Photography - Knowledge

Photographing Birds in Flight: Learn How to Shoot Perfectly

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Have you ever looked at pictures of birds in flight? Don’t they look absolutely stunning? It might also make you wonder as to how much effort the photographer might have had to put in to take that shot. Well, photographing birds in flight is a difficult task but to be honest it isn’t so very tough. If you know the right techniques and know how to handle the camera well you too would be able to get some stunning shots. We have listed down a few great tips and camera settings that you can go through and utilize. You might not be able to get that perfect shot in the first go but, with practice, patience and hard work, you soon would be able to get impressive results. 

Camera Settings for Photographing Birds in Flight

Taking pictures becomes a lot easier if you are aware of the camera settings that are ideal for photographing birds in flight. 

ISO 

For the ISO, values between 100-1250 would be recommended. On a bright, sunny and clear day, you would be able to set the ISO really low and get to shoot really sharp pictures. However, on days when it is a bit cloudy and the lighting isn’t as impressive, you could take up the ISO up to 1250. By doing so, you would be able to keep the shutter speed and aperture as it is and get to shoot the bird. The results might not be as sharp but you would be able to work on that during the post-processing.

Choose Manual Mode 

In order to get the best pictures of bird in flight, you would need to use the manual mode. With this setting, the camera wouldn’t set the exposure itself which means that you would get greater control with the exposure settings of the camera. You could use the below-listed guideline: 

Shutter Speed

The minimum shutter speed is 1/1000th of a second. Shoot in Shutter Priority mode and use a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second or faster. However, if you see that the lighting conditions are fine, you would be able to use 1/600th or even faster. With this shutter speed, you would be able to freeze the wings in action. 

Aperture

You would be able to bring in maximum light into your camera by using the using the lowest possible F/stop of your lens. However, if you are using a 400 or 500mm lens, you would have to increase the F/stop so as to increase the depth of field. 

Focus

To ensure that your bird is in focus, you would need to set the camera to continuous focusing mode (look for AI Servo on a Canon and AF-C on a Nikon). With this mode, till the time you have the shutter button pressed halfway and have the focus set on the bird, the camera would automatically be able to keep the bird in focus even if it keeps moving. 

camera settings for birds in flight
Camera Settings (source)

Top Tips on Photographing Birds in Flight

After adjusting your camera settings for birds in flight, it’s time to arm up with the top tips that will give you the perfect and hassle-free click. Let’s dive straight into it.

Pick a Location 

The very first step towards photographing birds in flight is picking the perfect location. Quite obviously, the ideal location would be where the birds usually come because of the abundant sources of food. Near the lakes or rivers are such spots. Once you have found the perfect spot, you need to find a place for yourself where from you would be at eye level with your subject. 

You would also have to consider the direction of the wind as it in that direction that the birds would usually take off and land. Be sure to check the position of the sun too as you wouldn’t want to be taking pictures in an improper lighting situation. 

The Camera 

To get striking pictures, you need to have the best gear. If you are just starting out, a basic SLR would be fine. But, if you are really interested in flying bird photography, you need to get professional gear for yourself. The best camera for bird photography would be the Nikon D5/D300/D700/D3 or the Canon 50D/1D/1Ds/5D Mark iii. All of these are best suitable for wildlife photography.

The Lens

If you are just a beginner, you wouldn’t necessarily need a specialist kit to click pictures. A basic DSLR and lens kit would work fine. However, if you are really serious about photographing birds in flight, the best option would be to get a telephoto lens. You would need lenses that have a focal length of a minimum of 300mm or 400mm would help you in getting decent shots. A 500mm to 600mm prime lens or image stabilization lens would definitely be a great investment and would let you shoot astounding pictures.  

600 mm lens
600 mm lens for birds in flight photography (source)

Tripod 

Tripod can be rather beneficial and you should definitely get one if you are interested in photographing birds in flight. This is especially true if you are using a lens of a large size. The tripod would help in balancing your lens and your camera and you can turn it up, down, left or right without putting in much effort. Tripods are available for various price ranges however the most common one is the Ball head not essentially for bird photography but for general use. However, you need to remember that it might not be a very stable solution for large lenses. 

