Bird in Fly Photography

At what speed do you freeze the duck in flight?

This is the question that a good friend asked me recently when he saw one of my photographs, and that gave me the idea to write this entry in my blog, since I suppose he expected an answer of the type “1/5000 sec.”, although really the only answer I could to say was… “it depends!”.

I will try to answer his question here by explaining from my point of view which are the variables that most influence in that “it depends!”. To do this, let's consider the rest of the parameters (aperture and ISO) as fixed and let's see what can influence the shutter speed necessary to be able to “freeze the duck”.

Shutter speed Vs. “Wing Load”

One of the main variables that intervene in that “it depends!” is the “wing loading” of the bird to be photographed, and when I speak of “wing loading” I mean the ratio between the weight of the bird and its wing area (wing area = wing length or wingspan x wing width).

This relationship between weight vs. wing surface determines the “wing loading” and thus, for example, we will have light-weight birds with large wings (such as the Gray Heron in the following photo) that have a “low wing loading” and therefore their “natural lift” capacity. ” (understood as such its ease of staying in the air with minimal effort) is greater, and therefore its “normal” flight may be slower and more leisurely, and consequently we will need a lower shutter speed in our camera to be able to freeze his movement.

Gray Heron in flight - Low wing loading and large wingspan result in slow flapping and flight

On the other hand, birds with smaller wings and/or with more body weight will have a higher wing loading (such as the "duck" my friend asked me about) and will necessarily have to move and move their wings faster to be able to stay in the air, since its greater "wing load" provides it with less "natural lift" that must be compensated with a greater speed of movement to be able to stay in flight. In this case we will also need to work with a higher shutter speed to be able to freeze its movement.

Mallard Duck in Flight - High wing load and short wingspan require rapid flapping and flight to keep on air

Consequently, and assuming that both birds are doing the same type of maneuver in the air, we will tend to use a higher shutter speed to freeze the flight of a bird with a higher wing loading, and vice versa.

Shutter speed Vs. “Maneuver”

There are different "maneuvers" that a bird can perform and that are the object of photographic interest in terms of how to freeze its action (I am basically referring to actions such as taking off, landing, gliding, chases along the ground/water or dives in the air ). Some of these maneuvers are carried out with the help of their legs in order to gain a quick initial impulse (takeoff, chases) and/or by varying their wing geometry (landing, gliding and diving), that is, by varying the position/extension of their wings to voluntarily reduce or increase their lift capacity, which consequently makes them gain or lose speed at will. Let us therefore see what happens during these maneuvers:

Takeoffs: To take off, the bird needs to quickly achieve the necessary lift that allows it to stay in flight, to do this, propelled by its legs and flapping its wings as quickly as possible, it tries to gain the speed that allows it to stay in the air. They are usually very fast actions and to be able to freeze them we will need to use a high shutter speed.

Pursuits: As in takeoff, here the bird tries to gain speed quickly, although in this case it is not in order to gain lift to take off, but rather to move quickly along the ground or the water, to chase or escape from a aggressor considering that his physical integrity, his food, his partner, or his territory may be in danger,... or simply because the bird is "playful" at that moment.

A Common Moorhen starting a chase is a clear example of a sudden action that requires a high shutter speed.

These chases/runs are sudden actions that will also generally require high shutter speed in order to freeze the action.

Landings: Contrary to taking off, during landing the bird needs to lose speed and also generally do it slowly (except for emergency landings due to some threat or to arrive before for food, for example) and thus be able to land in a precise, smooth and controlled way.

In a normal landing, to slowly lose speed, the bird reduces the movement of its wings while extending them to gain lift and not plummet. In addition, it usually increases not only its extension but also its curvature, so that, depending on the case, they help to increase lift more, or serve as an "aero-brake" according to its needs, so the bird can lose the necessary height. in a controlled way so that the landing maneuver is carried out smoothly and at the desired point.

