experimenting with shooting my telephoto rigs in the f/8 or even smaller range to get DOF. I would recommend you experiment with sacrificing some shutter speed and ISO to gain DOF - I usually get better results that way (though I don't really try for BIF too often). At 1/500 shutter speed, you'll often get blurring of the wing tips, but I find this acceptable myself - gives a sense of motion to the bird better than frozen action would...

300mm, 1/500, f/7.1, ISO 400...


300mm, 1/800, f/9, ISO 500...



700mm, 1/200, f/11 (actually this is a 400mm lens at f/6.5 or so on the Pentax 1.7x AFTC for equivalent light of f/11 - the DOF is representative of f/6.5), ISO 640...
10-09-2009, 07:20 AM - 1 Like   #4
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Good luck in this quest! It is slowly driving me crazy. It's like golf. You can go out and shoot 113 and out of those 113 shots you connect with one and it's so sweet you forget about the 112 shanked shots and head out again:-). It's the hardest, most frustrating, expensive type of photography I've tried......and I'm addicted to it even though I've taken only one BIF shot that I'm truly proud of. I have never posted it anywhere because I have nothing else to back it up. Oh, I've got about a million BIF shots on my hard drive but they only prove what I don't know about how to get good BIF shots, it's sad. But that one shot proves, to me anyway, that I can do it and I will not give up until I can do it on purpose:-). Just getting a great bird shot is only a little bit easier. I look up to all the great bird shooters here and if I live long enough I hope to approach their work. It takes tons of practice and luck and by luck I mean the type of luck you make yourself. This is why I love it so much, it's hard. When you finally get close enough you have a fleeting moment to capture the shot and get everything right, it's exciting. And I love birds. I hate herons, though, skittish, scared, aloof creatures who will not give me a break. I don't think having Spike with me every where I go running around at 90 mph has anything to do with it, do you?
:-)

10-09-2009, 08:17 AM   #5
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K20D has a slow autofocus

I've been facing the same issue and have some thoughts.

Shooting in RAW, I have no problem with the noise of ISO 400, and so try to use that and F8 whenever possible. That works well for birds on the ground or water.

When shooting with a friend who has a Nikon D300, we traded cameras for a couple of minutes. Conclusion? The K20D has a very slow continuous auto-focus and slow continuous capture rate. Neither of us could get anywhere near the same success ratio of flying birds with my Pentax as with his Nikon. From what I've read, the new K-7 has a much faster auto-focus.

As happy as I am with the K20D in general, I don't consider it a particularly good camera for capturing birds on the wing.
10-09-2009, 09:40 AM   #6
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QuoteOriginally posted by Eaglerapids Quote
Good luck in this quest! It is slowly driving me crazy. It's like golf. You can go out and shoot 113 and out of those 113 shots you connect with one and it's so sweet you forget about the 112 shanked shots and head out again:-). It's the hardest, most frustrating, expensive type of photography I've tried......and I'm addicted to it even though I've taken only one BIF shot that I'm truly proud of. I have never posted it anywhere because I have nothing else to back it up. Oh, I've got about a million BIF shots on my hard drive but they only prove what I don't know about how to get good BIF shots, it's sad. But that one shot proves, to me anyway, that I can do it and I will not give up until I can do it on purpose:-). Just getting a great bird shot is only a little bit easier. I look up to all the great bird shooters here and if I live long enough I hope to approach their work. It takes tons of practice and luck and by luck I mean the type of luck you make yourself. This is why I love it so much, it's hard. When you finally get close enough you have a fleeting moment to capture the shot and get everything right, it's exciting. And I love birds. I hate herons, though, skittish, scared, aloof creatures who will not give me a break. I don't think having Spike with me every where I go running around at 90 mph has anything to do with it, do you?
:-)
I hear you on this one although I spend a few hours each weekend all summer long trying to get a shot of our local herons. They usually take off before I even see them and I have yet to get a decent in flight shot. Still, I keep it up, year after year, filling up memory cards for a handfull of shots. Maybe its a mental disorder.

I don't play golf though. As a wise man once told me "If I'm chasing something that far across a field, I'm eating it when I catch it."
10-09-2009, 11:05 AM   #7
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QuoteOriginally posted by reeftool Quote
I hear you on this one although I spend a few hours each weekend all summer long trying to get a shot of our local herons. They usually take off before I even see them and I have yet to get a decent in flight shot. Still, I keep it up, year after year, filling up memory cards for a handfull of shots. Maybe its a mental disorder.

I don't play golf though. As a wise man once told me "If I'm chasing something that far across a field, I'm eating it when I catch it."
Herons look goofy in flight anyway, so you're not missing much. (ok, the second one is an egret, but they do the same weird neck thing)





10-09-2009, 08:22 PM   #8
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I have had some experience with out of focus photos taken with my K100D with the AF lens. I recently read about focus errors caused by focusing and recomposing prior to exposing. I have experimented and found that when I focus and then recompose the image ends up of of focus. This becomes very noticable when using a narrow depth of field.

I will try to find the article on this focus error and link it.

