Saturday, June 30, 2012

Five Critical Techniques for Photographing Birds in Flight

Five Critical Techniques for Beginners Photographing Birds in Flight

Lisa Langell, Photographer

"Sailing Above the Surface"
©2012 Langell Photography, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Want to increase the “wow” factor of your wildlife photography portfolio?  Consider branching out by photographing birds in flight (BIF)!  Flight shots can add drama, impact, and emotion to your portfolio. 

There are five essential techniques needed to get started with photographing birds in flight.  Though there are more advanced and refined techniques that will augment your skills, the following basics should get you nicely started without over complicating things.

"Stilted Viewpoint"
©2012 Langell Photography, LLC.  All Rights Reserved.
First, do you have the proper equipment?

  • DSLRs: Though you may have limited success with point-and-shoot camera models, you will likely increase your “hit rate” if you choose a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera that can shoot at least 3 frames per second.
  • Lenses & Magnification: You will need a lens capable of magnifying the image of the bird to an acceptable level.  In most cases, minimally 250mm is needed to magnify a BIF bird meaningfully.  The smaller the bird, typically the more magnification is needed unless you are able to consistently get close to the birds safely and ethically.  For tips:  "The F-Words of Bird Photography:  Buying the Right Lens for your Budget"
  • Auto-focus lenses.  Though possible to shoot BIF with manual focus gear, auto-focus will increase your hit rate.  The faster the focusing ability of the lens, the better--with prime lenses typically focusing more quickly than zooms.
  • Camera body: Mid-range bodies or better tend to be able to pick up focus on the BIF you intend to shoot more quickly and accurately than inexpensive models.
  • Acratech Ball Head
  • Gimbal head  (my preferred),  or ball-head for your tripod.  A tripod isn’t necessary for all lenses, but if you cannot hold the lens and pan smoothly, or for longer periods of time due to your gear’s weight, use a tripod. 
    Wimberley Gimbal Head
    Version II

Top 5 Techniques for Shooting Birds in Flight: 

  1. Finding the bird through the lens:  The more magnification your lens has, the harder it will be to put your camera to your eye and locate a bird in flight.  The narrow field will make it feel like you are searching for it through a drinking straw.  It takes practice to put your camera to your eye, locate, and track a BIF. 

    When starting out, try to find birds that fly perpendicular to you (i.e., across your scene, not toward or away from you).  You will have an easier time focusing.  Additionally, observe the birds you wish to photograph.  Get to know their behaviors, perches or roosts they return to, etc.  Often birds return to the same perch.  Learn to anticipate their moves. This will help you know where to expect them to alight, and thus prepare for your next shot!

    To build skill, go to a marsh, field, feeder, or other area where birds congregate.  Starting with larger or slower-moving birds, practice spotting a bird with your eye, then putting your camera up to your eye, spot it through the lens, then focus.  Building your skill in this very basic aspect of BIF photography will be one of the single greatest techniques you can add to your repertoire.  If you cannot locate the BIF through the lens quickly and focus, little else matters.  This is also true for small perching birds that flit incessantly through trees.

    Lastly, if you lock onto a bird that is traveling back and forth across your scene, follow it through your lens for a few minutes.  See how long you can track it before it flies out of your view.  Not only is this good practice, but birds such as terns, swallows, hummingbirds and more often “hang out” in one area and move back and forth while feeding.  Sometimes they interact unexpectedly with other birds—and if it happens while you are focused on them, you will be sweetly rewarded:

    "Fancy Footwork"
    ©2012 Langell Photography, LLC.  All Rights Reserved.
    "Twists and Terns"
    ©2011 Langell Photography, LLC.  All Rights Reserved.

