Photographing Birds In Flight

All of my best tips for what can be a very challenging pursuit
Photographing birds in flight: a common tern

Common tern with fish landing on a beach in Massachusetts.

Photographing birds in flight is an art form. Truly. For a subset of wildlife photographers, it’s also an addiction. It can present formidable challenges, but the payoffs can be hugely satisfying. It’s easy to get hooked on those payoffs. There’s nothing like bringing all your senses and skills to bear on a small creature moving so fast your eye can barely keep up with it, let alone your camera, and then discovering that you have absolutely nailed the shot, and captured a pose that shows the glorious colors and patterns of a bird’s plumage—and, somehow, the spirit and essence of flight.

I can’t pretend to know everything about photographing birds in flight, but I will say that this article is my attempt to share with you every single thing I know that has helped me to achieve successful photos of flying birds. I really want to help you master this art form. As photographers in this digital age, we certainly have the tools to do so, and those tools are improving all the time. But we need to know which tools to use and when and what specialized skills are necessary for this very specific kind of wildlife photography.

Gear For Photographing Birds In Flight

First of all, let’s address gear. Speaking broadly, you need a camera that can capture at a rate of at least seven frames per second and a hand-holdable lens from 300mm to 600mm. I say “hand-holdable” simply because I believe that’s generally the best way to photograph flying birds successfully; however, there certainly are photographers who prefer to use tripods and are successful.

In terms of lenses, prime telephotos have historically offered better optical quality than zooms, but rapid advances in digital technology are changing that hard-and-fast rule, and some zoom lenses are capable of sharp, high-quality images. More than anything, you want a “fast lens,” one with a maximum aperture of ƒ/5.6 or larger, preferably ƒ/4 or ƒ/2.8. These are called fast lenses because they let more light in, and thus they can achieve the same exposure with a faster shutter speed.

Teleconverters are essential tools for extending your reach, though they will cut down on your light and speed. A 1.4x teleconverter reduces the maximum aperture of the lens by one stop, so my 600mm ƒ/4 becomes an ƒ/5.6 lens. I usually start out with my teleconverter attached if I have good light with which to work. If I’m having trouble tracking a bird, I will take the teleconverter off, as I always have an easier time grabbing focus with just my 600mm ƒ/4. This is true with both the Canon and Nikon pro bodies and lenses I’ve used.

What if you don’t want a big lens or can’t afford one? There are some spots where birds are practically tame, flying considerably closer to people than usual, like in much of Florida; here you can get away with a 70-200mm lens and come up with great shots of terns flying around the beach or pelicans diving into the ocean at close range. There are also destinations where birds congregate in large numbers at certain times of the year, offering opportunities for wide-angle lens photography, like snow geese and sandhill cranes in Bosque del Apache, New Mexico, in fall and winter. But for the truly serious photographer of birds in flight, long lenses are critical.

Steady Shooting

If you handhold, try to think of your body as a tripod. Take a firm stance with your legs placed comfortably apart, tuck both elbows into your sides for stability, and swivel at the waist as you pan with the bird. Remove the tripod collar if you want to reduce weight, and consider removing your lens hood if there is a brisk wind to lessen the drag. If you use a tripod or monopod, gimbal heads provide the best panning motion for birds in flight.

Weather & Light

Being in tune with light and weather conditions is absolutely critical for successful photography of birds in flight. That’s one of the things that I love about this kind of photography—it requires me to be in close touch with the elements, with the quality and angle of light and the direction and strength of the wind. At this point in my photography life, if the wind and sun are not at my back, I tend to avoid shooting birds in flight. Of course, I make exceptions, as I love to experiment with backlighting, but this is a general rule for me. I’ve learned from much trial and error that if the sun is rising and I stand with it behind me, but the wind is blowing from the west, all I will get are well-lit bird butts. Why? Because, as I am sure many readers know, birds fly into the wind. They even tend to sit facing into the wind when they are resting, always ready to flee in case of danger. So, if the sun is coming from behind you but the wind is coming from the opposite direction, the birds will be flying away from you. You always want things to align—wind and sun coming from the same direction—as much as possible. That means a westerly wind in the evening, an easterly wind in the morning.

Photographing birds in flight: northern harrier hunting

A northern harrier hunts low over a field in Mission Valley, Montana.

I keep a lookout for periods of strong wind, particularly in winter, as they provide a great opportunity to photograph birds in flight. The wind will slow the birds down considerably as they fly against it, making them easier targets for your AF system. It’s also a good time to find raptors hover hunting, such as rough-legged hawks and kestrels.

A note about light: Try to photograph flying birds only in good light. Low-angled sunlight is best, but bright overcast conditions can work very well, too. What you want to avoid is photographing birds when the sun is bright and high. You will get lots of shadows under the bird that will cause unappealing contrast. There are many apps available to help you predict light angle and weather conditions. Two of my favorites are TPE (The Photographer’s Ephemeris) and Dark Sky.

Head & Body Angle

The angles of the bird’s body and head in relation to your camera are crucial considerations. A head that is parallel to your lens is fine, but a head slightly turned to you is better. A head slightly turned away usually fails to engage the viewer and is simply not worth pressing the shutter for.

