Caption: White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus) coming in to land to join others feeding on kudu carcass, Mashatu Game Reserve, Botswana.
Camera: Canon EOS 50D; Lens: Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM telephoto; Focal length: 400mm; Aperture: f/5.6; Shutter speed: 1/1600; ISO: 400
Photographing birds in flight is not one of my strong points. Ideally you need a high-quality telephoto lens with wide maximum aperture that is fast focusing and image-stabilized, mated to a camera body that can fully utilize these attributes. So, if you’re a Canon shooter, something like a Canon EF 500mm f/4 on a 1D Mk IV or 7D body would be a good set-up for birds in flight.
I don’t own that sort of gear, so must make-do with my Canon 50D and 400mm f/5.6, which is actually not a bad combination. The lens, although not stabilized, is relatively light so can be hand-held, while it’s also fast focusing. But I’m getting on in years and my reflexes simply aren’t quick enough, while I’ve never had the steadiest of hands. I guess, because of this, I also don’t practise enough, which is essential to perfect one’s birds in flight technique.
However, there are times when photographing birds in the air is greatly simplified. One of the best of these is when vultures arrive to feed on a carcass. Even if there’s a crowd of vultures squabbling over animal remains, there’re always late-comers who fly in, hoping for a share. And it’s these ones that are relatively easy to photograph as they slow down and drop their undercarriages in preparation for landing.
The photograph above and the two below were all taken while watching a large group of white-backed vultures feeding on the remains of a kudu killed earlier by lions.
The pic above was taken at a slow shutter speed while panning the camera to convey the bird’s rapid descent as it comes in to land. On my Canon 50D, I have configured one of the Custom settings to allow for this type of motion blur photography.
With one click of the dial, I can change from Aperture Priority to Shutter Priority, drop the ISO to 100, set the shutter speed to 1/25 and the autofocus to AI Servo (follow focus). This can save a huge amount of time when an opportunity suddenly arises that’s suitable for using a slow shutter speed.