In the last few months I’ve been stalking all sorts of birds, in the garden, out and about, and indeed in my travels. Up to now I’ve been settling for common birds that are ready at hand, easy to find and relatively accustomed to the human presence. I find the practice interesting and challenging, particularly catching small birds in flight, they are extremely fast and utterly unpredictable.

Inviting them home for dinner with a well stocked bird feeder is certainly a way to convince them to pose for an extended period of time, but I’m truly fascinated by their flight, the immense agility of their wing expanding and contracting as they twist.

I tried several approaches to get them at the right time, some more effective than others. Over time few core principles seem to emerge and return desirable outcomes.

Prepare

Select the right gear, I love my Nikon 300mm f/4E. I also use either the TC14 or TC17 to gain a vantage point hidden away and allow birds to behave as naturally as possible. Deciding what should be in the frame and where is also an important consideration, how will the environment contribute to provide contrast and background. Finally having some ideas on what kind of movement to capture might be useful to complete the composition.

Observe

Getting a sense of the pattern of behaviours each bird uses to engage with the environment. This is the most important factor as it will enable to refine preparation. I often sit close by the window and watch any recurring pattern.

Focus

It is almost impossible to focus on such a small and speedy type of birds, at least while they are flying. The best option is to set the lens to focus on the spot and distance I’m expecting to catch them in. It is also important to become aware of what else is around to evaluate potential elements that might interfere with behavioural patterns or visibility or even light. I’m convinced our lovely dog Pip thinks I’m hunting them and she is always ready to help by running after them in the back yard usually spoiling my stake out.

Wait

When undisturbed, these little birds tend to take it easy and lounge on the feeders making the most of the easy food. Like in the kitkat ad. the moment I decide to blink and lower the focus it is very likely they will decide to take off. So it is important to breathe nice and slowly and be ready to tap the shutter button, my Nikon D7000 can shoot 7 frames per seconds but has a very small buffer, besides the critical frames are the first 4 or 5 by then the bird might be already out of the picture.

I repeated this very simple process during a short visit at the Rock Cut state park on the way to Chicago Airport, my subject this time where extremely fast Barn Swallows nested under a steel and wood bridge. It was fascinating to observe them fly in and out at regular intervals. I’ve stalked them for a good 40 minutes, unfortunately this time I only had my old Nikon 18-300.

The more I observed the swallows the more I began to realise my eye/hand coordination improved and increased responsiveness. it was only then it occurred to me that at the essence of capitalizing on fast change is the ability to maintain composure, observe how change is unfolding, focus on what truly matters and be ready to spring into action at the most critical moment.

There is no use in chasing change, running after it like we would in fear to loose the train. Fear always causes us to lose perspective and become rigid and hold onto the past. Developing the “bird photographer” soft focus that takes everything in all at once, brings time to a slow motion. This kind of focus allows us to become more sensitive to the most subtle and meaningful changes that are relevant to us and to what we stand for.

This is the type of focus that matter.