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Old October 2nd, 2009, 11:35 AM   #1
Join Date: Oct 2009
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Birds in flight

Hi All-

I'm thrilled to have found this forum...seems like there are a lot of experienced people here and I'm hoping that I can get some help with a project I'm working on. I'm a pro still photographer with only some very limited experience with shooting video. I've recently been photographing small birds in flight (Nikon D3 and D300s, 200-400 f/4), and now I'd like to capture them in motion for identification and teaching purposes. Specifically, I want to show the flight style (ie. undulating, direct, bouncy, etc), wing beat pattern and quality, and some detail (color and markings) on the birds. This is VERY difficult photography, possibly the hardest, lowest-yield shooting I've done in 15 years. The birds fly fast, and the time you have to shoot is often measured in half-seconds. They are small, so it's often manual-focus, on a high speed, bouncy and unpredictable flight. In some ways it's more akin to trap or skeet shooting, than still photograpy. And now I want to get that in motion! The birds do not follow a single flight path, so I'm imagining shooting handheld, although I could see some kind of quick pan on a tripod (for stills I would use a turret-style head like Wimberly). My main issue, though, is capturing the birds in a way that looks natural (ie, so you can see the details of the flight)...I'm worried that with video I could wind up with lots of little blurs whose movements aren't as distinctive as they are when seen in real life. Also, the more depth of field the better...not sure how that all works in video. And, of course, much of this flight takes place the first hour after sunrise, so the light conditions are sometimes low.

On the plus side, while I would like to capture as much detail as I can, these are not for broadcast...internet would be the most likely medium that they would be used. Getting the feel for the birds movement, along with a few color/marking details, is what I'm after. I've browsed the forums a bit, and have come up with everything from a RED (which will never happen because of $), to a Casio EX-F1 shooting in high speed/slow motion. As I noted above, I have a Nikon D300s, which does shoot video, but because you have to look at the LCD screen to do it, and I can't tell at all if the birds are in focus that way, nor can I track their fast movements it's not usable for this sort of thing (if I could actually look through the eyepiece it would be different, but I guess the mirror needs to be up the whole time, so that's not happening). So I need something else.

I realize this all might be a tall order - something akin to a new driver asking if anyone knows a cheap car that can do 200MPH - but I'm hoping that there's someway I can at least start to capture some of this very interesting phenomena.

Thanks so much for any and all help.

Scott Whittle
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Old October 2nd, 2009, 03:25 PM   #2
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Hi Scott

I cannot help you more than my explanations on the forum with the Casio EX-F1. But to follow birds in flight with a Nikon try an "Aimpoint" or other red or green point on the flash shoe, well colimated that could be efficient, i use one with my videocamera Canon XL2 and its fine to find the subject.

You can try an old system like "Camera rifle" and Aimpoint that could be good to follow the subject, but i never try it.

For birds in normal or slow motion flight now i use the EX-F1 with a computer and the 5" seconds prerecord, i try it the 10 October with King fisher more difficult than Vulturs or Swallows, but i have read the user manual.

Gilles Debord
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Old October 3rd, 2009, 08:53 AM   #3
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Thanks Gilles-

Your posting inspired me to order a Casio to try out...there's a 2 week return so I figure I can see if this (relatively) inexpensive solution works before moving onto more involved options. I fantasize that there is some sort of super-high megapixel camera that would let me shoot somewhat zoomed out (so I could keep the bird in frame), and then crop in on the section I want, but I'm guessing that is not how things work in the video world. I'll let you know how the Casio does. Thanks again.

Scott Whittle
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Old October 3rd, 2009, 10:22 AM   #4
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Video BIF is very difficult, and probably easiest with very long focal lengths so that the relative change in distance isn't much even if the bird is flying straight at you.

If you're trying to get songbirds in flight, good-luck. They're hard enough to get with a high-performance DSLR like the Canon 1D series.

Interesting to note that the contrast-based AF on the Panasonic GH1/GF1 is about as fast as an entry level dslr.
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Old October 4th, 2009, 09:07 AM   #5
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Old October 5th, 2009, 01:03 PM   #6
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There are examples of BIF on video at this link but they're mostly vultures ...

Brendan Marnell | the Internet Bird Collection

For big birds and smaller birds, especially hummingbirds, this link is one of the best

Don DesJardin | the Internet Bird Collection

99% of my clips are handheld with Canon XM2 (GL2) or XL2. I'm using Sony VIE now but I have nothing posted yet ... it's not much better than what I've handheld already. In any event Don DesJardin is getting better clips with XLH1 on a tripod than I can get.

