Selecting a Frame Rate When Photographing Birds in Motion

As regular readers will know, for the past several months I have been focused on photographing birds as part of my field work for an upcoming eBook on hand-held bird photography. Part of that field work has involved experimenting with various frame rates when photographing birds in motion. This, in turn, has been generating a good number of personal emails from readers asking about ‘the best’ frame rate to use. This article discusses some of the considerations when selecting a frame rate when photographing birds in motion.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-1000, captured at 60 frames per second

Let me begin this article by stating that the answer to the question about what frame rate to choose depends on a number of interdependent factors. There is no single ‘best’ frame rate to use on a universal basis.

Camera Auto-Focus Performance
When it comes to auto-focus performance, cameras are not created equal. Many folks concentrate on sensor size and related performance measurements such as dynamic range, colour depth and low light performance when buying gear. While important, sensor size and performance is only part of the story and may not be the most important factor to consider when it comes to photographing birds in motion.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/8000, ISO-4000, captured at 15 frames per second

For example, about three years ago, after selling my Nikon D800 and F-mount lenses, I had a brief flirtation with M4/3 through buying a Panasonic GH4 and some ‘pro’ Panasonic f/2.8 zoom lenses. My flirtation shooting with M4/3 gear didn’t last long for a number of reasons. One of the most significant of which was the comparatively poor auto-focus performance of the Panasonic GH4 when compared to my Nikon 1 V2. The GH4 was simply frustrating to use because of the high number of photographs of perched birds that I was missing due to its weak auto-focus performance, especially in lower light conditions.

Frame 10, Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/6.3, 1/1600, ISO-280, captured at 20 frames per second

In an earlier article I made note of the auto-focus performance differences between the Nikon 1 V2 and V3 cameras, especially under lower light conditions. My judgement was that the V2 was the superior camera of the two in terms of both acquiring focus quickly, and holding it more consistently throughout an AF-C run when photographing birds-in-flight.

The key takeaway from this consideration is the importance of understanding the capabilities of your camera gear, both its strengths and weaknesses when it comes to auto-focus performance. Obviously this has a direct impact on the frame rate that one chooses to use when photographing birds in motion. For example if you know that your camera acquires focus quicker and holds it better at 10 frames per second than it does at 20 frames per second, you’ll likely choose the slower frame rate more frequently as you’ll have a better chance of getting more usable images.

Frame Rate Availability Provided by the Camera
Whether you use a DSLR, an interchangeable lens mirrorless camera, or a fixed lens bridge camera, your make and model of camera will come with its own frame rate capabilities. It is critical to understand the capabilities offered by your specific camera and experiment with how best to utilize them. Combining your knowledge of frame rates and auto-focus performance will allow you to determine where and when to use your camera gear to its best effect.

For example, the image below captures a Great Blue Heron fishing, with its catch seen in mid-air inside its mouth. This photograph was no accident or lucky capture.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 192 mm, efov 519 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-560, captured at 60 frames per second

I shot this particular photograph at a frame rate of 60 frames per second, specifically to capture the bird doing this behaviour. I learned from earlier frame rate experiments that it is actually quite common for a Great Blue Heron to adjust its hold on a fish by doing slight tosses like this one.

In fact, this particular heron tossed its catch twice during the same 40 image run that lasted only 2/3 of a second. It only took 5 frames to show the heron opening its beak, tossing the fish, then closing its beak again. At 60 frames-per-second that’s only 1/12th of a second and would make the action barely perceptible to the human eye.

