Taking pictures of birds in flight is lots of fun but can also be challenging technically. In this video wildlife and nature photographer Steve Perry (from backcountrygallery) gives 10 very useful tips that can help you maximize that experience.
Here are the very useful 10 tips Perry brings up in this video:
- Shutter speed – nailing the shutter speed is essential when shooting fast-moving subjects. if your shutter speed is too low you will get motion blur. If you don’t want this – use a shutter speed between 1/1600-1/4000 sec – Perry typically uses 1/3200 sec (for larger slower birds which are further away from using the lower end of this scale but for faster/smaller/moving towards the camera birds – try to use a faster shutter speed closer to 1/4000 sec – light permitting). This doesn’t mean that you can’t shoot a large slow bird in flight with a 1/400 of a second shutter – just that you are likely to get much sharper, blur-free images with these higher numbers.
- Watch your background – yes, in most situations it will be easier (or simply the only option) to shoot a bird flying against a blue or white background of the skies. However, if you have the option, try to shoot with a more interesting background (trees, water, etc.).
- F/stop – there is no single answer here. With a shutter speed of f/8, you might get a better focus but if you have a background that is not very far from your bird you might want a little bit more open aperture (if your lens can give you that option). With smaller birds, you might want to close down more to get more of the bird in focus but with larger birds, this might not be a consideration. As always with f/stop and background separation – also consider your focal length and how far you are from your subject and how far it is from the background. Generally, f/5.6-f/8 is a good starting point.
- How to find a bird in flight – try and predict the bird’s behavior – look for a bird building a nest (don’t get too close though so you won’t disturb it), or a popular bird feeding location and get a good angle and wait.
- Exposure – Perry suggest always using Matrix/Multi-pattern/evaluative metering (Nikon/Sony/Canon) as a metering mode (sport mode and highlight-weighted can be used in rare cases) and he uses both auto exposure or in other situations he lets the camera determine how high the ISO can go when the aperture and shutter speed are both sets manually.
- Wind – Here is the golden rule with wind – bird take of and land into the wind so always try and understand in which direction the wind blows. Never have the wind blowing in your face, either have it blow from behind you or from one of the sides.
- Autofocus – always use AF-C. Generally, the smaller the area of focus (you can actually use effectively) the better your results will be as the AF system will less likely miss focus (but this can be challenging on the shooter). Typically start with the smaller ara that you can and if you can’t keep the bird in focus go up in size/area. Always think about the composition that you want to get – leave enough room in front of the bird and try not to cut the wings. As always try and focus on the head/eye of the bird and set your frame accordingly.
- Take off shots – nailing take off shots can be rewarding but you need to keep a few things in mind – remember the wind direction (tip 6), look and see if the bird is leaning forward when it is on the ground – this can be a sign that it is going to take off also make sure that your shutter speed is high enough – when a bird takes off is a is going to change speed quickly and you might get a blurry shot. If you have a focus limiter on your lens – use it – it will improve your focusing speed.
- Shooting speed – Try and shoot in a fast frame rate (although with many cameras using the fastest option can come with compromises – so for example in high plus mode at least on some mirrorless cameras you might get some slower start time – high is usually the sweet spot, on DSLRs, this might not be the case and you might use the highest option – check out your manual).
- Practice – As with all types of photography – try, try, and try again. Start with simple birds that fly slow and predictably – sea goals and other large birds and try and track and get sharp images with nice backgrounds. Then move to faster/smaller birds gradually. When you are locked onto a bird in flight move with your hips as you twist your body and shoot. When the bird heds away – stop shooting. A gimbal head and a tripod or monopod are great but starting with hand-holding might be a good idea to get some initial practice (if your setup isn’t too heavy of course).
Perry had some great video tips in the past for shooting birds and wildlife in general (as well as more specific camera gear) including “10 Simple Yet Powerful Wildlife Photography Tips“, “Tips for Using Long Lenses with Tripod and a Gimbal” and “A Guide to Solving Autofocus Problems“ and more recently “10 useful Tips For Photographing Birds At The Beach“.
You can see a few other bird-related shooting videos by Tony Northrup including How to Photograph Song Birds, How to Photograph Birds in Flight and Bird and Wildlife Photography Gear Guide and Tips and “How to Photograph Birds – an Extended Guide“ and more recently “Back to Basics: Bird Photography Tips“.