Advice on good long lens technique

Discussion in 'Nature' started by avishek_aiyar, Feb 3, 2013.

  1. Hello,
    I just got back from an extremely disappointing day in the field shooting bald eagles.....I shot close to 50-60 pictures and I doubt if there is even one keeper from a "sharpness" point of view.
    I am not sure where I am going wrong. Not only is it disappointing, it is plain disheartening.
    I was using the Nikon AF-I 300mm f2.8 lens (no VR) with a 1.4x TC on my Nikon D300. The whole setup was mounted on a Wimberley Version I Gimbal and a Feisol 3442 CF tripod (this is a potential weak link in my setup, but a Gitzo 1325 is arriving at my door-step tomorrow).
    I set the camera to manual mode at F5 (slightly stopped down to improve sharpness) and 1/1000 s shutter speed (I am assuming this compensates for the absence of VR) and Auto-ISO.
    AF: Center weighted. I tried to keep the eagles as close to the center of the frame as possible.
    I was quite some ways from the eagles, but there is really no semblance of sharpness in any of my images even without cropping. When I crop, it is blatantly clear. My gut feeling is that the AF is off, but how can I fix that? BIF are a challenge, but I thought I had focus locked for most of the shots. Maybe I should use AF-C? Even then, most of the birds in motion shots were of the birds landing or taking off, so I didn't expect to run into a tracking problem.
    I am going to keep practicing, but it is frustrating to see some fantastic pictures on Flickr, when I can't reproduce anything close to that.
    Would really appreciate your advice.
  2. duplicate of next...apologies
  3. 1/2000 sec shutter speed for birds in flight (or as fast as light will allow...for larger raptors 1/2500 sec is usually good; for smaller ones (in flight) 1/3200 sec - especially if hand-held).
    With small subject matter (ie., birds far away so that they are small in frame - it is not unusual for camera to miss you have to shoot 20-30 shots to get one in focus). I have found that if I am that far away from subject (Bald Eagles as you describe above), just give up for the day and watch them through binoculars...wait for a possible closer flyover...This week scan the lists (check bird reports by state), see:
    and find a place where the raptors (eagles) are closer to people - and go visit that site...
    Bird photography is not difficult - it is finding the right place - and then being there at the right time with the right light...that is the tough part.
  4. I shoot sports but not bird's in flight, so take my comments in that context. This may seem backwards but your 300/2.8 and 1.4x is not an exceptionally heavy combo, so perhaps experiment with some hand held shots as well. There are times when the fluidity of motion made possible by handholding is more important than rock steady support that is not so fluid. Obviously for big heavy lenses like the 600/4 and 800/5.6 one is pretty much restricted to the most fluidly moving tripod/head available.
    It may help people here if you post some examples for them to evaluate possible causes of your focus problems.
  5. There are a lot of factors that contribute to a camera failing to achieve sharp focus when trying to capture a bird in flight. The most important thing is not to get disheartened and give up. The two biggest issues are camera shake and background contrast or complexity.
    I believe that it is incorrect to say outright that you should use either manual or auto mode, or to issue a blanket statement that you should use a particular shutter speed. Yes you should be above the reciprocal of the total length of the lens, but consider in choosing your shutter speed how much light you have to work with, how fast your subject is moving and what kind of background you subject is moving against. If you are trying to catch an eagle on the wing and they are passing near over head at fairly close range as they sometimes may do, with a bright clear blue sky behind them and your camera has a focus mode that can track motion when the distance to the subject is varying then you can shoot at low moderate ISO and speeds close to the reciprocal of the lens length.
    As each one of these factors changes, speed, background, direction of motion, light, it becomes more difficult for the camera to achieve and maintain sharp focus. It is important to learn with practice how fast your camera achieves focus and how well it can maintain it while tracking under different circumstances. Like so many endeavors, photographing birds in flight takes practice practice practice. There is a lot more skill to it than it looks like, and that skill is achieved with practice.
  6. Folks...thank you so much for the excellent advice. I did realize that Bird photography in general and BIF in particular is much more challenging than conventional photography. I will spend more time with my gear and try and learn its nuances...
    I have included some shots from will give you an idea of what I am talking about.
    But I do identify with what Robert said: when I am close to eagles (like I was in Alaska), my shorts are so much sharper. But in yesterday's case, I could not even get the eagles that were stationary to be in sharp focus.......or at least the picture isn't sharp in my estimate.
  7. btw...noticed something in addition. When I was trying to use the focus tracking mode (AF-C), I could not see the red box (which tracks the subject at all).
    I tried it again today morning and confirmed that with the TC-14E in place, the red box does not appear at all, but with the lens in place it works as it should.
    Is that consistent? Or something wrong with my copy of the TC?
  8. What ISO were these, and what was
    your workflow? Unfortunately there are
    so many variables. These were RAW
    or JPEG
  9. First a disclaimer: I am very far from an expert, so please take this in the spirit of someone who has had similarly disappointing experiences and not as one of the true experts on the site.
    I suspect you were attempting to capture an image that was beyond the reach of your lens. Several years ago, I had a similar experience. I spent over two hours shooting a litter of fox kit. I was so excited to have found the fox den when the parents were out hunting. I shot frame after frame, checking the LCD screen to see if the images were properly exposed and sharp. On the tiny screen, the images looked okay so I kept shooting. When I returned home and uploaded the images, my heart sank - not a single shot out of the 100 or so I made - was acceptably sharp. After spending a few days licking my wounds, I posted the images here asking for some help understanding what happened. At the time I was shooting with a Canon Rebel with a 300mm lens attached. I learned that, although the kits seemed within the acceptable range of sharpness for the lens, they were, in fact, well outside that range. Every lens has limits and I pushed past those limits, thus the images were not sharp. I also learned that the more action in a shot, the more likely you are to lose sharpness when you push the lens past its limitations. Since the fox kit debacle, I've used the same 300mm lens many times to capture good images, but I now understand its limits and if the scene is beyond the len's limits, I switch to another lens, move closer or just accept that I am unable to make the image work. Perhaps this will help explain your own disappointing results -
  10. With the TC and DX crop factors added in, your lens has an effective focal length of 630mm on FX/35mm. Needless to say, any camera/lens movement is at the time the shutter fires is going to be magnificed 12 times. The key here is strong support and a high enough shutter speed to negate any camera movement. Tripods are difficult to take into the field but a sturdy monopod isn't. I shoot quite a bit with my 600mm f/4 AIS and I find that my monopod setup works quite well as long as my shutter speed is above 1/1000 sec.
    You might also try focusing manually rather than relying on autofocus, at least for static shots
  11. Raise ISO, get shutter speed up, use single-point AF to aim at the head of the bird, practice, practice practice.
    This was ISO 400, f/7.1 at 1/1000-sec. hand held with 500mm f/4. The most important factor here was the excellent AF tracking of my Canon 5D MkIII. Also, when shooting BIF, I leave off my 1.4X TC to speed up the AF reaction time. With my Canon 7D, my keeper rate was one-half as good or worse.
    My 5D MkIII has up to 61-points for AF, but I use either 1-point or 1-point expanded when shooting BIF. With the 61-points, there's always part of the bird in focus, but not necessarily the eye. You need to control that, or the shot will be a Delete.
  12. From your sample images, I have to agree with Irene that you are expecting too much from the lens/camera. You are just too far away. A D7000 and 800/5.6 with a 1.4x would still be in tough.
  13. Irene: my experience exactly mirrors yours! :) I am glad I am not alone.....time to practice and practice now.
  14. David: what a fantastic shot! I am just going to keep playing around with it every weekend until I get it right. I think the trick is to use the right AF mode with the right # of AF sensors...I think a single point maybe the way to go as you point out.
    Irene/John: I have to agree with you. I might be just too far away to get anything meaningful out of my combo. On the bright side, there was another photographer next to me shooting with a Canon 500+1.4x TC and he too wasn't able to get close. His photos, in my opinion, were no better than mine.
  15. Avishek, thank you and you got it. "Time to practice and practice now" is the key. Even with the right equipment and the right settings, there's a fairly steep learning curve with super-tele lenses. Strangely, the more you practice your technique, the closer you'll get to the birds. Persistence leads to payoffs.
  16. You need to make sure your D 300's custom settings are set properly for for birds and birds in flight. I have the same camera and Wimberly head. I shoot all of my birds using Matrix metering, AF-C, at the fastest frames per second possible. I use a 500mm f 4.0 both with and without a Nikon 1.4x tc. My keeper rate is a lot higher than yours. I set my f stop about f7.0. I set Back Button focusing to have the focus function shifted to the AF-ON button. I also prefer Release priority, and not Focus priority. I want to determione when the shutter goes off, not the camera.
    Here are some settings of "experts." Note that they do not always agree and that the settings vary depending on a lot of conditions:
    Scott Linstead:
    With 500 f4, I use the following :