Knowing the particular strengths of your camera gear allows you to capture images that other people who use different gear may not be able to replicate. Here is the second toss which occurred 23 frames later in the run…

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 192 mm, efov 519 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-560, captured at 60 frames per second

When shooting at 60 frames-per-second with Nikon 1 gear, the first image locks the focus for the balance of the run that follows. I had no hesitation using this fast frame rate and filling my buffer from an auto-focus standpoint since my subject bird was not moving quickly away from, or closer to, my camera. Knowing that it is possible to replicate this type of image on a consistent basis allows a photographer to pursue image opportunities that may not even be recognized by other people. Again, understanding the capabilities of our camera gear is critical.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 162 mm, efov 437 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-1400, captured at 60 frames per second

In situations where a bird is flying directly at me, I still may shoot at 60 frames-per-second. An example is the image above of a gull with a fish in its beak. The difference is I will only take a very short burst of images rather than letting my buffer fill as I know the bird will go out of focus as it continues to approach me. The photograph above was the 6th frame in a run of 14 images. The gull was starting to go out of focus by about the 11th frame.

It doesn’t matter which camera make and model you choose – buy what best suits your specific photographic needs. The most important things to understand are the frame rates your camera offers and how effective your camera’s auto-focus is at those various frame rates…then use its capabilities in specific situations where you can best leverage its strengths.

Camera Buffer Size and Clearing Speed
If your camera has a deep buffer that clears quickly you will have the luxury of using the fastest frame rate your camera has available with little fear of the buffer filling before you have finished shooting your image run. If, on the other hand, your camera has a very shallow buffer you will likely be more discerning in terms of the timing of your shutter release.

For example, a number of years ago I shot with a Nikon D7000. This camera was capable of shooting at 6 frames-per-second in full auto-focus. The buffer was limited to 15 RAW images which meant I would fill the buffer capacity in 2.5 seconds. By comparison my Nikon 1 V3 can shoot in full auto focus at 10 frames-per-second and has a buffer capacity of 40 RAW images. I can shoot 1.5 seconds longer with my AF-C burst and capture 166% more images before the buffer in the V3 fills when compared to the D7000 that I shot with in the past. This means I can start an AF-C run earlier and hold it longer when shooting with my Nikon 1 V3, than I could when shooting with a Nikon D7000.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 201 mm, efov 543 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-250, captured at 15 frames per second

I appreciate that we all want to get the best value for our money when buying camera gear and accessories. If you plan on photographing birds in motionĀ  one of the things that you shouldn’t do is buy inexpensive memory cards that have slow write speeds.

Think of it as pre-buying some frustration if you make that choice. If you choose to use slow writing cards, there’s no doubt at some point you will miss some photographs of birds in motion because your card hasn’t cleared in time.

This is the primary reason that I use different cards in my Nikon 1 J5 bodies compared to my Nikon 1 V3 bodies. Since I very seldom shoot AF-C bursts with my J5 bodies I use 32 GB SanDisk Extreme micro SD cards in them. I use 32 GB SanDisk Extreme PLUS micro SD cards in my V3s since these cards have a maximum write speed 50% faster than the Extreme cards do.

When faced with a camera with a shallow buffer that clears slowly, people will typically use a slower frame rate so they don’t fill their buffer too quickly and miss other potential image opportunities.

Size and Behaviour of the Subject Bird
If you are photographing large, slower moving birds you can likely shoot using single frames and still get a good selection of different wing positions etc. in your images. For example, the photograph below of a Great Blue Heron with a catfish in its mouth was one of a number of single frame captures that I took. There was no point in shooting at a fast frame rate as the bird was sauntering in front of me, giving me plenty of time to compose and take my images. Plus, I didn’t want to fill up my buffer needlessly in case other birds in the area presented more photographic opportunities.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-720, single frame capture

In many cases using single frame captures of large slower flying birds such as pelicans, yields a better selection of wing positions. This can be especially true when a camera has a shallow buffer.

The speed and direction of the subject bird is also an important consideration. Most cameras will struggle, at least to some degree, achieving good, consistent continuous auto-focus on a bird that is flying directly at it. Generally speaking a slower frame rate would be used in these situations.

When photographing smaller birds with faster wing movements a faster frame rate would typically be used, except where the impact of rhythmic motion is a problem.

