Canon 1DX Mark II and the Burrowing Owl, Part 2: Bird-in-flight

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After spending three weekends photographing the burrowing owls, I flew to Colorado hoping to photograph some mountain goats. Things got a bit out of hand when I woke up at 5am at home on a Friday to pack, then went to work from 8 to 4, took 3 hours to drive through traffic to LAX after work, arrived at Denver at 1am, waited an hour for the luggage, rented a car and made it to Idaho Springs at 3:30am, got changed and headed straight to Mount Evans at 4am. When I arrived at the 14,000 feet summit, I had a severe headache, nasal congestion, and was exhausted. I barely made it to a small pull-out at the edge of a cliff, turned off the car and fell asleep right away. I dreamed about some weird stuff which woke me up. When I opened my eyes, I forgot that I was parked at a cliff, and  I thought the car was moving forward and that I was gonna fall off the cliff. Holding the steering wheel tight, I braced myself, pushed my feet all the way and closed my eyes. Only until a second later did I realize the car was actually parked. Even then my heart was jumping at a rate it's ready to jump out. 

Then I looked around and saw ten photographers near me, and learned that the mountain goats were just right next to me while I was in my 3-hour deep sleep, but they had all left. I never saw any wildlife again that day. (My Colorado trip report will be the next blog post)

Mountain goat kids, Mount Evans, Colorado. On the 4th morning of my trip. Canon 1DX Mark II, 100-400mm, f/8, 1/1600s, ISO 400, handheld.

Anyhow, let's get back to the topic. It's my favorite topic - Birds in flight (BIF). ​

But first of all, have you read the book "Zero to One" by Peter Thiel? If not, here's a YouTube video for a quick summary. It's one of the best books ever written.​

The reason I mentioned Zero to One is because I feel that the Canon 1DX Mark II enabled me "Zero to One" in shot-making with its Auto Focus capability, specifically in BIF.

Hello, sorry to interrupt. But starting this Friday, I will send out a weekly email newsletter to update the subscribers all the blog posts I wrote during that week, new photos and techniques, and trip reports. That's the only way I can keep you updated so please sign up here (My next posts will be on the ISO performance of 1DX Mark II and the trip report of mountain goats):

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Tin Man Lee
Wildlife Photographer

Some time ago, I wrote a post just to sing praise to BIF.​

BIF is not just another branch of photography for a special interest group. It's actually the holy grail of ... well, evolution if I may say.

We humans have always dreamed to fly. We created comic book characters such as the Iron Man, or someone with a pair of wings in X-Men. We invented airplanes. Now even human-carrying drones.

Yet these birds, our feathered wild brothers and sisters, have evolved for millions of years and are able to flap their wings and soar to the sky, on their own. And they all fly in different ways. 

Some, such as the albatross, doesn't even need to flap their wings and could glide for hundreds of miles. Only until recently have people discovered the "dynamic soaring" of wandering albatross.  

And the silent flight of owls is still under active research. Some of the bird flights are so quick and erratic that no camera autofocus was able to keep up with. Recently, a professor investigating owl flight approached me for some of my barn owl photos to help with their research.

So in a way, if we can capture photos of some of the most difficult flights of these elusive birds perfectly and artistically, sometimes in low light, we are in a way triumphant in our evolution of combining camera technology with creativity to catch up on the evolution of flight. Suddenly, BIF feels so meaningful.

Note the word "Artistically". We BIF photographers don't just want a sharp picture of a bird flying. There are a few unspoken rules:

First and foremost, no baiting. Read my blog on this topic:

Eyes critically sharp: One of the most important criteria of BIF photography is that the eye or the eyes of the bird must be critically sharp. Even if the pose is perfect and background is stunning, if the eyes are not critically sharp, we have to toss the photos away because the picture would lose its soul. The only solution? Try again. I also need to put my act together to write a program to recover out-of-focus blur pictures. After all, my graduate thesis was on image deblurring and denoising... But that may take years, if ever.

Non-sky background: Beginners point their camera up and photograph the birds flying in the sky. Those shots usually suck unless the flight pose is spectacular or the species is rare.  Serious BIF photographers photograph birds where we are in eye-level with them with a background that's not sky.

Any non-sky background is usually much closer to the bird than the sky, and could be varying in distance, color and pattern. We call these non-sky-varying-background. Focusing a bird in non-sky-varying-background is the real test for the auto focus system of the camera because the the camera could easily focus onto the background by mistake if you can't keep the tiny focusing point on the bird. The result is a blurred picture of a bird with a sharp background---the most painful phrase for a BIF photographer.

Taking pictures of birds (well most birds except owls, falcons, hawks, puffins, woodpeckers and swallows, for example) in clear sky is no challenge. Canon 1DX or 1D Mark IV can handle most of these situations. You may say "How can it be possible to photograph birds flying in eye level?" 

