6-step guide to photographing birds in flight

Birds offer one of the most accessible subjects for budding wildlife photographers. There are hundreds of nature reserves, lakes, and ponds already in place to make bird photography as accessible as possible. However, there comes a point when a straightforward portrait of a bird floating on the water or perched on a stick fails to evoke your sense of excitement and photographic fulfilment.

The next step in your development as a nature photographer is Action & Behaviour – birds fighting, hunting, bathing, and flying. A bird in flight is a fabulous subject and one that rarely tires. In fact, nailing the perfect flight shot can be highly addictive. When I’ve led tour groups in Svalbard, some clients nearly developed hypothermia in an attempt to perfect their bird in flight shots – normally fulmars and kittiwakes slipstreaming gracefully passed and hanging in the air.

Coincidentally, having chatted with many people during my workshops and tours, ‘birds in flight’ cause the some of the biggest frustrations among nature photographers. So, I’ve distilled my technique and experience to produce this step-by-step guide for better, sharper flight shots, with more hits than misses. I’ve created the following six steps to give you a firm foundation from which to develop your technique.

Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus)
Black-headed gull. You don’t need exotic subjects to practice – gulls and wildfowl at your local park are much more accessible. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Kenwood Estate, Hampstead Heath, United Kingdom with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and EF300 mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₁₆₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 200

Step #1: Set-Up Your Camera

Capturing birds in flight is all about hand-eye coordination, anticipation and composure. You need to be ready and able to react within a split second. The fundamental mistake is simply leaving it too late. Photographers hope to line up the bird in the viewfinder and for the autofocus to instantaneously acquire the target in a nanosecond. Unfortunately it just isn’t that simple.

Other issues are created by the photographer themselves, leaving the camera on P or Auto, or using Single/One Shot focus. The right settings are crucial, so now’s the time to go and get your camera manual – if you’re not already extremely familiar with your camera and lens settings. We will make a few specific changes that will enable your kit to focus on and capture moving subjects.

Setting

Reason

Camera focus mode:
AI Servo / Continuous AF

This will tell the autofocus to continually adjust focus to match a moving subject and predict a trajectory. If you don’t have that option, use the sport/action mode (the running man icon)
Camera sport mode
Lens focus mode:
AF
Tape over the switch, if necessary, to prevent switching to manual focus (MF) when you hold the lens
Lens stabiliser mode:
Mode 2
If you have IS, note that Canon’s Mode 1 corrects movement on both vertical and horizontal axis. If you’re intentionally moving the lens from side to side, the IS will try to compensate, resulting in soft images. Mode 2 only corrects vertical movement
Lens focus limiter:
[10-∞]
There should be at least two options, so switch it to “X-∞”. The birds are unlikely to come closer than 10m, so set the limiter to 10m-∞ to prevent the long focus hunt
Program mode:
Aperture Priority (A or Av)
This will give you control over depth of field and shutter speed with one dial. This is how I shoot. Some will prefer to use Shutter Priority (Tv or S) and set the shutter speed to 1/1000th
Aperture setting:
f/4 – f/5.6
Open the aperture wide. This will give you the fastest shutter speed achievable with the available light. As you’re shooting at a distance there is no need to worry about depth-of-field
ISO setting:
ISO800+
While you’re working on your technique, you need faster shutter-speeds. No need to be cautious here. You need to maintain shutter-speeds of 1/1000th sec or faster; Image noise is lost in web conversion and printing – so don’t worry about it
Focus Points:
Centre point or centre group
These are the most sensitive focus points, usually with both vertical and horizontal crosshair-type sensors
Batteries:
Fully charged
Driving the autofocus system, lens and stabiliser motors requires much more power. You’ll also be chimping through the images on the LCD, checking for sharp focus
Memory Card:
Formatted, high capacity, fast transfer rate
You’re going to shoot hundreds (potentially thousands) of frames and you’ll need the space and speed to prevent the camera’s buffer filling prematurely
Red Kite (Milvus milvus)
Gigrin Farm Red Kite Feeding Centre offers unparalleled practice opportunities. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Gigrin Farm Red Kite Feeding Centre, Wales with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and EF600 mm ƒ/4.0L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₈₀₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 200

Step #2: Find A Location

Ideally, find a lake or large pond where the birds are regularly fed, where you can find a clear view of the sky and see the furthest reaches of the lake. You will want to be out on the edge of the lake, not cooped up in a hide. Key to flight shots is anticipation and foresight which is near-impossible to achieve if you are walled-in on 3 sides. If it’s a familiar location, try and work out where the concentrations of birds are and whether there are any regular flight paths.

