Tips for learning how to photograph Birds in Flight
by Jay Paredes

There is perhaps no set of techniques discussed more often in nature photography than how to properly photograph birds in flight. It is at best action photography and at worst a complete exercise in futility. The technique youíll use can vary greatly depending on the species that youíll photograph. Each species of bird has its own unique flight patterns and characteristics, so youíll have to adapt your technique to each species.

ďThe more you know about a species behavior and habits,
the more successful youíll be at capturing its movements in flight.Ē

Here are some tips for how to get started with photographing birds in flight. Weíll cover observation, positioning, equipment, and technique.

White Ibis final approach

A White Ibis makes a final approach to its evening roost; f/7.1, 1/3200s, ISO 400

Observation and Positioning

  1. Find a roosting location where birds gather for the night. Try to find one that contains larger birds like cranes, storks, herons, egrets, or ibis. Observe the birds for a while as they fly to and from the roost. This will let you learn their flight path for the day. Youíll want to do this each time you visit the roost because their flight paths will change with the time of the day and the direction of the wind. A good flight shot is usually based upon predictability. Your ability to predict where the bird will fly will make the difference between a good shot and a bad one.

  2. Position yourself at a location where the sun is behind you and the birds will be flying perpendicular to the front of your lens. You generally do not want to take flight shots of birds flying directly towards or away from your lens. Many camera auto focus systems cannot keep up with a moving target that is headed directly towards the camera, and more often than not, such images end up slightly out of focus. The best shots are those where the bird flies across your field of view and you are able to pan across the view with little or no obstructions. You want a view of the flight path where your background will be mostly blue sky, to keep the cameraís auto focus system from locking onto elements in the background instead of your intended subject.

Wood Stork

Wood Stork; f/8, 1/800s, ISO 400

Equipment

  1. When choosing a camera for photographing birds in flight, youíll want to use the fastest camera that you can afford. Birds are fast movers, and youíll need equipment that can keep up with them. In general youíll want an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera that can shoot continuously at 5 frames per second. The more continuous shots per second, the better.

  2. Equally youíll want a fast focusing telephoto lens. The lens should be in the 300mm range or higher. It should also be light enough that you can hand hold it. Youíll be a more successful bird in flight photographer if you can hand hold your lens. Image Stabilization (IS) or Vibration Reduction (VR), whether built into the camera or lens, isnít important for capturing birds in flight. Weíll discuss this later. You can use a zoom or a prime lens. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Initially the hardest thing to do will be to locate the bird in the viewfinder and then track it. Using a zoom lens will let you zoom out wide and make it easier to locate the bird. However once you have learned to locate and track the bird in the viewfinder, the zoom lens becomes less practical than the faster focusing and sharper prime lenses.

  3. If your lens is just too heavy to handhold, youíll need a sturdy tripod and a gimbal style tripod head. There are many gimbal tripod heads on the market including ones by Wimberley, Bogen, Mongoose, and Kirk Enterprises.

  4. Make sure your camera settings are correctly configured for taking action shots.

    1. Set your shooting mode to continuous, so that you can hold down the shutter button to take multiple images with your cameraís burst mode. Set your burst speed to the fastest possible, which will enable you to take the most amounts of images in the least possible time. Sometimes this combination is referred to as high speed continuous shooting.

    2. Set your auto focus mode to AI Servo AF. AI Servo AF will let you lock focus on your target and then continue to focus as the subject moves toward or away from the camera while depressing the shutter button half-way.

    3. Set your dial to AV (aperture priority). Setting your camera to AV mode will help ensure that you have enough depth of field to keep the whole bird in focus.

    4. Set your aperture to f/8. An aperture of f/8 is a good balance between getting the entire subject in focus and maintaining a fast enough shutter speed on a sunny day. An aperture of f/8 is also the sharpest setting for most lenses and makes a good starting point. You may, however, want to shoot wide open on cloudy days or if the background is dark.

    5. Set your ISO to as high as necessary to achieve a shutter speed of at least 1/1000s. Generally youíll want to freeze the bird in flight and youíll probably be handholding the camera and lens, so a shutter speed of 1/1000s makes a good compromise.

    6. Set your cameraís auto focus selection point (AF point) to the center AF point only. By using the center AF point only, you will more likely be able to keep the focus on the moving bird rather than having it lock to the changing background as you pan across your view. The center AF point tends to be the most sensitive of all your cameraís focus points.

    7. If your camera has built in Image Stabilization (IS) youíll want to turn it off. Image Stabilization (IS) is a feature that helps the user take pictures in low light with slow shutter speeds. At a shutter speeds above 1/500s, IS only serves to slow down the cameraís autofocus speed.

  5. Your lens will require some configuration as well, if you are to get the most out of its performance:

    1. Make sure that your AF/MF switch is set to AF (auto focus). You wonít be able to take many shots of birds in flight in the MF (manual focus) setting.

    2. Set the minimum focus distance on the lens to its furthest setting. By limiting the focus distance of the lens, your auto focus will lock on target much faster and will be less prone to hunting for the target. Since the birds will be flying perpendicular to your lens, you shouldnít need to worry too much about birds flying closer than the minimum focusing distance of the furthest setting.

    3. Turn the Image Stabilizer (IS) or Vibration Reduction (VR) of the lens off. Most people think that the best setting is to leave the image stabilizer on and to set it to panning mode. However the image stabilizer slows down the auto focus system, and faster auto focus is more important than image stabilization, especially at shutter speeds of 1/500s and faster.

