hints and tips

Photographing birds in flight can be one of the most challenging areas of photography, but it's not an activity solely restricted to professionals or 'specialists', nor is there a need for very high-end and expensive camera gear. It is one of the most rewarding activities which combines enthusiasm, challenge, the outdoors and the joy of achieving great end results. Patience however, is a key virtue!

This page contains information based upon my personal experiences of photographing birds in flight, using the equipment I have. Needless to say, different DSLR cameras have similar functionality to my Canon 70D and 7D MkII but, irrespective of brand, there are models within any brand that are more suitable than others for the demands of shooting birds in flight.

 

What do I take out with me?

My backpack containing:

Lowpro Flipside 400AW backpack

  • The Canon 7D MkII and Canon 100-400mm MkII f4.5 - f5.6L lens
  • Spare fully charged battery
  • Spare SD Card
  • Lens cleaning cloth and blower
  • Sometimes I also take one or more other lenses just in case I come across an opportunity to shoot landscape or maybe macro
  • Personally, I rarely use a tripod or monopod for birds in flight photography. I like to have the camera at the ready and be able to walk, turn and track birds quickly. I do occasionally use a tripod for bird portraits and certainly do for other types of photography if the situation requires.
  • I often spend hours walking around with a relatively heavy camera and telephoto lens around my neck. Recently, I developed neck pain which has been attributed to this. For me, the solution was to get hold of a camera slingstrap that goes across one shoulder. There are a number of makes and designs available and it is worth researching what's likely to suit you best to help prevent the issue arising in the first place.
  • A bottle of water (and maybe a sandwich!)

What Camera settings do I normally use for Flight shots?

Typically, on a sunny day, my camera and 100mm-400mm lens will be initially set up as follows, although I vary the settings throughout my walk depending on the lighting conditions, time of day and the type of bird I'm shooting. 

Canon 7D MkII and Canon 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II lens

  • 'M' setting (camera manual mode), which allows me to have control over what shutter speed, aperture and ISO to use
  • Auto ISO, because this gives me more flexibility with shutter speed and aperture.
  • A shutter speed of at least 1/1250th of a second
  • An aperture of f5.6 (the largest available on my lens when zoomed out at 400mm)
  • AI Servo (Continuous AF-C on a Nikon) to enable AF tracking
  • High speed continuous shooting (burst mode)
  • Autofocus area usually set to Large Zone AF (25 focus points) although as I become more experienced I often switch to smaller AF areas.
  • Tracking and Focus Sensitivity set to Case 3, although there are a number of other set ups available on the 7D MkII
  • Lens AF and Image Stabilisation set to ON and Mode II for panning

If you own a Canon 7D MkII and if you're interested in the details of how to set it up for birds in flight photography, I can highly recommend that you visit Tim Boyer's photography website where he provides in depth information on all aspects, including the autofocus options.

What makes a good bird in flight photograph?

What I think makes a good photograph may be different to what someone else thinks! Sometimes, just the sheer beauty or elegance of the bird(s) in flight is all that's required!

Nevertheless, I consider that a combination of two or more of the following are desirable:

A collage of bird flight photos

A collage of bird flight photos

  • the main subject is in focus (mandatory!)
  • an appealing background with little or no distraction
  • either total freeze of motion or slight blur just in the wing movement
  • the 'attitude' of the bird in flight e.g. take off, landing, diving, neck extension, wing position, body and leg position
  • other activity e.g. aerial combat, carrying food or prey or nest material
  • flight formation or symmetry
  • well framed and/or cropped to achieve a good overall composition
  • the overall aesthetic nature of the photo

When I first started photographing birds in flight, I used to think that some shots were really good. Now I've come to realise that, as time has passed and I've improved my technique and understanding, those earlier shots were not as good as I thought and the ones I'm taking these days are an improvement. I believe that I can improve much further because for me, it's an ongoing learning process.

What techniques do I use when out in the field?

