Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens

Started May 23, 2013 | Discussions
Barry Pearson
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Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
May 23, 2013

Yesterday I found myself way outside my capability. I took delivery of a Sigma 500mm f/4.5 lens on Monday, and yesterday I tried it in the field for the first time at a (UK) bird reserve on my K-5IIs

My "birds in flight" shots are mostly just empty sky! I found it mind-bogglingly hard to switch from seeing birds in flight with my "bare" eyes to getting an eye to the viewfinder and tracking them there. Typically they were out of scope before I had even found them via the viewfinder.

I have little experience of birding, and this is the longest lens I have ever used, so perhaps it is a case of "keep practicing for enough years"! But I wonder if there are any shortcuts? How do other people do this? (Or is this the wrong lens for birds in flight?)

1. Perhaps I can avoid using the viewfinder? I live in England and I've never handled a gun, but perhaps front and rear gun-sights could be used? (Rear sights attached to the flash-shoe, front to the lens-hood).

2. I tried using my O-VF1 optical viewfinder for the Pentax Q on my K-5IIs, but it makes the scene smaller and less clear, and that appears to be the wrong way round. (I suspect it has other possibilities that I haven't thought of yet!)

3. Perhaps I could use a 2-eyed method. Have a frame as a non-optical eye-piece for my left eye to the left of the viewfinder (which I use with my right eye). Then have a frame at the "10 minutes to the hour" position on the lens hood to identify the subject size that will appear on the sensor. (I have hopes for this, but it needs a bit of work before I can try it).

4. I found a website for Ikodot, but I think it is addressing a different problem, for example street photography with a Leica. (And I don't know if they are still around).

I'm mostly OK with motor sports and airplanes in flight at airshows, where I use a 60-250mm zoom or at most a 300mm. But those are much more predictable than birds in flight! Here I'm a beginner.

Please help!

(Yesterday wasn't a complete disaster. I'll reply with a photo that I like).

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Barry Pearson
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A near miss from yesterday
In reply to Barry Pearson, May 23, 2013

Here is the nearest I got to a successful bird in flight photo yesterday. (Sigma 500mm f/4.5 on a Lensmaster RH2 gimbal head).

Ducks landing at Redes Mere. 1/000, f/8, ISO 400.

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phil_t
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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to Barry Pearson, May 23, 2013

I purchased a shoe-mounted red dot sight from brando.com.  Once sighted in, it works well in getting my Q1 + DA 60-260mm aligned (1200+mm equivalent at the long end).

Wildlife Photography with Tactical Four Reticle Sight Product Code: GGMIS001900
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brandrx
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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to Barry Pearson, May 23, 2013

MightyMike and Greyser shoot handheld at the BIF's with the Sigma 500mm f4.5 lens. I can do it but not for very long at a time. Myself, I would rather use a Sigma 400mm f5.6 Tele-macro or Pentax-FA*400mm f5.6 for handheld shooting at the BIF's.

For shooting at the BIF's with the Sigma 500mm f4.5 from a heavy tripod and gimbal you need to make sure you have perfect balance in such a way that all of the lock downs can be completely loose and you have the ability to manuver your lens as easy as moving it with one finger. It should be balanced in such a way that even with the lock downs completely loose that the lens stays wherever it is pointed if you let go of it with your hands.

For BIF's in the sky use AF-C, Auto 5 or Auto 11, Continuous High, and then pray.

If the BIF's are surrounded by vegetation in the background then use AF-C, Center Point focus, Continuous high, then pray.

Cheers.

Ron

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Chris Mak
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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to Barry Pearson, May 23, 2013

Hello Barry,

Congratulations on the sigma 500/4.5. I've had it for five months now, shoot it also on the stellar K5IIs and it really is a wonderful lens, allowing quite a bit of growth in quality of images, by getting better at handling it (I shoot it handheld exclusively, mostly with the 1.4tc on). My experience so far is that you simply get better results step by step, by using it a lot. I only recently started on BIF, because I leave the 1.4tc on except when approaching birds is an option, then I take it off. You can simply point the lens towards the flying bird and track it, but with the very small depth of field you won't see much at all, and the lens will only hunt focussing forwards and backwards, while you try to keep the lens aimed precisely at the object. With mostly white cloudy skies surrounding the bird there isn't anything to focus on. Mostly I try to focus on something stationary on land at approximately the distance the bird is flying at to have some sort of pre-focus. Perhaps some have golden suggestions after lots of experience, but I take it for granted that it's mostly just trial and error.

