How To Photograph Birds In Flight

Photographing birds in flight can be equally rewarding and frustrating. Capturing the perfect shot of a bird in flight can take many hours of practice and maybe a little bit of luck, but there is something magical about a photo of a bird in action rather than a straightforward portrait, that many avian photographers aspire to.

Swallow In Flight

The steps below will help you get started and practise developing your technique.

Location

You need to choose a location where plenty of birds will be in flight. Near open water and woodland are good place to look for birds who will be flying to find sources of food. Before you go familiarize yourself with the area and the species of birds you are likely to spot. A position on a hill would be ideal as you can be eye-level with the birds.

Feeding stations are another good option and many nature reserves will have feeding stations that are regularly topped up. If you have bird feeders in your garden this could be a good place to start practising, although bear in mind the species of birds will be smaller and the background will be busier which makes things more difficult.

Breeding season is a good time of year to shoot birds in flight as they will be busy flying about either collecting material for their nests or with food for their chicks. Flying birds carrying something in their beak can make interesting or even comical images.

The golden hour, just after sunrise or before sunset, is the best time to photograph any birds when the light is softer, and birds’ plumage will look at its best. Get out early and start practising so when the light is just right you are ready to shoot. Have the sun at your back so you’re not shooting directly into the light. Birds tend to land and take off into the wind so have the wind at your back too so they will fly towards you.

Panning

Before you set up your camera’s settings you will need to practise panning. Panning means shooting with a low shutter speed as you move your camera with the path of the bird. It can be a difficult task to master as you need to keep your camera steady and level, track at the same speed as the bird, while holding down the shutter.

You will need a tripod to pan effectively ideally with a gimbal head of ease of tracking. If you try and pan hand-holding your camera it will shake up and down and you will end up with nothing but blurry images.

To begin panning, find a bird that is far away from you. It will be easier to follow and as it gets nearer you can begin to adjust your speed. Practise panning without shooting until you are comfortable with the mechanism of your tripod. Remember, the slower the shutter speed, the harder it will be.

Camera Settings

Depth of field
When you’re taking photographs of birds in flight you should keep to the rule that the eye of your subject should be sharp. No matter its size won’t be able to get the whole of the bird sharp, particularly those with a large wingspan but as long as the head is sharp the image will be good.

In good light conditions to get the bird’s head sharp you need to shoot at around f/8. If you shoot beyond that you’ll be sacrificing light and shutter speed for not much extra depth of field. When you’re starting out expect to have images with the focus in the wrong place but keep practising, remembering to smoothly pan with the bird and keep the focus as close to the bird’s eye as possible. As you hone your technique you will find that you can get sharp shots with larger apertures.

Autofocus
Switch the camera to autofocus mode which will tell it to continually adjust the focus on the moving bird and predict its trajectory. It should only take a few seconds for the camera begin focus tracking; you may hear the lens moving as it adjusts the focus. If you lose the bird from the centre of the frame the lens will hunt for it trying to regain a lock.

Tracking a bird on its side profile will be easier for the autofocus than if the bird is head on. Keep practising focusing on the bird and if it goes out of frame make very small adjustments and try and maintain eye contact until you find it again. Once the bird starts getting large in the frame, that’s when you start pressing the shutter and shooting.

Shutter speed
A slow shutter speed will give the feeling of movement to the image. If you shoot with a slow shutter speed, then you want to ensure that the body and head of the bird are sharp with just some blur to the wings so pick your moment carefully. Photographing large birds in flight with a slow shutter speed will give some powerful images.

If you want to freeze the action, then you need to shoot with a fast shutter speed. This technique is better for photographing smaller birds who tend to move so quickly that you are unlikely to get anything but a bur if you shoot with a slow shutter speed. It is more difficult to shoot with a fast shutter speed unless you can accurately predict the flight path of the bird so it is a good method for taking photos when birds are around feeding stations.

Composition

When you start photographing birds in flight don’t worry too much about composition. It can sometimes be the most difficult part of taking any photography and remember many brilliant bird photographs are down to sheer good luck.

The rules of composition apply to photographs of bird in flight, but they will be difficult to follow when the bird is moving as in some shots the wings will be covering the face, the eyes may be closed, or the bird may turn and change direction. As a general rule try and provide space for the bird to fly into and be aware of a distracting background. Composition can be fine-tuned in post-production editing. For example, if you do crop a wing you may be able to balance the image by cropping other parts of the bird out of the frame.

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