Are you looking for ways to improve your skills in photographing birds in flight? Enjoy my journey as I offer tips on how to photograph this tricky subject.
I’ve just experienced one of those famous Bosque del Apache sunrises and I still wear the grin to prove it. Wildlife photographers worldwide recognize this national wildlife refuge, located near Socorro, New Mexico, as one of best places for photographing birds in flight.
With thousands of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese migrating through each winter, you get plenty of chances to practice.
As I eye a pair of cranes leaning in for takeoff, I move yet another dial and think of how digital cameras have made photographing birds in flight a much easier task. Yet—with so much technology to learn—the manufacturers have also made it a bit more challenging.
So let’s get you started with seven tips to clarify some of the digital aspects of bird flight photography.
7 Ideas For Photographing Birds In Flight
#1 ~ Set up correctly.
Scarlet Macaw in the Rain, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica
While hand-held offers the most flexibility and range of motion when photographing birds in flight, most photographers—myself included—use a big lens because it allows you to get great details from far distances.
But big lenses get heavy (my 600mm weighs 13 pounds) making a tripod necessary. For bird photography, a gimbal head is the best way to mount your camera to your tripod because it not only provides firm and steady support for your long lens, but it allows you to move the camera in any direction with ease. Unlike a ball head, a gimbal won’t flop over when you let go. And, if your bird-in-flight becomes a bird-perched, you can lock the gimbal, along with your camera, into place.
With a bit of practice (see tip #7) you’ll learn to track moving objects nearly as smoothly as if you were hand-holding your camera.
TIP: If you find yourself struggling then you probably don’t have your camera balanced properly on your gimbal head. You’ll know you’ve hit on the correct balance when you can let go of your camera (outfitted with your big lens) and it will stay put right where you want it. If your lens tips forward slide the plate back; likewise, if it tips back slide it forward. If you add a teleconverter or flash you’ll have to rebalance.
On a related note, before you begin shooting, make sure you’ve situated your tripod nice and steady and that you also have it set as squarely as possible. Use a level to square up your lens and your birds-in-flight images shouldn’t need to be adjusted for the horizon in post-processing. Many cameras now have built in electronic levels. If yours doesn’t, use a bubble level in the hotshoe.
#2 ~ Make it manual.
Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Relying on semi-automatic modes such as shutter or aperture priority causes exposure to change as your background changes. Since the birds will be flying in front of different backgrounds, getting the best exposure can be problematic. That makes manual mode preferable, but an option only when the light remains constant.
In manual mode, start with an exposure about +1 2/3 stops from the sky. Then check your histogram after the first couple of shots to fine tune.
As long as the ambient light doesn’t change your exposure will remain correct regardless of whether the bird flies in front of backgrounds of sky, mountains, or foliage.
If clouds pass before the sun and change the light levels, then you may want to use one of the other modes. Just be aware of the need for exposure compensation. A white bird against a dark background will most likely require some minus compensation to avoid overexposing the bird. A dark bird against the sky will need a lot of plus compensation unless you want a silhouette. When trying to determine how to compensate don’t forget: the histogram is your friend!
#3 ~ Set your focus limit switch.
Pair of Endangered Whooping Cranes, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Most lenses have a switch to limit the range of focus. I’ll call it the “distance range limit switch.” Set that switch to the far range. This keeps your lens from having to focus down to its minimum focusing distance and limits the amount of hunting it has to do as it tries to acquire focus.
In other words, you’ll focus on your bird a lot quicker! Setting the distance range limit switch to the far setting greatly increases the speed of initial focusing acquisition.
Pre-focusing will also help. Start out with your focus near the start of the infinity mark on your lens. If you have time, you can even manually turn the focusing ring to get the bird fairly sharp before you start up the auto-focus.
#4 ~ Keep that shutter speed up.
American Widgeon, Socorro, New Mexico
To stop flight action you’ll need a minimum of 1/500th of a second. Don’t be afraid to bump up the ISO to get it; more than ever before, modern DSLR’s maintain quality with higher ISO settings.
If you just don’t have enough light to get a good exposure with a high shutter speed, embrace the conditions. Go ahead and let the shutter speed drop to 1/60th or 1/30th of a second and pan with the birds (see tip #6). If you can get good focus on the head and match your pan speed to their flight speed the result will be a motion blur showing the movement of the birds. Obviously, this will only work if they are passing from side to side in front of you.
#5 ~ Adjust the auto focus.
Whooping Crane, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
If your camera offers the ability to adjust focus tracking sensitivity, set it to the slow setting. This may seem counterintuitive, but let me explain. The sensitivity setting doesn’t affect your initial focus acquisition, but once you acquire initial focus, it does delay refocusing to a different distance. This buys precious time if your focus point slips off the bird or something momentarily comes between you and the bird while panning with it.
Something else to adjust is your “active focus points.” For birds in flight photography I use the expanded focus points. This helps prevent the camera from refocusing if your main focus point falls off the bird. I tend not to activate all the points, but this can work if you are shooting against a clear sky. Otherwise the camera is likely to focus on the background if you have all points activated.
#6 ~ Pan faster.
Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
It may seem obvious, but this one simple rule is the one most often overlooked: your tracking speed must match the speed of the bird.
Panning is one of those times when hand-holding a medium telephoto lens is easier than rotating a super-telephoto around a tripod.
The hand-held technique involves keeping your feet planted and twisting at the waist to follow the bird. With a large lens on a tripod you might find yourself trying to walk around the tripod as you follow the bird. I recommend just limiting your range of motion. Once the bird passes in front of you it will be going away. Those going-away shots are generally not very pleasing anyway, so just let them go.
#7 ~ Practice on moving objects.
Scarlet Macaw, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica
Head to a busy roadside or a bike trail to practice photographing objects that move quickly. Zooming cars, bustling bicyclers, and runners all make great subjects for practicing your birds in flight photography skills. If you want to practice on birds, gulls, pelicans, vultures and wading birds are great to practice on as they are large and relatively slow moving in flight.
Just like any skill, the only way to get better is to practice, practice, and practice. That way when time comes to take the shots you really want they won’t get away!
Added General Tip
I didn’t include this tip as a birds in flight photography tip because I consider it a good “all-around” photography tip.
Many DSLR’s now have the ability to micro-adjust the focus of your lenses. This allows you to correct for manufacturing tolerances that may have your camera body and/or your lenses front focusing or back focusing. If your camera body has a tendency to front focus and your lens also front focuses a bit, the combination will leave you with noticeably soft images. Note that if you have more than one body and more than one teleconverter, you will have to mark them in some way so that they are a matched set. If you adjust for one of your teleconverters and then place the other one on your camera, the body will be using the adjustment for the original.
Now it’s your turn to get out there. Find some birds taking off, landing and soaring. Stop their flight in midair.