Here is on example of the results possible with the 1.4tc on. Bar tailed godwits. Focus of course is on the godwit in the centre

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paulkienitz
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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to Barry Pearson, May 23, 2013

Barry Pearson wrote:

Yesterday I found myself way outside my capability. I took delivery of a Sigma 500mm f/4.5 lens on Monday, and yesterday I tried it in the field for the first time at a (UK) bird reserve on my K-5IIs

I've never BIFfed with a 500mm, but I've done it with 400mm handheld, and it's entirely manageable if you're patient.  One of the most productive ways to go about it is to use catch-in-focus.  That way, you never know when the shutter will fire, but unlike any other method using affordable gear, that technique is capable of getting sharp pictures of a bird zooming right at you.

I've also managed to catch BIFs with autofocus using the 55-300 at full length, which requires a good deal steadier aim than merely getting the bird into the frame does, because if you miss the focus point even a little, it hunts to the minimum distance.  (Why couldn't they have it err towards infinity?)  Also, this is not feasible with birds that are too small or too close.

It may be that what you need is to give up the gimbal and build up the muscles to handhold the lens.  If you want to use the gimbal I guess you'll just have to practice, practice, practice.  I'm sure it's doable, but it won't be as easy.  With low fliers you might also try a monopod... one technique I've sometimes used is to put the monopod's foot on top of my shoe while sitting down, which gives me a quick way to react if a normally low flyer zooms upwards.

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Tom Lusk
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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to Barry Pearson, May 23, 2013

I always handhold my Sigma 500/4.5, and don't even bother taking a tripod with me any more - it just gets in the way.

I find the 500/4.5 locks focus quickly.

I hunted ducks for many years, so it just seems natural to "get on the bird" quickly and keep it in the frame.

My suggestion is to lose the tripod and practice, practice, practice.

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miles green
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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to Barry Pearson, May 23, 2013

Congrats on the 500!!!!

I don't have a 500 (i'm jealous!), but i can share my experiences with my 70-200 f/2.8 + 2xTC, and with my 400mm f/5.6 manual focus. Neither are as long or as fast, but some things apply to all. I use the 400 a lot more than the zoom+TC combo, as the IQ is not comparable.

Getting focused and sharp shots out of such a lens takes practice, and surely more so with the 500 than with my 400s. My pictures are getting better with practice, and if i get distracted and sloppy, it's immediately visible in the output..

Like a 500mm, a 400mm will still make a bird invisible if focus is at the opposite end, even if said bird is in the middle of the frame. So it's important to pre-focus on something at about the same distance as the bird, otherwise you'll never find it!

One trick i found to get the bird in the frame (which i use a lot at 800mm with the TC on the 400) is a little like your 2-eye technique: While keeping my right eye to the viewfinder, using my left eye, I try to align the bird with the axis of the lens. The right eye takes over again when i see the bird in the viewfinder. As i said, the lens needs to be pre-focused.

After that, with the 400, i try to keep the bird centered and rely on CIF while trying to keep the bird in focus. Obviously AF makes life easier, but i still try to keep the bird in the middle and worry about composition later (=cropping, streaching the background, etc). Maybe this will change as i get better.

Handheld is easier that with the gimbal imho.

I hope this helps!

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dane dawg
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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to miles green, May 23, 2013

I have taken a ton of BIF with this combo, and always find handheld is the way to go! Its way easier and natural to track the bird..

I have tried a monopod with gimbal and it seems to only work for launch shots but after that I lose the bird..

Good luck and I look forward to your photos..

Cheers Travis

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Arijit Banerjee
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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to Barry Pearson, May 24, 2013

Hi Barry,

Congrats! That is a fine lens you have and with time it will make a birder of you.

Some fine advise already. Yes, as Ron says, 'pray'- prayers can do anything and I too feel the pod gets in the way. Here is my two pence. Leave the lens alone and start observing birds taking off, landing and in flight. Getting an idea of their behaviour will help - A LOT! The larger ones- Swans, Geese, Large raptors, Herons will be easier. The smaller ones will be a pain- all the time. For a few days watch them and then start tracking them in the viewfinder.. Remeber you will need some contrast for the AF sensor to act. If the 500mm has a manual overide- prefocussing to infinity (if the birds are distant) might reduce hunting.. Yes AF C, all the metering points.

The fun is in the learning and all the best.

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Jim Beverlin
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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to dane dawg, May 24, 2013

dane dawg wrote:

I have taken a ton of BIF with this combo, and always find handheld is the way to go! Its way easier and natural to track the bird..

I have tried a monopod with gimbal and it seems to only work for launch shots but after that I lose the bird..

Good luck and I look forward to your photos..

Cheers Travis

Superb images.