Ideal Lighting 

In any kind of photography, lighting is undoubtedly the most crucial aspect. This applies the same to bird photography. The golden hour to click birds in flight are in the morning and evening. And because you will be shooting the bird in flight, this period can be extended and you will still get a very nice lighting on your subject. 

golden hour of birds in flight
Golden hour to click the birds in flight

Shoot Away from the Sun 

You would want to want to shoot away from the sun because the backlit birds wouldn’t be impressive enough in the pictures. Just make sure that you have planned your spot wisely. This would improve the quality of your image significantly. 

Begin by Shooting Birds that Fly Slow 

When photographing birds in flight, you need to learn the right technique. If not, you would never be able to get desirable results and would end up being frustrated. However, to learn the ideal technique, you need to put in a lot of effort and hard work. If you are really passionate about flying bird photography, you would have to ensure that you are putting your hundred percent to learn the techniques. The best way would be to start with birds that fly really slow such as Herons or Egrets. This way you would be able to practice and enhance your skills. 

Adjust the Settings of Your Camera 

The settings of your camera would also have to be adjusted so as to get the perfect shot. We would suggest that you make use of continuous focus, a rather sharp aperture, a really fast shutter speed of somewhere around 1/1200th of a second. Shutter speed chart will help you understand which shutter speed is appropriate for birds in flight. Other than that you would also have to select the appropriate focus point. If you have taken care of all of this, you would be good to go. 

Research to Know More about your Subject

You would have to spend an adequate amount of time in order to know your subjects really well. This will give you a fair idea of how to predict their movement. For instance, if you are interested in shooting larger birds like the eagles or herons, you must know that they tend to relieve themselves just before they fly away. These are little things but by knowing them you would be able to prepare yourself to capture the shot when the bird would take off. 

Wait Till You Get the Ideal Contrasting Background

You would have a better control over photographing birds in flight if you are well aware of how the focusing systems function. The focusing system of the camera would require an excellent contrast between the background and the subject. For an autofocusing system, it is usually rather easy to lock the focus when it spots a bird that is flying a background that is absolutely clean like the blue sky or the sea. With a bit of patience, effort and practice, you would soon be able to find out the capabilities of the autofocusing system of your camera. This means that you would now be able to take better pictures of the birds flying.  

Consider the Composition 

When it comes to bird photography, getting that ideal composition might seem like a tough job. But, to be honest it’s not as difficult as you might have been thinking. All you need to do is follow the guidelines of the Rule of Thirds so that there’s enough room for the bird to fly in the direction that it wants to. But, why should you use the Rule of Thirds? Well, because you would want to keep the bird on the right side of the frame in case it is flying towards your left. This way you wouldn’t cut off its wings in the picture and vice versa. 

Get Creative with Silhouettes

Photography is an art and it’s all about how creative you can get with your shots. Flying bird photography isn’t as difficult as it might seem. The sky provides an excellent background wherein you would be able to expose and get a great shutter speed. It would also offer a fantastic contrast for the autofocus system so as to lock the system. 

What makes this kind of shot much more amazing is the bird’s definitive shape. As in most cases, the bird is going to be featureless or dark; you won’t be able to get that into the picture and hence need to ensure that you are capturing the shape of the bird properly. If you don’t get the shape correct, you won’t be able to make the picture work. 

photographing birds in flight
Get creative with your clicks

Summing Up 

Photographing birds in flight might seem like a difficult task but with all of the tips and camera settings mentioned above, you would be able to get some fabulous shots. Just use your imagination and get creative. With photography, creativity is the key to click amazing pictures. Also, ensure that you aren’t scaring away or hurting any birds. We really hope the in-depth knowledge on how to click birds in flight has helped you and you would be able to take advantage of these. 

Did you find the tips helpful? Do you have any other tips that you would like to share with us? Feel free to do so in the comments sections below. Happy Clicking!

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