​"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
- John F Kennedy

​Same thing to BIF. We don't want the easy stuff.

Flying sideway or towards you: Trust me, no photographers set out to photograph birds flying away because it's just not engaging. We always want the birds to be flying sideway, or towards us, preferably with eye contact, in good head angle and wing pose. So we have to know the direction of the wind, and the behavior of the bird really well to get ourselves in the right position. And we still face lot of failures. Some of us may have seen pictures with birds flying away that won awards. Those, to me, are usually lucky breaks. I bet it's not the original intention of the photographers. They may say it expresses the poignant feeling inside them. But I question this thought.  It may just be a way to game the system if certain contest wants their winning shots to be controversial. Or maybe the photographer really loved his or her shots that way. Different strokes. 

Incoming non-sky varying background: This is the most difficult kind of bird photography because it really pushes the AF system of the camera. When the bird is flying sideway, the panning of the lens following the flight path could help the AF and give the camera time to track. But when the bird is flying towards you, head on, there is no panning, there is no time you can give the AF system to get ready.  ​

Three years ago, when I was photographing some wild barn owls in Central California, I happened to have both the 1D Mark IV and 1DX. Since the owls were pretty far away, I attached the 600mm F/4II with the 1DX with a 2X III Teleconverter, a no-no for birds in flight photography but I didn't really care. I also attached the lens to the 1D Mark IV with a 1.4X III teleconverter. In similar scenario, when the owl was flying towards me in a varying background, the 1D Mark IV with 1.4X constantly lost focus, while 1DX with the 2X was way more reliable.  But from time to time, 1DX still failed. Some were saying that the AF system relied on contrast so it failed when the scene had low contrast. Some suggested the AF system should rely on color. I don't know.

Canon 1DX, 2X teleconverter, barn owl, Central California, wild, not baited, not called.

Fast forward to now, the difference between 1DX and 1DX Mark II was as significant if not more. ​It's not just a Mark 1 to Mark 2 kind of improvement. I suspect they have changed their whole algorithm in auto focus tracking.

Pre-focus: In the situation of varying background incoming flight, you have to ​first pre-focus on something that has similar distance as to where you plan to photograph the bird.

For example, if you feel that the bird looks the best with the background when he/she is 50 feet from you, and you also see a rock near that distance, you can first focus on that rock (before the bird gets there), and release your finger from the AF button. Then when the bird is flying towards that point, you just move the lens to follow the bird and keep them in the viewfinder. They may look blurry but it's ok because they are not yet in the sweet spot to be photographed. And during the moment when the bird is in the 50-feet range, you engage the AF, and fire away. This way the focused distance wouldn't be too far away from the actual distance between the bird and the camera, and it would be much faster to focus than from infinity or the closest focusing distance. 

Focus-hunting: If you have tried birds in flight, you'd know the feeling. The bird is flying closer and closer to you. So close that it's almost the perfect distance to have them large in the frame but not so large to clip the wing, yet not too small so the details is perfectly revealed. But there's one problem. As you finger delicately half press (or back focus) on the shutter while your left hand masterfully fine tune the lens so the focusing point is trying to align with the head of the flying bird, you notice that the focus is still not locked, it's still hunting, moving desperately to snap onto the bird. But there's not enough time left.

Should you fully press the shutter to start taking the shot? But every shots may come out blurry. Or do you wait a little longer to allow the camera to be 100% sure to lock on to the bird? But by then you would lose the golden window to capture the shot because the birds would have passed you and be in a flying away pose. How much lag time between the camera locks on focus and the time you press on the shutter to start taking pictures is an art. The ultimate of bird in flight photography. You can feel it. Because even in the viewfinder the bird was still not locked by the AF focus. But you knew. With many trial and errors. You knew.

It's about about the feeling of your finger on the machine. Like when you are playing the Paganini caprice on your violin. The time when your finger press on the specific location on the string and when you move the bow has to have no lag.​ It's an art form. It's hard to describe because you almost had to use the feeling on the tip of your thumb to feel the electronics of the camera.

Even if you have pre-focused​, things can still go wrong. When the bird is still in the viewfinder, and when the distance is getting closer, you half press the shutter button or press the rear focusing button, there is a chance that the AF guesses wrong and the focus move to the wrong direction. Instead of waiting for the AF to reach the infinity and comes all the way back, sometimes you have to immediately release the AF button, and tap on it again and hope that the focus would search in the right direction. From the prefocus point, you have to ask yourself: is the camera closing the gap of the focus distance or actually enlarging it (hunting)? If it's going away, it has to go all the way to infinity and then triggers a mechanism to focus back to the closest focusing distance. And it takes an eternity. Not only will the bird be gone, the world would have come to an end.

And for some reason, the Canon 1DX Mark II snaps on the perfect focus even when I felt I couldn't lock it in time. I was sure I would have missed those shots if I was using the 1DX based on my 4 years of using it.

