Winter is an ideal time of year to capture arresting images of birds in flight. Learn how to compose the perfect picture
Photographing birds in flight is one of the most demanding areas of wildlife photography, but once you’ve mastered the technique, the results can be spectacular. You’ll need to find a good wide scene, and shooting large numbers of birds is always easier than capturing a single target. Don’t forget to break out your telephoto lens either, and take some care when planning your exposure settings.
Go large for great results
Swans and geese are not fast flyers and make ideal subjects on which you can hone your skills.
Choose a location such as a park, where the birds will be used to people and therefore easier to approach. Photographing birds flying straight towards the camera is easiest, as you won‘t need to pan to keep your moving subject in the frame.
Flocks of birds such as waders or geese can also create spectacular images – shooting large numbers of birds is easier than trying to capture a single subject.
Although you can get away without panning, it does limit your pictures. It pays to learn the correct technique, and this should be done before you attempt any flight photography. Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart in a solid stance. Then, by keeping your elbows firmly tucked into your side, rotate your upper body from the waist.
Follow your subject through the lens and try to keep it steady within the frame. To maximise your chances of capturing a successful shot, fire a sequence of images by using the fastest drive mode on your camera.
Set the focusing to predictive auto-focus (AI Servo on Canon) – the lens will track the moving subject, keeping it in focus at all times.
Composing for moving subjects
Composing flight images is tricky, as your subject is constantly moving. It‘s best to frame the bird so that it has space to fly into.
I‘m constantly changing the focusing dot on the back of my camera depending on the direction my subject is travelling in, so I can keep it exactly where I want it and ensure the focus is locked on at all times.
Where possible, I aim to shoot images that show the subject as part of its habitat. I usually place it in a corner of the frame, so that the environment becomes a large part of the image. Pictures like this have a completely different feel to them and help to tell a story.
To photograph this red kite I selected a focusing point and panned with the bird, making sure the dot was over its head.
A flock of fast-moving small birds can confuse the autofocus. Again, select a single point rather than selecting them all.
Dawn and dusk are the best times to photograph wildlife, and birds in flight are no exception.
Head out when the sky is red and the sun is low enough to light the underside of your subject, rendering more feather detail.
When shooting birds against a bright sky, you‘ll need to increase the exposure using your compensation dial in order to keep the image bright. The amount will vary depending on your subject, so check the histogram as often as possible. If you‘re shooting against distant hills or trees, it‘s better to take a meter reading from a midtone and dial it in manually.
Owning state-of-the-art equipment won‘t guarantee great shots, but it will increase your chance of success. Faster lenses are preferable because they enable quicker shutter speeds. But lenses that open up to f/2.8 and f/4 are expensive and much heavier – try increasing the ISO to achieve the shutter speed you need to freeze the action instead.
Swans are large and fly slowly, making them ideal subjects to practise with.
The crop factor of the smaller sensors in most SLRs also means you don‘t need a huge telephoto lens. Ultimately, though, knowledge of your subject‘s behaviour, perseverance and personal vision will be the deciding factors of your success.
Check your histogram when shooting mist – you may need to dial in extra exposure.