Are you having trouble taking decent photos of birds in flight? Don’t worry, it’s a common problem and doesn’t mean you’re not a talon-ted photographer (although if you want to see some talon-ted bird photography, we’ve got a great post on that too).
From getting an accurate exposure of your subject against all that bright sky to simply being in the right place at the right time, one of the more challenging genres you’ll ever attempt will be bird photography. Tips and techniques abound, but we’ve put together what we believe are the 10 most fundamental rules you should follow when taking pictures of birds in flight.
Tip 1: Go big
Birds tend to be on the small side, and this, combined with their awkward habit of flying high and fast, means you often have to use a long lens to photograph them. It’s hard to find a lens that’s too long for photographing birds in flight, and 400mm and 500mm lenses, both primes and zooms, are common choices.
Tip 2: Not so wide
A 400mm lens at f/5.6 and a subject 10m away gives a depth of field of 13cm. Using Av mode and stopping down to f/8 will give you an extra 5cm of depth and increase the sharpness of your image, as lenses are rarely at their best when they’re used at maximum aperture.
Tip 3: Speed is of the essence
A shutter speed of 1/800 of a second or faster will help to capture feather detail on moving wings without blurring. A more artistic approach is to deliberately blur the wings using a slower shutter speed, giving an impression of movement, especially if the bird is just taking off.
Tip 4: Set high ISO
Keeping your shutter speed high and maintaining enough depth of field to keep a bird sharply rendered can mean using high ISOs. Don’t be afraid of this, as noise reduction software, including the Digital Photo Professional that came free with your camera, can do an extremely good job.
Tip 5: The raw deal
In order to use this software to its maximum effect, it’s a good idea to shoot in raw. The tweaks you can make to contrast and saturation can make a vast difference to your images, bringing out the intricate patterns of birds’ feathers and the brightness of their eyes.
Tip 6: Captive audience
Captive birds look remarkably similar to their wild counterparts. Shooting at an organised flying display will allow you to get close to species you’d never find in the wild, and they fly lower, slower and more predictably. Better still, some centres hold special photographers’ days.
Tip 7: Use AI Servo mode and centre point focus
AI Servo mode constantly adjusts the focus on a moving target, while using only the centre focus point minimises the chances of focusing on the background by mistake. Keep your central focus point over your target and constantly half-press the shutter button to keep it in focus as it moves.
Tip 8: Spot meter
To avoid silhouetting against a bright sky, try using the camera’s spot meter. Keeping the bird in the centre of the spot, which usually surrounds the central focus point, ensures that the feathers are properly exposed. For a deliberate silhouette, spot meter off the background and engage exposure lock.
Tip 9: Use a monopod
Handholding a large lens all day can be tiring, but using a tripod is often not practical when trying to photograph something unpredictable and fast-moving. A monopod is a good compromise, supporting the weight but enabling you to pan and follow-focus quickly, and can even be lifted entirely off the ground if needed.
Tip 10: Pick your targets
Know which species of bird to look for and you’re halfway to great photographs. For instance, a peregrine falcon can fly at 242mph, while in a ‘stoop’ dive to catch prey while vultures, geese, woodcocks and owls move at a more camera-friendly pace. Likewise, an eagle’s wings beat much more slowly than a hummingbird’s.
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