Panning shot of a Common Tern

  • If you're just beginning to start taking flight photos, it's a good idea to practice with large birds such as Gulls, Ducks and Herons. These are not only common but probably also readily accessible in your local area.
  • Personally, I always shoot hand held because I've found it offers me greater flexibility; being able to walk, turn and move quickly when required.
  • Unless I'm specifically after a silhouette shot, I'll try to position myself so that the sun is behind me or to the side.
  • I always use the viewfinder because I found out very early on in my DSLR days that 'Live View' is impossible to use hand held, especially when tracking with a relatively heavy camera and lens combination.
  • It's sometimes easier to locate the bird in the viewfinder at a shorter focal length and then zoom in to establish proper focus. All too often I've missed shots because I was already at 400mm and just couldn't pick the bird up in frame quickly enough because, relatively speaking, it was already too close!
  • I often vary settings such as AF Zone, shutter speed and aperture depending upon the conditions, the type of bird and what effect I'm trying to achieve.
  • For example, I may try out a slow shutter speed of say 1/50th second and use a panning technique to get a blurred horizontal background whilst keeping the bird in focus using AF tracking. When panning, I make sure that I have a firm stance with legs slightly apart, one foot in front of the other and pivot from the waist while tracking. Once focus has been achieved, I take the shot but continue the panning action until after I've taken the shot. Failure to continue the panning movement will usually cause the photo to be slightly blurred or soft. 
  • Apart from always using AI Servo for continuous AF tracking I normally use continuous shooting (burst) mode to capture a series of shots in quick succession. It's amazing how much can change in a second with respect to the subject's attitude in flight and you can more or less guarantee that one shot in the sequence will stand out from the others. Personally, I rarely shoot more than five shots at any one time. If anything, I will take a burst of two or three and then wait a second or so before taking another burst.
  • The above technique doesn't work particularly well for very fast birds, such as Swifts and Swallows, because tracking and keeping the bird in focus and in frame is very difficult, even when employing the one of the various AF sensitivity options available. Basically, for small fast birds, if I get it in frame and in focus I just hold the shutter down for as long as I can before losing it in the viewfinder!
  • When trying to capture small birds in flight, I use a fast shutter speed (at least 1/2500th of a second in my experience), especially if I want to freeze wing movement. For Swifts and Swallows I shoot at or above 1/4000th of a second. Although I have some reasonably decent shots of small and fast birds in flight, I'm still trying to improve my technique.
  • Practising near a bird feeder is a good way to start. Use a tripod or have some means of supporting the camera for stability. The current technique I use is to initially focus on the bird feeder and once focus is achieved, switch the lens to manual mode and this will lock that focus in place. Point the camera to one side of the feeder until it's almost disappeared from view. With position and manual focus now set, it's far easier to spot a bird approaching the feeder using your eyes away from the viewfinder. When you see one approaching, depress the shutter and take a burst of shots. Be prepared to take plenty of shots as there will probably only be one or two 'keepers' out of dozens taken! Depending on how good the light is it's worth experimenting with aperture (to increase the depth of field), the degree of zoom used and shutter speed. Although I haven't yet used one, I do plan to try out a 'trigger trap' for this kind of photography at some point in the future.

Do You need to know much about birds?

Although not essential for getting good shots of birds in flight, your chances are likely to increase if you are able to learn something about the birds you want to shoot, for example:

Common Tern arriving with a fish for its chick

  • their habitats
  • their behaviour
  • when the mating season is
  • nest building times
  • chick hatching times
  • migratory visitors
  • their call or song
  • what times of day various birds are more likely to be flying

Resources are plentiful in books and on the Internet, but it could be just as enjoyable for you to join a local birding group or organisation. It's surprising how much additional information I've found out from local birders who I bump into on a day out with the camera. Such folk are usually very friendly and only too keen to offload information about the local birds. 

 

Where do you go to photograph birds?

I'm fortunate in that I live close to RSPB Reserve at Middleton Lakes which occupies approximately 160 hectares (400 acres) of what used to be gravel pits. It has a wealth of bird species, including winter migrants. I'm also close to a local reservoir, a countryside water park and a small area of land owned and managed by the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust (of which I'm a member) that has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). 

At the time of building this website I've photographed over 40 different species of birds in flight during the last two years and all within a radius of a few miles of where I live. It pays to find out what's around your local area and you may be surprised at what you come across.

A view from Bwlch Nant yr Arian overlooking the Melindwr Valley - Red Kite country!

At least once a year I get to go on holiday to the Ceredigion coastline of West Wales, where as you might imagine, there is a wealth of coastal bird species.

However, my favourite place (possibly in the whole world!) is the Forest Visitor Centre at Bwlch Nant yr Arian where I go to photograph Red Kites (which as part of a conservation initiative, get fed daily throughout the year). 

On most days leading up to feeding time the Red Kites come in from around about a ten mile radius and there are usually at least 100 flying around for an hour or so either side of feeding time, thereby giving ample opportunity to get some great flight shots. Last year I put together photo slideshow on Youtube of the "Red Kites of Ceredigion" which you can view here

 

Do you do any post processing?

I used to shoot in JPEG format only, until I bought a DSLR. I now shoot in RAW format only.

When shooting in RAW all of the data from the sensor is recorded and therefore provides the the highest quality files. The difference shooting in JPEG format is that the camera does it’s own processing to convert the RAW information into a JPEG. So when you shoot RAW you’re able to do that processing yourself and therefore make the decisions on how the image should look and produce far better results.

There are a number of software programs available and many camera manufacturers provide their own as part of the camera purchase.