Mallard duck arching its wings to gain lift and not collapse when reducing speed, just before landing

However, we also often find fast or emergency landings, where the movements of the bird's wings are aimed at rapidly losing lift (depending on how fast it needs to land) but always without falling "plumb", that is, keeping always a speed that allows to stay in the air while descending rapidly until landing. In these cases we will need to use a higher shutter speed since the landing action will also be performed at a higher speed by bird.

Mallard duck doing a high speed or emergency landing (see the different position and shape of the wings compared to the previous photo)

Of course not all birds lands at the same speed (it depends on their wingspan, weight, existing wind, and how the bird wants/needs to make the landing: slow or fast) but in general it could be considered a relatively slow maneuver, especially the right moment to take land/water when the speed of movement and movement of the bird becomes minimal, thus making it easier to freeze its movement without having to use very high shutter speeds.

Therefore, depending on the bird and the type of landing it makes, we will tend to use relatively “slow” shutter speeds in this maneuver, and note that “slow” is in quotes because even though they are slow for bird photography, they are “fast” speeds. ” or “very fast” compared to those used in other types of photography.

Glides: Here, as in the case of landing, we can find variants, although in general gliding could be considered a "slow" maneuver if the bird has a low wing loading and only intends to move through the air with the least possible effort, since in that case it will keep its wings extended and will not need to flap them quickly moving through the air slowly.

Soaring Gull rocked by the wind. As it does not have a high wing load, its glide is slow and uniform.

Although we can also find that said glide has the purpose of ending in a quick landing or serves as the beginning for the harassment of a possible prey, and in that case the glide speed will be significantly higher than when the bird only intends to move.

In the same way, if the bird has a high wing load, its glide will need to be faster in order not to fall, so the shutter speeds to use in our camera to freeze the movement must go according to the glide speed of the bird whose movement we intend to freeze, and may have to become even very high depending on the wing loading of the bird, for what purpose it performs that glide, and other factors such as wind speed, the distance we are from the bird, and/or or the trajectory that it follows with respect to us.

Despite being planned, this Bald Eagle acquires a high displacement speed due to its higher wing loading

Dive: Dive maneuvers are usually the fastest and therefore the ones that will require the highest shutter speed, also if the size of the bird is small, or its wing loading is large, or it is a bird capable of adopting optimal aerodynamic configurations, as with the Falcon, then we will have to tend to shoot with significantly higher shutter speeds if we want to have any chance of being able to freeze the action.

In this case, trying to freeze the bird just before the moment in which the dive maneuver begins is usually the best option, since once the dive begins with the wings folded and at more than 300 km/hour it will be an almost impossible task to achieve "hunt" it within the frame, and even more so that it remains clear and perfectly "frozen"

Falcon in flight, just at the moment of changing trajectory and starting a dive maneuver at high speed

Shutter speed Vs. “Trajectory”

By trajectory we will understand how the bird moves in its movement with respect to the sensor plane of our camera, and in this case the two extremes would be, either that the bird approaches or moves away from us perpendicularly (forming an angle of 90º) with respect to the sensor plane of our camera (front or rear shots), or that it moves parallel (at 0º) with respect to the sensor plane of our camera (side shots), of course with all sorts of intermediate variants with different angles of inclination with respect to the plane of our sensor.

The greater the angle of the trajectory with respect to the camera sensor (tending to 90º as in the case of a totally frontal shot) the faster the position of the bird will vary with respect to us, so this action will not only require a more precise focus system of our camera, but also we will need to have in mind that to the speed of the action itself that we intend to freeze, we will have to add the rapid speed of change of position of the bird with respect to us, therefore if we want to be successful we will tend to use very fast shutter speeds.

A movement of the bird towards our camera requires a faster shutter speed in addition to a faster and more accurate focus tracking.

