Jul 28, 2021
4 mins read
15 Tips To Get You Started
Flight photography can be some of the most challenging there is. Whole books are written about this topic. I can't fit everything I know about photographing birds in flight into one presentation, but I can give you a quick look at the 15 most important things you need to know to get started.
Before I get into the actual tips I want to talk theory and strategy. One of the first decisions you have to make is whether or not you want to perfectly freeze the bird’s wings in motion. If you are okay with some blur, you have more flexibility. Either way - if you’re dealing with flight shots the obvious thing to note is the bird is moving. Dealing with that movement will be your first order of business.
To be effective as a bird photographer who captures birds in flight (BIF,) you have to learn to pan with the bird. You can do this hand-held or on a gimbal mount, but either way you need to practice tracking birds as they fly across your field of vision. Make no mistake about it, just like it takes practice to hit a baseball, or kick a football through a goal post, practice is absolutely required to become adept at capturing BIF.
One of the first mistakes most rookies make has to do with how much of the bird is in the frame. Most photographers either leave too much room around the bird or not enough. Try to practice filling %75-80 of the frame with the bird, wing tip to wing tip.
Read some bird magazines or books and study lots of flight shots in those publications. This will help prime your for what to look out for.
Now here are 15 tips to get you started...
1. Study your subject. The more you know about birds the better your flight shots will be.
2. Practice with larger birds such as pelicans, gulls and herons. This will leave you less frustrated.
3. Shoot shutter priority. When you're a beginner, shoot on shutter priority. A fast shutter speed is essential to capturing birds in flight. Unless you want to blur the subject for creative reasons, a shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second should be your absolute minimum shutter speed. Aim for 1/1500th of a second or even 1/2000th of a second if you want to really freeze the action.
4. Use the lowest ISO you can. You need to balance this with the need to get a fast shutter speed.
5. Make your aperture wide open for small birds. You won't need much depth-of-field for small birds. This allows a faster shutter speed. You will need to stop down by at least one stop for larger birds.
6. Shoot hand held if possible or use a gimbal mount. It’s too hard to make a regular tripod work in a flight situation.
7. Spread your feet shoulder width apart. This creates a more stable shooting platform, effectively using your body to steady the lens while giving you the flexibility to pan with the bird as it flies across your field of vision.
8. Aim slightly ahead of the bird and estimate its trajectory. Then engage your auto focus. Be sure to "bump the focus" (i.e., acquire and re-acquire the bird as it passes you to keep the auto focus on track.)
9. Use high speed continuous shooting mode. Set your camera to its highest frame rate. The more FPS you shoot, the better the chance of getting the bird in the position you want.
10. Select a lens in the 200-400mm range (on a full-frame camera or the equivalent on a crop-sensor camera.) Lenses like these are typically hand-holdable and will get you close enough to the bird to fill the frame in most cases. (I use the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO Lens for most of my flight photography. Here is a complete list of all my bird photography gear.)
11. Try to make sure the subject is front lit. Point your shadow at the bird. Keep the sun behind you. This gives your auto focus a contrasty subject to select in the scene. It has additional benefits, but I won't discuss them here because they aren't relevant to BIF.
12. Know when to use (and when not to use) image stabilization. Depending on your camera and lens, you may want to turn on IS to get a sharper image. But note, on some cameras, you may want to turn off image stabilization (IS) since it is generally ineffective when you’re already shooting at high shutter speeds. Read your camera manual for guidance here.
13. Generally, avoid “pancaked” wings - i.e., flat wings. Aim for the BIF shots where the wings are either up or down but not straight across.
14. Acquire the bird at a distance. See it in your viewfinder, and engage autofocus before the bird comes into prime shooting territory. This will dramatically increase the number of keepers you shoot.
15. Practice, practice and practice some more. Don’t get frustrated and don’t give up. Photographing birds in flight is a perishable skill. If you don't keep practicing, your effectiveness decreases, so stick with it.
There are few things harder than accurately and professionally, photographing birds in flight. Like all things, the more you put into it, the more you will get out of it. If you have a passion for birds, if you have the right equipment, if you have the desire, and you have the time and patience to practice, you can master BIF. After all, if I can do it, anyone can do it. Have fun.