    A3--9-point dynamic
    lock-on : off
    A1--focus priority release
    Alan Melle:
    (A3)--9 Point dynamic w/center focus point selected
    (A4) Lock-on set to normal
    (A1) AF-C Priority Selection set to Release + Focus
    a1 Release + focus,
    a2 Release,
    a3 3D (Depends on situation, I have function button set to change AF area on the fly),
    a4 Normal (Depends on the situation),
    a5 On,
    a6 On,
    a7 On,
    a8 AF51
    a9 Off,
    a10 AF,
    b1 1/3,
    b2 1/3,
    b3 1/3,
    e1 1/320 FP,
    f5 button + dials Dynamic AF Area.
    Set Picture Control: Standard with these adjustments; Sharpening 3, Contrast 2 bars left (negative) of 0.

    I have 3 basic AF set ups:
    Basic BIF set up: AF-C, a1 Release + focus, AF Dynamic, a3 3D, a4 Normal.

    When fastest AF is needed: AF-C, a1 Release + focus, AF Single Sensor, AF Center Sensor, a4 Long.
    Remember to acquire focus or focus on another subject when using Lock-On you must take finger off shutter release and then press half way down again.

    Over water or when tonality of subject is similar to background: AF-C, a1 Release + focus; AF Dynamic, a3 9 point, a4 Normal.

    I recommend using the limiter switch and always prefocusing on an area close to where you expect to pick your subject up.
    The D300 is very good with handling noise, so I use ISO 400 even in brighter light to give more shutter speed or smaller aperture. If possible I prefer (with F4 lenses) using an aperture of F6.3-F8 for birds in flight. "

    Hope this helps,

    Scott Linstead
  17. I agree with the previous comments about the need to get closer for high quality shots of birds in flight. I know, easier said than done. But with persistence, you will encounter situations where you will get these better opportunities. There is a lot of good advice here about settings as well. And as has been mentioned, practice is another major key to success. I would recommend you find a place where you can shoot seagulls, or any other similarly large bird, for practice. You need to find a place that has a lot of birds. They are large enough and slow enough to allow you to refine your technique. Shoot gulls until you know exactly what settings you would use for that type of bird, and your reactions become automatic. Of course if you are near Bosque del Apache you can practice on "light" geese, as they have about 50,000 of them there and many flight shot opportunities, especially near the corn fields. This type of practice will help you when you get the chance to shoot your target bird, the Bald Eagle. You will just have to adjust your exposure settings as appropriate.
  18. thanks a lot folks....I will get to work on all this once again this weekend.

Share This Page