Long Lens Flight Photography Tips « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Long Lens Flight Photography Tips

[Not a valid template]

This image of a landing Common Tern was created at Nickerson Beach, Long Island, NY with the tripod-mounted Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +1 stop: 1/1600 at f/5.6 set manually. Lens/Camera Body Micro-Adjustment: 0.

As described in the Mark III and Mark IV User’s Guides I selected the two sensors below the central sensor to place the subject a bit down in the frame. Here I cropped from our right and from below.

After a long absence, B&H now has Canon EOS-1D Mark IV camera bodies in stock.
Click on the link for yours.

Long Lens Flight Photography Tips

While some strong, relatively young photographers are adept at hand holding big lenses (including the 600mm f/4 lenses and the Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS), I am not in that class. Though I have hand held each of those lenses on rare occasion for a minute or two I have done the vast majority of flight photography for the past two decades with my big gun telephoto mounted on a tripod with a good gimbal head like the Mongoose M3.6 or the Wimberley V2. With lots of practice it is possible to produce some excellent images while working with a big lens and a good gimbal head and a sturdy Gitzo tripod.

[Not a valid template]

This screaming Black Skimmer image was created with the tripod-mounted Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 800. Evaluative metering +1 stop: 1/1600 at f/8 set manually. Lens/Camera Body Micro-Adjustment: 0.

Here are the basics of long lens flight photography:

  • 1-Adjust the legs of your tripod so that the platform of the tripod is relatively square to the ground. If you will be sitting or standing in the same spot for a while, take the time to center the bubble on the tripod platform so that you are perfectly square to the world. Then use your Double Bubble Level to square up the lens and you should not have to rotate any of your flight images.
  • 2-Make sure that you have set the distance range limit switch to the far setting. This will prevent the lens from having to focus down to the lens’s minimum focusing distance; this will greatly increase the speed of initial focusing acquisition.
  • 3-Make sure that the AF switch is in the “On” position. Canon users should be in AI Servo AF. Nikon folks should be in Continuous (C).
  • 4-With relatively large in the frame subjects flying steady courses activating the central sensor is usually best. (Robert O’Toole advises that Nikon folks set Dynamic 51-Point 3-D AF for all flight photography applications). When photographing smaller in the frame subjects with my Canon professional bodies I often like to activate two sensors in the row below the central sensor (as described in the MIV and MIII User’s Guides.) And when attempting to photograph erratically flying subjects on sunny days with my Mark IV I will often go to 45 point AFPS. With Canon pro-sumer bodies I would go with either the central sensor or with the full array AF patterns. To learn my favorite AF Selection Mode for flight with the 7D see our hugely popular 7D User’s Guide.
  • 5-Pre-focus, pre-focus, pre-focus. Pre-focusing the lens to the approximately correct focusing distance will always reduce the time needed for initial focusing acquisition. If the birds are flying fairly consistent paths, you can simply point the lens at the ground below the birds and focus. Now when you raise the lens and find the bird in the frame acquiring focus will be much easier. If the birds are at varying distances you will usually want to pre-focus manually after finding the bird in the frame. Once you can see the bird fairly sharply in the viewfinder you will initiate AF either by pressing the shutter button or using rear focus (as I have been doing 100% of the time for about a year).
  • 6-Practice, practice, practice.
  • 7-Lens Align your camera body with both your big lens alone and with the big lens and a teleconveter. I mark my camera bodies and my teleconverters so that I can tell them apart as you must use the same individual body and the same individual TC.
  • [Not a valid template]

    This image of a Common Tern carry a courtship baitfish was created with the tripod-mounted Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens, the 1.4X III TC, and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +1 stop: 1/1000 at f/8 set manually. Lens/Camera Body Micro-Adjustment: +3.

    I used a series of small Quick Masks to cover the blinkies on the fish (as described in both Digital Basics and APTATS II.)

    After yesterday morning’s photography session with Denise Ippolito’s Creative Photography Workshop at Nickerson Beach the group watched me edit my flight images from that morning. I comment along the way as to which images I am keeping, which I am deleting and why. (It is a favorite activity on all IPTs.) Everyone was amazed at how many mis-framed images I created, images with the birds too far forward in the frame or birds with heads and wings cut off. And they were even more amazed to see how many images were completely out of focus. All courtesy of Mr. Famous Bird Photographer.