On arrival, take out your camera, take off the lens cover, and attach the lens hood if you have one. Switch on your camera and leave it switched on. Double check your settings and make sure they’re not still set for night sky photography. Carry your camera over your shoulder or on a tripod, not stowed away in a bag.

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Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus)
The simplest starter subject – Black-headed gull almost stationary in a coastal breeze. Photographed during a break to the coast. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Hayling Island, United Kingdom with Canon EOS 10D and Sigma 50-500 mm lens at ¹⁄₆₄₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 100

Step #3: Metering

Typically, I only shoot ‘static’ flight shots in bright sunny conditions where I have a fast enough shutter speed to freeze-frame the action. On days with clear blue skies, the light is more or less constant, so I actually set my exposure manually with this shortcut:

Starting in Aperture Priority (Av) mode, I set the f/number that I intend to shoot with, then take a series of test exposures (making sure there are white subjects in frame). I then review the histograms. Once I have found the best exposure, I switch to Manual mode and enter the  exposure settings, periodically reviewing the histogram if I sense the light levels changing.

With the exposure set manually, you can shoot without worrying about compensating for different backgrounds with varying brightness – just as long as the subject itself doesn’t pass though prolonged shade. This shortcut is ideal for birds in flight. Otherwise, every time the bird passes through a dark background and back up to a bright sky, you will have to either manually compensate every shot (yes, while trying to keep the moving subject in the viewfinder) or just take shot when the bird is in clear blue sky and ignore them when they come lower down to the water. My advice… use the cheat and shoot Manual.

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Step #4: Handheld Or Supported

Flight photography can be very tiring even with modest kit. For lenses up to 300mm f/4 or the Canon 100-400 IS f/4-5.6, you can handhold the camera. However, you will need to brace it firmly with your hand and your left elbow tucked into your ribs, to minimise lens shake. For larger lenses, a tripod really becomes a necessity, otherwise your arms and back will ache and quickly fatigue. Personally, I find handholding easier for short periods as I don’t have to walk around tripod legs. But, I have been doing this a long time and seem to have developed a strong arm for the job – I generally use a 600mm f/4!

Flight photography
Who’s that handsome fella!? Support your camera and lens properly – brace your left-hand/supporting elbow into your rib cage. Keep your left eye open.

Although a ball head is a good option for many photographic situations, the Gimbal or Fluide heads are the best for flight photography – or any subject that moves, for that matter. Gimbal heads, especially, have a smooth action and are counterbalanced, so they can be manoeuvred with a single finger and the lens maintains it’s position without flopping over – unlike the ball head.

Set your tripod to roughly neck height. You don’t want to have to crane your neck or stoop to look through the viewfinder when the camera is tilted slightly upward. Set the tripod head’s friction so the camera can be moved side-to-side with ease. Personally, I feel like I have more control when panning against some friction, rather than total freedom of movement.

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Step #5: Select A Subject

The bigger, the better! Forget about the ducks and raptors for now. We need big soaring birds to practice with, so focus all your attention on the geese, swans, and herons. Their take-offs and landings are heralded by loud calls when they arrive and before they take off. Swans do call, but the noise from their mighty wings and running splashing take-offs really give you the heads-up.

You need to tune into these indicators as they will help speed-up your reaction times. Every time you hear geese calling, or the heavy beating of a swan’s wings, you need to be ready with your camera raised, even before you are looking skyward.

Lesser Flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor)
Track & Pan with subjects as they take-flight as well as in-flight. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and EF600 mm ƒ/4.0L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₁₀₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

Step #6: Track & Pan

Track-noun. A line of travel or motion | Pan-verb, to photograph while rotating a camera on its horizontal axis in order to keep a moving subject in view

Tracking and panning are the fundamental elements to successful flight shots. Start by focussing on the subject – holding the shutter button halfway down and keeping it there. Do not take your eye away from the viewfinder. Track the bird’s flight path, keeping it in the centre of the viewfinder with your highlighted centre focus point nailed on it.

Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)
Northern Fulmar. Using elevation to capture reflections over water. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Brennevinsfjorden, Svalbard and Jan Mayen with NIKON D3S and Nikkor 600 mm f/4.0 VR lens at ¹⁄₁₀₀₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 400

It should only take a few seconds for the camera’s autofocus to acquire and begin focus tracking. You may hear the lens constantly twitching and adjusting the focus. If you lose the subject from the centre of the viewfinder, the lens’ focus motor will hunt (focussing back and forth, through its range, to regain a lock). Don’t worry, it’s not broken. Try to reframe the bird in the centre and keep it there as long as you can.

