Photographing birds in flight

Gil shares his passion and the basics for photographing birds in flight.

Bird in flight

The prerequisite for an enjoyable experience photographing birds in flight is having the right mind-set. When you miss shots, laugh. When you capture great shots, thank nature for the opportunity. Capturing images of birds in motion evoke many more emotions than photographing them in a stationary position. Continual failure can easily wear

down the most persistent photographer. Success lifts the sprit and gives one a sustained photographic high.

The purpose of this article is to help you succeed.

Most important camera feature: speed

Aside from having a positive attitude, there are a few items and activities necessary to increase the chances of capturing successful bird in flight photos. First on the list is having an appropriate camera. A bird in flight is progressive motion so the most important camera feature relates to speed. Any digital camera that has a high shutter speed (1/500th a second and above) is suitable even if it doesn’t have image stabilization. While long zoom capability is preferred, a standard 3X zoom can be used but on a more limited scale.

Manual mode

If a camera has a manual mode, use it. If not, shutter priority should be used with a minimum shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. Fast shutter speeds will easily freeze body movement a birds in flight but can still show a desirable blur of the wings and capture the flapping motion.

Why the preference for using manual settings when it is available? A manual setting fixes a uniform exposure at all angles and minimizes exposure variation with changing light conditions during the flight. Using programs with auto exposure modes can vary too much unless it has a feature to lock exposure for more than a single shot.

Baseline camera settings

Depending on the kind and tones of the bird, my baseline manual settings are 1/500th to 1/1300th second for shutter speed and f4.0 to f7.1 for aperture. For brighter tones on white or snowy egrets, I mostly use 1/800th shutter and a minimum f6.3 aperture for slight under exposure. During post processing (image editing), it is easier to pull out some detail in under exposed images than from over exposed ones.

For darker birds like Cormorants, I open up the aperture up to f4.0 to ease up on under exposing. Too much under exposure still gives usable details in images taken with a digital Single Lens Reflex camera but rarely when using consumer cameras. Heavily under exposed images will just create noise when lightened up during post processing.

Bird in flightIf there is no manual control, pattern or center weighted metering can be tried but I’ve personally had limited success with these.

The cameras I use most have Through The Lens (TTL) contrast detect focusing that it is hard to achieve good and faster focusing when the exposure varies much.

For focusing setup, I use spot or single area focusing. These are usually faster than multiple point focusing.

Conditions, settings and techniques to photograph birds in flight

The best condition to photograph birds in flight is when there is lots of light. You can use the lowest possible ISO available from your camera for the least amount of noise. You can also use the Sunny white balance setting for optimum in-camera color rendition.

Tracking birds in flight

When tracking flying birds, I find it better to follow them with my eyes by using the viewfinder rather than the LCD. Using the LCD is tough as eyes tend to follow the display rather than the actual flight path and this hinders synchronization of the flight.

Bird in flightFor cameras with up to 3X zoom capabilities only, tracking flight should be limited to close distances. Instances of usage would be in a small pond where gulls, ducks or doves are constantly flying back and forth and where some people are feeding the birds. I practiced my earlier bird in flight shots in that similar condition where I could use 1X to 3X zoom. In a tight flying place, pre-focus on favorite landing or take-off spots or catch the gulls when hovering. To follow the bird longer and further, higher zooming capability is desirable.

Practice makes perfect

Once the baseline in-camera settings are squared off, it’s time practice. Pick a place and the type of birds. As has been mentioned, a small pond or area with gulls is preferable. Bigger birds are easier to track but they are not as abundant as the gulls. Gulls are not too small, not too fast and have predictable flying patterns once you’ve made several observations. Gull’s color variation from dark to light will give one an exercise in further optimization of the exposure settings.

After identifying a practice area, it is now time to practice viewfinder tracking. Some might be comfortable with using the LCD for framing/tracking and want to experiment with it but, as mentioned, I’ve had limited success using it.

Start with a low zoom from 3X to 5X and just follow around or pan with the flying gulls. No pressing of the shutter button. Once low zoom tracking gets comfortable, increase the zoom to a point where it is now very difficult to follow. Note that particular zoom range because it will be your zoom limit. Unless one uses the RDS (red dot sight and yes, another story), tracking an image 1/8th or smaller in the viewfinder is very doable and usually falls at mid point from your lowest and maximum tracking zoom. This size will give enough margin to keep the subject within the viewfinder frame. I may take more than one session to feel comfortable tracking so be prepared to do this exercise often.

Click for large view

Click for large view

Tracking medium-sized bird like Gull in low zoom is the easiest tracking exercise. You can crop and still have an acceptable image. Once used on tracking, increase zoom to capture a bigger bird size. Photograph much larger sized birds once you are very comfortable with tracking and zooming. Large birds are actually slower and therefore easier targets.

Focus lock

As soon as the tracking aptitude is developed, you’ll need to practice half-pressing the shutter button for focus locking as you track. Keep doing the exercise until you can lock focus at half press while tracking. You’ll have to practice this a lot.