On the other hand, and although the movement of the bird is fast, if it moves parallel to our camera sensor, then its position will not vary much in terms of shooting distance, so on the one hand the focusing system will have it somewhat “easier” to follow it, and on the other, in terms of shutter speed, we will only have to take into account the action that the bird is performing at that moment, without this speed being influenced "in addition" (in the ideal case of a theoretical situation in which it moves completely parallel to us) due to a change in the distance difference with respect to our camera. In this case, the shutter speeds to be handled will not have to be as high as in the case of a frontal shot in order to be successful when trying to freeze the movement.

Sudden action carried out in a trajectory parallel to camera sensor, and therefore does not require a shutter speed as high as in the case that the displacement was towards our lens.

Shutter speed Vs. "Distance"

This point needs some explanation since it seems evident that the further away the action is performed "apparently" the slower things happens, and the closer the action occurs "apparently" things happens faster.

In fact, it is an "apparent" sensation, since in true the speed of the action itself is the same whether we observe it from near or from a long distance (the bird does not fly faster because we are looking at it from closer, it flies at same speed no matter where we look at it from), what simply happens is that by observing the action from a distance we will have a greater field of view and therefore more opportunities our camera and we will have to be able to react in time and better prepare the shot (being able to follow the bird for a while before shooting, etc, etc…)

Although logically the real speed of the bird does not change, it seems that it moves more slowly if it is far away from us...

On the other hand, when the action occurs very close to us, our reaction speed and our camera shutter speed, needs to be much faster, if not the bird could get out of the frame before we have been able to shoot a couple of shots. For this reason, and not because of speed of the action itself, the closer we are to the action (either because we can get really close or because we use telephoto lenses with a long focal length that bring us closer to the action) we will tend to use a faster shutter speed and vice versa.

... in contrast, nearby subjects seem to move faster even though their actual speed is the same as that of a distant bird.

Shutter speed Vs. “Wind speed and direction”

The speed and direction of the wind can significantly influence the speed of a bird in flight, since with a high wind speed the bird will not need to flap its wings so quickly to stay in the air, the wind becoming its ally, providing an "extra" lift.

Now, if in strong wind the bird's flapping speed will always be lower, the speed of movement of the bird in the air can be slow or fast depending on the direction of that strong wind with respect to where the bird intends to fly.

If the bird tries to fly head-on against a strong wind, then it will move through the air very slowly, sometimes remaining suspended, floating as if immobile without having to flap the slightest bit (without moving forward, but without falling to the ground) as it is supported by the force of the wind against itself.

If, on the other hand, the bird is flying in favor of a strong wind, then it will move through the air much faster than usual as it is helped by the wind, and in that case we should consider using faster shutter speeds to be able to freeze its movement.

Shutter speed Vs. "Expertise"

Our "Expertise", or what is the same our "experience and ability" as photographers, will also influence the shutter speed we need to freeze the action of the bird.

Thus, for example, if we are easy to panning and we are able to match the movement of our camera with the movement of the bird, we will need lower shutter speeds to be able to freeze the movement.

Following the path of the bird with the panning technique allows us to drastically reduce the shutter speed necessary to freeze the action.

If, on the other hand, we intend to “freeze the duck” in a snapshot without having previously followed it and without trying to match its movement speed with a tracking movement on our part, then it will be necessary to use much faster shutter speeds to try to succeed in freezing the action.

Shutter speed Vs. “Desired Effect”

Finally, and although its purpose is not precisely to "freeze the duck" as my friend asked, we will have to take into account at what speed we want to shoot according to the effect we want to achieve, since although being able to "freeze" a bird in flight many times it is what we are looking for, other times not completely freezing its movement will give us a sensation of dynamism and movement that many times will be that “plus” that will make our photo different or special,… at least for us and as long as that is the effect that we seek to achieve when we create the photograph in our mind before shooting our camera. Let's look at some examples.

We don't always have to get a tack sharp image of the bird, ... it all depends on the effect we want to achieve

All this is fine but… How do I know what is going to happen and what shutter speed should I use?