Bruce
10-09-2009, 08:46 PM   #9
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QuoteOriginally posted by pingflood Quote
Herons look goofy in flight anyway, so you're not missing much. (ok, the second one is an egret, but they do the same weird neck thing)
True, but you got some good shots:-).

They're scrawny too, lol.
This guy was coming in for a landing.



These are big crops and this is probably the closest I've gotten to one with my camera. It reminds me of when I first started flyfishing many moons ago. At first I was lucky to cast 20 feet and fish would rise 25 feet out, then I could cast 30 feet and fish would rise 35 feet out. I finally caught up with them and now it's the same with these birds.



This was from this spring. I have told these North Idaho birds that I will stop posting unflattering photos of them when they give me a decent chance at a shot. So far they haven't played nice so I'm not either!

10-10-2009, 06:53 AM   #10
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Just some thoughts,
Set the Av to 5.6/8.0, greater DOF and sharper than wide open.
If you're using only a 300-400mm lens, get off the Monopod, turn on SR, and practice technique.
If there is an area around where folks Fish, try shooting there. The birds are use to the folks being around and their movements.If you can stay in a car, truck or by a tree, this will help also. Also watch the birds for awhile, they'll give an indication when they'll take off and land.
BIF are great shots but don't forget about take offs and landings.
10-10-2009, 09:43 AM   #11
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I've only tried BIF once or twice...only really, really tried once out on one of the lakes.

K10D, AF-C, FA 80-320 (yep) at f/5.6 or f/8

These have got to be 100% crops...when I first saw the hawk, it immediately ended up behind a pier So...the best I could do in a 20 second time span.

(Not NatGeo material warning)



Looks like he got a smallie...


Like others have said, work on technique and learn patterns. Smaller birds move faster...predator birds over water means they're looking for food...etc. Right place, right time, with the camera set to go It CAN be done
10-10-2009, 09:56 AM   #12
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QuoteOriginally posted by mysticcowboy Quote
When shooting with a friend who has a Nikon D300, we traded cameras for a couple of minutes. Conclusion? The K20D has a very slow continuous auto-focus and slow continuous capture rate. Neither of us could get anywhere near the same success ratio of flying birds with my Pentax as with his Nikon. From what I've read, the new K-7 has a much faster auto-focus.
Also consider, though what lenses you were using. Some lenses focus faster than others.

FWIW, I don't do this a ton, but I find manual focus generally more effective than AF, as I know I'm not going to go crazy and decided to hunt all the back and forth while I'm trying to shoot. Once you've got focus close, it takes only fine adjustments to follow many birds. If they're moving to fast for this, they're generally moving to fast to get a sharp picture picture even with perfect focus.

As for focus-recompose, the potential for errors *does* exist, but the famous "why focus-recompose sucks" article overstates the case by a very large margin. He's assuming that most lenses have a flat focus field, and actually, this is not true at all. If you actually out the calculations, or do the tests yourself in a controlled manner, it turns out it's actually nowhere near as big a problem in practice as it seems like it will be after reading that article - it really affects only the shallowest of DOF's.

If you perform a test at a short distance to subject, what actually throws the results off more than the effect described is the fact that you're likely changing the actual distance to subject when you recompose. Eg, by leaning forward or backward a little while rotating, or even just the difference made by turning your head and moving the camera with it as opposed to turning the camera while leaving it in the same place. But when dealing with subjects at a distance of more than a couple of meters (eg, BIF), that little difference rarely matters as much.
10-10-2009, 12:45 PM   #13
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Looking at the seagull I think you may have some front focus. Try adjusting the focus in your k20 - for front focus,+for back focus. My sigma 100-300mm is front focused on my k20d a little bit as well. Hope this helps.
10-10-2009, 02:09 PM   #14
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QuoteOriginally posted by Marc Sabatella Quote
Also consider, though what lenses you were using. Some lenses focus faster than others.

FWIW, I don't do this a ton, but I find manual focus generally more effective than AF, as I know I'm not going to go crazy and decided to hunt all the back and forth while I'm trying to shoot. Once you've got focus close, it takes only fine adjustments to follow many birds. If they're moving to fast for this, they're generally moving to fast to get a sharp picture picture even with perfect focus.
When you are talking about birds like terns or ducks coming at you, I just don't see how you could keep track of them while manual focusing. Maybe I'm just not that good (though I used to be pretty adept), but I'll be damned if I could keep track of something that fast moving as good as my camera does.
10-10-2009, 02:59 PM   #15
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Here is one of my LUCKY shots for BIF with the Sigma. F5.6 1/1000 sec ISO 200 AF-C handheld and I panned with it if I remember right. SR on, but you have to make sure it kicks in before it does any good. Got lucky there also.


I say lucky because I haven't tried doing BIF very much. I think to be consistant it takes practice, practice, practice. It is going to help of course to have the lens stopped down to get more of the bird in focus. I wouldn't go above ISO 200 either if you want it sharp, so it is important to have good light.

Here is another lucky shot going manual although its not BIF. It hovered long enough to catch it though. Same lens


Last edited by OrenMc; 10-10-2009 at 04:25 PM.
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