Introduction: Shooting Birds on the Fly (with a Camera)
While I was admiring the view from the top of a Tampa parking garage, which inspired the Urban Landscape Photography 'ible, a murder of crows swooped down into the cabbage palms lining the street below me. Really, that's what a flock of crows is called, a murder - no doubt because they're cawing bloody murder the whole time they're together.
This particularly cacophonous group presented a nice opportunity to exercise some spontaneous bird photography. I wasn't expecting them, and wasn't set up with a tripod and spotting scope in front of a feeder - it was just birds on the fly, and a great opportunity to practice How to See - especially when what you're seeing keeps moving!
Step 1: Relax and Watch
The first thing to do in the case of a sudden wildlife photography opportunity, whether in the woods or on a parking garage roof, is to take some time to see what's going on. In the case of the crows, which typically aren't the kind of bird I'd spend much time photographing - I wanted to see what they were carrying on about.
Many of us hear crows frequently - loud and coarse, certainly not song birds, usually traveling in noisy gangs with no immediately apparent goals. I actually hadn't spent much time watching them before, so I settled in to see what they might be doing. I was surprised to find them sweeping into the cabbage palms before me by the dozens.
It's not like palm trees are easy to perch on, so there must have been some reason for their intense interest in the trees.
Step 2: Find the Story
The reason the crows were so interested in the palms, it turns out, was that the trees were fruiting. So here, in the middle of the city, I got a National Geographic moment.
Once you identify the story, start shooting.
Zooming in with my 250mm zoom lens, I got a good look at their interesting feeding techniques. Palm trees send out these threads of flowers that fruit and usually drop all over the place. In trying to feast on the fruit, the birds had to do some serious aerial ballet to find ways to grip onto the fruiting tendrils to eat their fill.
Fortunately, the light was pretty bright and I was able to shoot pretty fast, even with the zoom lens. But it does require a steady hand, even with a fast shutter speed. So find something to steady yourself against, if you don't have a tripod handy.
Step 3: Find the Action
While getting shots of a single bird feeding, or foraging can be interesting, getting shots of birds interacting with each other brings energy and life to a photo, and tells a different story. It's also harder for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that a lot of things are often happening and it can be hard to isolate your shot.
In the case of the crows, they began squabbling energetically over the seeds. Watching through the lens, and shooting continuously, I was able to identify some powerful shots where the birds were gliding a bit, or just swinging on the palm - and thus a little less frenetic to capture - and get some cool shots.
A couple of tips:You could just set your camera for multiple high speed shots, but I find that distracting, preferring to scan the scene through the view finder and shoot off multiple shots myself as desired. I feel that helps me pay more attention. Don't worry about all the motion in the scene - you only need one or two birds to be still (or mostly still) to make a good image.
Sometimes even having the static part of the scene in focus (the tree and seeds) and the birds a little soft focused, still creates a powerful image. Look for lines or curves, too, created by the motion of your subjects, as in the third shot of the two birds together. And whenever possible, try to shoot against contrasting backgrounds, that aren't too busy. That was a challenge in this case, but I got some good shots despite the busy foliage backdrops.
Step 4: Be Patient
The more you watch birds, the more amazing they are, and also the more used to you they get. After a while, the birds became accustomed to me standing nearby, and one ventured onto the wall of the parking garage where I was standing. Instead of photographing the bird right away, I watched it for a few minutes and then started shooting.
Move as little as possible, and as casually as possible, and your subject might hang around for a while, like this one did.
Step 5: Keep Your Focus
Even an annoyed subject can be a good subject, as this crow demonstrated when it finally decided to scold me for hanging around. Find a focus on the bird, the eye or the beak typically, and keep shooting. Even as the bird moves its head, if you can stay focused on the eye or beak, you can get some good, sharp shots.
Step 6: Shoot High Res to Make the Most of Unusual Moments
The more shots you take, the better your chances of capturing an unusual, eye catching moment. And the higher the resolution you shoot at, the better you can play with your photos later.
The birds hanging all over the seed strands made for great opportunities to capture them in different poses, and I especially liked the one of them hanging like ornaments off one. But the bird at the top of the palm, wings straight up, also made for a striking image. Both of those shots were cropped more closely in photo editing, to better highlight the aspects of the images I liked most, as was the close up shot of the cawing crow, cropped down from a full body image.
So being observant, patient, shooting fast, shooting a lot and shooting in high resolution can make the most of an unexpected visit from a bunch of birds, turning even the somewhat plain crows into fantastic and enjoyable photo opportunities.