Crane is a graceful creature that captures my imagination. Each winter, I take several trips to Jasper Pulaski Wild Life Refuge in Indiana where tens of thousands of cranes congregate in the area during winter migration. They take off at dawn and return at dusk. One can hear them from a couple of miles away. The sight of thousands of cranes taking off at the same time always keep my heart pounding.
The first attempt of photographing bird in flight is to freeze the motion with high shutter speed of at least 1/500 second. But I want a different effect to reveal a sense of motion. My answer is to photograph the bird with a slower shutter speed. How slow? It depends on how fast the bird moves. After many attempts, I found that a shutter speed somewhere close to 1/20 second is ideal for a large bird like a crane. At this shutter speed, the wings will be blurry to the extent that shows movement, but not too slow that becomes a featureless smear. Photographing bird in flight with slow shutter speed is harder than it seems. The challenge is to keep the other parts of body, especially the head, relatively clear. Otherwise, the whole image will look like an out of focus waste. This requires a steady camera support, good panning technique, a lot of practice, and even more luck.
I have my camera supported with a Wimberly Sidekick, which allows me to pan smoothly. The camera is set to continuous focus, and I start to lock on the object, preferably the head, a couple of seconds before I pull the trigger. After a sequence of high speed burst is over, I still follow through with a continuing panning motion. Even so, 90% of the images are total waste that will be deleted immediately after I transfer them to the computer. But when I am lucky, there will be one that captures my imagination.