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Birds in Flight

Barn Owl in flight
By Steve Wolfe

Not long ago, everyone thought that only single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs, now DSLRs) could capture birds in flight. The caveat was, although those cameras have faster auto-focus and continuous-shooting abilities, they also cost a good deal more than fixed-lens cameras, especially after you include the expense of a good telephoto lens. Recent advances in fixed-lens cameras have added to their features and speed of operation. With a little modification, it's now possible for "point-and-shoot" cameras to achieve impressive BIF shots. Here's how.

My Panasonic Lumix FZ30 ($600) is an "ultra-zoom," 8-megapixel digital camera with image stabilization and a Leica 35-420mm fixed lens. It has two high-speed auto-focus (AF) modes that would be perfect for birds in flight except the frame momentarily "freezes" in the camera's viewfinder, making it difficult to track your moving subject. The solution: sighting through a red-dot sight (RDS)--a small targeting scope primarily used by hunters--mounted on the camera's flash hot shoe. By calibrating the red dot in the RDS screen to the center of the digicam's EVF/LCD, you can use the RDS as the camera's viewfinder and track a moving object without being distracted by the "frame freeze." I use a BSA RD30 RDS ($40.00), sold online or at stores, attached to the flash hot shoe with an "Xtend-a-Sight" mount ($21.00). Here's a photo of my FZ30/RDS setup.

You can even add a red-dot sight to a compact point-and-shoot camera that doesn't have a flash hot shoe; fellow photographer John Reed adapted his Panasonic TZ1 to use a Daisy sight mounted on an inexpensive flash bar.

Now it's time to talk about camera settings and techniques for capturing birds-in-flight. Let's say I come across a Red-tailed Hawk perched on a light pole.

The FZ30 camera settings that seem to work best for me in most situations are a high shutter speed of at least 1/800 sec, an aperture of at least f4.0 for proper exposure, high-speed 3-area auto-focusing where the camera focuses on any 3 areas in a straight line across the viewfinder--this seems to more accurately track the bird's flight--and the "high-burst" mode, shooting 3 frames per second for continuous flight photos. Once the settings have been verified, I half-press the shutter button to lock and hold focus (thus bypassing the AF "frame freeze") on the perched red-tail, sight through the RDS centering the red dot on the hawk, then wait...and WAIT...until it flies off.

By using the RDS I was able to get four usable shots from the high-burst sequence total of five, whereas without it I would have been lucky to get two in the frame. And the sharp focus held in all the shots.

While starting with a perched bird increases the odds for a successful flight sequence, using the RDS on a bird already in flight can add to the percentage of in-frame shots. I was concentrating on Brown Pelicans when this Royal Tern flew within 20 feet of me. I barely had enough time to confirm focus-lock with the FZ30's audio "beep" and sight through the RDS as it passed by, but the three-area high-speed AF held the focus even as it came closer.

Again, these were two perfectly-focused shots taken in mid-flight that in all probability I would have missed if I didn't have the RDS.

Many more examples of birds-in-flight photos and sequences can be found on my web site. John Reed's photo gallery includes images of birds in flight taken with his modified "point-and-shoot" Panasonic TZ1.

So it's not necessary to have an expensive camera and lens to get quality bird-in-flight photos; all that's needed is a decent camera with good auto-focusing capabilities, a red-dot sight to track the bird's flight, and what fellow bird lover and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's July Featured Photographer Dave Phillips calls "The three Ps---Patience, Perseverance, and Practice."

Steve Wolfe is an amateur photographer with a passion for birds, and for building a stitch-and-glue mahogany kayak in his living room.

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Cedar Waxwings © The Nature Nook ; Barn Swallows © William Jobes ; Tree Swallows © Robinsegg ; Bohemian Waxwing by Joanne Bovee © Cornell Lab of Ornithology ; Fox Sparrow by Jean Kuns © Cornell Lab of Ornithology ; White Ibis by Kyle Rojas © Cornell Lab of Ornithology ; Killdeer Chick © David McNicholas ; Flying Brown Pelican © Eye of the Artist ; Diving Brown Pelican © Eye of the Artist ; Barn Owl © Tim Lenz