Steven Rossi: Photographing Birds In Motion

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I have been a nature and wildlife photographer for quite a long time and have my technique for capturing strong images down to a routine. Today I’m going to discuss photographing birds in motion.

To get started, the first thing I do is look at the scene before me and find a neutral-toned object that is in the same light that the bird will be traveling. Then using my camera’s spot meter while in manual exposure mode I manually set my camera’s exposure while aimed at that selected object. In the case of the photograph above I manually metered on the osprey nest before the birds flew to it. Photos taken afterwards, such as the photo below, were taken at the same manual exposure settings as the photo above. It is best if the object has a neutral tone, but if it doesn’t have a neutral tone and if it is on the lighter side I slightly under-expose, or I slightly over-expose if it is on the darker side. When I have time, I take test shots of the object and if necessary I fine-tune the manual exposure setting upon inspecting the camera’s histogram or LCD Image.

My reason for using a manual exposure settings is because as I track and photograph a bird in motion in an open environment where the light on the bird doesn’t usually change but the background can change from bright to dark or from dark to bright, and an automatic exposure setting will be tricked by a changing background and will set the wrong exposure on my subject. In other words, as long as my subject, in this case the bird in flight, remains lit by a fixed, unchanging light source (in this case the sun), then my subject’s exposure should remain fixed, regardless of any tonal changes in the background. I only make adjustments to my manual exposure settings as the sun’s light changes. For example, changes like the clouds move significantly, or when the time-of-day changes drastically.

It is the combination of ISO, shutter speed and aperture that determines the exposure in a photograph and getting these settings right is always crucial. Achieving the correct exposure in the camera while shooting lessens chances of causing image degradation during post processing. Because I am attempting to freeze the action of birds in motion I select an ISO and aperture that will allow me to shoot at a shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second or faster. Keep in mind that the faster the shutter speed, the less chance of motion blur in the photograph. Additionally, in determining my exposure combination, I usually stop-down my lens by at least one stop to provide a little better depth-of-field than shooting with my lens wide open. I do this because while focusing on the eyes, I still want the entire bird to be as sharp as possible. I adjust my ISO setting only to satisfy my shutter speed and aperture requirements.

While in the field I do my best to not disturb the environment or disrupt the birds’ behaviors. I use a tripod for stability and a gimbal head for tracking. I wear camouflaged clothes and sometimes even make use of a blind. With my camera set on manual exposure mode, I photograph my subjects at various angles and from several vantage points to attain a full and varied representation of capturing birds in motion.

Based in New York City, Steven Rossi has been creating photographs and working as a freelance photographer since 1978. He enjoys the challenges of photographing any subject in any environment and is also involved with teaching photographic techniques. To see more of his work, follow him on Instagram.

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