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JRB

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Ian Stuart Forsyth
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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to Barry Pearson, May 24, 2013

Learning to pan is the key and keeping the target in the center of the frame, giving the AF the best chance to track the moving object. One of the techniques I use on a regular bases in panning is to using both eye’s , this give you best results for tacking and even when AF is lost you can still keep up with the subject. One aid that works for learn to track is to follow traffic along the highway, don’t worry about  AF lock just work at tracking, first track the vehicle when you get better you can move onto license plates or even the people in the car.

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In reply to dane dawg, May 24, 2013

Wow, those are some very fine shots!

Nic

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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to Barry Pearson, May 24, 2013

You need to read how-to BIF articles from Art Morris (Birds as Art). The longest lens that can comfortably be used hand held for shooting BIF with a FF camera is a 400/5.6. That takes into account AF speed, how fast you can pan it, weight, keeper ratio, and the size of the FOV so you can keep it in the frame. That means due to the APS-C crop that with a smaller sensor it tends to be 300/4 due to the reduced FOV. People say that with APS-C "they just can't seem to get big shots with a 300/4" so they look for something bigger and longer. Invariably it is more of a lack of technique and knowing where to be with a given lens.

With a 500/4.5 it is like you are trying to hand hold a shot with a 750/4.5. And if you mount it on anything, including a Wimberly head you can't move it fast enough. BIF shots are almost 99% handheld. If the lens is too big and heavy for that you will seldom get anything. Anything longer and heavier than a 300/2.8 is just impossible to use very well (APS-C) and even that requires some good upper body strength.

In my film days I usually used a 300/2.8 +1.4x since I did not have a 400/5.6. The times I actually got to meet and talk to Art it was always at one particular place, Bosque del Apache in New Mexico in the fall. I was there with my brother the pro and Art was usually condicting one of his classes. These days I would just use a 300/4 without the TC. For birds on the ground, however, a 500/4.5 on a gimbal head would be a very good setup.

Kent Gittings

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Barry Pearson
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Some extra context
In reply to Barry Pearson, May 24, 2013

All the replies are interesting, and some are pointing me in directions that I will try. So thanks to all.

Some suggestions are probably ruled out by factors that I hadn't made clear. In particular,  I'm not a sporty person or particularly strong, and at 66 years old I am unlikely to become such a person!

I've shot airshows and motor sports for years, typically with either my 60-250mm f/4 or my 300mm f/4. I bought a gimbal head originally for motor sports, where I wanted to relieve the weight of these lenses when possible. I've tried panning with it with some success, but accept that it is harder than hand held panning in many cases. I've talked to people at airshows using gimbals, whose opinions range from "it was a big mistake bringing a gimbal with me today" to "it works for me"!

I'm trying to juggle some inconvenient facts: birds are smaller that airplanes and vastly less predictable than bikes and cars! Extrapolating from my successes and failures with planes and bikes led me to the conclusion that I needed to use equipment and techniques that were well beyond what I've been using so far.

I always have my 60-250mm f/4 with me. And where it is suitable, I will use it, because I love it. But it is near my limit for hand holding for long periods, even with the battery grip that enables me to get a better grip. And it often doesn't have the reach, even in airshows, etc.

In a sense the Sigma 500mm was a compromise: I wanted a top quality long range zoom (perhaps like the Canon 200-400mm f/4 with built-in teleconverter), but weighing about one kilogram and costing no more than £1000 and with a Pentax mount!

So I now have to work out how to use the above tools in any given situation, and identify what extra situations I can now handle. Hence this thread.

I'll report back here when I've tried some of things suggested. Once again, thanks for helping someone a bit out of his depth.

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Barry Pearson
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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to phil_t, May 24, 2013

phil_t wrote:

I purchased a shoe-mounted red dot sight from brando.com.  Once sighted in, it works well in getting my Q1 + DA 60-260mm aligned (1200+mm equivalent at the long end).

Wildlife Photography with Tactical Four Reticle Sight Product Code: GGMIS001900

Thanks!

I didn't even know about such things, but it appears to be something I was groping towards. The Wikipedia page, although not about photography, keeps saying the right things, such as rapid acquisition and no worry about eye relief. I suspect it would place less stress on my eyes.

An obvious downside is lack of framing. But where the subject size in the frame is predictable, or not under control because of use of a prime lens, that is irrelevant. For example, I could zoom according to previous airplane fly-bys then center using such a sight. And for birds in flight, just getting them in frame at all would be a major leap forward!

To be investigated further!

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Barry Pearson
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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to brandrx, May 24, 2013

brandrx wrote:

For shooting at the BIF's with the Sigma 500mm f4.5 from a heavy tripod and gimbal you need to make sure you have perfect balance in such a way that all of the lock downs can be completely loose and you have the ability to manuver your lens as easy as moving it with one finger. It should be balanced in such a way that even with the lock downs completely loose that the lens stays wherever it is pointed if you let go of it with your hands.

