Conventional wisdom is that autofocus is the best mode to use for photographing birds, especially when your subjects are in flight. But every so often manual focus is a better choice, as you’ll see in the tutorial below.
Sean Leahy calls himself an amateur, even though his imagery meets a high standard. He’s been photographing birds most of his life, and he has a knack for sharing his favorite techniques with those interested in this type of photography.
In this behind-the-scenes episode from Southern Connecticut, Leahy is photographing Barn Swallows in flight. As he explains, these small, erratically flying birds can be very difficult to photograph. In this specific situation, autofocus simply isn’t effective, and he explains why, when, and how to use manual focus to get sharp results.
Leahy admits that he almost exclusively uses autofocus to photograph birds. What makes this situation different is that he’s shooting in a field with a thick grove of dark green trees in the background. As a result, the AF system in his pro-quality DSLR won’t consistently acquire focus on the blue-and-brown birds flying in front of the dark trees.
One of the reasons Leahy bought his powerful Sigma 150-600mm telephoto zoom is that it has a an oversized focus ring that’s perfect for those times when focusing manually is the best (or only) option. With the sun as his back, Leahy carefully levels his tripod, and demonstrates his manual focus technique.
Leahy notes that a tripod is absolutely essential for this particular method, because shooting handheld is simply impossible when focusing manually while panning with a super-telephoto lens. Even with this approach, Leahy finds himself struggling with the unique conditions of this shoot.
Nonetheless, there’s plenty of good advice here that will prepare you for the next time you find yourself in a similar situation. Be sure to check out Leahy’s YouTube channel for more bird photography tips.