Simple method for photographing Flycatchers in action

Simple method for photographing Flycatchers in action

One of the most fun experiences in birding and bird photography is watching flycatchers hit the water to grab insects. Unfortunately, it is usually only that – an experience. Actually capturing photos of the birds in action is one of the hardest tasks in wildlife photography. It is possible (just barely) to do it by actually tracking the birds, if you have the right gear and just the right setup and background. But most of the time, that simply isn’t an option. However, there is a fairly simple set of steps you can take to give yourself a chance at getting some interesting images, and maybe even some really good ones if you are persistent enough. We experimented with it on our recent Texas bird photo workshop with some good successes. Here is what you need to do:

Pick a spot and pre-focus

For this to work, the birds do need to be somewhat consistent in where they are hitting the water. Watch for a while, and then pick your spot. Focus on it, and then leave your camera on manual focus, so it doesn’t mess up when you try to shoot (if you use back-button AF you don’t need to change to manual).

Pro Tip: If the water’s surface is smooth, you will likely be focusing on the reflection. Remember that the reflection actually appears to be at the distance of the background that is being reflected – not the surface of the water. So you’ll need to manually focus on whatever little foam (or bugs) are actually on the surface of the water.

, (220mm), Manual pre-focus
f/11 @ 1/1000s, –1 e.v. ISO 2200
This image, like all of them in this article, is cropped,
since I’m framing loosely to maximize my chance of getting something.

Lock your tripod down

This is one of the very few cases in wildlife photography where it makes sense to lock your tripod down on a spot. Obviously, that only works if you have a serious enough tripod that you can rely on it to stay aimed where you put it.

, (340mm), Autofocus (AF-C)
f/8 @ 1/1500s, –1 e.v. ISO 2500
I took this one the “old-fashioned” way, using AF with Dynamic tracking

Frame loosely

Obviously, the birds aren’t likely to hit your exact spot (if you have a way to know that they will, you can skip this step!), so you’ll want to frame loosely by backing out on your zoom, or taking off your Teleconverter, or moving back if you can.

Give yourself some Depth of Field

Similarly, since your timing won’t be exact, nor will the bird’s location, try to give yourself some depth of field (DOF) by using a small aperture. I was using f-stops from f/11 to f/16. Unfortunately, as you increase your DOF, you’re decreasing the amount of light getting to your sensor, and you need a high shutter speed (I used from 1/500s to 1/1500s), so you may need to bump your ISO – perhaps well-above what you normally consider using.

, (220mm), Manual pre-focus
f/11 @ 1/1000s, –1 e.v. ISO 2200
This image isn’t all that sharp, but I love the reflection so much I had to include it!

Pull away from the viewfinder

This is also one of the only times in wildlife photography where a remote release is truly useful. If you have one, lean back, watch, and get ready. If you don’t, you can still lean back, but need to keep your finger on the shutter button – which can be surprisingly tiring. If you use the finger method (or if your remote doesn’t keep the camera active) you’ll want to half-press the shutter often enough to keep the camera awake.

Shoot early and often

High-frame rate is your friend here! You’ll want to anticipate the dive as much as possible, and start firing before the bird even enters your frame (remember that your finger will press a bit after you tell it to, and the camera will have a small lag after that). Then all you need to do is hold the shutter down until the bird leaves the frame. Yes, you’ll wind up with a lot of empty frames, and a lot of out-of-focus images, or images with only a splash, but deleting is easy with digital!

Don’t give up too soon!

This technique requires some patience and commitment. If there is a lot else going on (which was often the case at the blind where we were using it), it is really tempting to swivel away and work on something else. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course (especially if you remember to put your camera back on Autofocus and change your DOF and maybe your ISO), but you can drive yourself crazy switching around. So this tactic is most useful after you’ve already recorded most of the other species and behaviors at a particular location. In my case, since I’ve been leading workshops in South Texas for nearly a decade, I’m happy to take some time and work on more exotic photos like these. If it’s your first time at a new location, though, there may be plenty else to capture first!

Join us in 2017 if you can

We’ll be returning to South Texas in 2017 with two bird photography workshops. Our (the last week of April) will be in its 10th year! and we’ll be offering our (May 3-7) as well. We hope you can join us for one or both of these trips, and work on your own bird photography and image processing – with our help, of course!


, , Manual pre-focus
f/11 @ 1/1000s, –1 e.v. ISO 2200