For BIF's in the sky use AF-C, Auto 5 or Auto 11, Continuous High, and then pray.

If the BIF's are surrounded by vegetation in the background then use AF-C, Center Point focus, Continuous high, then pray.

Thanks!

I have now balanced the 500mm on the gimbal at home, and wrapped tape in 2 places round the tripod bracket so that the Arca clamp of the gimbal just fits between. This makes it easy to rapidly get perfect balance in the field. (As you say, one finger movement with no tendency to move by itself. My Pentax lenses are really too small for the gimbal and perfect balance can't be achieved, but it can with this lens).

The rest of what you say is like airplanes at airshows. (But when panning cars and bikes I have sometimes used a selected AF point to the left or right so that I can aim at the center of the subject but ensure that the front of it, to one side of the center, is sharpest).

ps: If I am walking a lot I leave my heavy tripod in the car and use a light-weight 4-section tripod! Aaaarrrggh! No one will take me seriously again! But I'm either using a fast shutter speed or panning, so carriability is more important than rigidity.

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brandrx
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Barry...
In reply to Barry Pearson, May 24, 2013

Barry Pearson wrote:

brandrx wrote:

For shooting at the BIF's with the Sigma 500mm f4.5 from a heavy tripod and gimbal you need to make sure you have perfect balance in such a way that all of the lock downs can be completely loose and you have the ability to manuver your lens as easy as moving it with one finger. It should be balanced in such a way that even with the lock downs completely loose that the lens stays wherever it is pointed if you let go of it with your hands.

For BIF's in the sky use AF-C, Auto 5 or Auto 11, Continuous High, and then pray.

If the BIF's are surrounded by vegetation in the background then use AF-C, Center Point focus, Continuous high, then pray.

Thanks!

I have now balanced the 500mm on the gimbal at home, and wrapped tape in 2 places round the tripod bracket so that the Arca clamp of the gimbal just fits between. This makes it easy to rapidly get perfect balance in the field. (As you say, one finger movement with no tendency to move by itself. My Pentax lenses are really too small for the gimbal and perfect balance can't be achieved, but it can with this lens).

Hi Barry,

I can abtain perfect balance with my Pentax DA*300/4 on my Wimberly gimbal. One thng a lot of folks don't realize is not only do you need to move the lens back or forth to obtain balance but you also need to move the lens up or down so that the center of the lens is in line with the vertical rotation point. On my Wimberly I can drop the platform that the lens sits on all the way down for my Pentax DA*250-600mm f5.6 or raise it almost all the way up for my Pentax DA*300mm f4.

The rest of what you say is like airplanes at airshows. (But when panning cars and bikes I have sometimes used a selected AF point to the left or right so that I can aim at the center of the subject but ensure that the front of it, to one side of the center, is sharpest).

ps: If I am walking a lot I leave my heavy tripod in the car and use a light-weight 4-section tripod! Aaaarrrggh! No one will take me seriously again! But I'm either using a fast shutter speed or panning, so carriability is more important than rigidity.

Well, one needs to do what one needs to do.

Cheers.

Ron

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Barry Pearson
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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to KentG, May 24, 2013

KentG wrote:

You need to read how-to BIF articles from Art Morris (Birds as Art). The longest lens that can comfortably be used hand held for shooting BIF with a FF camera is a 400/5.6. That takes into account AF speed, how fast you can pan it, weight, keeper ratio, and the size of the FOV so you can keep it in the frame. That means due to the APS-C crop that with a smaller sensor it tends to be 300/4 due to the reduced FOV. People say that with APS-C "they just can't seem to get big shots with a 300/4" so they look for something bigger and longer. Invariably it is more of a lack of technique and knowing where to be with a given lens.

I've just had a quick look at some of his photos on-line. Beautiful!

But I have enough experience with my 300mm f/4 to know that I am not going to get what I want with that lens. I'm not Art Morris. Hence my "leap" to 500mm.

With a 500/4.5 it is like you are trying to hand hold a shot with a 750/4.5. And if you mount it on anything, including a Wimberly head you can't move it fast enough. BIF shots are almost 99% handheld. If the lens is too big and heavy for that you will seldom get anything. Anything longer and heavier than a 300/2.8 is just impossible to use very well (APS-C) and even that requires some good upper body strength.

I am going to have to try to defy those statistics! If I can't, I'll at least have fun trying. (I can fail without going broke because I'm an amateur).

Experience with non-bird photography suggests that a longer lens enables greater distance, which in turn reduces the panning speed. But perhaps I've made a serious mistake and I've headed off in the wrong direction!

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miles green
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Re: Seeking ways of tracking birds in flight with 500mm lens
In reply to dane dawg, May 24, 2013

Superb! 

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