  2. Light:  Low (e.g., morning or evening) side light (see my tutorial on Designing Your Images with Light) works beautifully for many BIF images.  Watch for harsh light, especially on light or white areas of the bird, to avoid overblown images.  
  3. File Types  & Memory Cards:
    1. Raw:  If possible, shoot in RAW to preserve as much data as possible, enabling you maximal flexibility during processing. Shooting in JPEG will compress the file and prevent you from getting the most out of the image.  Yes, it will allow you more space on your memory card, but that is a poor reason to choose RAW over JPEG.  That’s like buying a bicycle instead of a car because it will leave more room in your garage.
    2. Memory Cards & Burst Rate: Note that you will need memory cards capable of writing quickly (i.e., 60mb/sec or faster) if you do not want to pause during shooting while the camera writes the data to the card.  Your burst rate capabilities of your camera will also dictate the number of shots you can take before the data needs to be written to the card. 
  4. Focus on the Eye:  In virtually all cases of BIF photography, if the eye is not in focus, little else matters.  Even with motion-blurred or panned shots (intentional or otherwise), the wings, tail, background, etc. can be blurred, but the eye must be clear and sharp.  Be careful so that your camera does not focus on the body or outer wings, leaving the eye out of focus.  Changing your aperture to f/8, when possible, will help add clarity because you have increased your Depth of Field.
  5. Camera Settings: 
    1. Al Servo (Canon) / AF-C (Nikon):  This “artificial intelligence” engages the camera’s predictive focus settings.  Once in view and in focus, the camera will be able to predict where the bird will be as you pan across the sky with the bird in view.  It tracks and continually auto-focuses to help ensure a clear shot.  For BIF photography, Al Servo / AF-C  is recommended in most cases.
    2. ISO:  For beginners, Auto ISO gives you the most flexibility.  Though ISO introduces noise at higher levels, and ISOs above 800 may not be desirable, a blurred photo is not a better alternative in most cases.  In poor light, the image may not turn out anyway, but at least you have a fighting chance by leaving ISO on Auto, as opposed to underexposing or not getting the shot at all.
    3. Manual (M), Shutter Priority (Tv) or Aperture Priority (Av)?  All are excellent, but for different reasons.  Some say Aperture Priority can overexpose BIF images.  Others say Manual takes too much time when you only have split seconds to capture BIF images.  My first choice is to use Av either when I need to blur a cluttered background or have low light conditions (e.g., f/4) to maximize possible shutter speed with correct exposure, or when I want the BIF to be sharp from wingtip to wingtip (e.g., f/8, which is my recommended aperture for birds against skies or uncluttered backgrounds).   If you are using Av and not getting the shutter speeds you need to stop the action, consider widening the aperture, increasing ISO, or moving toward settings with better direct or reflected light.

      In cases where light is excellent and I want to ensure I’ve fully stopped action, Shutter Priority (Tv) may also work well.  You will need at least 1/500sec. when shooting slower moving birds and up to 1/1200+ for hummingbirds and quickly moving birds to stop action at the wingtips.
    4. Continuous shooting mode:  Enable the continuous shooting mode on your camera to ensure you have the potential to capture multiple images within a sequence.  Once you have found the bird and focused, you do not want to be limited to one frame at a time via single shooting mode.  You will inevitably miss “the shot” more times than not.
    5. Metering:  For beginners, Evaluative metering will give you the best results in most (not all) situations.  In situations where you have high contrast (e.g., a white egret against a dark background, or a crow against a white sky), spot metering may work better.  Just remember to change your settings back to your preferred mode when you have finished, otherwise future shots may be poorly exposed.  (This rule applies to all shooting situations!)
"Dragging Your Feet"
©2010 Langell Photography, LLC.  All Rights Reserved.
In all cases, experiment in the field.  Try different settings with different light, subjects, and backgrounds.  See what works best for you.  There is no single “correct” way to approach BIF photography.  Practice repeatedly on easy-to-locate subjects so that when you find yourself in a situation where a stunning bird is suddenly zooming past you, you’ll be ready to locate, focus, and click like a pro!

-Lisa Langell


  1. Nice stuff! I do BIF. See here:

  2. There are all 5 essential techniques needed for starters having taking snapshots of gulls throughout flight.