8.5 Steadying the Camera

Nothing is more frustrating than photographing a beautiful bird in a beautiful setting, only to discover after the bird has flown away that every single image is blurry.  The two most common causes of blurry images are (1) focusing errors, and (2) motion blur (not necessarily in that order).  In the case of focusing errors, the problem may be a faulty autofocus system (in which case you should send the camera back to the manufacturer for repairs or re-calibration—see section 3.11), or may simply result from a difficult focusing situation (such as insufficient lighting, or an out-of-focus object such as a twig partially occluding the subject—see section 2.6).  In the case of motion blur, there are two possible problems: either you’re using a shutter speed which is too slow to freeze the subject (see sections 6.1 and 7.7), or the motion blur is due to camera shake.  This section addresses the latter problem.
    For stationary subjects, you obviously want to keep the camera and lens as perfectly still as you can.  Image stabilization (IS
section 3.5) can help with this to some degree, though there are limits to what it can do.  Even with IS enabled, I find that I still have to exert considerable effort when using my tripod-mounted rig to avoid noticeable camera shake at ~800mm; this is especially true on windy days.  Image stabilization (what Nikon calls vibration reduction, or VR) is intended to compensate for hand tremors and slight disturbance due to air movement.  Expecting IS to completely eliminate camera shake due to sloppy handling is in most cases asking too much.

Fig. 8.5.1 : Image stabilization can help enormously in
keeping the image steady, though it’s no silver bullet.
Note that some lenses/cameras have a special IS mode
for panning—i.e., for following a bird in motion.

    When using a tripod, there are a number of things you can do to reduce camera shake.  First, for stationary subjects you can tighten all of the knobs on the tripod head to prevent the head from inadvertently shifting during exposure.  For birds that are only momentarily stationary, however, this can be very inconvenient, since you may need to loosen and re-tighten multiple knobs every few seconds, likely resulting in lost shots.  Another thing you can do is to avoid using the center column of your tripod, whenever possible; on many tripods the use of the center column decreases stability (especially in windy conditions), resulting in increased camera shake.  Also, be sure to use the correct IS mode; on Canon systems, mode 2 is intended for panning (i.e., for following a moving subject), while mode 1 is more effective for stationary subjects (other manufacturers likely have similar modes, though they may be known by different names).
    There are a number of things you can do with your own body (i.e., your arms and legs) to improve stability.  First, try anchoring your head (either at the brow-ridge or cheekbone) firmly against the camera; I find this technique to have a significant impact on stability when shooting with a loose tripod head.  Another very effective technique is to use your free hand to steady the far end of the lens (the end furthest from the camera); on large lenses you can sometimes do this by grasping the screw that holds the lens hood in place.  With one hand firmly grasping the camera and the other keeping the far end of the lens stationary, you should have maximum control over the lens axis.  This is true whether you’re using a tripod or shooting hand-held.
    When off the tripod, stability for shooting stationary subjects can often be improved through the creative use of body limbs and other props.  Obviously, anchoring your lens firmly against the side of a tree trunk can help.  When in a standing position, planting your elbow against your own trunk (i.e., your upper torso) can help improve stability and reduce muscle fatigue.  When in a kneeling or sitting position, planting your elbow on your knee or on the ground or a large rock will usually improve stability.  When lying on the ground, propping the far end of the lens up on a rock or on your external flash battery pack can sometimes help.  The use of image stabilization, if it’s available, can of course further help (though it’s important to use the correct
mode of IS, depending on whether the subject is stationary or moving).
    Shooting birds in flight requires rather more effort than shooting stationary subjects.  For tripod-mounted rigs, a good option is to use a gimbal head (see section 4.2).  Regardless what type of tripod head you use, for flight shots you’ll want all of the knobs kept loose to allow the smoothest motion when tracking the bird in flight.  Keeping one hand at either end of the lens (one on the camera and one on the lens hood) yields maximal control and makes smooth tracking easier—or rather, makes smooth tracking more feasible, even if it requires greater effort in terms of physical exertion.  Intense flight photography can be a good workout, especially without a tripod.

Fig. 8.5.2 : For tripod-mounted rigs, a gimbal head can be very useful
when following birds in flight.  With all the tension controls loosened,
the lens rotates smoothly in all directions, almost as if you were hand-
holding it, but without all the strain on your arms.  You do still have
to step around the tripod while following birds, though, since the
lens is still coupled to a fixed rotational axis (i.e., the tripod).

