Birds In Flight

Bird flight photography is a challenge

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.

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20 Comments

    These articles are great for new folks like me in the photography world. Look forward to having a summary of these articles in magazine or maybe associated website

    This article is full of misinformation. It would not help anyone with flight shots. It doesn’t discuss exposure, and completely omits shutter speed. It suggests using a flash – – really? The only application for flash photography would be for hummingbirds in flight. The example photo of the cranes has terrible dark shadows and is incredibly bland. It talks about 500mm and 600mm lenses – which would never be your first choice for in flight shots. With so many good, knowledgeable writers out there, why do magazines publish this recycled drivel?

    I just love articles like this. The tips and hints are so welcome and make a huge difference in my photography! Lots of new things to try to take it to the next level. Thanks so much Russ!!

    As a nature photographer whose “birds in flight” shots are currently on a five year tour of U.S. and Canadian museums, I must take exception with this article. Flash is not necessary and in my opinion an intrusion. At 1/2000 shutter speed you should be able to capture a hummingbird “frozen in flight.” Shutter priority, exposure compensation, vibration reduction lenses and much more would be helpful to newcomers to bird photography.

    After taking a workshop on using flash with birds, I find it very helpful to lessen harsh shadows in side-lit situations and to light a bird in the shade, especially with a bright background. I haven’t noticed that they are affected at all – their behavior doesn’t appear to change. I’ve used a 500 mm lens, sometimes hand held, for flight shots, although it certainly is much easier on a tripod with a gimbal.

    It sure looks like the bottom and top birds pictured are the very same bird, just photoshopped into a pattern. Too many markings on the birds to be coincidental. However, overall content of material good.

    Hello – I’m a birding photographer for iBird Pro and also BirdsEye for the iPhone. As one other pointed out, exposure compensation is key especially for in flight shots which are in the distance and flash is of no help. For in flight shots I like to expose anywhere from +1 to +3. If shooting hummingbirds, I would recommend starting at 1/1600 but I’ve shot them as fast as 1/6400. No flash was ever used razor sharp late in the day with no Image Stabilization available on a 400mm lens – hand held. Auto ISO in many cases is your best choice as you’ve got too much to worry about in Tv mode, swapping from Single Shot to Servo modes, AF focus points (a single AF point is only useful for stationary birds and you are best not served recomposing..learn to move those focus points around, become proficient and get more hits)and so on. Also, one mistake many of us make is we photograph the birds at too close of a range. Know the MFD, minimum focus distance of your lens.

    I do things a bit differently than most. I actually use a single AF point and one shot, continuos drive.
    For hummingbirds, I first learn a birds territory and habits, then I will pre-focus on a flower it visits often and wait. I often shoot handheld with a 70-200 2.8 IS on a canon 70D. If a bird is very frightful, I use a tripod and remote.
    I shoot hummingbirds between 1/800 ( I like a sharp body and some wing blur and it is a cloudy day) and 1/1600 for sharp wings on a sunny day( plus at 100 ISO I have to shoot at this high or it’s overexposed.
    For in flight, I use a 100 to 400 and I still prefocus on the branch of a perched bird and wait for it to take off. Again I get to know the bird and it’s habits.
    Most birds will go back to the same perch/s over and over.
    A lot has to do with tons of patience and some luck on your side.

    The top and bottom cranes ARE exactly the same bird. Good call on that one. If you want to show an example and you have to fake a photo, at least make some cosmetic changes to one of the copies. At least move a couple feathers, add a little doubt. 🙂 I don’t do this as a rule, but I’m not a commercial photographer. In some cases, I’m sure a little manipulation is essential to sell a photo on a deadline.

    Very disappointing to see a shot posted as an example that has been manipulated in such a way. Not what I’ve grown to expect from OP. Flash can be a useful tool but not as a primary lighting technique, thanks to Chris Dodd for showing me how to use just a touch of flash to give some detail to the underside of wings etc.

    Very disappointing to see a shot posted as an example that has been manipulated in such a way. Not what I’ve grown to expect from OP. Flash can be a useful tool but not as a primary lighting technique, thanks to Chris Dodd for showing me how to use just a touch of flash to give some detail to the underside of wings etc.

    A few good thoughts in this article. “capture behavior rather than a mere record shot.” I agree with this.
    However, I disagree with some of what he states, and as others pointed out, He does not even provide any camera settings as examples! and yes, can we say Photoshop? Dang OP, where are your real pros? I find that many of the articles on OP are written by people that really don’t know what they are talking about. I’ve been a pro photographer for over 30 years. I’ve seen just about everything.

    All – Thanks for the comments regarding my article. I appreciate all feedback. I find that bird photographers take much ownership in the techniques they use to capture their images. As I always profess, if the end result is the same and provides great shots, then use what works for you. Two things: Phil, James and David – you are correct – the top and bottom sandhill is the same. I regret using this image as an example and should have looked more closely at my file before including this one. In actuality, I had it labeled for a PS How To article. Do not put down OP for my oversight – I take my teaching and photography very seriously. Next time I’ll also include exposure settings. With regards to flash, please note I specifically reference hummingbirds. While I do use flash as a source of fill for flight shots, the only time I use it as a main light is for hummingbirds. I hope this helps calm the storm.

    After over five years shooting local birds,such as Osprey, Heron, Black Skimmers & Pelicans I have the following recommendations.
    1. Shoot in great light, sun behind you on the bird.
    2. Use a great camera: 12 megapixel or higher, with multi shot capability 4-5 frames per sec.
    3. Use great lens like a Canon 70-200 EF 2.8 and a 1.4 extender.
    4.Study you subject, go sit nearby the nesting area. Learn the calls, flight pattern, watch the wind to know how and from which direction they land.
    5. My camera settings to start: ISO 400, shutter speed 1250 to 1600, image stabilizer OFF, multi shot ON, multi point focus ON, quality RAW, prefocus lens near infinity.
    6. My equipment: Canon 6D or 60D, Canon 70-200 2.8 lens.
    Patience

    all very interesting even if the article generated some negativity. I am sure some salient points can be garnered from it. I need all the help I can get, so thank for the article and the comments it generated.

    Your picture of the 3 Sandhill cranes is a very nice composition. What I missed in your article was the fact that you were talking about “post production” of the composition. Three pictures of the same Bird with a different wing position worked well and a lot easier to get than to wait for an actual shot with 3 birds in the frame. Not a criticism but just an observation. Thanks for the article and information.

    Robert, your observation seems to be correct. I would definitely go one step further, and make a criticism. This is not the kind of wildlife photography that I would expect to be published in Outdoor Photographer. There is no mention that it is a composite. I have made and seen numerous similar photos of multiple birds that illustrate the point being made. It actually takes skill and some degree of luck to actually compose and make an image of this type.

    All – The image of the sand hill cranes was to be used as a before/after for a Photoshop tip I was writing. In posting, it got mixed up as to its placement. In that the comments were stripped as this is a re-post, the explanation was lost. Hope this helps!

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