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Not having to use a tripod is a tremendous blessing for the nature photographer, especially those who like me specialize in B.I.F. (Birds in Flight).
What, you say? Handhold a long telephoto? Not possible you say?
I am very happy to inform you that it is entirely possible – and that I can teach you how to do it with very little practice. (The examples I use are Olympus lenses, but don’t let that throw you, these tips work for any camera and any lens.)
One of the things that attracted me to the Olympus ZD 300 mm I use was that the first photographer Oly sent into the field to photograph the Le Mans casually remarked that he was pleased to find that he had no trouble handholding the ZD 300. I decided that if he could I could.
It wasn’t easy at first but slowly I learned. Then I found out that many would not believe me. I recall posting several images on a web forum and being called a liar for suggesting that I could. That doesn’t happen anymore.
Not convinced that you don’t need a tripod? I was sitting with my camera in my lap, facing westward, photographing a pair of White-tailed Kites. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a movement and turned to see this Great Blue Heron approaching. I lifted the lens to my eye, swiveled my torso nearly 90 degrees — and got the photo. There is no way I could have rotated a lens on a tripod — I would have had to run around behind it to focus — and gotten this photo.
1. Stabilizing your lower body
Stability starts, not with your camera, but with your feet and legs. As bipeds, we humans are inherently unstable, any movement of our arms and/or shoulders is immediately compensated for by a complex series of lower body adjustments, all of which contribute to camera and lens movement. You can only be moderately successful shooting while standing; when it is windy you might as well forget it entirely.
The answer is to sit on a chair or on a stool with three legs. (No one wants to drag around a four-legged canvas chair and they are not stable on rough terrain.) There are a number of three-legged stools available but most are not suitable. Rough terrain and the necessity of supporting a heavy body that will twist and lean to one side or the other precludes most of the lightweight camping stools or massage stools I have see advertised.
The solution: For several years, I have used a Swedish Walk-Stool, which is very strong, easily collapsible and comfortable. Made in Sweden (with all the design expertise we expect in a Swedish product) it is available all over the world in several sizes; find a distributor at www.walkstool.com. I call it my ‘People Tripod.’
Now, with your lower half stabilized you can easily rotate your upper body from the waist and move your arms up and down while following the bird. But that’s not all there is to stability.
2. Merge your Camera with your body
You need to become one with your camera. You do this by locking your camera to your forehead or your cheek bone. If you are shooting a camera without a rubber eyepiece you may have difficulty. Some cameras come without eyepieces, if you have one of these try eBay. Rubber eyecups are available for many cameras. If not, you can get an Orion Rubber Eyeguard, available on the web from a number of telescope distributors.
To merge I press my eyebrow to the rubber eyecup and my cheek and nose to the body of the camera. This supports my camera firmly and takes some of the load off my hand, which allows me to squeeze the shutter button more freely. (Yes, this works with most eyeglasses; I wear eyeglasses all the time while photographing.) Tip: If you can’t get a good fit with the top of the eyecup, tape a bit of foam rubber to the top with black vinyl tape. Black vinyl tape is good for keeping the little protectors on the hot shoe in place, also.
Practice sighting through the eyepiece of the camera while moving your head, eye and camera/lens as a unit. Learning to move your head and the camera as a single unit is the key to stability and it does not take that long to learn. But you do need to practice.
Get out near a freeway and practice shooting cars as they whiz past. Take the photos, blow them up on screen to check what you are doing.
3. Supporting a long lens
When starting out most people try to use two hands on the camera body to support it. (We used to have to do this to turn the focus ring but autofocus put an end to that.) For the best stability you need to support the front of the lens barrel with your left hand underneath it. Put your left hand as far out as you can, and don’t hug your elbow to your side or try to support it on your chest. This will impede your tracking – your arm has to be free to follow your head.
Heavy lens? I rest the whole rig on my lap in between photo opportunities. You are sitting after all; you might as well relax between takes.
Do not try to breathe in and hold your breath. With your arms, shoulders and head locked to the lens, there is not much chance of your breath interfering. To tell the truth I don’t know how I breathe; but I do not consciously hold my breath. I know I can’t be holding it long as I do not feel my heartbeat build up as it would when holding my breath.
Sit, take a few moments for your heartbeat to slow down, relax and just breathe naturally. Then you are ready to go.
You need to be able to move your arms freely. Be sure your shirt, jacket, whatever, has large armholes. Small arm-holes will cause your arms to pull on the jacket body, slowing you and pulling you off-track. When it is cold, wear one or more sleeveless sweaters under your jacket. Your arms must not be impeded.
6. Exposure Setting
For the ZD 300 mm and ZD 90 – 250 mm (both f2.8 lenses) I recommend setting the shutter speed at 1⁄4000 without an extender, 1⁄3200 with the 1.4 extender and 1/2000 with the 2.0 extender. (However, I don’t use either extender very much, it is too hard to track with them.) Set your ISO at 400 (400 – 800) and use a grain remover such as Define2 or Noise Ninja when processing. Don’t worry about needing a high number f stop to get greater depth of field. You are not concerned about the background when shooting birds in flight. All that needs to be sharp in a photograph of a bird in flight is the eye, beak and claws. People expect a bit of blur especially at the wing tips. (But not much.)
Go back and look at the older photo books of birds. Most, of course, are black and white. Notice how blurry the wings look. Then look at current books, shot at higher shutter speeds — which looks best?
7. Image Stabilization
Others do but I don’t recommend IS with moving birds. Image Stabilization is intended to correct for slight camera body movement. However, you are making major camera movements tracking birds in flight and the IS will make other movements to counteract your movements. Image Stabilization can cause some weird feather patterns in photos of birds in flight. I will use IS for some photos. For example I recently was photographing hummingbirds at a feeder. These guys are hard to track, as you know if you have ever tried. Holding your camera steady and shooting when they come into view works well, when IS is on. Here is an example:
8. Position yourself
Figure out where the birds will be and position yourself so the sun will be roughly at your back when you are facing the birds, or where you expect them to be. Try to position yourself so that the wind is coming from your right or left. Plan to shot when the birds are flying into the wind. It is much easier to follow them and much easier for your camera to get the focus and exposure correct.
9. Bird Identification
Forget it till later. Shoot before you identify the bird. Often the bird will not be of interest and you will discard the image, but it costs you nothing. If you wait to discover if it is a bird you want to photograph it will always be too late to get your camera up and ready to track it. Shoot first, ask questions later.
10. Auto focus?
Of course but remember that auto focusing mechanisms need contrast in order to focus. Easiest to focus on are white birds in flight against a clear sky, with the sun at your back. The worst are dark or black birds against a dim, dark jumbled background. On a dark day, or backlit.
Practice, practice, practice. Practice on pigeons, automobiles speeding past, bicyclists, whatever is moving.
An Extra Tip.
Since you can’t use a neck strap very well with a long telephoto lens and need a way to carry it more safely than dangling it by the camera body, make use of your tripod mount. Rotate it 180°and convert it into a very secure handle. I carry mine with the lens pointing to the rear and place my thumb on what is now the front of the mount to secure it. This works for the ZD 300 mm, the ZD 90 – 250 mm and the ZD 150 mm.
That’s it. Grab your camera and go get ‘em!