“The bird who dares to fall, is the bird who learns to fly”
I can’t cite the author of this quote, but I like what it says about taking chances and learning new things. If you are stuck in a rut with your photography, maybe it’s time to “spread your wings.” Few things will challenge you more than photographing birds-in-flight. So let me introduce my friend.
Ken Miracle is a Boise, Idaho photographer. As a fellow Boise Camera Club member, I came to know him and his work through that group and have always been very impressed with his bird photography. When Improve Photography was interested in an article on Photographing Flying Birds, I knew I could not speak on that subject with any authority not having done anything like that, but knew Ken was my “go-to-guy.”
He started serious photography about 7 years ago after an Alaskan fly fishing trip where he did some simple shots with his wife’s point-and-shoot camera. Impressed with the shots, he coupled his new photography interest with his passion for bird conservation work, specifically as a Sage Grouse conservationist. The Sage Grouse is a bird species prized by hunters in the mountain west and thrives in the high desert sagebrush country that covers much of eastern and southern Idaho. Ken was awarded a Conservationist of the Year Award from Field and Stream magazine in 2014 for his work donating photos to benefit sage grouse conservation and hands-on work helping restore wet meadows, places where sage grouse chicks feed.
While we photographers often use the term “shoot” when talking about snapping photos, Ken says it was his hunting skills acquired with a shotgun that aided him in transitioning to birds in flight photography.
“I’ve trained myself to be able to quickly acquire the target with my eyes and swing with the camera like I would with a shotgun,” he said. “I sometimes find myself having to be careful who I’m talking to. I say “shoot” and they say, “You shot a bald eagle??” and I have to explain that no, I photographed it with my camera.”
Those considering bird photography might think the first thing they need is an expensive camera and a really long telephoto lens. Ken says for those looking to get started, there are initially other options.
“You can get started with a point-and-shoot or nice bridge camera and while those may work fine for sitting birds, you will likely have limitations on shooting birds in flight,” he said. “They are harder to track and follow a bird in flight. I prefer to be looking through the lens of a DSLR. The other important quality of a DSLR is that focus is typically much faster. It’s important that the lens/camera combo you use be able to focus lightning quick.”
Ken says another advantage of a better camera is that settings can often be pre-programmed. “I have one setting that might be good for a roosting bird and then if it takes off, with the push of a button I can go to the one that is setup for flying birds.”
Telephoto reach may be another issue for photographers who only have a kit lens or maybe one with a 200mm maximum focal length. “200mm is about the minimum for this kind of work,” said Ken. “In certain situations if say you are shooting a group of several birds or a flock in flight, I’ve even shot at 100mm or so, but for the most part for birds in flight, I start with about 300mm with a 1.4 teleconverter and that on a crop sensor camera so I’m out at a bit over 600mm equivalent with that setup.”
I was surprised to hear Ken mention a teleconverter, especially since the photos I’ve seen him do are always tack sharp. Teleconverters often have a reputation for making for soft images. Ken, a Nikon shooter, says it depends on the lens/converter combo. “If you put a teleconverter on the wrong lens you’re gonna have some problems,” he said. “I have a Nikkor 300mm Phase Fresnel which is well-matched with a Nikon teleconverter, but I’ve used that same teleconverter on some of my other lenses and it doesn’t work nearly as well.”
I asked Ken if perhaps in some cases it might be better to use a lens without a teleconverter and crop than use one that might soften an image. “Whatever lens you have you’re gonna be cropping the vast majority of the time,” he said. Depending on the situation, you can sometimes get closer, but even when I’ve seen photographers working with 600mm lens and 2x teleconverters on a tripod with a Wimberly gimbal head they often still wind up having to crop in a bit.”
Ken says he usually doesn’t shoot with a tripod at all. “I think of all my birds in flight photos only about one-percent were shot from a tripod and I haven’t used it at all in recent years. The improvements in image stabilization and in the lenses and the cameras make me a lot more portable (without a tripod) and give me the mobility to go out and “hunt” the birds I want to shoot.”
To be specific, Ken says one camera he often shoots with is his Nikon D500, a crop-sensor camera. He says he often couples that with his Tamron 18-400mm (so the equivalent of a 27-600mm on that camera). The lens can be had for around $650.00.
While the equipment is important, Ken says technique is paramount. “Learning your camera and learning how to use it is critical,” he said. “Sure, get as long a lens as you can afford and try and get a camera with fast focusing, a fairly high frame rate, and enough resolution so you can crop the shot if you need to. But learning how to get the most from the gear is what is crucial.”