    For hand-held flight shots, you’ll again want to keep your free hand as far out on the lens barrel as possible.  I like to anchor the camera firmly against my head (using my brow-ridge and my cheekbone) and then swivel my whole upper torso—using my knees
when tracking the bird, rather than moving my arms, if possible.  For really intense flight action, try keeping your knees slightly bent, and then do all the tracking motion using your legs.  When you first catch sight of the bird, quickly find good positions for your feet, and then try to track the bird along its trajectory without repositioning your feet unless absolutely necessary; swiveling on the ball of your foot is usually better than taking an actual step, in terms of maintaining balance and focus.

Fig. 8.5.3 : When tracking birds in flight, try to confine all of your bodily movements
to your legs and your lower torso, keeping your arms and head fixed relative to your
trunk.  Hold the lens at both ends (the camera end and the lens hood, if any).  Turn
IS off, or make sure it’s in panning mode.  And don’t forget to follow through: when
you press the shutter release, keep the camera smoothly panning along its trajectory.
(Note: a motion-blur effect was added to the background of this image in Photoshop).

    A common pitfall when shooting birds in flight is a failure to follow through.  Following through means continuing to track the bird’s trajectory even after you press the shutter release.  Many people make the mistake of freezing the camera when they press the button; the problem with doing this is that the bird doesn’t also freeze, so by freezing the camera you increase the potential for motion blur via movement of the bird.  By keeping the camera in motion while the shutter is open, you’ll hopefully keep the bird more-or-less aligned with the same pixels on the imaging sensor the whole time the sensor is exposed; if you instead freeze the camera during exposure, then the projected image of the bird is likely to be smeared across the sensor during the imaging interval, resulting in image blur.
    Diving birds present an especially difficult challenge, since they can accelerate rather rapidly during their descent.  Recalling from elementary physics that objects in freefall near the surface of the Earth accelerate at approximately 9.8 m/s2, it’s not terribly difficult to imagine that a horizontally flying bird that suddenly turns into a dive can present a challenge for the enterprising photographer hoping to capture a sharp image of the descent.  For the pelican photo below, the solution to this problem involved a healthy dose of luck in combination with an intentional effort to remain mindful of the rapidity with which gravity can accelerate a sizeable mass.  (In other words, just do your damnedest to keep the camera on the bird and fire off as many shots as you can—and maybe you’ll eventually get lucky.)

Fig. 8.5.4 : Tracking diving birds is extremely difficult—much more so that I ever
expected before I tried it.  The problem is that as the bird turns into its dive it
accelerates very rapidly, due to gravity.  To get this pelican shot I had to take
several hundred shots of birds diving from a foraging flock.  Only a handful
of shots turned out well.

    Note that for birds in motion it’s typically best to keep image stabilization turned off.  If your lens (or camera) has an IS mode specifically designated for panning (mode 2 on Canon lenses), then you at least have the option of using IS for flight shots; stationary-mode IS (mode 1 for Canonites) should definitely not be used for tracking subjects in motion, since it will try to keep the image stationary, whereas what you want to do is to keep the image moving smoothly as it tracks the subject.  Keep in mind that when IS is enabled (regardless of mode) your autofocus system may take noticeably longer to initially acquire the subject; for warblers and other restless birds, this can result in more frustration than anything else, and in these cases I simply turn IS off altogether.
    Finally, it goes without saying that accurate operation of your camera’s autofocus system depends on your ability to keep the AF sensor(s) positioned on the bird in the viewfinder.  Thus, for birds in flight it becomes even more critical to smoothly track the bird.  If your panning is jumpy, the AF point that is tracking the bird may pick up the background and focus on that instead.  Some camera settings (such as re-acquisition speed and the enabling of helper points—see section 2.6) may help to some degree, but it’s still very important when taking flight shots to keep the bird as perfectly stationary within the viewfinder as possible.

Fig. 8.5.5 : Keeping the AF point on the bird is critical for flight shots.  For the bird on the
left, I was sloppy and let the AF point drift to the background; once the camera picked up
the background, it was reluctant to re-acquire the bird even after I pointed the AF point at
it again.  Before taking the shot on the right, I had turned on the camera’s point-expansion
option, which allows the camera to switch AF points automatically in order to keep the
subject in focus.  Note that this feature doesn’t work the same on all camera models!

    If you do lose the subject by having the AF focus on the background (as in the photo above), getting the bird back into focus can sometimes be very difficult.  If you can at least see the bird as a blob in the viewfinder, it sometimes helps to tap the shutter release button one or more times to re-initialize the AF tracking algorithms once you’ve got the active AF point positioned on the bird again.  If your lens has a range limiter switch (see section 3.8.2), setting this to an appropriate value for the bird(s) you’re working with can place some bounds on how far out of focus the lens can go, and can therefore make re-acquisition of the bird somewhat faster.  Just remember to reset the focus limiter when you switch to shooting subjects at other distances; otherwise, the lens will refuse to focus at that distance.