10 Surefire Tips for Photographing Birds in Flight

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Recently an internal survey in my blog revealed that photographing birds in flight is the most sought after topic.

It didn’t come as a surprise though, because that’s the specialty of birds. They defy gravity and rise up into the sky. How wonderful it is!

Here I have listed 10 surefire tips that will help you to make better photographs of birds in flight. The more you practice, the better your photographs will turn out.

1. Learn Flight Behaviour of the Birds

Birds in Flight Photography

Birds normally have the predictable flight behaviour. It requires observation. The more you observe them more you understand about their behaviour.

Why is it important to learn bird flight behaviour?

Tracking the bird as it flies is the trickiest part of birds in flight photography. If you know the flight behaviour of the bird, then you will be able to predict the next move and wait for the right moment to get best photographs.

2. Point of View Matters the Most

Generally the difference between good and bad photographs is the point of view. Photographing a bird in flight right above your head gives a different impact than a bird flying across.

A photograph of a bird flying towards you will have a greater impact than a bird flying away from you.
Taking an eye-level shot of a flying bird would yield an intimate result.

Birds in Flight Photography

3. Start with Slow Flying Birds

It can often lead to frustrating results if you choose to photograph birds in flight without really having an understanding of proper techniques.

Proper hand-holding and focusing techniques doesn’t come easy. There is no substitute to hard work when it comes to practicing these techniques. Best way to master them is to start with slow flying birds like Egrets and Herons.

Great White Egret in Flight in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary or Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur, Rajastan

Great White Egret in flight in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary or Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur, Rajastan

Egrets and herons are in abundance and it is not tough to put all 10 tips into practice, just with these birds, and become a better photographer.

4. Use the Right Camera Settings

Make your life easy with these settings:

  • Aperture Priority mode
  • Matrix/Evaluative metering
  • Auto ISO settings up to whatever ISO settings you are comfortable with for your camera
  • Shutter Speed of at least 1/500th of a second or faster
  • AF-C focus mode for Nikon users and AI-Servo mode for Canon
  • Highest frames per second burst mode setting
  • 9-point or 21-point zone focus or 3-D tracking

If you are unable to get decent shutter speeds of 1/500th of a second or more while hand-holding the lens, then wait for the proper light. No point taking high noise or poorly exposed photographs.

Grey Heron Landing on a Misty Morning in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur, Rajastan

Grey Heron landing on a misty morning in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur, Rajastan

If you are using a sturdy tripod and a gimbal type tripod head, then you would be able to make some creative shots like motion blur or panning shots with slower shutter speeds.

5. Choose the Proper Focus Points

Choosing the right number of focus points is critical to making successful flight photographs. Most cameras provide a selection of multiple focus points which is often referred to as zone focus.

I often select 9-point or 21-point zone focus out of 51-points. The idea is to use less, but enough auto focusing points, to make it easier for the auto focusing system and also for you to compose it in the field. If you do not have zone focusing then you might have to resort to using all focusing points. Also, with newer DSLRs, the 3-D tracking seems to have been improved considerably. You might want to try it too (consult your camera manual).

Birds in Flight Photography

6. Track Before You Photograph

Most often it is our tendency to start photographing the moment we see the bird taking off or flying away. That’s natural but wrong.

Photographing birds in flight takes patience. After waiting for a very long time you wouldn’t want to lose the opportunity. When you see a bird in flight, track the bird until the autofocusing system gets enough time to lock the focus. Once it is locked, you can fire off as many shots as you want without losing the focus.

Tip number 1 and 7 coupled with this tip will help you to make successful flight photographs.

Birds in Flight Photography

7. Wait till You Get the Best or Contrasting Background

Okay, assume that you are tracking the bird to get the focus to lock, but your lens is hunting for focus. If you understand how focusing systems work, then you will have better control over your photographs. Remember that the focusing system needs good enough contrast between the subject and the background. It is generally very easy for the autofocusing system to lock the focus when the bird is flying against a clean background like a blue sky.

With practice, you will discover the capabilities of your camera’s autofocusing system which will in turn enable you to make better flight photographs.

Birds in Flight Photography

8. Take-off and Landing Shots

Most birds often defecate before they take-off to lighten their load. This is a very important clue to get fantastic take-off shots. Of course, it also depends on your position and the light direction to get the most of the situation.

Wind direction plays a major role in getting better take-off and landing shots since birds often fly into the wind while taking off and landing. It is wise to stand with your back facing the wind, very similar to the way you would face your back to the sun.

Purple Heron Landing in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary or Keoladeo Nationa Park in Rajastan

Purple Heron landing in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary or Keoladeo Nationa Park in Rajastan

9. Get Creative with Silhouettes

Photographing silhouettes of birds in flight is much easier than you might imagine.

