Birds and wildlife in general are a difficult subject and when they are in flight, they are probably one of the hardest things in nature to catch. But at the same time, when you do manage to take a great shot of a flying bird is always a remarkable moment of satisfaction.
Yes, a lot of times it’s all about being lucky, but the whole experience of getting out there in the nature with your gear, the necessary patience and the skills involved will give you an amazing experience that will make you love what you’re doing and the birds you’re passionate about even more!
Photographing birds in flight is, among the action photos, the one that offers the most satisfaction. It is a real stimulus for the naturalist photo, because quick reflexes, competence in photographic technique, dynamism in action, knowledge of one’s equipment and ornithological culture are required.
You may have noticed that in this spring period the initiatives of environmental associations for the observation of wild birds, engaged in migrations, multiply. Some countries are a natural bridge for travel between the African continent and the European continent: some species stop to nest in some countries in some countries while others only cross them, heading further north. The days of observation of migratory flows are often organized by nature reserves in the regions and places most interested in the phenomenon.
They are also generally great photographic opportunities. I recommend that you have this beautiful experience soon, with which you can learn a lot about how to photograph birds in flight. All you need to photograph birds in motion is a telephoto lens: a medium telephoto lens may be sufficient, starting from 300 mm (if the subjects fly not too high and not too far from you), but the more the focal length, the better.
But what are the main difficulties of photography of birds in flight?
The first, quite obvious, is due to the fact that often we are shooting in situations in which is difficult to manage the solar light source, as in the case of backlighting. There are also many compositional problems, often favored by the fact that they are snapshots, which leave little time to a studied care of the scene.
Below you will find some suggestions, on how to best achieve this photographic technique by understanding what the greatest difficulties are and how to deal with them.
Necessary Equipment For Photographing Birds In Flight:
Both zoom and fixed focal lengths are fine, with a minimum length: 300 mm (both have strengths and weaknesses that we will see later). It’s crucial that it is light, luminous and with a quick focus.
This is probably the most important piece of equipment, you can have a great camera but if the lens is not as great, your results will be disappointing, even if you’re a skilled photographer.
Of course, fast is great, but it’s not the only thing you should consider when choosing your lenses, distortion and and chromatic aberration are just as important. Not to mention the importance of a quick and precise autofocus when shooting subjects moving as fast as birds in flight.
Prime lenses are cheaper than zoom ones, that might be something you’re interested when you’re getting started, a fixed focal is also a great way to work on your composing skills. Many cameras on the market will have a 75-300mm kit lens, but you can be sure that the quality of the image at both ends of the focal length is not as high as a top telephoto lens. Telephoto lenses can be zoom or prime, if you’re serious about shooting birds in flight, and have a bigger budget, consider getting a 400mm or higher prime lens.
The faster you take pictures, the better.
The ideal DSLR camera must process at least 6 – 8 shots per second.
Some bird species fly very fast and to photograph them you need to have the same speed!
It is an indispensable tool if your lens is very heavy and you struggle to hold it freehand for a long time.
In this case you will need a sturdy tripod with a panoramic head capable of orienting the camera 360 °. (Ball or rocker tripod are the two best solutions).
- Continuous shooting – an high-speed continuous shooting combination is ideal. When photographing flying birds you need to shoot as fast as possible, in a short time you have to take a large amount of photos.
- Auto focus – selector to “AF” and set “AI SERVO AF” mode (or AF-C, depending on your camera’s brand). With this setting your camera will continue to focus the “target” as it gets closer or moves away.
- Shutter priority = set a shutter speed of not less than 1/2000 ″ so that the bird is “frozen” in its flying position.
- High ISO – a high ISO value must be set in order to shoot with very fast shutter speeds and f / 8 aperture (start from ISO400 and if not enough, increase). This aperture value allows you to have the whole bird in focus. On days with a lot of sun, use low ISO for better definition.
- Focus area – use only the central point of focus, you can be sure that only the framed bird will be in focus and not some background element. Also remember: compared to the others, the central point is always the most sensitive and accurate in focusing.
- Image stabilizer – turn it off! The stabilizer is a device that helps eliminate the vibrations of our hands. It works very well in the presence of long shutter speeds and in low light conditions. When the shutter speed is more than 1/500 ″ it is no longer necessary, it is actually counterproductive because it slows down the autofocus, already put to the test by any disturbing elements in the background.
- Minimum focus distance – set the farthest distance to telephoto. By limiting the focus distance of the lens, you will avoid making the autofocus react every time it encounters closer subjects. The focus will be faster and lock only on the bird in flight.
