Wild birds are beautiful, and they make great photography subjects. But capturing birds in flight can be tricky. Here are 8 tips for photographing birds in flight.
1. Research the Type of Bird You’re Photographing
According to new research, there could be about 18,000 species of birds in the world. Unique in appearance and behavior, each species is a new photographic challenge.
Researching bird behavior is crucial to good bird photography. Some birds exist in flocks, others pair only briefly to mate.
Some birds exist in the wilderness, others in urban environments. Some birds are active during the day, while others are awake at night. Some birds glide slowly in flight, others flap frantically.
Understanding these behaviors allows you to make informed decisions when out in the field.
Finding the right spot for bird photography requires some research too. Depending on where you are based, bird maps like birdata can be a useful resource. They’ll help you plan the location of your shoot.
Plenty of information can be found online or through local organisations and clubs. Getting in touch with local bird-watching communities is a great way to get some inside info on bird-photography hot spots.
2. Take Photos During the Golden Hour for Softer Light
All photography is about light. But to make a good photograph great, planning for optimum lighting conditions helps.
The golden hours are considered the best times to photograph birds in flight. Birds are most active during these transitional parts of the day, which increases the chance of a successful shot.
That isn’t to say that the golden hours are the only time to photograph birds in flight. Golden hour light has a soft quality that illuminates rather than interrupts the form of the bird.
The ideal lighting position for bird flight photography is front lighting. This means the sun is at your back with birds flying towards you or passing in front of you.
After you’ve chosen a general location for your shoot, have a look at the orientation of the sun and where the ideal spot might be. There are resources online that can help you with your calculations.
Another interesting lighting opportunity is photographing the silhouette of a flying bird. Wait until the sun is rising or setting.
Position yourself so that the sun will be behind the bird, and meter for the brightest part of the scene. Then wait for a bird to fly between you and the sun.
It can be a waiting game, but well worth the trouble.
3. Use a Telephoto Lens to Capture Up-Close Images of Birds
It is possible to use a lens with less of a reach. But your flying bird photography will require a lot more legwork.
You can also focus on distance or photography involving birds that are more accustomed to humans (think seagulls and pigeons).
A long lens allows you to get closer to more birds. You’ll capture them in flight in much finer detail.
In addition, you’ll want a lens with a fast focusing capability. Birds sometimes fly erratically, and you’ll want a lens that can keep up focus-wise.
The Canon 100-400mm IS II is an example of a well-ranged lens with good autofocus capabilities.
The use of a teleconverter is another way to extend the reach of a lens. They are cheaper than a dedicated telephoto. But there are some major drawbacks to teleconverters.
Reduced maximum aperture, enhanced camera shake, slower focus speed, and increased image degradation are all possible.
A tripod or monopod with a ball head or gimble is useful for heavier lens configurations. The equipment can help avoid camera shake. And it eases the strain on your back and neck.
4. Keep Your Camera in Burst Mode to Capture Flying Birds
To get sharp photographs of birds in flight, there are a few general camera settings to start off with.
First, set your camera to autofocus mode and activate continuous autofocus (AI Servo for Canon, AF-C for Nikon). Designed for moving subjects, continuous autofocus means that the camera won’t lock the focus point/s when you half-press the shutter button.
Instead, it tracks a subject, refocusing continuously.
The AF points themselves is down to personal preference. Single AF points are better for stationary birds. The use of all AF points simultaneously is better for capturing birds in flight.
To take full control of the camera settings, switch your camera to manual mode. For a sharp rendering of a bird in flight you’ll want to choose at a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second. Use much slower shutter speeds to create a panning effect.
Then, set your shutter speed mode to continuous. That way, when you depress the shutter button, the camera will record images in quick succession. One after the other until you release the button again.
Next, select an aperture of around f/8. By increasing the depth of field with the aperture, you maximize your window for a sharp photograph.
To balance your exposure or for creative effects, your aperture can be adjusted along with your ISO.
5. Track Flying Birds to Capture Better Images
Once you have your exposure set, it’s time to get photographing. When capturing birds in flight, your ability to track or move the camera with the subject can make or break a photograph.
When tracking, you will likely want to move as fluidly as possible to avoid blur. If you are hand-holding, you can use your body to minimize unwanted camera movement.
To do this, first, survey your surroundings. If there is something to stabilize yourself against (a wall or a fence) use the extra support without impeding your field of view.
Next, place your left hand underneath your lens to support its weight. Grip the camera body with your right hand and firmly tuck your elbows into your sides. Plant your feet on the ground and relax your knees.
Regardless of whether you are using stabilizing equipment or not, try to seek out your subject well before it flies close. This gives you time to orientate, find the subject in the viewfinder and plan your shot.
As the bird approaches, press the shutter button halfway down to focus. A sharp bird’s eye is understood to be the convention of bird photography. Aim your focus on the facial area of the bird if you can.
Once focused, fully depress the shutter button. Keep the lens pointed at the subject (by twisting at the hip if you are hand-holding).
A smooth motion will help keep your images sharp, but it does take practice.
6. Incorporate the Environment for Narrative Filled Shots
Adhering to the rule of thirds is a great way to enhance motion without blur.
Framing birds flying in the dead-center of the image seems logical. But framing the same bird off-center creates a more dynamic image.
You aren’t limited to photographing birds surrounded by blue sky either. Incorporating the habitat adds narrative and context to an image. It also helps move the viewer’s eye around the composition.
Don’t feel you have to fill the frame with your feathered subject. Birds in flight are often crammed into the dimensions of a rectangle.
Allowing your birds to have breathing space enhances the viewer’s sensation of flying with a bird.
Color is a strong theme in bird photography. The plumage of a bird can be a spectacular thing to capture, especially in flight. You can also add the color of the sky or the surrounding environment.
7. Shoot Different Birds at a Variety of Locations to Improve Your Skills
As with anything, practice makes perfect. Photographing birds in flight is tricky. It takes a while to get right.
Tracking with a bird in the wild is a skill to be developed. Start off by taking photographs of birds as they flit around your backyard.
This will help you adjust to bird behavior and the process of bird photography in the comfort of familiar settings.
Try shooting different birds at a variety of different locations. Don’t be afraid to experiment with camera settings as well as tracking and panning.
You can go searching for particular birds. Or you can stay in one spot and let them come to you.
8. Don’t Disturb the Environment
Birds are living beings, and the disruption of habitat, through various forms of human intervention, has already affected their livelihood.
It’s important to make as little of an impact as possible during and after bird photography.
Keep away from nests, stay on designated paths, don’t feed birds (especially bread), take any trash you have with you and avoid disturbing the landscape.
Bird photography can also contribute to the understanding of bird ecology. Citizen science websites like birdlife and bandedbirds welcome the submissions of bird data. This then goes to towards the protection of species and habitats.
If you want to help maintain bird numbers and contribute to science, consider submitting your observations!
Capturing birds in flight is both challenging and rewarding. With the right planning, equipment, and technique, you can make beautiful shots of birds in flight.