Photographing Birds In Flight

I find photographing birds in flight the most challenging of all - you can't beat it because it is birds doing what they do best.

Getting Started

The best way to get started is with large easy subjects such as gulls. For my first attempt I went to the local park and had a friend throw seed to the gulls. This brought them flying over straight away, giving me plenty of opportunities for flight shots.

Gull Landing

This is one of the first pictures that I ever took of a bird in flight in the local park.

1/1250s, f2.8, ISO800, 195mm (70-200mm)

Once you've practiced with gulls and have some confidence, move up a level to ducks geese and swans.

Focusing

I generally set my camera to evaluative metering and turn on AI Servo mode so that it continually focuses as the bird flies. If I don't have a cluttered background I light up all of the AF points and allow the camera to track across all of them. If the background is cluttered (e.g. trees) and the camera is struggling to track, I often light up a single AF point - usually the center one.

In the shot below I was taking a flight shot of a Heron and most of the time there was a cluttered background. I therefore used a single focus point rather than relying on the camera to decide what my subject was.

Heron using single focus point

Be careful about being over eager when focusing.

Give the auto focus system time to lock on to the bird. Unless you really have a small window of opportunity, it's worth sacrificing the first few seconds of action in order to get the focus locked.

I also turn on continuous shooting so that when I press the shutter release button I can rapidly fire off lots of shots. This gives me the best chance of getting a good shot during the brief period when the opportunity is there.

When you first start photographing birds in flight you'll find that you'll take 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.

However don't despair - if you keep practicing then over time you'll get a greater proportion of good shots.

Shutter Speed

When photographing birds in flight there are two techniques that I use. The first one is to aim for a high shutter speed to freeze the birds motion. I generally strive to get a shutter speed of at least 1/1000.

The second technique is to use a slow shutter speed to get an action shot. I usually find a shutter speed of around 1/30 works well.

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.

Composition

Trying to compose a shot when photographing birds in flight takes some practice. 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've got the center point shot nailed you can risk choosing another point.

Flight Behaviour

Most birds tend to take off and land facing the wind. 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.

Wings

The wing position gives different feels when photographing birds in flight.

Eagle owl

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

Note how the image feels different with the wings upwards:

Eagle owl

You know he must be really flapping now you can see the wingbeat.

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

Further Reading

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


Return From Photographing Birds In Flight To Bird Photography

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