One of my favourite activities in recent years has been trying to photograph songbirds in flight. Prior to this fall, almost 100% of my time has been spent trying to photograph "reverse migrants" at the tip of Point Pelee during the peak of spring migration. Long story short - it's really hard, and opportunities are sporadic at best. During the fall of 2017, I spent some time working on ways to improve the volume of opportunities, the number of sharp images and ways to improve image quality when rapidly firing at these little guys. By the end of the fall migration, I was seeing significant improvement and wanted to post a few images and share some changes in technique.
I think the most important adjustments (beyond finding cooperative birds) has been related to my gear. I used to shoot with the Version 1 Canon 600mm (F4) IS lens. Simply put, it was too heavy to capture quality images of flying songbirds. At that time, I found more success through use of the 300 mm F2.8 lens. The focus was lightning fast, but there wasn't enough reach to get 99% of the birds... Then along came the 600 mm IS V2 lens!
The reduction in weight helped a LOT, but what helps even more is that the lens is BALANCED. The old version had a significant piece of glass near the very end of the lens - so any hand-holding produced this odd leverage effect making it seem 2-3 x heavier than the new version II. It blows the two previously mentioned lenses out of the water for this type of shooting. Not much more can be said about it!
Next up are settings. There are a few critical items that have helped significantly:
1. I have ALL (~60) focal points turned ON
2. Limit my focal range (on the lens)
3. Internal camera settings: Fast to focus, rapid adjustments, yet slow to "refresh" focus
4. Internal camera settings: set highly to FOCUS over shot priority
The last point seems to be particularly effective. The camera WILL NOT shoot unless it confirms focus. This is BAD NEWS bears if you want a quick shot of a rarity, but great for locking focus and greatly increasing the likelihood of the first shot being sharp. Rapid and constant small focus adjustments following the first shot increase the odds of subsequent shots being in focus; however the "slow to refresh" focus means that if (when) you lose focus, it will try to re-find focus from it's current position longer before re-trying the entire focal range (when your camera aimlessly tracks focus from the minimum distance to infinity and back).
So what does it all mean? When a bird flies past, I can spend 100% of my time trying to get the damn bird in the centre of the frame - and the camera is primed to do everything else... I can literally hold the shutter down, and it won't take the shot until something comes in focus. On a clear day, the only thing to focus on is the bird! So by late fall, I was getting comfortable with this approach and the images were starting to happen... Unfortunately there were only "late fall" birds left, so the goal is to not forget everything come Spring 2018!