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When Photographing Birds at 60 FPS Becomes the New Norm

As many owners of mirrorless cameras can attest, it can take some time to get used to some of the different shooting capabilities that our mirrorless camera gear provides. One of the things that seems odd to use to photograph birds in motion, is a frame rate of 60 frames-per-second. Especially when on many cameras, the first frame locks focus for the balance of the run. Most of us have been taught to use continuous auto-focus when photographing birds in motion, and our natural assumption is that a very fast frame rate of 60 frames-per-second is more of a marketing gimmick, than a practical shooting technique.

I started shooting with the Nikon 1 system back in August 2013, but it wasn’t until the past 6 months that I really started using a 60 frames-per-second-frame rate with any regularity. As strange as it may seem, when photographing birds in motion, my ‘new normal’ camera setting is now 60 frames per second. During my past couple of outings I had both of the cameras I brought with me set to this frame rate. I never changed either camera’s frame rate for the entire duration of my photo shoots. And yes… it is possible to capture individual frames even when your camera is set to 60 frames-per-second.

Since early May I’ve been spending quite a bit of time doing field work for an upcoming eBook on bird photography. That project enticed me to push my Nikon 1 gear in a few new and different ways, with using a frame speed of 60 frames-per-second being the biggest experiment I’ve done over the past 5 months.

I initially discovered that this fast frame rate was ideal for very specific types of situations like a bird landing on, or leaving, a nest. Then, the more that I experimented, the more that I discovered that using 60 frames-per-second wasn’t a gimmick at all. It became a very practical technique to use on a regular basis. I began to use it to photograph birds-in-flight like the Great Blue Heron in the following series of 6 images. All of these images would have been captured in a total of 1/10th of a second. If I was still shooting with my Nikon D7000, I would have captured only one of the following images, not 6, during a burst time of 1/10th of a second.

All of the 6 images below are 100% captures without any cropping done to them at all.

PL NN 1
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 254.1mm, ISO 1600, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 2
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 254.1mm, ISO 1600, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 3
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 254.1mm, ISO 1600, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 4
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 254.1mm, ISO 1600, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 5
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 254.1mm, ISO 1600, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 6
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 254.1mm, ISO 1600, 1/1250, f/5.6

As readers look at the first set of images, some of you may be thinking, “What’s the point of shooting at 60 frames-per-second? There’s hardly any difference in wing or body position.” And, that is the exact point! Using a fast frame rate like 60 frames-per-second enables us to capture more precise moments of motion differentiation than would be possible with slower frame rates. There is also less chance to get a stream of repetitive wing positions (up, down, up, down, up, down) that can often happen when shooting AF-C runs at slower frame rates.

To better illustrate the importance of capturing more precise, differentiated motion segments let’s have a look at 6 consecutive images of another Great Blue Heron taking off from some shallow water. Again, these 6 images were captured using a frame rate of 60 frames-per-second. It would have taken a total of 1/10th of a second to capture all 6 images. Pay special attention to the position of the heron’s feet in the water, and to the amount of water spray coming off the bird as it becomes airborne. These next 6 images were cropped to 4,000 pixels on the width, then resized for web use.

PL NN 7
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 204.5mm, ISO 3200, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 8
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 204.5mm, ISO 3200, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 9
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 204.5mm, ISO 3200, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 10
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 204.5mm, ISO 3200, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 11
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 204.5mm, ISO 3200, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 12
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 204.5mm, ISO 3200, 1/1250, f/5.6

You can see that each frame shot at 60 frames-per-second provides some subtle differences in wing position, leg distance from the surface of the water, and the amount of water spray coming off the bird. Rather than hoping for one, decent image when shooting at a slower frame rate… I would much rather shoot at 60 frames-per-second and feel more confident that I will get a range of potentially usable photographs.

Our last set of example images will (hopefully) demonstrate why it can be advantageous to have the first frame lock focus for the balance of the run, and NOT use continuous auto-focus. Let’s have a look at the first photograph in this image run captured at 60 frames-per-second. All of the following images are 100% captures without any cropping at all.