The Potential Impact of Rhythmic Motion
One of my earlier articles discussed the potential impact of rhythmic motion and frame rate and how we may not get as many different wing positions as we expect when shooting at faster frame rates. This happens when the wing beat speed of a bird is similar to the frame rate speed of our camera.

The results that come from photographing specific bird behaviours at different frame rates really comes down to experimentation and experience. For example, I used a 60 frame-per-second rate when I captured the image below of a duck in the water beating its wings. This yielded a repeating wing position every 10 frames.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1250, ISO-800, captured at 60 frames per second

In the series of images of a Great Blue Heron flying photographed at 60 frames per second, a repeating wing position occurred every 23 frames.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 204 mm, efov 551 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-640, captured at 60 frames per second

The hummingbird shown in the photograph below was also captured at 60 frames-per-second which yielded a repeating wing position every 5th or 6th frame.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-1250, captured at 60 frames per second

While it is easy to assume that a faster frame rate will generate a wider selection of wing positions in a run of images, this is not necessarily the case.

Some photographers find that their cameras only offer a limited selection of frame rates and when shooting a particular species in flight the resulting AF-C run yields almost identical wing positions in each frame. This is the ultimate negative result of a bird’s rhythmic wing motion and the camera’s frame rate being unintentionally synchronized. In this situation all a photographer can do is revert to taking a quick succession of individual frames, or taking a number of short AF-C bursts rather than just one long run.

Photographer Skill Level
The skill you bring to your camera gear has a direct impact on the frame rate you choose when photographing birds in motion. While using a very fast frame rate such as 60 frames-per-second may be tempting, unless the photographer is able to precisely time their shutter release, using this very fast frame rate may be frustrating and result in many missed image opportunities.

It is important to continually practice eye-hand coordination when tracking and photographing birds in motion to develop a good skill level. If we are unable to effectively track a bird when shooting single frames, there is no point in increasing our frame rate and capturing more poorly composed images that we’ll just have to delete later. After a good level of eye-hand coordination has been achieved, increased frame rate speeds will then have the potential of yielding positive results, and show more varied wing and body positions.

Objective of the Photographer
Generally speaking, the more precise the motion capture desired by the photographer, the more a very fast frame rate will come into play. This is especially true with birds taking off, landing, or fishing/hunting.

Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO-560, captured at 60 frames per second

Hopefully this article has provided some information on factors that can be considered when choosing a frame rate when photographing birds in motion.

Frame 6, Nikon 1 V3 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-360, captured at 20 frames per second

Technical Note:
All photographs were captured hand-held in available light using Nikon 1 gear as per the EXIF data. All images were produced from RAW files using my standard process of DxO PhotoLab, CS6 and the Nik Collection.

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8 thoughts on “Selecting a Frame Rate When Photographing Birds in Motion”

  1. I love your photos of the Great Blue Heron tossing a fish. Small details can make all the difference, and birds are so fast, not only in flight. Once I watched a nuthatch courtship (gift of an insect), and the whole action took little more than 1 second. All I got were three photos. Time to buy into the Nikon1, I thought.

    One small correction. You write: “I use 32 GB SanDisk Extreme PLUS cards in my V3s since these cards have a maximum write speed 50% faster than the Extreme cards do.”

    However, the fastest UHS-I cards are the Sandisk Extreme PRO, they have a write speed about 50% faster than the PLUS. Perhaps you have just confused the model names? Various tests confirm the PRO as the present leader, e.g. this site: https://havecamerawilltravel.com/photographer/fastest-sd-cards/

    Occasionally I experiment with 60fps, motivated by your blog. A fast card matters.

    1. Hi Stephan,

      Thanks for adding to the discussion and providing a link to the ‘fastest SD cards’ article – I think readers will find this of interest. I have made an adjustment to the article, noting that I use micro SD cards in my J5 and V3 cameras, as not to confuse their speeds with SD cards. Your point is well taken, i.e. the fastest SD cards are faster than the fastest micro SD cards. I will be making an addition to my Nikon 1 V3 versus V2 for Birds-in-Flight article, i.e. ‘Card Writing Speed’ as a result of your comment…so thanks again for your input!

