Since 2009, I have had the great joy of photographing nesting brown pelicans in the Everglades. Each spring, I paddle out to the rookery as many times as possible and spend several hours at a time sitting in my canoe while attempting to capture scenes that include pelicans flying to and from the nest. So how does one capture large brown pelicans in flight from a canoe? If bird photography is your interest, you may find some good tips here on shooting birds in flight.
Consider these three things when attempting to improve your flight shots; knowledge of birds, camera technique, and post-processing of images. For this blog, I will begin with the first point which is, know your bird. Watch it and study it. To get the best flight shot possible, it is essential that you do this. You can say that about any photography subject, but with birds in flight, understanding bird behavior and the dynamics of flight are most important. In this regard, keep these three points in mind.
- Birds will mostly land and take off into the wind.
- When landing, birds will go from a horizontal to a vertical position and use their wings as a parachute to slow down. When landing, a bird will appear to hover as it stretches its legs and feet forward and fans out its tail feathers that point downward (as seen in the photo above, for example).
- Nesting birds will demonstrate a fairly consistent flight pattern and schedule.
I plan my mornings at the rookery when there is an expected easterly breeze. This means both the sun and wind are to my back and the birds will be landing and taking off toward me. This is important because to me, the best flight shots are when the bird is facing the camera and wings are open, and the sunlight captures the underside of the wings. During landing, I can capture a bird with full wing spread, including tail feathers, out-stretched feet and eyes facing the camera. During early morning hours, the sun will light up those beautiful wings and provide a nice catch light in the eyes, a glorious thing to see.
To get the best flight shots, consider the distance between you and your subject. The first and most obvious point is that you do not want to get too close to the birds to disturb them. Through trial and error, you learn that birds have a species-specific comfort zone and if you cross that line, they will react. So get use to keeping a large distance between you and the birds (there are exceptions such as boardwalks where nesting birds are sometimes within 20 feet of a camera).
My second point here is that the ability to fill your frame with a pelican in full wing spread will depend on three things, the distance between you and the bird, your maximum focal length and your camera's sensor size (cropped or full frame). A cropped sensor digital camera will essentially make the bird appear closer in the frame compared to a full frame sensor camera. My camera, the Sony a77 has a 1.5x cropped sensor that can make a 400mm focal length look like 600mm. The good thing about brown pelicans is they have a wing span of 6-8 feet. This means that with my camera, I can fill the frame with an 8-ft wing span from a distance slightly greater than 100 feet. At the rookery, I am sometimes within 40-50 feet of a flying bird and use focal lengths of 250mm or less to capture it's wing spread (this is why a zoom lens is preferred over a fixed prime lens). In fact, clipping the wings is a common occurrence for me as I fail to zoom in enough to capture the entire wing span. The bottom line is, you need a significant focal length lens (400mm or higher depending on the camera's sensor size) in order to keep your distance from the birds. The good side of brown pelicans is they are large and can fill your frame from a great distance.
As you watch the birds, you will notice flight patterns. This is particularly the case for the male pelican that flies into the nest with a branch in its beak every 10-15 minutes. At the rookery I photograph, there may be a half dozen nests within my range of sight. After some observation, I can distinguish a bird from another simply by its flight path. As a result, I concentrate on the nest (sometimes two nests) that are in best light and have clear surroundings so I may capture the incoming bird without distracting mangroves or other birds. As the male pelican arrives with a branch, the female reacts by raising her head and opening her beak so that the male can pass off the branch to her. The male will stay in the nest for about 5-10 minutes before it flies off again on its quest for a branch. Within a couple hours, I can capture several hundred frames of birds flying into their nest.
With that much opportunity to photograph a pelican in flight, over time I have greatly narrowed my acceptance rate. Pelicans in flight or in landing present few variations of poses and after awhile images can look repetitive. I first narrow down my images using the following criteria. To keep an image, all criteria must be met:
adequate sharpness, especially on the face
at least one eye in the light
near perfect to perfect exposure
no object (like a mangrove branch) covering the bird
sunlight on the underside of the wings
bird is flying into the camera
In the field, I shoot with all above points in mind. Afterwards, I look for something special about each image to set it apart from the rest. It may be the exquisite lighting or it may be an interesting branch in the bird's beak. Clouds in the sky can add to the composition and an interaction with another bird can be fun as well.
The best way to go about photographing birds in flight is practice, practice, practice. Even if you take 100 photos and find only one that is worth keeping, your experience is more valuable than the images produced. Next blog, I will talk about camera technique including exposure and will touch a bit on post-processing strategies to enhance your image of the beautiful brown pelican in flight.