Tips for Photographing Birds in Flight

Tips for Photographing Birds in Flight

birds in flight

This article introduces some key concepts for photographing birds in flight.

One of the most necessary ingredients is patience; you may often photograph an entire day and not get a single usable image. In most cases, there is some luck involved – you have to be in the right place at the right time, after all!

But hopefully, this article will give you the tools you need to improve your luck and capture stunning birds in flight photos.

heron in flight

Choosing a location

Let’s begin with how to choose the best location for your birds in flight shoot.

Near rivers or lakes is a great place to set up, because of the abundant food sources for the birds. Find a position on a hill that will put you at eye level with the birds.

And check out the position of the sun, because you should not be shooting into it. Light coming from behind you or from the left or the right of your position is preferred.

Also, birds will generally take off and land into the wind, so knowing the wind direction of your location will help you predict the flight direction of the birds you are photographing.

canada gees in flight

Lighting

Good lighting plays a key role in successful birds in flight photography.

As with any other kind of outdoor photography, the golden light of morning and evening is best. However, because you are shooting birds in the sky, these times can be extended and you’ll still get nice lighting on your subject.

Make yourself invisible

Some birds will not venture near humans, so you need to make yourself as invisible as possible. 

In some cases, this might be as simple as not wearing brightly-colored clothing. However, avid bird photographers may also want to set up some kind of blind. Blinds can be purchased inexpensively from most hunting stores.

Also, sitting down will make you less noticeable to the birds than if you are standing.

Study your subject

Study the birds you enjoy photographing to learn their habits.

How does this help?

Knowing the birds can help you predict their movements. For instance, many birds, especially the larger species like herons or eagles, will relieve themselves just before they fly. Knowing this can help you be ready to shoot just before your subject takes off.

flying heron in fall

Lens

Choosing a good lens for birds in flight photography can be a challenge. I recommend you use the fastest and longest lens you can afford.

For your best chance at a great shot, you’ll need at least a 300mm lens, but a 500mm to 600mm prime lens is preferable.

(Unfortunately, these lenses don’t come cheap!)

Tripods

A great tripod head for birds in flight, especially if you’re using a large lens, is a gimbal head. It balances your camera and lens while requiring very little force to pan left and right or up and down.

A less expensive option is a pan head, which also allows for movement in all directions on two different axes. And while ball heads can be used for birds in flight photography, they’re not a very stable solution for large lenses.

sparrows

Exposure

When setting up your camera to shoot birds in flight, keep in mind how the exposure triangle of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO plays an important part in getting the perfect exposure.

  • Shutter speed – You need your shutter speed to be fast enough to freeze the bird’s wings in your photo. While small birds’ wings may flap at approximately 40 beats per second, larger birds, like herons and eagles, flap around 2 beats per second. Many species of duck are fairly fast flappers, at around 5 to 10 beats per second. So the question remains: How fast should you set your shutter speed to freeze wing motion? Go for at least 1/1000s to 1/2000s. Even faster is better, if possible!
  • Aperture – In order to gain as much depth of field as possible, you should use the smallest aperture you can afford. Select your f-stop (the aperture number) based on your lens’s sweet spot (where your lens focuses most clearly), which is probably around f/8.
  • ISO – You want to keep your ISO setting as low as possible to avoid digital noise (graininess) in your photos, although most modern camera models do a decent job with higher ISOs.
heron as a bird in flight

So how do you bring all three elements of your exposure triangle together to get the best exposure? You may consider simply using your camera’s Shutter Priority mode, in which you set the shutter speed and the camera sets the aperture (and ISO on some models).

However, I recommend you try this alternative method:

  1. Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode
  2. Set your aperture to f/8 (the sweet spot) to get the sharpest-possible images
  3. Using your camera’s light meter, check the exposure of the scene where you hope to photograph your birds in flight. You will probably find that some areas of the scene are darker than others.
  4. Using the exposure reading you get from the darkest areas of the scene, adjust your ISO to bring your shutter speed up to at least 1/1000s. It follows that when your bird flies by and you are panning your camera into a lighter area, your shutter speed will increase to above 1/1000, and when your subject is in the darker areas, your exposure will still be appropriate.

Now, here’s one final step to tweak your exposure:

Have you ever noticed how, when photographing birds in flight, your image will seem dark and be missing details, especially in dark feathers? To bring out more detail in dark areas, change your EV (exposure compensation) setting to +0.3. This will add a little more light (though depending on the lighting, you may need to add a bit more exposure compensation).

On the other hand, what if you are photographing a white bird, such as a swan? The white bird’s image will tend to get “blown out,” so that you’re missing detail in the whites. To compensate, adjust your EV value to -1.0 to -2.0. This will pick up the detail in those white-feathered birds. (If you are thinking that your background will be underexposed, you’d be right – but you are photographing the swan, not the background!)

Focusing

To keep your flying bird in focus, set your camera’s focusing mode to continuous focus.

In this mode, as long as you have the shutter button depressed halfway and are focused on the bird, the camera will continuously acquire focus as the bird moves. Canon calls this function “Al Servo,” while Nikon calls it “Continuous Servo” or “AF-C.”

Also, both Nikon and Canon will allow you to expand your AF points so that your camera can identify moving subjects at adjacent points (which will help you keep your moving subject in focus).

Nikon also offers two AF area modes that can work for birds in flight:

The 51-point Dynamic Area AF and the 3D Tracking area mode.

Both of these AF area modes will search at all 51 AF points for the movement of your subject, although these modes can be a little too slow when focusing in some situations.

bald eagle flying over nest

Composition

Composition can be the most difficult aspect of photographing birds in flight.

But all the basic rules of composition remain valid here. You always want to have more space in front of the bird than behind it; a good rule is to have a least two to three times the space in front of the bird.

One thing that helps maintain this space is to place your focus point in the center of the frame and try to keep it on the bird’s eye. This method works really well on large-beaked birds, such as herons.

Also, while most birds in flight images include just one bird, look for those occasions where you can capture two or three birds at once (for a great result!).

gull flying in snow

Technique

As the bird is flying toward you, quickly get your focus locked.

Then, when the bird is close and in a position you like, fire away. Keep panning even after you’ve stopped shooting. This follow-through motion will keep your last image in focus better than an abrupt stop.

When panning as the bird flies by, you want to match your panning speed to that of the bird. And depending on your shutter speed, this will help keep the bird in focus while the background may be blurred.

You want to keep the bird’s eye in focus and sharp; this is key. If you are handholding your camera, try to keep your left hand under the barrel of your lens and your elbows close to your body, as this will help you maneuver the camera as steadily as possible. If you are standing, keep your legs spread out to create a good sturdy base.

If you are planning to hold your location and position for a time, I recommend using a tripod. This will help keep your camera steady, especially if you are using a very heavy lens.

birds in flight duck

So stay alert and look for opportunities to capture great birds in flight images. It will take lots of practice to get that perfect shot.

But once you get it right, you will be hooked!

Also, if you’re interested in more bird photography tips, check out these articles:

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