    4. In general you will want to handhold the lens so that it is easier for you to keep the center AF point on the subject and maintain focus. To make hand holding the lens easier, remove the tripod collar or at least rotate it so that the foot is on top of the lens.

Great Blue Heron with nesting material

Great Blue Heron with nesting material; f/8, 1/800s, ISO 400

Technique

  1. If you will be hand holding your lens, which I recommend, youíll need to hold your lens properly. The correct method is to hold the lens barrel from underneath the lens and as far forward as you can be comfortable. Youíll want to press your face firmly into the back of the camera while looking through the viewfinder. This will keep the camera shake to a minimum.

  2. If you are using a gimbal head there are three points of articulation that youíll need to pay attention to. The first is horizontal, making sure that the lens can turn from side to side smoothly. The second is vertical, making sure the lens can tilt up and down smoothly. Finally youíll need to loosen the tripod collar just a bit so that the lens can rotate within the collar. If the lens is not allowed to rotate within its collar and you are trying to track a bird in flight, you will soon find that you are constrained to moving the lens at certain angles and you will lose track of your subject.

  3. At first it may seem difficult to find the approaching bird in the viewfinder. It takes practice to find and track a flying bird. This is where a zoom lens has an advantage for photographers learning to track birds in flight from their cameraís viewfinder. Set your zoom to its widest setting. Youíll find it easier to find the bird in the viewfinder and track it, although it will be relatively small in the frame. As you track the bird in the viewfinder, slowly zoom into it. With practice, you should be able to easily find the bird at the widest setting and then zoom into the narrowest setting and track it with the center AF point. If you actually try and take some pictures at this point, they may not come out well because thereís a lot of movement going on, since the panning motion is combined with the zooming motion. Thatís okay. The goal is to get used to tracking flying birds in your viewfinder.

  4. When you feel comfortable tracking the birds with the method described above, itís time to move on to the next step. Set your telephoto zoom lens to its widest setting. Sight an approaching bird without the camera. Then, while keeping your eyes on the bird, move the viewfinder up to your eye and continue following the bird. This method should now be easier if you practiced the spot and zoom method above. Practice until you feel comfortable and then zoom in your lens by 100mm and practice again. Continue practicing until youíre comfortable with this procedure at the narrowest setting of your lens.

  5. Now that you can track the bird, keeping it within the frame of your viewfinder, practice focus locking and tracking your subject. This is best done by pre-focusing the camera. You can pre-focus the camera by picking an object that is at approximately the same distance as the birds that are flying by. Lock focus with the center AF point on to the object. When you spot an approaching bird, slowly bring up the lens and begin tracking it within the viewfinder. Usually the bird will be at a distance greater then where you had pre-focused, so the bird will appear blurry in the viewfinder. Thatís ok. As the bird comes closer, it will soon reach the same distance as the object you pre-focused on. You will know, because the bird will now appear in focus in the viewfinder. This is the time to make sure that the center AF point is directly over the subject and depress the shutter button half-way to begin tracking the bird with the camera in AI Servo AF mode. This is all a lot easier said than done, because you must be able to do this within a few seconds or youíll lose the shot. Thatís why thereís no substitute for practice, practice, practice.

  6. Alright, finally itís time to take some pictures. You know what to do. Sight the bird and bring the viewfinder up to your eye. Make sure that the center AF point is directly over your subject. When subject comes into focus in the viewfinder, as it enters the range for which you previously pre-focused the lens, depress the shutter button half-way and continue to track the subject from within your viewfinder. When youíre ready, press the shutter button all the way down and hold it there to engage the cameraís bust mode. Continue to track the bird from within the viewfinder as the camera takes pictures. The result you are looking for is one where the subject takes up most of the frame, is in clear focus, does not have any of its wings clipped by the edge of the frame, and is in flight. If you achieve that once or twice out of the many attempts you will make, then youíre on your way to making some successful flight shots.

  7. This final tip will be about recovering focus. There will be many times when the center AF point will move off the subject or simply fail to lock onto the subject. In such cases the focus will try to lock on the background. When you see this happening, the easiest way to recover is by completely letting go of the shutter button, reorienting the center AF point over the subject, and then depressing the shutter button half-way again. This method will let you reacquire focus lock most of the time.

Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull; f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 100

Home | Discuss

 
 
 
 
Canít find a roost?

Head out to your local beach, park, or fishing pier and photograph the local seagulls. A flock of seagulls makes excellent practice for flight photography.

 
 
 
Your camera canít shoot continuously at 5 frames per second or faster?

Itís not a showstopper, but youíll have to work harder at timing your shots. The beauty of having a fast frame rate is that by holding down the shutter button for continuous firing, youíll capture the birdís wings in many different positions, and you can choose the best one. Without that capability, youíll have to time your shots much better to capture the birdís wings in the most attractive positions, which are usually all the way up or all the way down.

 
 
 
Shutter Speed.

Usually a shutter speed of 1/1000s works for most people. However if you find that youíre still having problems getting a clear image, try increasing your shutter speed to 1/1250s, 1/1600s, or even 1/2000s by photographing under bright sunny conditions and using a high ISO.

 
 
 
Manual Exposure.

The general consensus among photographers these days is that manual exposure is the best way to photograph birds in flight. I will cover manual exposure for flight photography in greater detail in an upcoming article. However, Aperture Priority (AV) is still far more flexible, especially when lighting conditions are constantly changing, like on partially cloudy days.