Behind the Frame: Secretary Flight

Morkel Erasmus All Authors, Morkel 8 Comments

Okay, so a “behind the frame” shot about a bird-in-flight photograph was inevitably going to be a summary of general photographic tips when it comes to birds…

On this particular morning, my wife and I were driving around in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park in South Africa. We came across 2 quirky secretary birds ambling along the grasslands on a mountain slope. After trampling a snake to death and devouring it (too far for quality photos), this one started running in our direction. I knew that a takeoff was imminent. A quick check of my current settings to ensure enough shutter speed – and BOOM!


Settings for this shot:

Focal Length: 600mm (I was using a 300mm f2.8 stabilised lens and a 2x teleconverter).

Aperture: f5.6 (wide open with the lens combo I was using – if you are far enough from your subject you should have sufficient DOF).

Shutter Speed: 1/1250 (large, slower birds don’t need too high shutter speeds to freeze the wing movement).

ISO: 800.

Key points to take away from this?

  • I had spent some time with these birds before, therefore I knew what to expect when it started running. There is no substitute for time spent in the field observing and photographing your subjects.
  • I had to be able to track the subject in the autofocus sensor and pan along with its movement perpendicular to my position.
  • I had to have confidence in my gear and the settings choices I made.
  • I had to use burst-fire (continuous shooting). Why? There are only a few in-flight poses that are really pleasing. Shooting multiple frames with a short opportunity like this gives you a better chance of nailing a “keeper”.


What are the key aspects that make this photo work?

1. A clean and uncluttered background – achieved by correct vehicle placement and opening up the aperture nice and wide;

2. Pleasing wing position showing the primaries;

3. Pleasing head angle and flight angle towards the viewing pane;

4. Soft overcast light enhancing plumage detail.

Birds are often deemed as more exciting to photograph than mammals because they are more likely to do something interesting more often. Many bird species provide hours of frustration as you get it wrong or you wait for them to take off and a few glimpses of absolute glee when they do and you nail it. There are quite a few places in cities, towns and rural areas where decent bird photography is possible. Explore your local area and find a spot that rocks!

Keep on clicking!

Morkel Erasmus


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Comments 8

  1. Johan Jooste

    Morkel, what is your technique to keep the bird in focus? What focus mode do you use? This is an excellent shot and a reward for your patience and understanding of the situation. Congratulations!

    1. Morkel Erasmus

      Hi Johan.
      For fast action, including birds-in-flight, I always advise that you use your continuous focus mode. On Canon it’s AI-SERVO and on Nikon it’s AF-C. This ensures that focus tracking is continuous, you can then set the tolerance in your camera’s menu settings – ie you can set how sensitive it must be for changes in contrast and how long it must keep focus if there’s a momentary loss of visual contact with your subject. I normally use the focus mode which allows you to set a single focus point but give the camera freedom to jump to any of the immediate surrounding AF points if your panning is perhaps too slow.
      Hope this helps?

  2. Carol Bell

    Hi Morkel…Again thanks for the tips. I agree with you so much on spending time with birds. When I lived in Tanzania I spent 4 months studying and photographing a breading pair of Martial Eagles. In the end I could follow them with my camera when they brought food to the nest. My photos are not good as it was my first camera and I did not know what I was doing (used a rock for a tripod) However I do have a series photos of the Eagle on the nest chalanging a baboon. Do you think anyone would like to see them? The Eagle won the battle.

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      Morkel Erasmus

      Hi Carol. Thanks for your comment.
      I am sure many would like to see those photos – you are welcome to send them to us via email so we can perhaps post them as a sequence on the Wild Eye Facebook page…

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  3. Cindy

    Great shot, Morkel! I have found secretary birds very hard to photograph. They seem to start walking away if you get anywhere near them 🙂 but this image is wonderful.

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