Well, despite everything I've just told you, and especially when dealing with wildlife that you never know for sure what they are going to do, (nor can you direct them like a model in a studio), in the practice you always have to try to do everything as simply as possible, and unless the light is very poor, or you want to achieve a certain effect (in which case I use the “M – Manual” mode to adjust speed, aperture and ISO parameters to my liking), most of the time (if not always) for birds in flight photography I use AV or Aperture Priority mode (to control background blur) but at the same time with an automatic ISO limited by one hand to a maximum ISO value and on the other to obtain a minimum shutter speed, in this way I do not have to worry about the shutter speed as long as there is enough light, and I can concentrate on following the action, on keeping the bird to focus, and if I have time to try to compose the shot, so that the photo is as finished as possible from its origin in camera.

As you will see, there are many things that have to be done for how fast the action usually takes place (sometimes fractions of a second), so trying to simplify our way of working using the semi-automatic modes of our camera is usually the best option.

Would the use of flash help us “freeze the duck”?

Although at first it might be thought that the use of the flash could help us "freeze the duck", the truth is that it would only be useful if it is the flash that actually freezes the movement of the bird (as it is done in the high-speed technique), but in order to freeze the action at high speed the flashes have to fire at a very low power in order to do it with a very high flash rate and they must also be the only light source and be located very very close to the bird to compensate for the low power which they have to work.

As the photographs of birds in flight are generally made of distant birds, the effect of the flash on the bird is practically nil, at best if we use a "tele-flash" to increase its range it would serve to illuminate possible shadows on the bird and /or give it that little point of light in the eye that gives vitality to the shot, but little else. If we also add to this that there will normally be a reasonably high ambient lighting, the action of the flash on the bird in order to freeze its movement would be minimized since the flash would not be the only source of lighting.

The only possibility that the flash can help us "freeze the duck" would be in the case of knowing in advance where the bird will be located when we are going to photograph it, in order to be able to suppress the ambient lighting there and place one or several flashes that can be triggered remotely at the moment the bird reaches that position, which is practically impossible to predict when working in extensive locations and with birds in freedom, that is, without controlled conditions (CC).

Now,...if the bird is your pet and you have it trained so that it is capable of always landing in the same place, then it is something else, because being predictable we could try to help ourselves with the flash to freeze its movement, but this in the practice is almost impossible to achieve, unless we work in very small environments, with controlled lighting conditions and allowing the action of the bird to be relatively predictable (which are the bases of high-speed photography) since in that case the use of the flash being the only source of lighting would allow us (even without having to resort to high shutter speeds) to be able to “freeze the duck” (or as in this case a Crested Tit)

Using high-speed techniques in controlled environments, it is possible to freeze the action by using flash on birds whose very fast movement

Any advice ?

Yes, of course, a lot, so at the moment I can think of some like:

   ■ Use the AI-Servo shooting mode (or tracking priority): This will allow your camera to keep the bird in focus even if it moves, logically with certain limitations depending on how fast the bird moves, how advanced the focus system of your is, the speed and accuracy of your target's focus, your ability to follow the bird in flight, and external factors such as the contrast of the bird against the background, etc, etc... but of course the “One Shot” mode will not help you if the bird is moving and you intend to freeze its movement, since the focus will not follow the action once you have pressed the shutter button halfway and the focus on the bird has been fixed in one place while it moves to a different one out of the focus that you have pre-fixed.

  ■ Shoot in burst: Get used to using the burst shot, but without abusing it and without saturating your camera's buffer which would lead you to miss part of the action (according to Murphy, the best part without a doubt). Using the burst is not only recommended to be able to capture several moments of the action, but also because sometimes a fraction of a second later the movement of the bird is slower or your pulse is better and without hardly having changed the composition or the action your photo comes out less jerky helping to "freeze" the action with greater sharpness. So shoot in a burst, but don't let your finger stick to the trigger,...better short bursts fired at the right moments.