The brighter sky, to which you would expose, gives you a good enough shutter speed and also provides very good contrast for autofocus system to lock the focus.

What is more important in the silhouette shot is the definitive shape of the bird. Because the bird is going to be dark or featureless, you have to get the shape of the bird properly. If the shape is not defined then you won’t be able to make it work, no matter how beautiful the sky is.

Birds in Flight Photography

10. Pay Attention to the Composition

It is probably not as tough as you may think to get the decent composition in the field for birds in flight photographs. You just have to follow the Rule of Thirds guidelines so that you have enough breathing space, or room for the bird to fly in its direction.

It makes sense to use Rule of Thirds because you would want to keep the bird in the left of the frame if it is flying towards your right so that you do not clip its wings and vice versa.

Perfect Reflection of a Seagull Taking off during  Sunset in a Lake in Grayslake, IL, US. I love the reflection in this slightly frozen lake and the white plumage of the Seagull contrasting against the dark background.

Perfect reflection of a seagull taking off during sunset in a lake in Grayslake, IL, US. I love the reflection in this slightly frozen lake and the white plumage of the seagull contrasting against the dark background.

If the bird is taking off from ground level then you would want to keep the bird in the lower third position of the frame so that it takes off upwards. Keep the bird in the upper third position if it takes off downwards.

Conclusion

If you practice these 10 tips while photographing birds in flight, you will make better photographs for sure. It takes time to practice and make them your second nature, but it is worth a try.

If you like my photographs of birds in flight, they are the result of my 7+ years of photography. Very important thing to remember is, no photographer gets fantastic photographs every time he/she presses the shutter. There will be hundreds, or even thousands, of hopeless photographs before getting one photograph that is worth sharing.

You have got to have patience!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Prathap DK

is a professional nature photographer and the founder of V-BLESSED Framework, A Powerful Learning Platform for Bird Photographers. V-BLESSED is the first ever framework developed to help bird photographers to learn in a systematic manner. It’s unlike any other course ever created for novice and amateur bird photographers. Download his FREE eBook, Bird Photography – 10 Mistakes and Solutions, which has helped over 10,000 bird photographers to rapidly improve their skills.

  • That’s the thing. ISO 3200 on 60D is out of question – too grainy. I try to keep it under 800. Hence the full frame in the works.

  • Kirsty Wilson

    That I can understand. I never went above 1600 ISO on the 40D as it was horrid. That’s also why I purchased the 6D because the ISO can deal with the horrid lighting conditions I deal with where I cannot use a flash.

    Really hope you enjoy the 5D πŸ™‚ Full frame is definitely the way to go.

  • Bruce Henderson

    Much of my bird photography is birds within foliage. Often these guys are actively foraging, constantly moving, and vacating their positions within seconds. Artful poses are desirable but very often a matter of good fortune. As a result, my bird photo friends and I have discussed settings and arrive at what we believe to work for us, with some variations, of course.

    We also shoot handheld, by the way (one gent uses a shortened monopod tucked under his arm with good success). For general use I rely on shutter priority set at 1/800 second and let my aperture and ISO float. I read a blog describe how the camera’s software, when set to shutter priority, would prioritize a wider aperture before it raises the ISO. This works for me by giving a shutter to adequately freeze most motion, a wider aperture for minimum depth of field (can be problematic if the bird is too close – wing in focus but eye is not), and an ISO often acceptable (Canon 5DIII controls noise well into upper reaches). Lens used is exclusively Canon 400mm f5.6. Tracking and AF modes are still being worked out, but the effort is enjoyable. I also use high-speed burst mode and AI Servo for auto focus. Oh, I also use back-button focus, center-weighted averaging for exposure, and expanded spot-focus (9 points). Sorry for this lengthy entry.

  • Dre Mosley

    Shot during my lunchbreak.

  • Ian Scott

    Haven’t done too much bird photography; however this cheeky parrot used to come into my garden every morning to feast on sunflowers, I used to sit and wait for him, he got greedy on this occasion and took the whole flower head for his breakfast. Just to illustrate that birds don’t have to be in flight to get interesting pics πŸ™‚

  • Suyog Padhye

    This was clicked while boating in sea….could you help for the shadows under wings, to be seen brighter

  • chrysmarty

    YUP, got it. Once I worked it all out, It was like getting a new camera again. Excited and inspired.

  • Great tips! I am self taught Photographer . I usually shoot in Manual Mode i can adjust according to the situation that ways

  • Joseph Charles Cosenza-Weaver

    Great tips

  • Philip Bull

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/104e0b55be6e1a1b37946db2f120f460cc50dc6af99a95db19482bfb5f8e9a1f.jpg Captured this in Alaska where bald eagles are as common as pigeons here in NY–well almost.

  • Kiran Gurunath

    Hi,
    Any tips on which tripods to use?

    regards,
    Kiran G

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