Photographing birds in flight require a lot of patience and practice. It is not only necessary to have the right camera gear and the knowledge to use them effectively but also to understand what settings work best under which circumstances and how to create beautiful compositions. In this article, I share with you the three most important principles of photographing birds in flight. I also expand on each principle so that you have a clear understanding of the skills needed to make images of birds in flight look artistic and visually pleasing to your audience.
Choosing Your Equipment
If you are just getting started with photographing birds, the first step is to make sure that you have the right equipment. The right equipment can make bird photography an enjoyable experience and dramatically increase your chances of getting the birds in action. Here are a few things to consider when selecting the proper equipment for photographing birds in flight.
- While just about any lens and DSLR camera can be used to make images of birds in flight, a fixed focal length lens such as a 300mm, 500mm or 600mm lens is a better choice over zoom lenses. Due to the optics configuration, these lenses are faster and sharper than their counterparts.
- A DSLR camera with a faster frame rate gives you the advantage of capturing at a burst rate, which produces images of the action in quick succession. This is ideal for capturing the rapid action of birds which may be missed by a slower DSLR. Moreover, you will have a choice of picking the best images from the collection.
- Mounting a long lens and DSLR on a tripod with a gimbal head is the best way to avoid camera shake and make sharp images.
- Become a human tripod. As you improve your skills, try to shoot while hand holding your camera and lens. If possible, stabilize yourself against a railing or a wall, hold the camera and lens, and tuck your elbows in firmly to rest against the side of your chest.
- When shooting fast-moving erratic birds or when birds are coming from different directions, it is easier to move and shoot hand-holding. Using a tripod can be restrictive.
Camera & Lens Settings
Once you have settled on your equipment, make sure that you know how to use it.
- Always shoot in AI Servo mode on Canon or AF-C or continues mode on Nikon. When set to this mode, the camera continues to track and maintain focus on a moving subject as long as you keep the shutter button pressed halfway down.
- Set the DSLR to Manual mode when shooting birds against backgrounds of rapidly changing tonality. If you are in Aperture Priority mode and the bird goes from being in the light sky to in front of dark trees, the metering will cause the shutter speed to drop, leaving the bird overexposed. Note that in manual mode, as long as the light is constant on the bird, the exposure on the bird will be correct regardless of the background.
- Conversely, set the camera to Aperture Priority mode when the light is changing and the background is of uniform and constant tonality. This works well when shooting birds against an evenly lit sky or when the birds are not flying and the light is constantly changing.
- On Canon DSLR press the AF point selection button and, from the available options, choose the Expand AF Area with the four surrounding focus points activated. This works well for flight and action photography. On a Nikon DSLR, depending on the camera, you can choose to select the dynamic 9, 11, 21, 31, or 51 AF points, which work together. The 3D tracking on Nikon works well if the bird is against a solid background (clear blue sky).
- When first starting out in bird photography, use the center focus points to get the hang of tracking birds and shooting sharp images. As you improve your skills, start thinking about composition.
- Set the camera’s drive to High Speed Continues Shooting mode to capture maximum action moments. As mentioned earlier, this produces images of birds in quick succession and you capture many more intimate moments.
- As a rule of thumb, for freezing action or birds in flight, the shutter speed should be at least as much as the focal length of the lens. If you are shooting with a 600mm lens, it should be at 1/600sec or higher. A shutter speed in excess of 1/1250 sec is ideal.
- Shoot wide open and increase the ISO to gain maximum shutter speed. This is also important when shooting in low light.
- For creative shooting and showing a sense of motion, shoot in manual mode and choose a slower shutter speed, and pan along as the bird goes by. Start by setting the ISO to a lower number and set the aperture to 1/30sec.
- For small birds consistently landing on the same perch, pre-focus on the perch and use a shutter release cable for rapid firing.
- As seen from the image above, for advanced shooters, back button focusing is recommended. In this technique, you assign one of the back buttons (AF-ON) for focusing and leave the shutter button with only the task of taking the final image. Why use two fingers instead of one? When you use the shutter button for focusing as well as capturing the image, there is a higher possibility to let go off the shutter before the final capture. This can often happen with a fast flying erratic bird which may cause you to experience some camera shake while panning. With the back button function, the focus is maintained even if you let go of the focus button.
- Pre-focus the lens. Most zoom and fixed focal length lenses are not that good at searching long distances to find the bird. Most often photographers are shooting birds that are at or flying from different distances. Let’s say that you just got done photographing a Cormorant that was 5 meters away, your lens is pre-focused at that, and suddenly a goose flies by at a distance of 30 meters. In this scenario, you will not be able to locate the goose in the viewfinder in time. To deal with these situations, it is best to identify the flight path and manually focus to 30 meters and then let the lens acquire focus. Keep in mind, if your subject is moving towards you too fast, the automatic focus system in your camera will not be able to keep up with the movement when your subject is moving directly towards you. In this situation, it is best to focus on a spot through which the subject will pass through. Then, when the subject is about to reach that spot, start shooting in AI Servo or continuous mode until the subject is past the focus point.
- On a Canon lens, keep the Image Stabilization mode (IS) to 2 or 3. These settings work well for panning shots and birds in flight. On a Nikon lens, keep the Vibration Reduction (VR) to the normal mode.
Creating a Composition
Now that you know about the equipment and camera settings, we need to think about composition to capture some stunning bird photos in action. Just like any other nature photos, photography composition can mean the difference between taking a photo and making an image that makes your viewer go WOW. Here are few practical ideas for photographing birds in flight:
- Avoid putting the bird in the center of the frame and use focus points to help place the bird off center. Give the bird more space in the direction it is flying. Think about the rule of thirds.
- Look for opportunities where the bird makes an eye contact. This makes the image visually much more powerful.
- Aim to photograph birds in flight with their habitat included in the background. This gives some indication of their surroundings and habitat. Moreover, such a background makes the overall image much more visually appealing.
- For birds that are banking in your direction, use the vertical grip available on high-end DSLR’s to create vertical compositions. We are mostly used to shooting horizontal frames. Switching to the vertical grip may not be intuitive in the beginning but with practice, it will become easier.
All of the recommendations mentioned above are meant to help you improve your skills for photographing birds in flight. Please note that I don’t claim that these are the only ways to shoot. I suggest that every bird photographer read their camera and lens manual carefully, follow the tips in this article, and develop their own shooting style. It is mandatory that you regularly practice shooting birds in flight. It is also important to spend time observing the bird’s behavior. Birds will almost always behave in a certain way before the action is about to happen. Anticipating the action is the key to the critical timing of the shot. Finally, patience is the key to success.