How To Photograph Birds In Flight

Try these tips and techniques to let your bird photography soar to new heights

As my photography evolved, so did the desire to capture more than a basic image of a given songbird, raptor, shorebird, wader, etc. While I still happily press the shutter when I see a great head or full body image through the viewfinder, my ultimate goal when I head into the field to make photos of birds is the flight shot. But just because a bird takes flight and I record it on my memory card doesn’t make it a great photo. Numerous factors come into play including flight path, wing position, sharpness of all feathers, backgrounds, light and more. For this week’s tip, I share with you a number of aspects toward which you should strive to get the best photos of birds in flight.

Make Practice Easy

Work with common subjects at a local park that frequent the area. The more attempts you get to make and evaluate, the faster you can improve. Local duck ponds, shorelines and places with feeders are good places to start. The birds are used to seeing people, dogs on leashes, joggers or simply those who take a stroll. Start small and don’t worry about filling the frame with the bird. Simply practice the other concepts found in this week’s tip and as you progress, zoom your lens to a longer focal length or use a longer lens to make your images.

Study Bird Behavior

Take your birds in flight photography to the next level and capture some sort of behavior. It produces images with more impact. Make images in the spring as nesting material is carried in their beaks or talons. Find a nest and capture them as they bring food to their young.

Wind Direction

Birds take off and land into the wind. It helps them gain elevation more quickly and assists in slowing them down as them near their perch. Find a bird that has a favorite perch and evaluate the wind. Leave room in front of it based on wind direction so when it takes off, there’s more room in front of the bird in which it can fly. Do the same relative to its perch when it lands.

Wings Up, Wings Down

My favorite wing position is when both are fully up or fully down. It’s best when there’s symmetry between them. If one wing is partially up while the other is fully extended, symmetry doesn’t exist. Follow the flight of the bird as you pan your movement with it and evaluate each frame for the best wing placement.

Freeze The Primaries

With many birds, it’s more difficult to get the wing tips of the primaries tack sharp based on both depth of field and the speed at which the primaries move relative to the rest of the feathers. Raise your ISO so you can attain a fast enough shutter speed to freeze them. Each bird has a different speed at which it flaps its wings. It’s essential you learn this rate so you know what your minimum shutter speed can be.

Show Some Environment

It’s not always necessary to fill the frame with the bird. As a matter of fact, if you show the environment in which it flies, it establishes a sense of place and the image can often have more impact and tell the story about the subject.

The Take Off

Work with birds that enjoy water and work the take off and landing photos. As the birds run across the water to gain lift off speed, a trail of water is left behind. When backlit, it can provide extremely powerful settings for the subject. The same can happen when it lands as it skids across the water and sends up droplets.

The Landing

Find a bird that has a favorite perch, and each time it comes back to land, start making photos before it arrives at the branch. This way, you get the dramatic photo of the extended feet of the bird as it gets ready to alight on the branch. 

Include Reflections Of Birds In Flight

Work the birds at a local water pond or lake and listen for the weather report at sunrise or sunset. When you’re informed it’s going to be a calm morning or evening, head to the water as it will be still. As the bird takes off or lands, zoom to a wider setting and be sure to include the reflection. For all intents and purposes, it doubles the image real estate as the reflection becomes an integral part of the composition.

Stop Motion With Flash

With birds that have extremely fast wing speed, use flash to stop the motion. In order to make this work, the birds have to be tolerant of close proximity of you and your camera. When the flash is close to the subject, the duration is so short, in essence it’s faster than the speed at which the bird flaps its wings. This is what allows a hummingbird’s wings to be revealed even though it flaps its wings at a rate of 150 to 200 times a second.

Skimming The Water

When you work with birds that take off and land on water, strive to get what I call the “skimming the water” photo. It’s when the bird flies close to the surface and the wing tips skim across the water and slice a line across the surface. It adds another dimension of impact to the composition.

Slow Shutter To Capture Birds In Flight

When light levels drop or when it’s cloudy and too gray to attain a shutter speed that allows you to freeze the wings, let the lack of light be your ally. Intentionally slow the shutter down and utilize a panning technique. The idea is to attain a painterly quality to the wings but get a sharp head and face. I guarantee you will discard upwards of 90 percent of the images, but when you get that “one,” it feels great.

More Than One

Look for situations where more than one bird can be incorporated into a composition. What you want to be aware of is where in the frame the birds fall, what the interaction is between the two and how well they come together to make a strong connection. The goal is to not simply place two birds in the photo. As a matter of fact, it may hurt if one of the birds is cut off, merges with the other or flies too close to the edge of the frame.

Include a Bonus Feature

Often, the addition of a sky element that complements the flighted subject can work as a bonus. A puffy fair-weather cloud, a soft pink one at sunrise or sunset, a subdued sun that softly glows from behind a thin cloud or a moon can provide points of a sky that add a taste of the environment to the photograph.

To learn more about this subject, join me on a photo safari to Tanzania. Visit www.russburdenphotography.com to get more information.

Photography is what motivates me to move through life in a positive way. Photography is All About The Light and it’s the first thing I seek out before I press the shutter. Optimally, I pursue great subjects in great light, but if there’s an ordinary subject in great light, I still press the shutter. I love to share the photographic knowledge I’ve accumulated and I hope my enthusiasm is contagious so I can motivate others to feel the same way I do about my photography.