- Tripod collar – if you shoot mainly freehand, the tripod attachment ring may end up in your way. You can remove it or rotate it so that it won’t bother you.
Tips On Photographic Technique And Composition
When you’re just starting to shoot birds in flight, practice with confident subjects, easy to approach such as Pigeons or Seagulls. In the cold season, seagulls are present in parks or along the waterways of every major city, while in summer you can easily find them in ports by the sea or on the lake. Bring dry bread, which you will throw in the water, making ample visible gestures.
You will see that they will arrive in groups after a very short time and give you great opportunities to take photos in flight. Once you become familiar with the action, you can move on to the next level: Ducks, Swans, Cormorants and so on until eventually you get to able a Peregrine Falcon!
It’s important to keep the camera as stable as possible, to do so use 3 support points. Your left hand supports the lens from below, as far forward as possible. The right holds the camera and takes the photo with the index finger. The third point is achieved when, looking into the viewfinder, you have your face against the camera.
The first few times, it will be difficult to quickly frame a bird in flight, you will have to practice a lot to find it in the sky and follow it to photograph it. In these cases, a telephoto zoom lens offers an advantage. By framing the scene with the widest focal length of the zoom, you will find the bird more easily. That way, even if you see it smaller in the camera viewfinder, it will be easier to identify it against the background.
Then, as you follow it in flight, change the focal length, zooming in on it (from wide angle to telephoto). The AI Servo AF mode at the center point will help you keep it in focus at all times. The first few times this procedure will seem hard: it needs to be done in a few seconds, or you will lose the opportunity to take a shot. That, only time and practice can overcome.
When you are familiar with the method described above, it is time to move on to the next step: frame the bird with the zoom immediately at its maximum extension or use a fixed telephoto lens directly. In these cases, the technique changes: you’ll have to find the bird in flight with the naked eye. Without losing sight of it, bring the camera close to your face and look through the viewfinder.
To not lose sight of your target, frame it with both eyes open. The free eye allows you to always know where the bird is and where it is going, while the eye on the viewfinder verifies that the subject is actually framed and in focus. In doing so, you will not lose the animal because of its sudden change in direction, but you will always be ready to shoot.
Patience is key in any kind of wildlife and bird photography, don’t be impatient to shoot and give the autofocus time to lock onto the bird. It is worth sacrificing the first few seconds of action to achieve precise, continuous focus.
The best composition for such an action photo is the one that leaves an empty space in front of the bird. Also try to photograph with the sun behind you so that the subject is directly illuminated. Make sure to check the exposure if you take pictures of birds flying against a uniform grey sky. A clear sky deceives the exposure of the camera, causing it to underexpose. The result will be a medium grey sky and a completely dark bird. To balance the exposure meter error, use your camera’s exposure compensation, increasing by 2 stops (+ 2).
The sky will become very clear (be careful and do not burn the whites), but the bird will be perfectly exposed. The background is very important. A uniform blue sky does not always work. Flight images with a variegated background (eg trees or expanses of water) are often more interesting. In this case, wait for the bird to drop in altitude.
Remember that depth of field is important because in this kind of photography, the whole animal must be in focus. Some birds (Herons, Stork, etc.) have a large wingspan and a too small aperture (f / 11 – f / 16) could cause the wings or legs to result out of focus. Do not cut any part of the bird’s body. A photo with a small piece of the wing cut off is a wrong photo. Don’t archive it, delete it! Better a smaller portrait than a mutilated bird.
Shooting in burst mode is also recommended, as you will increase the likelihood of having a clear, error-free photo. When practicing photography of birds in flight it is normal to take hundreds of photos and, once at home, check that only a few images are passable. Don’t despair, but keep practicing. With time and practice, you will significantly increase the percentage of perfect shots.
If you want to to shoot a specific bird you should know as much as possible about it, remember that birds are habitual: we must be able to exploit this characteristic to know in advance where they will be and at what time of year, what activities they will be engaged in, what kind of moves to expect. For example, if you want to photograph a beautiful kingfisher, you can place a branch in the water in a spot where these birds are often seen.
Afterward, hide in the area until a kingfisher lands on the branch. Kingfisher often uses branches to hunt – by doing so, you’ll have the best chance of photographing one. However, if you want to take a photo of a great spotted woodpecker, you will need to study a different plan, not all birds are the same!
In short, photographing birds in flight is not a joke, but if you follow these little tricks, it’s not even impossible. All of these tips can be very useful for getting started, but it’s only practice and experience that make the difference.
In any case, photographing birds in flight is a lot of fun. Get out there and try it yourself!