Getting to a location where there are birds to shoot and then spotting them once you are there can be challenging. Ken says a lot of that just comes with practice. “I’ve been interested in birds my whole life and watched them for a long time,” he said. “I’m also lucky to have good distance vision and good peripheral vision, so that helps too. As a hunter, I’ve learned to see even slight movements that others miss, but it’s practice. I used to just go out and photograph whatever I saw, but now I’ve gotten to a place where I can go out and decide what kind of bird I want to photograph that day and go find it.”
That’s great when you live in Idaho, a place of diverse environments and many bird species, but how about for photographers who might live in more urban areas? Are there opportunities for in-flight bird photography there?
“Absolutely,” said Ken. “I’ve seen amazing bird-in-flight photos taken in Central Park in New York City. There are great bird photos to be taken on the seashore. One of my favorite bird-in-flight photographers lives in Los Angeles and I’ve seen her make great shots down in the concrete river areas, so yes, birds are everywhere,” he said. “I’ve known people who started shooting birds-in-flight photos with pigeons downtown. A Chicago photographer I know has a great shot of a peregrine falcon after a pigeon taken in downtown Chicago. That’s one of the wonders of bird photography… birds are everywhere.”
So you have your gear, you’ve determined where you want to shoot and where you’ll find birds, now how do you set up your camera to get the shot? Ken says if you’ve been shooting landscapes or fairly common subjects you’re going to have to do a re-think on the settings you typically use.
“Most people find 1/250th of a second about as fast as they ever need,” he said, “…and f/8 is usually the sweet spot on their lens. A low ISO is what you want to strive for to limit camera noise. Usually, that’s all true. But now, with birds in flight and longer lenses and you have new things to think about,” he said. “The longer lens will magnify simple tremors or shakes you may have and so that’s one challenge. Remember that the rule of thumb says your shutter speed should be as high as the focal length of your lens.” (Example, with a 400mm lens you’ll probably want a minimum shutter speed of 1/500.) “For me, I usually double that, so shooting a 600mm equivalent focal length I’m shooting at a minimum of 1/1250th,” said Ken. “My aperture will typically be wide open for whatever that lens might be, so maybe f/4, 5.6, or whatever that lens is. Usually, I want to isolate the bird from its background so a wide aperture which minimizes depth of field helps with that.”
Then there’s that third factor, ISO. “I usually shoot in Aperture priority, so I’ll put the f/stop and shutter speed where I want, find a middle tone spot where I’m shooting, meter it and decide what ISO I need.” Ken's “out-the-door” settings so he’s ready for action when a bird is spotted are:
- Aperture Priority Mode (Av on Canon, A on Nikon) or Manual (M)
- Single-point or Grouped-Point Continuous Focus
- Center-Weighted Metering
- Continuous High-speed Shutter
- Lens at its widest aperture
- Minimum of 1250/sec. shutter speed
- Auto ISO (depending on the camera)
Ken says he uses these as a starting point and will adjust as needed depending on the situation, but one that he uses almost always is Continuous Autofocus. “I’m looking at the eye of the bird. That’s my focus point. That’s what gets the viewers attention anyway whether it’s a bird or a person, or any living subject.”
One of the difficulties of birds in flight photography is that often one cannot choose the background. Ken says that’s one reason he usually works with a wide aperture. “I’m usually at f/4 or 5.6 depending on the lens, occasionally f/2.8 if that’s available on the lens I’m using. Sometimes that’s to get all the light in that I can but usually it’s because I want to isolate the bird against the background,” he said. “Sometimes I can position myself so I can control the background, but not always. Occasionally, I do want to show more of the environment the bird is in or maybe get a group of birds that aren’t in the same focal plane and so then I may stop down that aperture.”
“Another setting I may play with is shutter speed,” he said, “…depending on what I want to show. I may be up as high as 1/8000th of a second if I want to completely freeze the bird or might slow down a bit if I want the tips of the wings to show motion.”
As for a metering mode, Ken says that too is like much of photography, …it depends. “I usually favor center-weighed averaging but occasionally may switch to spot metering say when I need to meter a dark bird against a bright background or maybe a bird with bright white plumage so as not to blow out the highlights.
Something else to be aware of is the effects of the season as birds often change coloration at different times of the year as well as how light might be striking the bird which also can drastically change how the colors appear. His shot of a magpie in flight is an excellent example. Most of us see this bird as purely black and white but with wings spread in flight and the sunlight just right, he glows with iridescent color.
Looking at his photo of a Belted Kingfisher, streaking through the trees with bright blue plumage, I’m rather blown away at the camera settings; 1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 8000. I can understand shooting at a very fast shutter speed to freeze the motion of this exceptionally speedy little bird, but very rarely do we landscape photographers venture into that kind of ISO territory.
“He’s flying through a shaded area into another shaded area and so to get that kind of shutter speed you have to go there with the ISO,” said Ken. “That’s also a reason for shooting with aperture priority. In shots like this, birds are often flying in and out of the light and so having the shutter speed and/or auto ISO adjust rapidly to get the exposure right is critical.”
