Sunday, 29 June 2014

HOW TO GET SWALLOWS IN FLIGHT

Let's get something straight before I go to far into this post. I am no expert at how to nail flight shots of Swallows in flight. I just have a unhealthy obsession with these charismatic summer visitors or should that be healthy, either way I spend a lot of time photographing them. So somehow I got reasonably good at keeping them in the viewfinder and getting images...every dog has it's day I suppose.
I have been asked by a few people how I do it so thought I'd share a few tips and suggestion.
"WHAT LENS DO YOU USE"
Tricky question really, it helps if you use a fast lens preferably with some sort of image stabilisation however I know of people who have obtained brilliant flight shots using a Sigma 50-500mm lens with no image stabilisation mode. Personally just in case the Swallows stay a bit distant I like to use my 500mm f4 prime lens and if the weather is sunny setting it at f/5.6 however I do find using a teleconverter slows things down too much so don't use one and with Swallows being quick...well you need your equipment to be quick to respond.
If I am at a location where I know the birds will be close I will use my 300mm f/2.8 this will eliminate poor weather too.  If you're having a problem with Swallows along the ground like the image below, welcome to the club. But seriously try sky shots first, with a blue sky. It's easier and makes good practice.
 "BUT YOU GOT A MEGA FAST FOCUSING 1D DO I NEED THE SAME"... Not really my first ever flight shot of a Swallow was with a Canon 400d which was mega slow at focusing. On all camera's you have an option of which focus point you enable on most it'll either be all of them or individual focus points on "pro" cameras like the 1d it is a multitude of choices, if you ain't got a 1d or the Nikon equivalent I would choose the centre focus point and on my 1d I DO THE same but enable additional focus points left and right of centre and not all of the focus points or as it's known the "ring of fire" as too many focus points selected slows the speed at which the camera focuses. In your camera settings if you have the option to change the auto focus speed option don't turn it up to the fastest unless you're photographing over perfectly calm water as blades of grass will grab the AF system attention and leave you frustrated. In good light on the 1d I go one down from halfway in poor light I stay at the half way option..it works for me.
 "WHAT EXPOSURE SETTINGS AND CAMERA SETTINGS DO YOU USE"
Right ideally you want to be photographing in glorious sunny weather with blue skies as it helps massively and the blue on the bird just looks great. Make sure the sun is behind you of course.
I will switch my camera into AV mode as this guarantees that I get the fastest shutter speed regardless where I point my lens. ISO setting varies on location and light condition for example if I am in a field on a good bright day that isn't shaded too much I will go anywhere from 400 to 640 and shoot at f/5.6 and exposure wise anywhere from +2/3 to +1. If it is overcast or slightly late in the evening I will up the exposure settings from anywhere +1 to +1&2/3rd's and change the ISO to values of 640 to 1000. You ideally need a shutter speed of anywhere from 1/1500th to 1/2500 however I have got flight shots with less shutter speed just with wing blur.
However if you are photographing over water remember you have the reflected light off the water surface which helps on slightly cloudy days to get both better exposure and shutter speeds.
Also set the camera to Continuous shooting mode for obvious reasons.
 " I STRUGGLE TO KEEP THE BIRD IN THE VIEWFINDER".
Again welcome to the club. It's what makes photographing Swallows equally frustrating and rewarding face the facts you have to keep the bird both in the viewfinder and in focus whilst a small bird flies at speed low to the ground twisting and turning normally trying to catch and even smaller and more nimble insect...however there are a few tricks I do.
1st Try either early in the morning when the Swallows first start to hunt both the Swallows and the insects aren't quite up to speed/warmed up.
2nd Unless you want sky shots avoid mid afternoon's as I find normally this is when they're mostly high in the sky as are the insects, unless it's sky shots you are after... Plus if the UK weather is hot you will too get hot and sweaty.
3rd Try about 5pm onwards the light is soft, less heat haze, and to me I swear the Swallows feed more but slower.
If you have more than one Swallow zipping around, as often is the case sit back and watch them, learn the flight pattern they do, it may look like a manic feeding frenzy but it ain't if it was there would be collisions and I've not seen Swallows collide EVER. With some it is like a figure of eight pattern other times its up one way and back the other...just watch them you'll figure out what I mean and figure out the way they hunt. Also they will disappear, taking food back to the young,  this is your chance to get your breath back and check your images, they will return as long as you haven't done something stupid to scare them away Swallows are quite tolerant to us humans so they shouldn't have been scared off.
I also have seen others frantically point the camera at the nearest bird, curse, then point at the next nearest bird followed by more cursing, don't choose this method you might get lucky but you will also get frustrated equally quick. Pick one bird that's at a fair distance from you and keep tracking it in the viewfinder the bird will do one of two things stay far away,  in which case choose the next bird and wait/keep tracking until it gets closer this method is good if you have either a slow lens/camera if you choose the closest bird to you often both you and your camera aren't quick enough. Also try out photographing juveniles for your first time as they're not as quick as the adults. However my TOP tip is practise, more practise, have a drink, more practise and....more practise but on a more serious note take loads of images the hit/success rate is shockingly low, I am lucky if from a full 4 gigabyte card I keep 20% of the images on a good day( I think I heard Adrian faint and hit the floor).

