Photography tips: How to photograph birds in flight

How To Photograph Birds In Flight

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I love to photograph birds in flight and thought I’d share with you some photography tips and lessons I’ve learned. I’ll also show you some pictures that turned out good and also some that did not. And I’ll explain what I did wrong, so you won’t repeat the mistakes I’ve made. Towards the end, I’ll explain how I managed to photograph a Hummingbird in flight during a vacation in Costa Rica.

How to photograph birds in flight

As with all wildlife, you need some patience, and it helps to scout the place before you start shooting. While spending a couple of days in Manual Antonio, Costa Rica, I watched Pelicans fishing for about 10 minutes before I grabbed my camera. I positioned myself in a spot that allowed me to take some good pictures, like the one below. In this case, I was standing waist-deep in the water to photograph those birds.

Photography tips: How to photograph birds in flight
Pelican in flight: f/5.6 at 200mm, 1/2000 sec, ISO 100

Focus

I always use my camera in Continuous Auto Focus (AF-C) mode since I have decoupled my shutter release from the Auto Focus operation. Instead, I operate my Auto Focus through the AE-L/AF-L button. That allows me to lock the focus without having to press the shutter release halfway. The latter activates Vibration Reduction (VR). I’ll explain this technique in detail in a separate post. For now, it’s important to set your camera to AF-C mode.

My D7000 allows me to choose between a couple of different focus points. I have mine set to 21 focus points. According to distinguished wildlife photographer Moose Peterson, it’s the best-implemented focus mode. Evidently, the Nikon engineer developing the focus sensor told him that. So far I’ve found nothing wrong with that.

Depending on the lens you use, you may have a switch to limit the focus from “5m to infinity”, which means the camera will only try to focus on objects that are at least 5m (or 16ft) away from the camera sensor. That increases the focusing speed – just don’t forget to turn it off if your subject comes closer than 5m.

I’ve also set my AF-C priority selection to “Release,” which means the shutter fires even if the focus has not locked on.

Shutter speed

As a rule of thumb, I use 1/2000 sec or faster shutter speeds to photograph birds in flight and to freeze action. The photo below would have been excellent, but with only 1/800 sec shutter speed the subject is blurry.

Photography tips: How to photograph birds in flight
The photograph is blurry due to a slow shutter speed of 1/800 sec

Additionally, you want to set the release dial to Continuous High Speed. That means, the camera will continuously take photographs as long as the shutter is pressed and until the buffer is full. If you’re sure about your exposure settings, switching from RAW to JPEG will allow you to shoot longer bursts. JPEG files are smaller and don’t fill up the buffer as quickly as RAW files do. That, of course, assumes a fast enough SD Card, which can write the buffer to the card fast enough. I use SanDisk Extreme Pro 16GB cards, which write faster than my camera can feed the data.

ISO

I’ll try to use the lowest possible ISO to avoid any digital noise. On the D7000 that’s ISO 100. To make sure I can keep my 1/2000 sec shutter speed. However, I have the Auto ISO sensitivity control enabled (Maximum sensitivity: 1600, Minimum shutter speed: 1/2000). If your camera doesn’t have such a setting, you may consider enabling Auto ISO or increasing the ISO manually, depending on the available light.

Aperture

The 70-200mm I shoot with has a maximum (widest) Aperture of f/2.8. Depending on the lighting conditions and to avoid having to increase the ISO I may shoot at f/2.8. Especially if depth-of-field is not a concern – such as if the bird is sitting or swimming and I look at its profile. See an example of what I mean in the photo below.

Photography tips: How to photograph birds in flight
This picture would support a wider Aperture since the depth of field is not of great concern

For birds in flight, however, with wings spread out, I start with f/5.6 to get some extra depth of field.

Exposure compensation

If you’re photographing backlit birds (such as birds in flight against a bright sky), you may want to dial in a +0.7 or +1.0 exposure compensation. That reduces the risk that the subject is too dark. I’d recommend doing it right in the camera, but if you have to, you can also do it later in any photo editing application. That’s especially true if you shoot in RAW mode. If you shoot JPEG make sure you do as much as possible right in the camera since your editing options are limited when using JPEG.

White balance

Whenever I shoot outdoors, I have my White Balance (WB) set to Cloudy by default to make the photograph look a bit warmer. There are always exceptions of course (shooting indoors, with flash, portraits, etc.) but for shooting birds, I keep my WB set to Cloudy.