PL NN 13-1
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234.5mm, ISO 1100, 1/1250, f/5.6

All of us who have done bird photography have faced the situation in the image above, i.e. a target bird in behind branches and other birds. This makes it difficult to acquire and hold focus when doing a continuous auto-focus run as our cameras can sometimes be ‘tricked’ by something in the foreground,  and grab focus on a different element in the image. In the case of this sample image run, I was able to acquire focus on the egret’s head and neck just before it took flight. Since I shot at 60 frames-per-second this focusing would be locked for the balance of the run, regardless of any obstructions caused by foreground elements entering into the frame. Now, let’s have a look at frame 5 from this image run.

PL NN 13-2
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234.5mm, ISO 1100, 1/1250, f/5.6

Yikes! Our target bird is now directly behind a cormorant resting on a branch. If I had been shooting using continuous auto-focus there would have been a significant risk that my camera would have picked up on the cormorant and dropped focus on the target egret. You can also see how far the egret’s wings have moved in 5 frames. Now, let’s look at frame number 10 from the image run.

PL NN 13-3
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234.5mm, ISO 1100, 1/1250, f/5.6

The egret has now left the water with nice spray coming off its legs and feet, but it is still partially obscured by the cormorant which still poses an auto-focusing risk if I had been using AF-C. Let’s move ahead to frame 15 of the image run.

PL NN 13-4
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234.5mm, ISO 1100, 1/1250, f/5.6

Our target egret is still partially obscured by the cormorant, but it is starting to emerge into a less obstructed visual area, which was the ‘shooting zone’ I anticipated for this image series. Let’s see where the action has gone as we move ahead to frame 20 in the run.

PL NN 14
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234.5mm, ISO 1100, 1/1250, f/5.6

Our target egret is almost clear of the cormorant on the branch and is almost perfectly positioned as it enters my anticipated ‘shooting zone’. Now, let’s look at the last 6 photographs in this image run that was captured at 60 frames-per-second. As you go through these images you’ll notice that the egret is in the ‘shooting zone’ and free of obstructions in 5 of the 6 following images. There is slight wing clipping in 2 frames, with the entire egret shown free and clear in 3 of the final 6 frames.

PL NN 15
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234.5mm, ISO 1100, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 16
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234.5mm, ISO 1100, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 17
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234.5mm, ISO 1100, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 18
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234.5mm, ISO 1100, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 19
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234.5mm, ISO 1100, 1/1250, f/5.6
PL NN 20
NIKON 1 V3 + 1 NIKKOR VR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 234.5mm, ISO 1100, 1/1250, f/5.6

Shooting at 60 frames-per-second does take quite a bit of adjustment in terms of technique. Shutter release timing is obviously critical. The 40 shot buffers on my Nikon 1 V2 and V3 cameras fill in only 2/3 of a second when shooting at 60 frames-per-second. Typically I find that my buffer is already full and I’m checking my images when other photographers around me are just starting their AF-C runs, photographing the same subject bird. My panning motion needs to be much, much smoother and far more controlled, than when shooting at a slower frame rate since I have no margin for error given my 2/3 of a second image run time. I also had to adjust my shutter finger pressure, learning how to apply a very light tap to only squeeze out a single shot when desired, rather than inadvertently taking a burst of a stationary bird. Increasing my patience and waiting for my ‘moment’ to shoot also took quite a bit of practice, especially for birds-in-flight. I also had to learn how to shoot just a partial run of my buffer when birds are flying towards me to limit the number of potentially out-of-focus images.

Now that I am totally comfortable shooting at 60 frames-per-second I do not enjoy shooting birds in motion at slower frame rates with my Nikon 1 bodies (i.e 5 or 15 fps with Nikon 1 V2, 10 or 20 frames-per-second with Nikon 1 V3). I find these slower frame rates are not nearly as challenging to use… so they are not nearly as much fun… nor do they produce the same degree of satisfaction with the results they produce.

If you own a mirrorless camera that has high frame rate capabilities that you have not yet explored… I would encourage you to experiment with your gear to find out if you enjoy shooting in this manner. If you’re like me… it may become your ‘new normal’ camera setting when photographing birds in motion.

A quick apology to Photography Life readers for my relative inactivity here over the past little while. I’ve been juggling client video projects as well as working on several eBook projects. This week, I just published Balancing Eggs, a business parable about leadership communications, business coaching and presentation skills… and will soon publish my New Zealand photography eBook. After that I will be working hard to finish up my bird photography eBook to have it ready before year end.

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