 "DO YOU USE A MONOPOD OR TRIPOD".
I don't use neither! Even when using my 500mm lens I prefer to handhold the lens but my biceps are big lol. So it's a case of use a tripod if you have one or a monopod if you got one. I would opt for the monopod with a gimbal head, which is what I used to use. However I felt either option was to clumsy and prefer handholding the lens as it gives me better fluidity whilst tracking the bird and with high shutter speed being used "stability" is not really an issue plus if need be I can lay low on my belly for a better point of view plus whilst laying low/kneeling down I find the Swallows come in closer.
 Like the image below.
"WHERE IS THE BEST PLACE TO PHOTOGRAPH SWALLOWS". That's a tricky one. Most Swallows in my home County tend to nest in barns/stables or outbuildings. So if it's nesting in a stable I will try and photograph them in the field or paddocks that they tend to hunt in near to their nesting sites. However sometimes they build their nests in strange places like the one below, a flock regularly nest in garages belonging to residents of one village who leave their garages open all Summer and the birds then either hunt the nearby fields or as in this image a playing field/football pitches.

 But Swallows will hunt for insects off the surface of water and need to drink too so any body of water is a good place to look around I have seen Swallows drink and feed off a rather large'is garden pond and a personal favourite location of mine is reservoirs as you get some unique shots as they hunt insects off the surface , reflection shots if the surface is calm enough and if it's hot a chance to dip your toes in the water too.

 But please don't photograph them at the nest it disturbs them feeding their young and personally I believe Swallows need all the help they can get.
But more importantly just enjoy it as often you will get some great close encounters.

19 comments:

  1. It's okay Douglas I didn't faint. I did have to go and put the kettle on though.
    A very useful and concise set of instructions.
    Just one question; doesn't your camera stop shooting when the buffer gets full? Maybe not with the 1D it does with the 1Ds on RAW files.

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    1. I don't think you mentioned how to set the focus points.
      For those that don't know it's Menu>C.Fn III then scroll through the little numbers till you find the right screen. It is also possible to adjust for specific lenses to cut out any tendency to front or back focus. That is #7. but only really critical for macro which is usually MF anyway.

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    2. Cheers Adrian.
      The 1d will buffer but it's dependant on how high the iso is as that reduces the number of shots available in a burst. But with Swallows you'll get an average 5 frames before the bird has vanished so buffering isn't an issue as it is with bigger slower birds

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    3. thank you Adrian you're right about the custom function settings however i'm not sure what it is on nikon and other makes so i thought it would be safer to leave it out maybe a nikon user will let us know..

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  2. Great tips there Doug, and top pictures to accompany them.

    I think my top tip would be practice.
    You can never take too many pictures with a digital camera.

    Another thing I do, to save on the 'hunting' of the focus; (my stuff is hopeless at times), pre set at a point they fly through frequently, in manual. As they pass through, work that shutter finger. Can be a bit hit and hope, but hey it's fun. And that's what it should be about.

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    1. Thanks Keith I agree the best tip is definitely practise and more practise. Like the tip at the end I do that to with small birds at feeders and you're right it's all about fun and enjoying the birds sitting back and watching nature.

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  3. Excellent tutorial Douglas and, as always, a superb set of images. As you say practice makes perfect...despite my advanced years, and lots of practice along the way, as far as images of Swallows in flight are concerned that's where I'm at...still practicing!
    However, all is not lost, during my last 'practice session' I think I stumbled on a new genre of photography...I've now got two new folders, both full of images, one called 'Blurred Sky' and the other 'Blurred Grass'!
    I think I've mastered one tip that you mentioned...'lay down on my belly' I've managed to get that one perfected...no problem, I still need to practice on the getting back up bit though!...[;o)

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    1. Thanks Trevor age isn't an issue as I am slightly younger and I too have the same folders as you 😊though I think the ability of not getting up so quickly is more down to me being a lazy bugger. Dedicate a whole day to Swallows and you might my just see an improvement

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  4. A great post with super images and useful information, Doug. Thank you.

    Am I right in thinking that you shoot in 'continuous focus' mode, rather than 'single focus', when you're going for flight shots? I sometimes wonder if the extra processing power needed for c/f slows down other aspects of the camera's operation. Not knowing Canon cameras, this question might be totally irrelevant to a non-Nikon user!

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    1. Thanks Richard.
      I do wish Nikon and Canon would get together so their cameras have the same terms. On Canon the continuous AF tracking mode is for Canon users a custom function CFIII MENU option I use this as the Swallow is fast and changes direction and should be coming closer so the cameras AF is changing to match the swallow interestingly I switch it to single AF MODE for birds in the sky or bigger slower birds like owls as I get better results. It doesn't slow the 1d down though it might be on the 1d due to the dual sensors...not sure on that though. I would love a Nikon d3/d4 user to come forward with their options/methods, anyone out there use a d3/d4

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  5. outstanding shots doug. awesome! well done :)

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    1. Thanks Al, I live my Swallows as they might a great subject matter, cracking little bird

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  6. Very educational and stimulating stuff Douglas supported by fantastic photographs, many thanks !,

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    1. thank you john i hope it helped i really enjoyed your barn owl pictures on Eleanors blog

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  7. Super "teach in" buddy, and the proof of the pudding is in the eating - great shots!

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    1. thank you Paul much appreciated.

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    2. thank you Paul much appreciated.

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  8. Hi Doug. My name is Jasper. I am a college student at Tufts University in MA, USA. I was finding a picture to go with my essay for a class magazine, and I thought that your picture of the swallow would be perfect for the essay. Do you think that I could use your first picture of the swallow as the cover picture for my essay? I can send you the link to the magazine if you wish.

    Thanks,
    Jasper

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    1. Hi Jasper. The only problem I have with the your request is that all my photos sit in storage with an image agency who will charge you. However if you're able to click&save/copy & paste or download the image somehow I won't mind you using the image. I'd love to read the essay in the magazine so just send us a link when it gets published
      Have a Great Christmas

      Doug

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