Beautiful pin sharp images when photographing birds in flight

Wouldn't you like to take pin sharp images when photographing birds in flight?  Our tips will have you taking flight shots like a pro in no time!

You'll discover the best time of day for photographing birds in flight, focusing techniques, lighting, panning, blurring, composition.

Just pick anything you like the sound of from the tips below, then get out into the field and start shooting!

Beautiful lighting for stunning flight shots

What's the best way to get beautifully lit shots when photographing birds in flight?

It's a question I'm often asked. My answer is simple...

Be there for the golden hours just after sunrise or just before sunset.

  • Beautiful golden lighting will light up the bird.
  • The sun will light the bird’s underside better because it is lower in the sky.

At other times, the underside is often in shadow because the sun is shining from above the bird and you’re shooting from below.

Sure, I still photograph at other times of the day because I'm addicted! But, 90% of the time, the best images are during the golden hours..

Simply because the light is at its most beautiful!

Another great time is when there’s snow on the ground. The light reflects off the snow and lights the underside even better.

Use continuous focus for pin sharp images

Do you often getting blurred shots when photographing birds in flight?

It could be that you're not using your cameras continuous focus system. It was made to track moving subjects - perfect for birds in flight!

You'll get pin sharp images more often by using your cameras continuous focus system to stay focused on a bird in flight.

To use it...

Set your camera to continuous focus mode instead of one shot. Canon calls this AI Servo. Nikon calls it AF-C.

If a bird is flying towards you, half press the shutter button and your camera will now continuously focus on the bird.  This will give you the best chance for your image to be sharp when you take your shot.


Be careful about being over eager when focusing.

 

The auto focus system will need time to lock onto the bird. Unless you really have a small window of opportunity, it is worth sacrificing the first few seconds of action in order to let it.

Never miss action moments by using rapid fire

Turn on continuous shooting (burst mode) to increase your chances of getting that perfect action shot.

Have you ever wondered what that machine gun sound is coming from another photographers camera? It's burst mode!

When you press the shutter release button, your camera will rapidly fire off lots of shots until you release the button.

This is especially useful when photographing birds in flight as it increases your chances of getting that perfect moment when everything is right...

  • It has a good wing position.
  • It has a good head position.
  • There is a catch light in the eye.

When you first start photographing birds in flight using continuous shooting, you'll find yourself taking hundreds of photos and only a few will be any good. When you process them afterwards you'll be hitting delete far more often than for any other form of photography!

Don't despair! If you keep practicing then over time you'll get a greater proportion of good shots!

Uncluttered background? Light up those focus points...

If you have a clear, uncluttered background, increase your chances of staying focused on the bird by using all of the AF points.

Focusing is simple. Most cameras have at least nine autofocus sensors (AF points). Auto mode lets the camera use all of them to keep a subject in focus.

A clear sky is a good example of when to do this. Light up all of those focus points and let the camera use all of its sensors to track the bird and do all of the work for you!

Bewick's swan photographed against an uncluttered background. Ideal for using all of the focus points.

Bewick's swans arrive in the UK in mid-October. They spend the winter here and then depart in March. Slimbridge and Martin Mere are great places to photograph them. They have a yellow and black bill and are the smallest swan to visit the UK. 

They are easy to mistake for whooper swans. The Bewick's swan has a rounder head and smaller bill with a small yellow patch. The Whooper swan has a wedge shaped head and bill with a large wedge shaped patch.

Cluttered background? Use a single focus point...

If the background is cluttered (e.g. trees) and the camera is struggling to track, use a single AF point - usually the center one.

Most of the time there was a cluttered background in the shot below. I therefore used a single focus point rather than relying on the camera to decide what my subject was.

The grey heron can be found around lakes, ponds, streams, rivers, estuaries and wetlands throughout the UK.

A great time to photograph them in flight is during nesting at the end of February. They're always flying backwards and forwards to their nests with twigs.

Freeze motion with a high shutter speed

When taking flight shots you will need to freeze the motion of the bird. Not only is there the motion of the actual flight path, there is also the motion of the wing beat to consider.

Different birds beat their wings at different speeds

  • Most songbirds beat between 10 and 25 beats per second.
  • Ducks beat 5 to 10 times per second.
  • Bigger birds such as hawks, vultures and herons beat their wings 1-2 times per second.

I strive to get a shutter speed of at least 1/1000s.

For most birds, 1/2000 will completely freeze motion.

Perfect Exposure

Remember to check your exposure. White skies will trick your camera, causing it to underexpose. You may need to dial in 2 stops or more over exposure.

Flying into the frame

It takes a lot of practice to compose a shot when photographing birds in flight. You usually only have a few seconds to pan with the bird and simply getting it in frame can be a challenge.

Shots generally look better if the bird is flying into the frame, giving it space to move into. I took the shot below of a gray heron as it was flying away from its nest to collect some sticks for building its nest.

Heron Flying into the frame

Compare this with the shot below where the heron is flying out of the frame.

Heron Flying out of the frame


As well as creating a more pleasing composition, giving the bird space to fly into is also the easiest way to follow it with your camera.


The difficulty is that the off center focusing points are not as accurate.


The safe option is to choose the center point and crop off the side afterwards. Once you're confident you have the center point shot nailed, you can risk choosing another point.

Wings up or down for aesthetically pleasing shots

The wing position gives different feels when photographing birds in flight. Many find the wings fully up or fully down result in a more aesthetically pleasing shot.

Eagle owl

The wings of this Eagle owl are pointing downwards. This gives more of a "gliding feel" to the movement.

Compare this with how the same shot with the wings up feels quite different...

Remember to leave enough space for the wing movement otherwise you may clip the edges of the wings. Also be mindful that if you focus on the body the wing's downward motion may cause you to lose focus.

Take-off and landing for unique action shots

Most birds tend to take off and land facing the wind. Their motion also tends to be slower.

This means that the best conditions to get front lighting are when the wind is blowing from around the same direction as the sun is shining. If you then position yourself so that the sun is behind you, you should get more shots of front lit birds coming in to land or taking off.

For back lighting, it would be when the wind is blowing roughly into the sun. Position yourself so that the sun is in front of you.

Further Reading

We have now covered the basics of photographing birds in flight. If you would like to read more advanced tips, head over to page 2 by clicking here. On this page, we cover:

  1. Using blurs to express your creativity.
  2. Photographing flocks of birds.
  3. Flock silhouettes at sunrise and sunset.

Return From Photographing Birds In Flight To Bird Photography

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