    Flight photography with long lenses is very difficult even for experienced professionals (and even more difficult with a teleconverter in place…) so do not be discouraged by dozens of poor images. I try for one great one from each session often relying on the “even an old dog can hunt” principle. All in all I was quite pleased with my dozen of so flight keepers from the session. Nobody said it would be easy.

    [Not a valid template]

    This image of a Black Skimmer flying low over the dune grasses was created with the tripod-mounted Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens, the 1.4X III TC, and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 800. Evaluative metering +1 stop: 1/1600 at f/8 set manually. Lens/Camera Body Micro-Adjustment: +3.

    All four of the images above were made while I was seated comfortably behind my tripod. (I cannot deal with kneeling….) Sitting made it easier to acquire focus in many instances as the proximal background was eliminated. All AF systems have more trouble focusing against backgrounds than against sky.

    Good luck. And remember, practice, practice, and practice and do not be discouraged by a low keeper rate.

    Which is Your Favorite?

    Do leave a comment and let me know which of the four images above is your personal favorite, and why.

    Shopper’s Guide

    Below is a list of the gear mentioned in today post. Thanks a stack to all who have used the Shopper’s Guide links to purchase their gear as a thank you for all the free information that we bring you on the Blog and in the Bulletins. Before you purchase anything be sure to check out the advice in our Shopper’s Guide.

    Support both the Bulletins and the Blog by making all your B & H purchases here.

    Why waste time comparison shopping when you know that B&H will always offer the lowest prices?

    Mark IV bodies are back in stock at B&H!

    And here is a list of my favorite gear:

    Canon 800mm f/5.L IS lens. Right now this is my all time favorite super-telephoto lens.
    Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens. Man, I am loving this lens on my shoulder with the 2X III teleconverter. I also use it a lot with the 1.4X III TC which is designed to work best with the new Series II super-telephoto lenses.
    Canon EOS-1D Mark IV professional digital camera body. My two Mark IVs are my workhorse digital camera bodies.

    And from the BAA On-line Store:

    Gitzo GT3530LS Tripod. This one will last you a lifetime.
    Mongoose M3.6 Tripod Head. Right now this is the best tripod head around for use with lenses that weigh less than 9 pounds. For heavier lenses, check out the Wimberley V2 head.
    CR-80 Replacement Foot for Canon 800. When using the 800 on a Mongoose as I do, replacing the lens foot with this accessory lets the lens sit like a dog whether pointed up or down and prevents wind-blown spinning of your lens on breezy days by centering the lens directly over the tripod.
    Double Bubble Level. You will find one in my camera’s hot shoe whenever I am not using flash.
    Better Beamer. Using a Better Beamer with long lenses concentrates the light from the flash and yields an increase in flash output of about 2 2/3 stops, allows you to work at greater distances with smaller apertures, reduces battery drain, weighs just 2 1/2 ounces, and holds the Fresnel lens in place with no sagging or flopping. It fits in your pocket and set up and removal is quick and easy.
    ProMaster Flash Cord. This flash cord is sturdy and reliable.
    Mongoose Integrated Flash Arm. The Integrated Flash Arm allows the Mongoose user to instantly attach a flash 8 inches above the camera. This goes a long way to preventing red eye, flash eye, and steel eye in many situations. Ideal for use with a Better Beamer.

    The Lens Align Mark II. I use the Lens Align Mark II pretty much religiously to micro-adjust all of my gear an average of once a month and always before a major trip. Enjoy our free comprehensive tutorial here.

    Delkin 32gb e-Film Pro Compact Flash Card. These high capacity cards are fast and dependable. Clicking on the link below will bring you to the Delkin web site. There is lots of great stuff there. If you see a product that we do not carry let us know via e-mail; we will be glad to have it drop-shipped to you and save you a few bucks in the process.

    I pack my 800 and tons of other gear in my ThinkTank Airport SecurityTM V2.0 rolling bag for all of my air travel and recommend the slightly smaller Airport InternationalTM V2.0 for most folks. These high capacity bags are well constructed and protect my gear when I have to gate check it on short-hops and puddle jumpers. Each will protect your gear just as well. By clicking on either link or the logo below, you will receive a free gift with each order over $50.