      I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the articles. I continue to experiment using 60 frames per second and when photographing birds in flight I now typically go out with a V2 and a V3, each fitted with a 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm zoom. I set my V3 at 60 FPS and my V2 at 15 VFS to start my day. I still change the frame rate on my V3 throughout the day depending on the birds being photographed, shooting angles etc.

      If I was shooting with a pair of V2s or a pair of V3s I would most likely shoot one at 60 FPS consistently throughout the day. The more I use 60 FPS, the more comfortable that I’ve become. For example, two days ago I photographed an osprey rising up from the water after catching a large goldfish. A few moments earlier, as I watched the osprey in flight, it was apparent that it was in fishing mode and would be diving soon. Rather than use my V2 at 15 FPS or change the frame speed on my V3 I took a ‘risk’ and decided to shoot this action at 60 FPS and was glad that I did. I ended up with far more wing positions etc. than would have been possible using a slower frame rate. After I filled the buffer on my V3, I quickly changed cameras so I could continue to capture images of the osprey with its fish. This two camera approach can yield a much better array of usable images, especially when the cameras are used at different frame rates.

      Tom

      1. Hi Tom,

        I’ll probably follow in your footsteps using my two CX70-300 “simultaneously”, on V2 and V3. Both have their talents, and the 15fps / 60fps split might be a good idea.

        My remark about SD cards should have been clearer. I am using the micro version 64 GB Sandisk Extreme Pro. It is just as fast as the normal version, at the same price. If I want to use it in my V2, putting the micro in an SD dummy takes only seconds.

        Stefan

        1. Hi Stefan,

          I haven’t bought any new micro-SD cards for a while now so I’m not up on the latest cards. I’m not sure when the Extreme PRO cards became available. From what I could see on the SanDisk website the Extreme PRO micro SD cards are a bit faster with write speed than the Extreme PLUS ie. 100 B/s compared to 90 MB/s. There is a big difference in transfer speed though!

          At this point I shoot with 20 32GB Sandisk micro SD cards. I’ve never liked using really large cards as it can put more data at risk in the event of a card failure. When on an extended photography tour I do occasionally fill all 20 of my micro-SD cards, which is why I always bring a laptop and a small 2 TB portable hard drive with me just in case!

          Tom

          1. Hi Tom,

            I like your storage strategy. Apparently two 32GB micro cards PRO now cost the same as one 64GB card. That’s nice, some 32GB cards might enter my Christmas list.

            Best,
            Stefan

  2. Sir, when you mentioned “Rhythmic Motion”, it remined me of a story from my dad. In one of the films he made, there was a scene where a man would burst into the frame and fire a machine gun (probably a “grease gun” from WW 1). When such a gun is shot, and you watch it, you will see the muzzle flash. They shot the scene several times (back in the good old days of film), and then were quite surprised when checking the film. The guy came into the scene, fired the gun, and no muzzle flash! By accident, each time the scene was shot, the muzzle flash was always when the shutter was closed. The footage was worthless, and the scene had to be reshot.

    When you mentioned “Photographer Skill Level”, I thought of a fellow co-worker that once showed me some pictures of a race car. He had taken the pictures during one of the races at Daytona. When I looked at them, I noticed that the car was a little blurred looking, and he commented “That is to be expected, as the car was traveling at over 170 MPH.” To which I replied, “Yes. But the road wasn’t moving at all.” Not only was the car blurred, but so was the road. He was moving the camera too quickly when he took the shot. He never did show me any more race car pics.

    1. Hi William,
      Thanks for adding to the discussion. Interesting movie example of what can happen when rhythmic actions are in sync with a shutter. I’ve never photographed race cars before so I have no idea how difficult that type of subject matter is – I’ll need to give that a try one of these days!
      Tom

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