Image noise would be one fear many might have shooting at ISO 8000, but Ken says “…not as much as you might think. My D4S is extremely good at high ISO settings producing very little noise. The D500 is pretty good, the D850 isn’t quite as good but close and the resolution is staggering. These cameras also have a good dynamic range and so that helps a lot in mixed lighting.”
Sometimes shutter speed can be a little slower, though with birds in flight, the term “slower” is a bit relative. “In this shot of a Northern Flicker I wanted the wing tips to show some motion so the shutter speed was way down at 1/640th of a second,” said Ken. “It helped that this was winter and the bird had some great red plumage and the trees had no leaves. It was a low light morning in winter too and I had a fairly low ISO so this one breaks some of the rules I’d normally do.” (But notice he still nails the focus!) “A good example of how I use single-point autofocus and focus on the eye,” said Ken.
Another shot where Ken used a “slow” (1/640th) shutter speed is this of a chukar partridge. “I wanted to show the movement in this shot as the bird flew down and away from us,” said Ken. “The thing he was flying away from is my friend’s Northern Goshawk. My friend is a falconer and so that gives me other photo opportunities.”Ken’s photo of a white pelican is a good example of being ready and having the right settings. “I was walking along and all of a sudden this guy appeared out of nowhere,” said Ken. “He was close enough that he practically filled the frame, I don’t think I even cropped later. I only had about a second to make the shot. Against a fairly bright sky, I was metering with center-weighted averaging and that allowed me to not have him captured as a silhouette while also not blowing out his white feathers. I was in aperture priority, had a low, (for me), ISO at 800 and an f/stop of 6.3, which is wide open for that lens so my shutter speed jumped way up to 1/8000th. So that combination gave me great feather detail, translucence in his backlit white feathers, and sharpness throughout,” he said. “I also didn’t have to worry about my background here.”
“Here’s one from a different part of the world, a Lilac-breasted Roller taken in South Africa,” said Ken. “I wanted to include these two shots to show how different the bird can look depending on whether the wings are up or down. This shows why it’s a good idea to be in continuous high-speed shooting mode,” said Ken. “Continuous high-speed shutter and continuous single-point or grouped-point autofocus are critical to getting shots like this.
Of course, firing off shots at 10 frames a second means a heap of images with even a single pass of a flying bird. “Oh yeah,” said Ken, “…it’s easy to shoot 800 shots in no time. The good thing is my percentage of keepers has gone way up. I used to have maybe one in 20 shots that was good, now I might only have one out of twenty that’s a throwaway.”
Something else that distinguishes Ken’s shot from those of amateur bird photographers is that while those new to the genre may point up at a bird flying overhead, many of his shots are on eye level with the bird and occasionally when the scene permits, slightly above the bird. His shot of a group of ducks in a fall setting demonstrates this.
“I was trying to deliberately get that fall feeling by having the colorful background so being able to get a little higher than the flying wood duck allowed me to have more background in the shot.,” said Ken.
I asked Ken to summarize with a handful of tips he’d have for photographers new to birds-in-flight photography. Here’s what he came up with:
- Wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. You want to get shots and angles that are interesting and unique, not just those you might get from normal standing or tripod height. Be prepared to lie down, crawl through the bushes, whatever it takes.
- Expect to be shooting at high shutter speeds. “I showed a few shots at 1/640th and that’s really, really slow for me. Typically I’m closer to 1/3200 and even higher.”
- Continuous Single-point or grouped-point autofocus (AI Servo autofocus is what Canon calls it)
- Continuous high-speed shutter – “I like at least 8 frames-per-second, 10 if the camera will do it,” said Ken. “I also have a battery grip on the camera which increases the frame rate. As fast as your camera will allow with a fast card that won’t buffer out.”
- Center-weighted or spot metering
- Practice! – Get out and shoot birds in the park, seagulls, ducks, geese, whatever is common in your area. Like everything else, practice will help you know your camera better and hone your tracking and shooting skills.
Here’s one more shot I wanted to throw in from Ken, a photo of a bird in flight, but in vertical rather than horizontal motion. “This is a belted Kingfisher who has just come off a limb and is in a vertical dive,” said Ken. “I call it ‘Bombs Away.’ He’s folded his wings and is just plummeting toward the water after a fish. You only have a split-second before they hit the water. This kind of shot is different and will really test your skills.”
I’m fortunate that Ken is a fellow Boise Camera Club member and I get to see his photos almost weekly. He’s not yet gotten around to creating a website, but you can see some of his work or even drop him a message on his Facebook page.
This article was written using an interview I did with Ken Miracle. You should be able to hear it via this link. It is much more in-depth than the article with additional content. Let me know if it works for you in the comments.