    33 comments to Long Lens Flight Photography Tips


      May I suggest that FINDING the moving subject is a real problem through the viewfinder? My answer is to mount a pistol sight (Red Dot) on the lens shade and use it (with your and Nikon’s recommended auto-focus setup)to take dynamic shots of difficult targets. It works EXTREMELY well and never requires even a peek through the viewfinder/lens. The number of “going away” shots drops dramatically as the “target acquisition” time drops a great deal and abortive attempts to find a target drops to nearly zero. I have also found that a home brew “palm rest” (think offhand rifle) under the the telephoto lens rail using a Really Right Stuff quick release is very helpful for hand held (no tripod) shooting … elbow into hip. A 1.7X teleconverter behind the Nikkor 70-200 yields results not too different from the 400mm f-2.8 … but can’t reach the 400mm with 1.7X, of course.

      • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

        The problem with hand holding big glass with 2X TCs is more of a physical one than one of aiming if I am explaining it correctly. To put it in another form: if you had a lens with 24X magnification that weighed only two pounds finding the bird in the frame and keeping the sensor on it would be child’s play. It’s the weight that makes things difficult.

    • Ben Cvengros

      I really like number one best. The detail on the grass in front and the blurry depth of field on the grass in back really does it for me. Not to mention the term is very sharp.

    • Hi Artie,

      Thanks for adding me on Facebook, looking around the website for the first time in awhile and noticed the Long Island section. Actually just went here two weeks ago while I was up visiting my father.

      Not sure I would have done any better but was kind of kicking myself for leaving my 400 5.6 in Florida, have a heck of a time using the 300 f2.8 with the 2x teleconverter for flight shots…and they were too far not to use the tc. Anyways, it seemed like they were always flying around me and never quite straight towards. Couldn’t quite pull off anything like you have which are really wonderfull, just side shots of them flying(have a few on facebook in the ‘nature photos 2011 part 2 gallery’). Also was wondering when the chicks start hatching? Not sure if I was early or late…only saw one baby.

      BTW if you ever happen up in the winter let me know, have a great spot to see seals out near Montauk.

    • Nathan

      I like all you photos but my favorite is the common tern. I am also wondering how you can afford those long lenses and all that awesome camera equipment? how do you make money with your photography? Thanks 🙂

      Welcome Nathan. See the web site to learn about me. I have been a professional photographer since 1993. But lots of my students own the same gear as I do 🙂 artie

    • I like the third image. The painterly effect is wonderful.

    • Debby C

      Upon reflection, I like the tern with the fish .. not only do I like the placement in the photo, but I think it’s fantastic to have gotten the shot with the bait in his mouth and to correctly identify it! 🙂 I have a tendency to crop to the center, so I can appreciate the bird on the right side of the frame, giving a sense of motion from right to left… I also like the first one, but enough folks before me commented on it as I would have done.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Bob, The white blobs are other birds in the nesting colony.

    • The first Common Tern image is my favorite, though they’re all really good. I like that the grasses comprise the lower third (approximately), I like the placement of the tern, his graceful wing position as he “floats” to a landing, his bright orange/red legs and bill,his head angle, and . . . oh, dear, after a second look, I might like the tern with bait fish best . . it’s a tie for me.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Giovanni, You are on the right track: focus on the baby and hope for the best when the parent comes in.

    • Extremely entertaining post as always. The first image is my favorite with the lower background and in focus grass at the bottom of the image of particular interest. The OOF off-white blobs in the grass in the background have me ask the question, “What the heck are they?” The OOF birds in the background behind the tern’s right wing and under its left is not considered a distraction at all. The grayish swath middle far right of the image is odd, however. All three of the others are excellent while I tend to favor the second image over three and four as I have observed the “screaming” behavior very rarely.

    • Giovanni

      Hello Arthur I ask your pardon but my english is very bad.
      I stay in a hide to take some shoots of birds coming to the nest (if you see my photos upupa in avian forum).
      I use tripod and manual setting.
      I have low light so I need use iso 1000/1250 to have speed and f.2,8 or f.4 in accordance with lens and 1/1000-1/640 all in manual setting.
      My question is about how setting Af if one shoot or servo.
      I tried with servo with central point …but many shoots were out of the focus.
      I used one shoot and the results were better.
      I used central point or side point and take the focus on the baby ..because its mother arrive on the same line so the distance from me of both is about the same.
      Another option could be use 45 point.
      I would like your tips about for the best
      Thanks Arthur (and all the other people that write on the blog) for your patience

    • Giovanni

      Hello Arthur
      ok I normakl use manual setting for the camera.
      About the situation off couse I you a good trip and I will try as you said.
      I think could better in one shoot mode also if the bird is fliyng because in serv mode I can’t position the focus point in advance
      Is it ok ?
      Thanks again

    • Giovanni Frescura

      Thanks Arthur …so you say manual mode about camera setting or focus setting ?


      • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

        Giovanni, It says, “Make sure that the AF switch is set to “On.”

    • My favourite is the first on for sure… angelic spread of wings and tail, nice HA, so many textures from foreground grass to OOF background makes it a very beautiful image.

    • Pat Fishburne

      Art, my favorite is the tern with the courtship baitfish. The image tells a story. Moreover, you got the tern just above the out-of-focus greenery, with the light blue sky in the background.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Yup, the MIV is once again out of stock. You gotta act fast….

    • Yes, you wrote Common Tern. My memory retention is very short. My bad. By the way, B&H doesn’t have the ID IV in stock anymore. I just checked.

    • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Ken, YAW. IS Mode “on all the time” clearly implies that I also leave IS on all the time…. As it says, you gotta keep practicing. As it also says twice, the terns are Common Terns. You actually gotta read what I write :).

    • Rose M

      The landing Common Tern is my favorite. The pleasing background blur along with the sharper foreground grasses give a notion of time sequence–you know where the bird was, where it is now, and where it will be. The difference in textures adds another dimension-soft sky, spiky grass, silky feathers.
      The position of the bird in the frame, as well as the outstretched legs and wings creates a sense of motion. Good goin’, Artie!

    • George Cottay

      I especially like the first image with the foreground grass and a few easily removed blades but would not reject any of them.

    • cheapo

      The screaming Skimmer is the favourite for me.
      No blurred background necessary to know this guy is moving fast! I love the ‘odd’ appearance these birds have, due to the over long lower mandible, and that the eye seems invisible in the black. Almost as if he is wearing a white bandanna ‘Ninja Turtle Style’! :¬)


    • In your answer to Eduardo, you said, “Eduardo, As it states clearly in ABP II I recommend leaving IS Mode 2 on all the time”.

      I understand IS Mode 2 is for “panning”. How about the IS switch? I would think you would leave it on as well, right?

      Great tips. We had a hard time using big lens to take birds in flight. Most pictures are either blurry or images being cut off the frame. We are going to use these new tips to try again.

      Great shots on the Forster’s Tern. We like the one with the fish in her bill. It is like, for a photographer, having some great results (good shots) after a day of hard work.

    • Art. Thanks again for your tips. Any progress on the tripod head that you were making?

      • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

        Jim, It looks as if the guys at Custom Brackets were making promises that they have not kept…. I have not heard from them in months.

    • Giovanni

      I have a question about the long lens (500 f.4 and 300 f.2,8 Canon using with Mark IV and 7D).
      Sometime I take photos to the birds coming to a nest; so I am in a hide no too much far ( about 13 mt or more in accordance with the lens)and I have only few space and time to make my shoots.
      So I am not sure about the setting of Af; is better one shoot using central point (the birds coming directly to the nest so the distance of the nest is the same of the previous point) focussing on the nest and then wait the bird before or..
      one shoot af using 45 point or af servo …but in this case there is no time to put the central point on the bird coming and focus servo no work well
      I ask your pardon for my bad english but, I hope, you understood the question

      • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

        Giovanni, I am not sure that I understand your question fully…. In a difficult situations like the one you described sometimes the only thing that you can do is put the lens on a tripod, focus on the nest, use a bit of extra depth of field, work in manual mode, and keep your eye on the sky (not at the viewfinder). Then when you see the bird coming into the frame, hold the shutter button down….

    • Artie, I was out at Nickerson this weekend.. sorry I missed you. Would have been nice to shake hands again.

      When you sit, are you on a stool or the ground? How do you position the tripod relative to your legs? I often straddle one tripod leg behind one of my knees to sort of “lock” the tripod to me… curious how you setup.

      I find flight shots so much more interesting with some hint of background, rather than boring sky.. Great images you made there!!

      • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

        Michael, I agree. I always like meeting new folks. In general, I point the forward leg towards my target area. I am glad that you liked the images; I did too :).

    • Eduardo

      Thank you for your suggestions on the “basics of long lens flight photography” above. Would you also recommend for either the Canon 500 or 600mm to disconnect the IS from the lens? I have read that is better to disconnect if you have already a good tripod you do not need the IS. In some cases maybe even can negatively affect how sharp your images will end? Any suggestions? Thank you

      • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

        Eduardo, As it states clearly in ABP II I recommend leaving IS Mode 2 on all the time. That’s as in all the time, for flight and when on a tripod :).