Birds in flight photography with the Lumix G9

February 15, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Since the launch of the G9 in November 2017, the area where I have put the camera to most use is with bird photography. In particular continuing to strength my skills with bird in flight shots.

Starting out

Photographing birds in flight is without doubt one of the biggest challenges as a wildlife photographer. It can be an incredibly rewarding endeavour when you get it right. Equally it can be very frustrating when you miss out. They key, as with most things, is to practice, practice, practice. The advantage of shooting images of birds is that no matter where you are in the world, you will have an abundance of birds around you. The key is to find a local spot that will afford you the best chances of getting a bird in flight shot. If you are just starting out in this area then I would recommend that you try and find a local lake. Lakes will always be an attraction to some of the larger species of birds and water fowl such as swans, ducks, coots, geese, and if you are lucky grebe's and heron's. Larger birds are much easier to track and pan than smaller birds. So as you start out, you give yourself a better chance or success than trying to chase after much smaller birds. The other advantage with a  lake is that birds without doubt will take off and land on the lake at some point, and with good observation, and a little anticipation you will be able to start to track and follow their flight paths. The birds should fly in and land at eye level, which makes things easier. Birds that are over head will often suffer from challenging exposures due to the light, the underbelly of the bird being in shadow, with a loss of detail. With birds on a lake, you may have some reflections to contend with, but with good positioning you should be able to find a good location. And sometimes a reflection can be an excellent compositional element to the image!

Panning Technique

As with all wildlife photography, the key challenges are to balance, aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and to lock focus and track the subject. But with birds in flight, the additional challenge is that you have to use a long lens, pan with the flight path of the bird, and keep the subject in the frame, then lock focus and take the image. It is much easier written than in practice! With traditional camera systems such as DSLR's a heavy long telephoto lens is required. And so in order to pan effectively, it is much better to use a tripod with a gimbal head. However with the Lumix G9 being a smaller form factor, combining the camera with either the 100-400mm f4.0-6.3, or the 200mm f2.8 (with the option of the 1.4x teleconverter) you have respectively the full frame equivalent of 200-800mm, or 400mm focal length in a much lighter package. This very simply means you can pan hand held. Furthermore both the G9 body and the lenses have image stabilisation. This technology from Panasonic has been a game changer for me for wildlife photography in general. Not only has it allowed me to use slower shutter speeds, in low light, and hand held, but it has allowed me to explore more creative techniques with slow shutter speed pans both in wildlife and bird in flight photography. The theory will tell you to have a shutter speed at twice the focal length to get a sharp shot. So for the 100-400mm f4.0-6.3 lens, you would need to be at 1/800 shutter speed as a minimum at 400mm. And unless you live somewhere with great light all year round, it is unlikely you will be at f6.3 without having to push the ISO up in order to get that shutter speed in aperture priority mode. So the image stabilisation really does give you a wider shooting window. However, I would add that just because the theory tells you to have a high shutter speed, creatively would you want to always shoot like that? One of the key learnings for me is that it is important to know how to use the lighting conditions to your advantage. 

As you beginning practicing your technique, try not to fill the frame with your subject. With the 100-400mm f4.0-6.3 lens it may be tempting to use all that zoom to fill the frame with the bird. However the field of view will narrow and it will become even more difficult to find and focus on the bird. It is better to start out with a wider field of view and allow the bird to enter the frame making it easier for you to follow and compensate for the birds flight path. As you improve, you will be able to use narrower field of views, but I would still recommend first going wide and practicing a smooth panning technique. Handheld my advice is to keep your elbows tucked close into the body and use your waist to pivot.

Getting the right balance - Settings

With regards to settings, I shoot aperture priority mode when shooting wildlife and birds in flight. Generally if we want to freeze the action, we have to start with an aperture that is going to enable getting the head of the bird sharp. So I normally aim for f7.1 or f8 with the G9. Occasionally if I have cloudy conditions and dull light, I'll drop to f6.3 which with the 100-400mm lens is the default lowest aperture at 400mm. If you are anticipating a bird taking off, then I would recommend an aperture of f8 or f9. The reason for this is because the split second that the bird takes off, if the bird moves towards the lens i.e. out of the focal plane, then the depth of field from the movement creates the risk of soft focus. At f8 or f9 you have slightly more room for manoeuvre and if you react quickly, you are likely to get the shot of the bird taking off, wings extended in focus. As you start out stay positive. Don't feel too disappointed if your images aren't pin sharp. It takes time and practice and the more you perfect your panning technique the better you will get at locking focus and getting the shots. 

Focusing

I've seen a lot of discussion online about which focus setting to use on the G9 for moving subjects. The G9 has a much more powerful auto focusing system than the other cameras in the Lumix range. And with the fast burst speed mode, it is ideally placed to be able to shoot very fast moving subjects. A lot of the online discussion I read were users who were disappointed at not getting sharp shots. I maintain that it is not just the focus system that is responsible for getting a sharp shot. There is a reason that I've spent the first half of this blog talking about the importance of good panning technique! If you can't pan with the subject effectively, your camera's auto focus cannot work miracles! Likewise if you are at a focal length of 100mm and have a shutter speed of 1/50, don't expect sharp shots. In order to focus I have my G9 set up with back button focusing. This gives me much more control and the ability to anticipate between static birds/subjects and those in take off or landing mode. It dissociates the focus from the shutter button, so that the shutter button does only that, activate the shutter. This is so important for tracking fast moving subjects. The advantage here with the G9 is that the shutter button is sensitive. I use the AFC mode, and single point focus. The reason I use that combination is that my panning technique is to try and keep the subject in frame but where possible with some negative space for the bird to fly in to (it doesn't always work!), and so a single point focus allows me to place the focus point on the birds head, lock focus with the back button, pan and shoot, allowing me to get a few shots in before I inevitably loose the subject. 

Creativity

It isn't always about getting sharp shots. Whilst there is a lot to be said for good solid images of birds in flight with high shutter speeds that freeze the action, sometimes it pays to think a little more creatively. Once you feel comfortable with your panning technique and you have some images of birds in flight, why not try slowing the shutter speed? By slowing the shutter speed you will create some motion blur in the image. As birds are relatively fast moving subjects, the inclusion of motion blur in the composition can add some drama to the image. Personally I enjoy the challenge of slower shutter speed bird photography. It doesn't always work out, it is a more high risk technique but when done right it can provide greater rewards in your photography. I recommend playing with slower shutter speeds at 1/30 or 1/40. It is a question of trial and error before you find a shutter speed that gets the balance of movement, blur and focus. But don't be afraid to play!

Above all don't be afraid to practice. Without doubt, birds in flight is one of the most challenging areas of wildlife photography. But the more you practice, the rewards will eventually come. And the techniques you will learn by shooting birds in flight will transfer to other areas of your wildlife photography. 

Until next time,

Jon


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