Birds taking off from a perch: If you have years of experience as a birder, you can observe the behavior of the bird, to see whether he's looking left or right, getting annoyed, changing the grip on the perch, or pooped. You would pay attention to the direction of the wind, and pick up your lens right before he took flight. But chances are, the bird was just messing with you. No one can keep holding the lens up forever, so people use Wimberley head and tripod to support the lens. For me, these days, I sometimes would just put a cloth above the tripod ball head so I can rest the back of my hand on, while hand holding the lens pointing at the bird. Because when the bird takes flight, the flight path is so sudden and quick that most tripod head couldn't provide the fluidity to follow. For me, I just swing the lens following the flight and it instantly become a handholding pose from resting on tripod. Some people suggested prefocus on the perch and set manual focus. Someone suggested 1/4000s. I used to be only able to get a shot or at most two of the birds after they took off. But with the 1DX Mark II, I consistently got double that amount. 

The parent burrowing owl  (wild, not baited, not called) took off to look for food for his babies, at the last few minutes of sunrise when the light was the most saturated and lit up the background. Canon 1DX, 600mm F/4, f/4, 1/2000s, ISO 1600. Canon 1DX still did great though it only got 3 sharp shots out of 10. That's one week prior to my purchase of the 1DX Mark II.

A note on pan blur: Don't get me wrong. Pan blur is beautiful. It means using slow shutter speed, say 1/15s, and follow the flight path of the bird. It only works when the bird is flying parallel to you. When it works, everything is blurry except the eye of the bird, and due to slow exposure, sometimes you see the interesting movement of the wings, and the distracting background would be all smoothed out. I would try pan blur from time to time, but usually its when the light is so dim that the critically sharp picture can't be taken. My interest is still about "nailing" the most dramatic flight pose that's not visible to human eyes because its too quick.

Incoming and Landing: The ultimate test is incoming flight in varying non-sky background near full frame. Because the shutter speed cannot be assisted by your panning the lens along the flight of the bird if the bird was flying sideway.This is where 1DX Mark II shines. The first time I tried that, I was sure I missed all the shots, 0 out of 10 was my guess from the experience of using 1dx for 5 years. But when reviewing the pictures, many were actually sharp-- and I mean the eyes of the bird were critically sharp! It used to be a complete blur in every single pic, now none of them were blurry with many keepers of critical sharpness. My jaw dropped when viewing the photos.​

Burrowing owl, California. Wild, not baited, not called. Canon 1DX Mark II, 100-400mm, f/8, 1/2500s, ISO 1600, handheld.

Canon 1DX Mark II, 100-400mm, f/6.3, 1/2500s, ISO 1600, handheld

Canon 1DX Mark II, 100-400mm, f/8, 1/2000s, ISO 1600

Backlit: Backlight BIF can be the most challenging because when you can be completely blinded by the sun when the light shined onto the viewfinder. But the 1DX Mark II delivered effortlessly.

1DX Mark II, f/5.6, 1/2000s, ISO 1600, 600mm F/4, handheld

An exact quantitative analysis is not the goal of this post and I don't have interest in it. But after catching my first few sequences of incoming and landing flight shots of the burrowing owls, I was in disbelief. I immediately texted​ many of my close friends, "Mark II is 10 times better in AF!"

I don't even know how I came with 10, but it was mind blowing because it allowed me to get many more keepers than ZERO sharp pic before. From zero to one, that's infinitely better. So I was quite conservative.

I send out a weekly free email newsletter to update the subscribers all the blog posts I wrote during that week, new techniques I have found, and trip reports. That's the only way I can keep you updated so please sign up here (My next posts will be on the ISO performance of 1DX Mark II and the trip report of mountain goats):

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  1. Kent Downing on July 1, 2016 at 1:20 am

    Hi Tin Man,
    What a great story, Thanks so much for sharing your story and images of the wonderful attributes of 1DX II. The 1DX was such a fine camera, and it’s difficult to read that it has been so vastly improved. Thanks for writing such a detailed blog. I look forward to your next posting about Mt Evans, Colorado too. I attempted the same with a good friend (whom you know) last year, only to find that the summit road was closed due to a winter avalanche. Bummer ! We will revisit there another year though. Thanks for the great writing. Cheers Kent

    • Tin Man Lee on July 1, 2016 at 11:58 am

      Hi Kent, I just learned about the road closing of last year during my trip last weekend! It’s a lot tougher for me in this trip. Maybe I just got weaker. The first 3 days had almost no sightings, and things picked up late on the 3rd evening and the 4th and last morning. You will probably get a good smile from my trip report soon. Yes, get the Mark II!

  2. Yen Tran on July 21, 2016 at 11:13 pm

    You are such a talented person. Your photography is stunning and expressive. Every one of my friends who does photography mentions your name! Thanks for sharing.

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