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Focusing on Birds

I do not consider myself a “bird photographer”. I just happen to photograph birds now and then. Usually the birds are relatively big shore or sea birds, and occasionally eagles. Usually they are fast-moving.  My cameras, a Fuji X-T2 and Fuji X-Pro2, serve me well for most of my photographic pursuits, but not necessarily for fast-moving birds. Perhaps many of you have experienced similar frustrations with your camera. The focusing works well for most of what you photograph, but at times it doesn’t.

Focus Tracking Problems

The problem I have with my camera is mainly the focus tracking. I have a very hard time getting the camera, no matter what combination of settings I try, to catch the focus of a fast-moving bird and to maintain it, particularly with tricky lighting. I have had some successes with focus tracking, and have gotten great shots, but let’s just say “I want more”.

My solution is not “selling one of my cameras and buying a bird photographer’s camera,” although it has been suggested. I really love my cameras. But I do have a solution that works for me. And perhaps it might prove helpful to you.

Manual Focus

I now shoot fast-moving birds using manual focus. Yes, manual focus. Very old school. And guess what, it works. In fact, I am probably taking much better images. By using manual focus I am forced to study my subjects very carefully. I take my time. I determine what behavior I want to capture, when and where the birds typically exhibit that behavior, and the appropriate background to spotlight the behavior. I pre-visualize my final image. I set-up the scene, pre-focus manually, and I wait for a bird to enter my scene.

The Fuji XT2 makes manual focus very easy. I use the camera’s focus peaking function.  When I focus manually everything in my plane of focus turns red in my view-finder and on my LCD screen. When a bird appears in the area I have pre-focused it turns red. I then just click away, not having to worry at all about the focus. The bird will be sharp, but for operator error. I just have to concentrate on the bird’s behavior. And I don’t have to click a zillion shots, panning my subject and using up my battery or memory on my SD card. (This technique should, of course, work for photographing just about anything moving fast.)

Even if your camera doesn’t have the focus peaking functionality you can still initially set your focus on random birds flying through the focus area. Or, if you prefer setting your focus point using single point auto focus on a random bird that has entered your pre-determined “scene,” you can. Simply change to manual focus once you have set your focus point using auto-focus, keeping that pre-set focus point in place.

Shutter Speed

A very fast shutter speed is also necessary when photographing fast-flying birds. I strive to get the bird’s “eye” as sharp as possible. My shutter speed is typically set between 1/2000 second and 1/4000 second, depending on the speed of the bird and how worried I am about camera shake. I experiment and see what works.

Exposure

I also set my exposure manually so that I will be certain that my highlights will not be blown out by an automatic setting. For example, when I photographed bald eagles in Alaska I set my exposure for the white feathers on the eagles’ heads, looking for “blinkies” on the head feathers as I reviewed initial images on my LCD screen or checking my histogram to be sure I wasn’t clipping highlights. (There should be no blinkies and the histogram shouldn’t creep up the right side.  If there are blinkies or if the histogram is creeping, decrease the exposure until there are no blinkies and the creeping stops.)  I also periodically re-check some images as the photoshoot continues, to determine if I need to make any exposure adjustments.

Does this approach mean I am getting all “the cool shots”? Of course not. But I am more likely to get the ones I want, well composed and sharp, with a good background and nice lighting. It’s not perfect. But it works for me. An average travel photographer who rises to the occasion now and then to become a “bird photographer”.

 

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