It could be fun for you as it has been for me to take out a cam and have a go and then another go and read up on this forum and have another go BUT after 3 years regular BIF shooting I would suggest that to seriously research the possibilities for your project you might start by listing the obvious variables e.g.

Target: size of bird, distance from bird, speed of bif, speed of wingbeat, etc etc
Camcorder: sd or hd, handheld, zoom, shutter speed, nd filters, etc etc
Shoot conditions: bright light, side light, light on target not on you, not so windy you can't keep steady, use of hide/camouflage, find best locations for birds and conditions etc etc

With some of that homework under your belt you will have a corresponding amount of control over your expectations; that saves you from being discouraged, as you gradually produce more favourable combinations of the variables and, hopefully, better results from your sustained efforts.

To practice on a small moving target I would tape 6inch strips of paper to 3 or 4 spokes of a bicycle wheel and shoot with my cam on a low tripod while the cyclist circled around me at varying distances (in an empty carpark or similar), very slowly at first, then a little faster. Then I'd try it handholding the cam and compare image detail on a good monitor; then try different lighting conditions etc. Of course, as you say, BIF flightpath is normally unpredictable, but you might as well start experimenting without all the variables working against you. Good luck and perseverance so that we all may learn from you.
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Old October 6th, 2009, 09:57 PM   #7
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What you want to do is extremely difficult, almost impossible with any camcorder. I have been trying to do it for years. I specifically got into video hoping to get the full dive of a nighthawk on tape. I still have not been able to do it well.
It sounds like what you want to get is the undulating flight of a woodpecker, or the flap-sail of a sharpie, etc. My advice to you would be to forget the close-ups and try to follow at a distance. Much easier, and you get the environment as context. A tripod is mandatory if you want watchable footage, but much more important than equipment is where you put it. If you know where a Pileated Woodpecker nest hole is, and a favorite perch 50 yards away, you can get one or two undulations between the two, and if you can put yourself in the right spot, it will all be in focus. If you have to try for following random birds in flight, prefocus at a desired distance, take the bird while it is in your focal depth and enjoy what you get. And if you think birds are hard, try butterflies.

Best of luck. If nothing else it is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

Steve Siegel
Seiurus Video
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Old October 17th, 2009, 10:43 AM   #8
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First Tests

Hi All-

Thanks so much for the feedback from everyone. I purchased (and returned) a casio EX-F1 to see what it could do. I've posted a video that I processed in iMovie to give a sense of what I'm's the link:

The video shows both uncropped and cropped samples, to give a sense of the level of detail I'm getting (it seems low to me).

In general, I'm happy with the way these videos show the flight shape and style of the was tricky but not impossible to keep the small birds in frame, and with some more practice (and luck!) I'm sure I'd have usable footage in that regard. My method was to shoot at 300fps (the camera goes up to 1200fps), set the focus on infinity, and track it by hand (no tripod). Shooting in HD mode gave me videos that had ghosting and other weird artifacts as the birds flew...not at all fluid. Not sure if this is something I did wrong in the settings or that can be fixed in post, but my guess is it just doesn't work for this sort of thing.

Which leads me to the next step. I'm going to rent an EX3 in New York and use it for next weekend. While the Casio did capture the shape and movement of the bird, the detail seems poor on the small birds, and I'm hoping to impove that with this bigger camera. This is going to cost a bit, so I'm hoping folks can give me some help with how to best approach it. For one, I think the lens that comes with the camera may be a bit short (seems to go to about 400mm in 35mm terms...correct me if I'm wrong). I'm not sure if that lens is capable of autofocusing what I'm doing (especially on the first two samples in my video clip, the warblers) - if it can that would be amazing. If not, can I get enough DOF to shoot without worrying about focus? Secondly, I'm considering adding an adapter to shoot with 35mm nikon lenses, so I can use my 200-400mm f/4, or something else that will give me more reach than the included lens. I'm expecting to have to focus this thing by hand - again, does the video give you more DOF than a SLR would? Keeping the bird in frame is hard enough, but doing that and manual focusing is going to take a lot of luck (I can do it with the SLR about 30% of the time with the small birds).

Finally, I'd appreciate any feedback on different settings I might try with the EX3, or settings to start with, so that I can test what gives the most detail, and also allows me to slow down to half speed or less in post production with minimal loss of fluid motion and detail. Also, in post, is there a way to crop and center the bird, so that it stays in the same spot in the frame throughout the clip? That way I can focus viewers on the flight style and shape, and not the general path the bird takes.

OK - a lot to ask! Thanks again for any and all help, and I'll definitely post results from the EX3 when I'm done.
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