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Birds In Flight - Getting Great BIF!

Without a doubt, one of the greatest challenges of bird photography, and probably photography in general, is cracking a good BIF shot.

And I'll admit, it's not easy...but it's also super rewarding when you finally start to get your technique honed, ...which can be sooner rather than later with my top 20 tips for great BIF!

20: Fast shutter speed. Increase your ISO and or lower your aperture to get a shutter speed over 1/2000th of a second. With bigger/slower birds you can go lower, to around 1/1250th or 1/1600th. With small birds such as wrens and erratic flyers like terns around 1/3200th and up is a safer bet. Better to have it too fast than too slow, as there's no correcting blurred images!

19: Hover around f 7.1 - don't go too wide open with your aperture or you will struggle to get enough of the bird in focus. I'll go lower in number (or wider open) if the light is lacking and I really need to get my shutter speed up and my ISO is already at 4000 or more. I will reluctantly head up to ISO 6400, but prefer not to go any higher - I'd rather lose one stop of aperture, but I aim for f 7.1 or 8.0.

18: Set your focus pointer to 'Goldilocks' - neither too small or too large! I find the cross setting with 5 focus points in my OM-1 helps me to grab onto focus the best, but this will depend on your camera. Too many focus points and you'll risk pulling the background into the frame and lose focus altogether, too small and you'll struggle to lock onto your subject unless it's a small bird in grasses or the like.

17: Use Continual Auto Focus - this is essential!

AI Servo mode for Canon

Continuous AF or AFC for Sony

C-AF for Olympus

AF-C for Nikon

No matter your camera brand, Look for the C in your focus setting - indicating your focus will continually adjust to a moving subject, not focus on a single subject - 'S-AF' or similar.

16: Switch on Tracking for animal, bird or eye if you have it. Sometimes called 3-D tracking.

15: Use Sports Mode or Sequential Shooting - make sure you are taking a series of shots when you press the shutter - getting a good one is hard enough, with single shot mode, you're making life way too hard on yourself!

14: Choose shutter speed priority over aperture priority, if you're not yet shooting in full manual mode. You can set your ISO to auto mode and use exposure compensation to further tweak for the conditions.

13: Shoot in short bursts rather than long blasts. Unless you have a super-fast memory card (and they are expensive), if you just hold the shutter down you'll run into a lag, where the images cannot be written to the card fast enough, and you'll get a faltering stop-start action in your camera, if not a total stop. And Murphys Law says that will be right when you want that split second caught on camera!

12: Wait for the right moment. And following on from 14...don't lose your load too early (OK ... that is a crass joke ... but you get the point!) Wait for the right moment and don't start shooting too early or you risk running into lag issues or taking waaaay too many shots. Hold off til the bird and light are in the right position - or just a tad before.

11: Shoot handheld if you can. It does give you a greater range of motion ... and toned arms! If you do need to use a tripod, you'll need to invest in a gimbal head or at least a good quality ball head. I have used a monopod with a ball head, which is a halfway measure. I personally still found it too limiting, but it might work for you if you are used to a tripod.

10: Pre-focus by aiming at something a similar distance away as your subject. One of my main issues I have is losing focus - where your camera locks onto something in the distance, and it's hard to bring it back. You can try and remedy this by pointing quickly at a tree or other fixed object a similar distance away to get your focus in the ballpark, then try locking onto the bird again.

9: Track birds from a distance. Following birds with Continual Auto-Focus as they come closer gives you time to predict the right moment to shoot. Yeah, sometimes they change direction and fly off but don't wait til they are too close to lift your camera or you risk missing out altogether.

8: Start with bigger and slower birds. If you're just starting out, get used to shooting BIF with slower birds such as egrets and pelicans who are a little bit easier to predict movements and give you a little more time to lock your focus on.

7: Shoot out in the open - thick bush and even scattered trees are not going to help you get a good BIF shot, especially when starting out. Head to an open area where you have more scope for following a bird with the camera such as near a dam, in large paddocks or in a sports field. One of my favourite sites is at the local water reservoir.

6: Make sure your subject is flying towards you. There are exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking it doesn't look right if you can't see the eyes.

5: Aim for light under or over the wings. I do take shots with both wings up and wings down - as both can show off the plumage and make for a good action shot. But you don't want either side in shadow.

4: Make sure the eye is sharp. Even if you can't get the whole bird in focus (and I rarely do) the eye MUST be sharp. A bit of blur elsewhere can be fine and add to the story and feeling of motion, but definitely not soft or blurry eyes. Instant amateur look and you can do better!

3: Be ready with your BIF settings already set when walking around looking for birds. Birds can appear suddenly and you won't have time to change your settings. Be ready and you at least have a chance of cracking that great shot!

2: Keep the sun behind you or to the side. Shooting into the sun CAN produce stunning silhouette and backlit shots, but mostly it means you'll be momentarily blinded by the bright light and miss the shot!

1:Practice practice practice! The Number One Tip! It would be nice if there was some magic setting that makes you get perfect BIF shots. But there's nothing that will beat hands-on time with the camera putting it all into practice.

You don't necessarily need birds to practice on either. Capture passing cars (try focusing on the mirrors or badges), cyclists, bugs, planes and just those everyday birds like crows and good old plovers at the sports ground.

I find I lose my skills a little when I haven't been out for a while and need to put in a couple of sessions before I get my hand to eye co-ordination honed in again. It really does pay off!

Like everyone, I struggled with BIF at the start and now I love the challenge and enjoy tracking birds across the sky with the camera. Often I don't even take the shot, but I have much more ease with lifting up the camera and getting the bird into the centre of the frame and my focus locked on in a split second, and it's all thanks to continual practice sessions.

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