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How to Photograph Birds in Flight Using Manual Focus Lenses

Manual focusing is not one of the strong points of many photographers who took up photography in the digital era. With the advancements in auto focus systems manual focusing has been completely ignored and many have never even tried it once. But to a wildlife photographer mastering manual focus has many advantages:

How to Photograph Birds in Flight Using Manual Focus Lenses
Photo by: Bill Gracey

  1. It lets you work with very high quality lenses (MF lenses which are now discarded and is available for very little money) if you are on a budget.
  2. Manual focusing works better in certain situations, especially when there are many elements present in the scene (when the bird is in a cluttered environment) which the camera may try to focus.
  3. Then there is the advantage that practicing with manual focus will vastly improve your eye-brain-hand coordination which will result in vastly improving your success rate with both manual focus and auto focus lenses.

In this article we will discuss couple of techniques for shooting birds in flight that have been used by photographers for ages, even before AF lenses were first introduced.  These techniques could be practiced on manual focus lenses or with auto focus lenses set to manual mode.

tips to manually focus birds in flight
Photo by: Gary Sutherland

Before we get to the actual technique there are few things you should know. Manual focus lenses traditionally had larger (broader / wider) focusing rings with a smooth motion. The cameras during those periods also had focusing screens optimized for manual focusing. So trying to do it with cameras and lenses designed for auto focus will be a bit more difficult, but with practice it will become much easier.

If you plan on using manual focusing on a regular basis, then it will be wise to invest in a precision focusing screen for your DSLR like the Canon Eg-S Super Precision Matte Focusing Screen For Canon EOS 5D-Mark II Cameras. Different cameras make use of different focusing screens so buy one that matches your camera make and model.

Technique of Photographing Birds in Flight Using Manual Focus Lenses

Technique 1

using manual focus lenses to photograph birds in flight
Photo by: Scyrene

When photographing large birds which have a relatively slow flight one could simply use the focusing ring to manually focus on the bird as it flies. This technique is not practical for some flight shots but perfectly usable for certain others like a hovering raptor or a heron flying horizontally across the frame.

Technique 2

flight photography using manual focus lens
Photo by: Johnny9s

The second technique is to anticipate the distance through with the bird would fly and setting your focus before hand by focusing on any object approximately the same distance away from you. This technique works very well even with birds which have a fast flight if the birds fly through the point of focus. But the catch here is that you should know a little bit about the birds and their behavior so as to anticipate the movement of the bird and set focus accordingly. Continuous shooting combined with the use of relatively narrow apertures to increase depth of field will help improve your chances of getting your perfect shot.

One major advantage these techniques have is to completely avoid one of the biggest problems in flight photography; camera locking on to some background element rather than the main subject.

Related Reading

  1. How to Photograph Birds of Prey
  2. Bird Photography Tips
  3. Tips for Photographing Hummingbirds
  4. Tips for Photographing Birds in Flight
  5. Bird Photography Tips - Getting Close to Birds

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