Track and react

After confirming focus lock, the next step is to press the shutter button all the way for the capture. Notice that focus and capture successes do not depend on tracking capability alone but are also influenced by the shutter lag (time it takes for the image to be captured after pressing the shutter button) and focusing performance of the camera in use. Take as many pictures as needed and do not worry if the captures are usable or not. This will just get you to the habit of tracking and reacting.

Using burst mode

One might be tempted to use burst mode to increase chances of getting a good shot. But on the cameras with electronic viewfinders that I have used, the images temporarily freeze during the burst captures and can negatively affect the tracking capability. Try burst mode only after you have mastered tracking and focusing.

The most important things when photographing birds in flight are to enjoy and have fun. And don’t forget, practice makes perfect.

Visit Gil’s online galleries for photos of birds in flight using the techniques mentioned in this article.

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15 Responses

  1. Gail Bjork says:

    Don, I’m glad you found the information helpful. Photographing birds in flight can be very challenging, but also very rewarding. Practice a lot! ;)

  2. Don Angle says:

    Thanks for this article. Just got a Canon 400mm telephoto. I had no idea how to use it for B.I.F. After my first outing, I realized I needed help to get better results. I was doing many things wrong. I am looking forward to next outing using advice from this article.

  3. Julie says:

    Gail, thank you for those comments, much appreciated and something that would never have occured to me. I have a decent camera so raising the ISO shouldnt be a problem. Thanks, Julie

  4. Gail Bjork says:

    Julie, taking photos of birds in flight takes practice and practice. If your camera does well at higher ISO numbers, increase the camera sensitivity to increase shutter speed. Also, don’t shoot full zoom (you can crop later). The aperture is fastest at the short end of the zoom and gets slower as you zoom in, so this should also be a consideration when taking photos a dusk. It is an enthralling opportunity. Good luck.

  5. Julie says:

    Thanks for the excellent advice, I’m trying to capture a barn owl in flight. Here was me thinking it would be posing on a wooden post making an ideal shot, but the owl I saw yesterday was making sweeps along a narrow river/drain and I was passenger in a car. I used a 75-300 lens and as I was only approximately 10foot away from the owl the whole time my photographs would have been very pleasing if I could have got them sharper. I did used aperture priority so maybe my next practice session should be in manual. Obviously a barn owl is about mostly at dusk so I will need to take that low light into consideration. Thanks for reading this, I was so enthrawled to have such an brilliant photographic opportunity I want to go back and try again with better results. Julie

  6. Roger says:

    Excellent article and ideas. Tried my new 100 – 400 zoom with good effect on the local sea cliffs. Needs more practice but got some usable shots of the fulmars using their feet as air brakes/ steerage in high winds!

  7. Streetleader says:

    Thanks sooooo much.
    I live in CDA Idaho, right by Eagles Nest on Lake Couer d’alene.
    It’s filled with bald eagles in December / January.
    But all I get is blurred images.
    Thought I had setting high… not even close.
    Will definetly try those higher speeds.
    Thanks!

  8. Matt says:

    Yes what Gail said. Put it in AI Servo mode. autofocus option on most dslr cams. Allows the autofocus to continually readjust

  9. Gail Bjork says:

    Hi Chris, So glad you found the tips helpful. One of the best articles on teleconverters is Teleconverters 101. Check it out.

  10. Chris says:

    Thanks for the info, very helpful. I found a great place for photographing birds, but wasn’t really satisfied with the sharpness. Hopefully these tips will help me. Can’t wait to find out!
    By the way, I was wondering about teleconverters. Are they usefull with a zoom lens? I always thought they only worked properly on a fixed lens…
    Cheers, Chris

  11. Vicki says:

    Excellent tutorial. I recently purchased my first DSLR (a Pentax K-7). I’m a full-time RVer, spending this winter in central Florida on the Gulf Coast. The variety of birds around here is nirvana for shutterbugs, but I really need to get some great in-flight images. I rarely use the LCD/LiveView, and this camera is ideal for panning as you recommend, then zooming in. But I don’t have my Fstops andapertures tweaked properly to avoid wing blur. This will be a huge help. Thank you so much . . . and I’m off to read some of the other tuts I spotted  – happy day. Oh – found you on Google right away when I entered ‘photographing birds in flight’ – in case you were wondering.

    Vicki

  12. Gail Bjork says:

    So glad you found the information helpful. Photographing birds in flight is challenging, so don’t get discouraged. If you use a DSLR, you may want to try taking some shots in Servo mode. Good luck!

  13. Kathleen Sims says:

    Tomorrow will be my first attempt at photographing Bald Eagles in flight. Thanks for the tips. Without your web page I would have not known how to preset my camera, therefore, I would have wasted valuable time in the field. I feel
    confident that I may get one or two usable shots.

    Thanks for being there for me.

    Kathleen

  14. Suniti says:

    Thanks. Will try.

  1. February 21, 2013

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