Since I shoot with Nikon gear, the following will pertain to
Nikon cameras, lenses, and jargon.
acronyms: AF = auto focus, AF-C = continuous auto
focus, AP =aperture priority auto exposure
Lens selection: First I must mention that quite a bit of my flight shooting is done from a kayak or a canoe. When in a kayak or canoe I shoot most of
my birds in flight using a 200-400mm f/4 AF-S VR lens; often times adding a
1.4x converter. With Nikon the "S" in AF-S is one key to having a good flight
shot lens. While Nikon says the S stands for Silent Wave (and it is quieter),but the biggest advantage of the AF-"S" is that they focus much faster
than the standard AF Nikkors.The other great advantage of the 200-400mm is the (VR) which stands for Vibration Reduction.
VR eliminates much of the shaking that occurs when hand holding heavy long focal length lenses.
Shooting without a tripod gives me far more
flexibility for certain situations. A tripod can be very awkward in a canoe or
kayak. Also, unless you know exactly where your subject is going to be, it is
easier to swing around and shoot when hand holding your camera. I find that tucking my elbows to my side helps also helps greatly.
I use Nikon D3 & D3s camera bodies. If I used a camera body with a cropped sensor,
my lens preference for hand-held flight shots would be a 300mm f4 with a 1.4x converter. With Nikon's that have a 1.5x cropped sensors, like the D300s, this combo would yield a very light weight 630mm's.
What a great setup for hand-held flight shooting!
When on dry ground, and when I have the time to set up; I will set up my tripod with a Wimberly Head. The Wimberly Head is expensive, but when shooting with long focal
length lenses they don't take a back seat to any head.I am very confident shooting my 600mm with the tripod and Wimberly Head.
Metering : I use "Matrix metering" and Aperature Priority Auto Exposure using Exposure Compensation when needed. We know that we are going to want a fast shutter speed,
so choose as high an ISO as needed to yield a shutter speed of at least 1/500 second (preferably faster). Use
exposure compensation as needed. With the sun at my back and a dark blue sky,
my exposure should be close (depending on the color of the bird). If the
background is white clouds, I know that I will have to over-expose to get good
exposure on the bird. The camera will try to make those white clouds 18% gray.
Remember that the camera wants to make the scene as close to middle tone as
Auto Focus settings: The first is obvious. We want to
use AF-C. This is continuous servo AF, which allows the camera to
continuously focus. I have found that 3D Tracking using all 51 focus points works the best for me. The camera will use information from the 51 focus points. Try to keep your subject within
the 51 point area as much as possible. I prefer to use the thumb auto-focus button on the back of your camera. I then deactivate the AF from the shutter button.
When possible, pre-focus at a distance you expect your subject
to be. This way your camera will have a tendency to find and lock onto your
Keep the bird in the chosen area of focus as much as possible.
Try to pick and set up in a spot that will keep the distance
between the subject and the background as far as possible. Sky is always the
best option here since that is infinity. However, this isn't always possible
and doesn't always result in the best photo.
Try to keep your shutter speed up around 1/1000th of a second
or faster if possible.
If there is a stiff breeze birds will nearly always take off into the
Practice ! Gulls are great practice. If you know of a
location where people feed gulls you can get all the practice you need for
the price of a loaf of bread.