Stack the odds of success in your favour
Sharp frame-filling shots are not guaranteed – but these six steps will give you better odds
Location! Location! Location!
You may chance upon an owl flying over your head, but to maximise your chance to getting a good shot you need to find a location where your chosen species is seen regularly. Spend some time on Google researching locations, and find out where other photographers have had success.
The need for speed
The long lens and the fast-moving subject means you need to use a fast shutter speed, however dull the day. A speed of 1/2000 sec is the bare minimum. But similarly, to ensure the background is as blurred as possible, you should use your lens wide open (that’s f/6.3 on our Sigma 150-500mm).
Locking in on the prey
You need to master the panning technique. You can’t rely on a bird just entering the frame, so a tripod is not a great help. Track the bird smoothly across the sky, and wait for it to get closer and turn to the light. Ideally you want it front- or side-lit, to show the colour and detail of the plumage.
Big is best
You need a long lens. Even though Red Kites have a five-foot wingspan they will be some way from you when they fly past. A lens with an effective focal length of 600mm (600mm on an FX model, or 400mm on a DX SLR) is ideal. We used a Sigma 150-500mm, set to 500mm, on a DX Nikon D300s.
Manual exposure with Auto ISO
Set both the aperture and shutter speed in Manual mode, and then set the ISO to automatic. This means you get the precise settings you need even if the lighting changes suddenly, and the camera adjusts the sensor sensitivity so you don’t have to worry about under- or over-exposure.
Kites move quickly, so you need to make sure the autofocus can keep up! This unpredictability is the perfect scenario for Nikon’s Dynamic Area AF. Use the central AF point, and try to keep this over the bird as you pan – if you can’t keep up, the SLR will switch to another AF point automatically.