How to Photograph Birds in Flight:
Snowy owl in flight, Canada
Exposure:1/2500 at f/8, ISO 100
One of the most difficult and rewarding techniques that any aspiring bird photographer must learn to tackle is when their subjects take to the air. Birds in flight or BIF are fast, tricky, and hard to predict. Here are some of my tips and tricks on how to capture and freeze the motion of these beautiful creatures carving their way through the air.
When you are learning how to capture birds in flight, the first step is to bring yourself somewhere where birds are actively flying. You want the best chance to have repeated attempts so that you can practice. Some great places to check out are beaches and local parks where birds often gather year round and are accustomed to seeing people. One of my favorite places to photograph birds in flight is Iceland. During the summer months hundreds of puffins nesting in the cliffs repeatedly depart their burrows and return shortly after often with beaks chock full of fish. There are great spots like this to photograph puffins in Alaska, Maine and Newfoundland. Finding a spot near you to where you can spend time and practice photographing birds in flight is the best way to get started.
Horned puffin in flight, Alaska Photography Workshop
Exposure:1/3200 at f/7.1, ISO 640
Once you've found your birds, observe them for a while. When they are hunting or feeding, birds often repeat behaviors and fly paths. They will take off into the wind and land against it. Knowing this is part of being prepared to guess what the birds will do when in flight.
Gear for capturing birds in flight is simpler than you might think. Aside from your dslr or mirrorless camera, you will also need a telephoto lens with a wide aperture. I often use my Sigma 50-500mm as the zoom, range and weight are a perfect fit for me. We will discuss settings in a moment. First, let's go over stability. I have found that the best way to photograph a BIF is to hand hold my camera and lens. Tripods are very useful tools, but are cumbersome in this situation. You need to be quick! The way that you hold your camera and lens must be firm but your body must be loose and flexible so that you can turn and move to follow the animal.
The next important step is to get the bird in your frame. This is often the most difficult part for beginners, patience is key. Keep your eyes locked on your subject following it's movement. Then bring your camera up to your eye. This is the technique you would use with any spotting whether it be binoculars or a scope. If you are having trouble, practice on a perched or resting bird first. If you are still having trouble find a "landmark" near the bird then try to find that through in your viewfinder first. Use your landmark to guide you to getting the nearby bird in the frame. Practice this way until you feel comfortable. Start with your camera zoomed out farther than you would want for the photograph until you can reliably bring the camera up to your eye with the bird in frame. Then zoom in farther and repeat until you are getting your bird and feel ready to start creating photographs.
Lesser scaup in flight, Maryland, United States
Exposure:1/3200 at f/7.1, ISO 800
Beginner settings: Tv on Canon, Pentax, Leica / or “S” on Nikon, Minolta, Konica Minolta, Sony, Olympus, Sigma
Shutter Priority Mode is a good mode for beginners to start with as it allows the camera's "brain" to do some of the fast thinking for you. Select a very fast shutter speed to begin with. How fast? Well it depends on your gear because the lowest aperture would be best to bring in more light and let you use a low ISO for image quality. Sound complicated already? Okay don't worry. Start with a shutter speed of 1/2000, if that is too fast for your gear use 1/1600. Shutter Priority mode will automatically adjust your aperture and ISO for you while keeping a static shutter speed.
If you are using automatic focusing, try selecting very few points for the camera to look at, or just select Center Point Focus. Next, put the camera in AI Servo Mode. Servo mode tells the camera to lock onto a focal plane and attempt to track the subject. This is perfect for "chasing" a moving subject with your lens! Next you will want to check your metering. Part of the difficulty with metering is that the bird will often fly from one area to a completely different area. As the background changes, so does the exposure. I prefer Spot Metering when photographing BIF, and I check my histograms often to ensure that things are working as intended. Another important setting is your Drive Mode which controls how fast your camera captures images. When photographing motion, select High Speed Continuous which will allow you to capture a rapid fire burst of photographs.
Testing things and experimenting with your settings is a great way to get to know and understand your camera.
Great grey owl in flight, Canada
Exposure:1/3200 at f/7.1, ISO 640
Pro level settings: If this isn't your first rodeo, or you want to jump in to things right away, start shooting in manual. I love shooting birds in flight in manual as it gives me total control. I already know exactly what I want to achieve. I want a clean blurry background and a sharp bird with minimal blurring to the wings. Here is my secret to BIF my way. I shoot in manual mode with a fast shutter speed of at least 1/2500 or higher to minimize motion blur. More often than not I am at 1/3200 as for me that seems to be the sweet spot for photographing larger birds like owls. I use a small aperture, the lowest number my lens can do. With my Sigma 50-500 this is often f/6.3 or f7.1 so that my background is as blurred as possible. I further utilize my depth of field by physically getting low to the ground to add distance between the camera, subject and background. The farther away you are from the background, the more blur it will have when shooting wide open.
Next, I use ISO as my variable. In my 7D I can half depress the shutter and see a green exposure bar based on my current settings. I bump my ISO up or down to correct over or under exposure. I typically stay within a range of 200-800 ISO depending on the lighting situation. Anything more than ISO 800 and the image quality really starts to take a hit.
The final trick I do is to either use center point focus or to go all out and focus manually! It might seem crazy but I prefer this method. I "roll" the focus through as the bird moves to follow its movement. I find that I miss fewer shots this way and I am able to track a bird from take off to landing. When manual focusing isn't possible, such as in winter when I am bundled up in thick gloves, I use the center point focus with AI Servo mode.
Final Thoughts: The last two things that I do are to make judgement calls regarding how "frozen" I want the bird to be in the frame and if I really want a low number aperture. With certain situations I like to see the edge of a bird's wing a little blurred. This helps create the appearance of movement in the image. To do that I turn down my shutter speed a bit, to something like 1/1250. Then there are a few times when I actually want the background to be in focus. Sometimes showing more of the environment in your composition helps to tell a story with your imagery. For me this is more often when photographing an owl perched camouflaged in a tree or a shorebird at the beach. These are all judgement calls that you as a photographer make in the field. This is the fun part and why you can stand next to another photographer and both have very different images of the same subject just based on your choice of settings and composition.
Hopefully these tips help you capture great photographs of birds in flight! Good luck out there and mostly importantly. have fun!
Want help in person? Check out the Photography Workshop page for my upcoming schedule of instructional trips.
Brown pelican in flight, Florida Birding Workshop
Exposure:1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 200