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If the bird is travelling from one side of the frame to the other, pan your body and the camera in the same direction by slowly twisting your torso around, but be careful to lose your balance. Maintain visual contact through the viewfinder at all times. Sideways tracking is always easier as the side-on profile of a bird is larger than the head-on profile, meaning the autofocus sensors can acquire it quicker and maintain focus for longer.

If you lose the bird, don’t panic and swing the camera about wildly. Just make small changes in your posture and try to maintain eye contact. The more you practice the easier this becomes. I promise. Keep your left eye open and use this to maintain a wider view on the scene. Don’t squint and close it. It gives you a great advantage, especially with birds in flight.

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)
Grey Heron. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Regent’s Park, United Kingdom with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 100.0-400.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₁₆₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 200

Take your shots as the bird approaches closer, but don’t just hold shutter button down – you’ll run the risk of filling the buffer right at the crucial moment, i.e. when the bird is at it’s closest. Just as important, the autofocus tracking can be interrupted if the shutter closes too frequently or for too long, so pulse the shutter in burst of 3-5 frames. You’ll find the middle frames of each burst are the sharpest.

The best moments are when the birds are coming into land and beat their wings powerfully before splashing down and creating a bow-wave. I know it’s hard not to blaze away, but you don’t want to have loads of distant shots and then lose focus or fill the buffer prematurely.

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
Taking the shot at the last second before landing. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Lake Geneva, Switzerland with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and EF300 mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₁₀₀₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 200

Practice repeatedly – tracking a bird from a distance, giving the autofocus time to acquire and begin tracking. Then pan in the same direction of the bird’s flight path until it is close enough to take the shot. It may be some time before a bird gets that close, but every track and pan you perform, will help you increase your chances of success. Think “muscle memory”. The more times you perform this, the more natural it becomes, the quicker you can react.

Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
Common Kestrel. Developing your skills and moving on to fast flying falcons. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Kenwood Estate, Hampstead Heath, United Kingdom with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and EF300 mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₈₀₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 200

Onwards & Upwards

As you perfect your technique, you’ll be able to tackle the fast-flying species, like ducks and raptors. Ducks regularly fly at over 70kph+. Even skilled photographers have difficulty with these.

Once you have the technique nailed down, you can search out more exotic subjects. Falconry centres often run photographic days where you can photograph falcons, eagles, and owls in flight. You could also head to our coastal reserves such as Skomer Island, Bempton Cliffs, the Farne Islands, or Bass Rock to photograph our seabird spectacles. Gigrin Farm Red Kite Feeding Centre is a wonderful spectacle during the winter and early spring with over 300 red kites regularly feeding in the afternoon. It’s an amazing sight!

Remember, these skills are equally applicable to flocks of birds, running animals, racing cars, aircraft, etc. It’s a great technique to master and worth practicing!

Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)
Atlantic Puffins are among the most challenging species to photograph being so small and fast and highly manoeuvrable. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Skomer Island, Wales with NIKON D800 and Nikkor 600 mm ƒ/4.0 VR lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 400

A quick word on autofocus…

There is a caveat to the above setup. High-end DSLRs have ridiculously (over)complicated autofocus menus. The crux of these determines the autofocus’ tracking behaviour with ‘lock on’. When photographing larger birds that have a steady flight path, set a ‘longer delay’. If the subject strays off your focus point or briefly disappears behind a telegraph post or small tree, the longer delay means the autofocus won’t immediately drop out and focus hunt.

For small darting birds like puffins, swallows, falcons, etc., use a shorter delay, reduce it to minimum, or switch it off altogether. Any kind of delay is problematic as I found out when photographing puffins on Skomer Island.

I’m trying to explain this as simply as possible. The last time I looked at a Canon 5D MarkIII it had a whole mass of ‘focus cases’. For further reading on the mammoth subject of DSLR autofocus, here’s a good article fully explaining DSLR focus modes and another here by Tech Radar

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“Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this guide on how to photograph birds in flight. I’ll be posting more seasonal guides and ‘top tips’ on here in the coming months. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing using the form below. You can even decide on the type of posts you want to receive. My other feature articles, photography guides and Photo Stories are always accessible from my homepage.”

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Bonus bird in flight gallery