Bird flight photography is a challenge. Advancements in digital capture provide an improved chance of coming home with great images, but by no means does it guarantee you'll get the shot. While there are many general tricks and techniques one needs to employ to come home with fantastic flight shots, let me get you started and share five of mine, so you don't have to "wing" it.
The Common Subject: Birds that are commonly found and have tolerance around people are great to get you started. They allow you to capture full-frame shots with shorter lenses. This is a huge plus considering that top of the line prime 500mm and 600mm lenses cost upwards of $9,000. The commonly found "tame" species can often be photographed with a 200mm lens, which most of us own. Head to a local duck pond in an urban setting to find tame birds. They're used to seeing people walking dogs, jogging or simply taking a stroll.
Behavior: To take your flight photography to the next level, capture behavior rather than a mere record shot. Even though a bird in flight shows behavior, take it to the next level, and your image will receive greater acclaim. Set the focus priority to Continuous Dynamic and let the lens follow the action. The osprey pictured here was ready to land on his favorite perch. To capture a moment like this produces an image with more impact than if the osprey simply flew in the sky.
Use Flash: The duration of a flash can be much quicker than the duration of your fastest shutter speed. This allows stop-action imagery of very fast-moving subjects. As in the case of a hummingbird whose wings can flap at a rate of 150 to 200 times a second, flash greatly enhances the chance of stopping the wings in mid beat. As seen in the accompanying image, the wings are sharp as a result of my using flash as the main light. I used one flash mounted on a stand to the right of the subject as a main light, a second to the left as fill and another to illuminate the background. Given the soft ambient light Mother Nature provided the day on which the image was made, the fastest shutter speed I could have used was 1/125. It would have been impossible to mimic the effect that the flash provided.
More Than One: If a display of behavior isn't in the cards based on the bird's mood, to bring the image to a higher level, look for situations where more than one bird is incorporated into a composition. Be aware of where in the frame the birds fall, what the interaction is between them and how well they come together to make a strong connection. If you simply place two or more birds in a photo, it doesn't dictate it will be better than just one. As a matter of fact, it may hurt if one is cut half way off or it flies too far out of the frame. It's important to leave room in the frame for the birds to fly. In the accompanying image of the sandhill cranes, the birds have room to fly across the composition, the wing positions fit like puzzle pieces, and the early morning light is warm and soft in color.
Include a Bonus Feature: Often, the addition of a dramatic sky element complements the flighted subject. A puffy fair weather cloud, a soft pink one at sunrise or sunset, a subdued sun softly glowing from behind a thin cloud or a moon all add taste to the image. While it's obvious the sky is the environment in which a bird takes flight, adding a point of interest is not always easy. With this in mind, if the opportunity presents itself, take full advantage and fire away.