In terms of the body, is it just past you in its flight path? This is less powerful. Have the bird either flying toward the point directly ahead of your lens or parallel with it. As for composition, try to leave more room in front of the bird when shooting by choosing AF points to the side. If that’s too tough (as it is for me), you can do this in post-processing, placing more room in front of the bird than behind.

Predicting Flight

I am always preaching the importance of learning about the behavior of your wild subjects. This case is no different. Recognizing the signs of impending flight will help you to prepare and increase your chance of getting the shot and getting it right. Telltale signs include when the bird lightens its load (defecates), suddenly looks more alert, lifts its head high and looks around, or intently points into the wind. Think about your positioning vis-à-vis the bird, and if you can without disturbing it, place yourself in its projected flight path, meaning upwind of it.

Background Matters

You hear a lot about the importance of background for bird portraits. It’s just as important for birds in flight. Sometimes a bird flying against a blue background can be appealing, but often it makes for a less-than-interesting shot, and the same bird against a mountain range or sea of grass can be stunning. If you have a choice, wait until the bird is flying low enough so that there is some interesting color or texture behind it. This may mean you need to change your own position, getting higher if possible. Birds against a white, overcast sky can be deadly, too, unless you are purposely going for an artistic, high-key look.

Prolific Practice

This is definitely a case where practice is absolutely essential if you want to improve your skills. I always suggest practicing at a local park where birds are used to people. Gulls are a terrific target, as they are usually around, and they provide a great opportunity to perfect your exposure skills on white birds. Go to your town dump or a hydroelectric dam to find them. Your development of skillful hand-eye coordination is critical.

Having trouble finding birds where you live? Go to a hometown soccer or basketball game and practice on the fast-moving athletes to experiment with different settings.

Camera Settings For Photographing Birds In Flight

Shutter speed is always the first thing I’m thinking about. I don’t like to photograph flying birds under 1/1600 sec. and will go as high as 1/4000, or even 1/5000 for hummingbirds, swallows and other speedsters if I have the available light. Get comfortable with high ISOs, and be familiar with how far you can push your camera until the noise becomes unacceptable. Use continuous focus (AF-C on a Nikon, AI Servo on a Canon). Shoot wide open, using your largest aperture. Use high speed/continuous burst mode. Find out what the fastest memory card is for your camera and buy it, and use respected, well-known brands. Employ the focus limiter on your lens if you know you’re working only within a certain range. Turn Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction off as it can slow down focus acquisition of the subject. Set your focus tracking sensitivity to the slow setting (once you acquire focus, this keeps the camera from refocusing if the focus point slips off).

Photographing birds in flight: roseate spoonbill

A roseate spoonbill touches down on a sandbar in Tampa Bay, Florida.

What about autofocus settings? These are, of course, central to this discussion. Most important is to get to intimately know your camera’s AF system. Get a dummy guide to your camera model or one of the many books written by leading camera experts using plain language. For a long time, I used only center point focus, as I thought that was the best way to ensure I didn’t lock on anything but the bird. Many people find they prefer using expanded focus areas. It will differ for each person, and you just have to test out the various options on your camera to discover what works best for you. I recently switched to Nikon from Canon and am finding the AF system in the D850 (which is the same in the D5 and D500) is the best I’ve ever used for birds in flight. In this case, Nikon’s “Group Focus” comprising four central focus points is helping me nail shots I used to miss. This was a big reason for my switch.

You will mostly want to shoot in Manual mode. Only in this mode does your exposure stay the same no matter how the background changes in tone or color behind your moving bird. When I first started out, I used Aperture Priority (and that is certainly a useful mode to keep in mind when the ambient light is changing), but I soon realized that my exposure changed rapidly as background changed and that I needed to use Manual mode to advance in my skills.

Study The Art

Feast your eyes on images of birds in flight. Browse Google image search, visit photography forums and follow the social media pages of bird photographers you admire. Train your eye. As I have said, this is an art form, and you need to study the art. This is imperative for your learning process. What do you find beautiful and why? What’s been done to death? How can you come up with something different?

Ethical Considerations

Many people use multiflash set-ups on hummingbirds to great effect. With most birds, though, flash doesn’t work as they are too far away. Use of flash at night on birds that are nocturnal should be avoided. These birds rely on their night vision to hunt and to see where they are going. A flash may temporarily blind them (even if just for a very brief moment) and cause injury.

Never intentionally flush a bird to get a flight shot. It may be tempting to compel birds like owls and other raptors to fly, but it’s unkind and unethical. Birds perch for a reason—in general, to rest or to hunt. By forcing them off their perch, you are interfering with their natural processes and causing them to unnecessarily expend valuable energy. Please keep in mind that these are just photos to us, but to wild animals, every moment is about survival.

Rules For Photographing Birds In Flight: A Caveat

I’ve shared here what I see as some basic rules of flight photography. But as always, rules are meant to be broken, and I would never want anyone to think they would have to follow a particular formula in order to do beautiful work. For instance, photographing birds in flight with a slow shutter speed to purposely create blur can make for spectacular images. So get out there, experiment, develop your unique style, and above all, have fun!

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.
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