General photography tips

As with all moving subjects, the general rule is to make sure your subject has enough space on the side of the frame it is moving towards. I incorrectly cropped the photo below to demonstrate how it should not look like.

Photography tips: How to photograph birds in flight
Wrong framing with not enough space on the left side

To avoid an error like the one above, make sure you start tracking the bird in your viewfinder early and pan your camera while you press the shutter. Keep panning after you have released the shutter to make sure you don’t stop “panning” too soon.

Note: While your shutter is firing (such as during a burst of 7 frames) the camera will lose its focus tracking ability. That is because the mirror is up to expose the sensor. So if the bird is coming towards you or is flying away from you, you may have to re-focus. You can do that by releasing the shutter and then pressing it half-way again or using the AE-L/AF-L button, depending on your camera settings.

How to photograph a Hummingbird in flight

My mother-in-law has a Colibri feeding station right in front of her kitchen window. Every time I come to Costa Rica, I try to get a shot of one of those birds. Yesterday I positioned myself in front of the half-open window and waited for a Hummingbird to show up.

Since I was less than 3ft away from the feeding station, I couldn’t use the 70-200mm lens. Instead, I used the 24-70mm, zoomed all the way out to 70mm.

Manual focus and high ISO

I pre-focused the camera to a spot where I’d expect the Colibri to feed. If I hadn’t done that, I would have to chase the bird with my camera’s Auto Focus. I tried that, and it doesn’t work, so don’t even bother!

To pre-focus simple use Auto Focus to focus the point where the bird is most likely to come and then switch to Manual Focus (M) on your lens. Once you switched to manual mode, don’t move back or forth and don’t touch the manual focusing ring on the lens. If you do, the previously focused spot will be out of focus. Since I use the AE-L/AF-L button to focus instead on the shutter release, I didn’t have to switch to manual mode.

Despite the pre-focus, I set the Aperture to f/8 to get a bit more depth of field for when the bird doesn’t show up exactly on the spot where I focused on.

At the time it was rainy season in Costa Rica and most days are overcast resulting in “easy” lighting conditions. Unfortunately, that also means less light. So to freeze a Colibri in flight (requiring a shutter speed of 1/2000 sec or faster) at f/8 you have to increase the ISO significantly. The shots below were taken at ISO 5000, and I don’t like them. Due to the high ISO, they are noisy and lack contrast.

Photography tips: How to photograph birds in flight
Washed out colors due to high ISO
Photography tips: How to photograph birds in flight
Washed out colors due to high ISO

Flash to the rescue

To get better shots, I decided to freeze action using a flash instead. That technique only works however if the flash is the dominant light source. That means you have to output enough light to overpower the ambient light. Fortunately, it was an overcast day on a late afternoon – so the ambient light was much less than on a bright sunny day.

I positioned my SB 700 flash unit in a flower-pot about 1 foot away from the feeding station and dialed in +1 Flash Compensation. Then I changed the flash sync speed on my camera to 1/320 sec, switched to manual mode (f/8, 1/320 sec at ISO 100) and configured my pop-up flash for commander mode to trigger the SB 700 flash remotely. Same as before, I pre-focused the camera. Then I waited for the bird to show up and fired away. Due to the power of the flash and the close distance to the subject, the background was rendered completely black, looking like I took those shots at night.

As you can see, the flash pictures below look much nicer than the ones without flash. That is because I used ISO 100 instead of ISO 5000 and the flashlight makes the colors of the feathers pop.

Make sure to click on the pictures below to see them in large; they look better that way.

Hummingbird approaches feeder
Hummingbird approaches feeder
Hummingbird flaps wings while sitting
Hummingbird flaps wings while sitting
Hummingbird photographed in flight
Gotcha!

Birds photography tips

Some of this may sound confusing and complicated at first, and you’ll probably screw up the first couple of times – but as always practice makes perfect, and that’s especially true for photography. So take your camera, go out and shoot by applying these bird photography tips for beginners!

  • harikesh, india says:

    thanks for the tips

  • Hi Michael,

    A few notes / images From a Canon BIF perceptive

    Starting out with Birds in Flight Photography Cape Town
    http://www.vernonchalmers.photography/2017/01/starting-out-with-birds-in-flight.html

    Canon EOS 7D MarK II Birds in Flight Gallery
    http://www.vernonchalmers.photography/2017/04/birds-in-flight-photography-cape-town.html

    Regards,

    Vernon Chalmers

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