Last week I had the opportunity to photograph swallow tail kites. My friend Dick, over at DVWildlife Tours, has a great tour on a lake here in FL, and there are literally thousands of these birds that come in this time of year.
It was a fun outing and a little different too. First, the birds tend to “sleep in”, so you don’t have to be out right at sunrise (always a plus). Next, unlike osprey and eagles which I’ve photographed in this area before, these birds swoop down toward the water to drink – not catch fish. So it was a lot of fun to witness the behavior and try to get some photos while we were at it.
Not Without It’s Challenges
The outing wasn’t without it’s challenges though. These birds are smaller than your usual osprey and eagle and moved more erratically. So they were a little harder to follow around. They’re also mostly black except their heads and underside. When you put a dark bird up against the trees in the background it fools the auto focus quite a bit.
So the key was to try to acquire focus on a bird early, and just keep your finger pressed halfway down on the shutter and follow them while it was higher in the sky, in hopes that was a bird that was going to hit the water – unfortunately many of them also just flew around, so you’d follow the bird for a while for nothing. (Side Note: yes, I said finger pressed halfway down on the shutter. I don’t use back button focus for several reasons that I’ll mention at some point on the blog, but I’ve also got a big topic on it coming in my upcoming Bird Photography course).
Also, we were fairly unlucky with the light. By the time they were hitting the water, the sun was pretty high up there and barely any clouds to diffuse the light which made overall exposure tough (bright white spots and dark dark areas as well).
But when they did hit the water, it was a lot of fun to see. Especially when you get to zoom in and watch the water coming out of their mouth 🙂
Settings and Post Processing
For this outing I used my Sony Alpha 1 with the 200-600m lens. I had my camera set to AF-C, Center Zone Focus Area, Manual Exposure mode with Auto ISO turned on, as well as the zebras turned on in camera to help with exposure. The “zebra” setting was helpful to see if the heads were over exposed and I usually dialed down 2/3 stop or so on my Exposure compensation for it.
Post processing was done in Lightroom for exposure, color and toning corrections and Topaz Sharpen AI for some quick sharpening and noise reduction. (more on Topaz here)
As always my editing is covered in my Wildlife Editing Secrets Course. Also, you can find links to all of my gear, computers, hard drives, etc… over on the Gear page which can be clicked on in the top menu (or just click here). And it’s always appreciated if you use the links on that page (even if you’re not purchasing that specific item) when buying anything. It doesn’t cost you a penny and it’ll help me out a bit 🙂
Thanks and enjoy!
Confused. I know “Center” and I know “Zone” but don’t know “Center Zone Focus.” Asking because recently I had my A1 w/200-600 set for BIF (Bird Eye/Zone Focus) when a doe and two fawn turned up. Switched to Animal Eye/Medium Spot Focus and the A1 confirmed focus immediately, yet every single one of my 10 shots were OOF. Still can’t figure out what went wrong. Asking in case I am missing something on the focus selection. Thank you. BTW, I use BBF and it would take a lot to retrain muscle memory after so many years of use. However, am looking forward to hearing what you have to say about it.
Hi. The Zone focus mode allows you to move the “zone” around (center, middle top/bottom, top left, right etc). I had mine in the center area. As for your issue, if they weren’t all close to each other on the same plane then one could be in focus and the others not. Or if you were hand holding 600mm and didn’t have a fast shutter speed (1/400th or higher) that could make them blurry. Hope that helps.
Matt, why shoot in AF-C mode as opposed to cropping in post? Seems to have more flexibility and you would have more pixels.
Hi Ken. AF-C mode means continuous Auto Focus mode which you need. It’s not referring to “Crop” mode which I don’t use. Hope that helps.
These are so stunning! Snd as always such an inspiration to keep at it, with practice comes success. Also great to see the confirmation that BBF is not something I’m missing out on by not doing. And a great webinar yesterday Matt. Thank you for doing that!!
Very impressive. Besides finding it difficult to locate the Swallowtail Kite, they are a very hard bird to track. Excellent shots. Thanks for sharing. I’m a S FL resident and I have spent some time in the glades looking for opportunities to capture (in photos) these Kites…you hve set the bar very high.
Fabulous shots of a very difficult bird to capture properly! Well done! I am looking forward to your blog on BBF as I have used this method for several years and am now wondering it it is the best way to shoot BIF. Admittedly, shooting birds in flight has not been my strong point and I am always looking for input on improving methodology for fast moving subjects. Anxious to hear your thoughts on BBF and wondering if shooting this way has lent to some missed wall hangers. Thanks for always sharing your expertise with us!
Now I am curious about BBF as well
Beautiful photos. I’m looking forward to your Bird Photography course but I was disappointed that you never got to mentioning why you don’t use back button focus like you said you would. You’ve got me curious!
Hi Linda – i meant that I would cover it at some point on the blog in the future 🙂 In short, BBF is a legacy technique that was created for a different purpose. Wildlife and fast moving subjects was not one of those reasons. And with today’s cameras, my thumb is very busy with other settings that I can change quickly, so I don’t want it in charge of focusing. Thanks!
That makes sense….I never thought about it like that. Thanks for answering and I’ll keep my eyes open for your BBF blog and bird course.