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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