  ■ Try to use the tripod if possible with a “Gimbal” or rocker-type ball joint: This is not essential (and many times it is impossible, because where we are going to photograph the tripod cannot be used or we cannot carry it until there) is often a great help if the bird's movements are relatively predictable or continuous. Not only because the tripod prevents us from adding trepidation to photography, but also because the use of the tripod also allows us to rest our arms from the weight of the camera + lens between shots so our arms will be "relaxed and ready" when taking the next picture even if we don't use the tripod to take it.

If in addition to the tripod we add a rocker joint, it will help us to follow the flights in a more continuous way, helping our focus points to be more time on the bird than outside it. In any case, this recommendation must be taken with common sense since, for example, to photograph birds with very fast and erratic movement, the tripod can be a real hindrance,... so, as usual, everything "depends!"

  ■ Try to use dissociated focusing: If your camera allows it, activate the “AF-ON” button so that it works by fixing only the focus on the bird during its trajectory, but the exposure calculation (that is, the shutter speed if you work in AV mode), the camera does not do it until the precise moment when you press the shutter button, since throughout the tracking of the bird the conditions of its lighting or the background can vary causing the variation of shutter speed required to shot. If, on the other hand, you work in manual or "all automatic" the use of the dissociated approach will not contribute anything and in those cases its use complicates more than it helps. Also, if you work with birds on perches or know the lighting conditions before taking the photo, you can avoid working with the dissociated approach if it is not comfortable for you, since in these situations it will not give you anything either in terms of the focus and the calculation of the exposure are unified on the shutter button.

  ■ Remember to compensate the exposure as needed: With light backgrounds with respect to the bird, you have to compensate the exposure (as many steps as the difference in tone/color of the bird with respect to the background requires). If you photograph a black bird against a clear sky, since you do not compensate the exposure, it is most likely that the decision made by your camera will lead to the bird being completely black without any type of detail (underexposed), only appreciating its form as a silhouette against the background. Not all cameras work the same and some cameras or sometimes everything goes well "unexpectedly", but if you don't want to leave it to chance, or you don't exactly want your bird to be a silhouette against a background as a creative effect, get used to compensating for the exposure depending on the environmental conditions.

To get texture on the bird when the background is lighter than the subject, it will be necessary to overexpose the photo, even at the risk of burning the background a bit.

Finally and for me the most important. Practice, practice, practice and learn the behavior of birds to be able to anticipate the action:

Study the behavior and habits of the bird and try to be prepared to "freeze the duck" before that time comes. Each species has its habits, for example since this goes from "ducks", in the case of the 'Azulones' that is Mallard ducks (yes, the "ducks" those beautiful green-headed ponds) to nothing that you can observe them realize that:

      - They generally navigate in pairs (colorful male and brown female). If the couple is approached by another male,… watch out because it is likely that there may be fighting, pecking and chasing.

     - If you see a couple of male and a female Mallar ducks together, far from the rest of ducks, and standing face to face with each other moving their necks/heads up and down repeatedly… pay attention that soon they will have a good time “ordering ducklings”. Usually within a few seconds you will see the male perch on top of the female and peck at her neck from behind to hold her down while he mounts her.

    - If you see a male or female Mallar duck sticking its head and almost half of its body in and out of the water two or three times in a row, pay attention because it is very likely that a few seconds later it will begin to flap rapidly to dry its wings, taking out almost its entire body out of the water leaning on it only on its legs.

And so a thousand more behaviors to observe, some particular according to the species or its habitat, and others of a more general nature, such as the fact that all birds, just like airplanes, always take off or land against the wind…. so start observing nature as much as you can and get used to basing your successes on knowing the behavior of the species you are going to photograph, observe, learn and anticipate,... in this way you will already have "half a photo" made,... the other half will come from practicing and developing your skills to be ready at the right time.

I hope that after all the above you understand why my first impulse was to answer my friend “it depends!“. And I also hope that now it is a little clearer what that “it depends!” means.

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