Personally, I now use Adobe CC (Lightroom plus Photoshop) which can be bought on a monthly or annual subscription basis from Adobe. Of course, I had to learn how to use them and although I'm now reasonably fluent in using Lightroom, I have quite a long way to go to becoming an experienced user of Photoshop!

I do try to view all photos and rate them before deciding which one's to keep or delete. However, one of my weaknesses is that I don't always remember to go through this process because I'm just too eager to dive in and start editing! Unless I've taken a series of shots in burst mode, I tend to individually edit each photo I've decided to keep. Typical standard adjustments I make to a photo include the following:

  • Lens corrections
  • Tonal range (whites and blacks)
  • White balance
  • Clarity
  • Contrast
  • Shadows and Highlights
  • Sharpening
  • Noise reduction, when needed
  • Cropping

Red Kite flying ahead of the brewing storm

Cropping is an important element of post processing for birds in flight photography. Although you may try hard to get the bird in exactly the 'right' position in frame when taking the shot, it's often the case that some cropping will be required. Personally, I still feel that some of the well established 'rules of composition' do apply to birds in flight photos (e.g the Rule of Thirds, empty space surrounding the subject, background) but artistic licence can be equally valid.

Another question regarding cropping is how much to crop and whether or not to maintain the aspect ratio. The most likely reason I would have to crop is because the bird is too small in the frame. This happens because the lens I use, even at 400mm (or actually at 640mm when the 1.6x crop factor of the 7D MkII sensor is taken into account) didn't have sufficient reach. Nevertheless, just because a bird may be 'too far away' relatively speaking it doesn't mean to say that you shouldn't take the shot! It can always be deleted if not of sufficiently high enough quality after cropping.

Cropping the image in post processing is an excellent way of achieving the result you want by effectively making the bird larger in the frame whilst at the same time, ensuring that it doesn't become so large that the space around it is given up. To much cropping of course will also have the effect of reducing image quality/resolution. How much degradation depends on the size of the crop and the type of camera you have. Full frame cameras tend to allow quite aggressive cropping before quality is noticeably reduced. Much also depends on what media you want the image to appear on (print, website, TV). In my opinion, a high quality image is one that has good resolution and still looks sharp, with little noise at 100% crop.

I've learnt a couple of other techniques in post processing. On occasions I change the background by using one from a different image. I've done this sometimes because whereas I may have an amazing shot of a bird in flight, the background is a grey or uninteresting. Done carefully using software such as Photoshop, replacing a background can result in a far much better looking image. I sometimes shoot interesting skies to build a small library for possible future use. 

What obstacles do you come across when shooting birds in flight?

I was considering trying to write a 'Nature Photographer's Lament' or some kind of poem for this section, but unfortunately poetry doesn't come that easy to me! 

So, when out and about for the sole purpose of shooting birds in flight, you can expect any one or more of these things to happen:

Prime spot to photograph Red Kite feeding!

Prime spot to photograph Red Kite feeding!

  • The previous evening's weather forecast on TV turns out to be completely wrong
  • Although starting off sunny, it will cloud over as soon as you arrive at your photography destination
  • As you're getting out of your car and about to grab your gear, a bird that you've been trying to get shots of for the last twelve months flies over you and your camera's not even switched on yet
  • The sun will quickly disappear behind some clouds that came out of nowhere, just as your lining up a shot, causing you to have to change your settings
  • There are no birds flying for some reason
  • The only birds flying are those that are between you and the sun
  • You arrive early only to find that the spot you were planning to set up on is already occupied by other photographers
  • When tracking THE special bird you've never managed to capture before and you're ready to take the shot, autofocus won't focus for some unexplained reason
  • Birds will sneakily fly up behind you when you're scanning the empty skies in front of you
  • The birds you've been observing for the last hour just won't take off
  • You're panning and just about to take the shot and the bird flies behind a tree that you hadn't anticipated being there
  • You forget that you've still got camera settings from a previous shot that were just not suitable for the shot you've just taken
  • A bird is so close and large in the viewfinder that by the time you've zoomed back in, it's flown over your head
  • Birds very often fly away from your camera, leaving you with a 'bum' shot
  • Just when you're observing and planning your next shot, someone will appear out of nowhere and decide they want to talk to you
  • As you're exchanging chit chat with someone, a superb flypast takes place that you miss 
  • Just when you're relaxed and enjoying your time, people with noisy kids will arrive at your spot
  • You realise that you should have taken note earlier that the battery needed changing
  • You haven't enough lens reach and so you move closer, but by the time you get to where you want to be, the bird has disappeared
  • The bird feeders at the Reserve haven't been refilled by the warden
  • A bird shits whilst flying over you! (seriously, me and my camera got covered once!)

All of the above are true and if none have ever happened to you before, they will at some point in time!

Patience is the key requirement of photographing birds in flight and if you understand and practice this, then what is a very challenging form of photography can certainly become one of the most enjoyable and rewarding.