Mark Buckler Photography
Photographing Birds in Flight
By Mark Buckler
Because they are ubiquitous, attractive and approachable, birds are a popular subject for nature photographers. However, these fast-moving (and often small) subjects can pose a great challenge to even the most accomplished photographer. Birds can move quickly and unexpectedly through three dimensions, and you must be able to first locate them in the narrow field of view associated with telephoto lenses, and then continue to track them as they fly. Not an easy assignment.
But there are techniques that can help. Here are some tips to help you improve your images of birds in flight.
Use the Proper Camera Settings
Although some camera settings may be a matter of personal preference, there are certain settings that you should definitely be utilizing for flying birds:
- Autofocus Mode: Use Continuous AF (Canon refers to this as AI Servo. In Nikon, it’s the AF-C autofocus mode.) It will help your camera maintain its focus on moving objects.
- Burst Rate: Use a high number of frames per second to increase your odds of getting the best action shot. This is often combined with your autofocus mode and designated as CF-H or Ch (Continuous Focus – High)
- Autofocus Limiter: I like to set the Autofocus Limiter Switch (on the lens) to the distant/far range in order to improve the autofocus performance in most situations. Your lens will focus faster if it’s not searching through the entire range of focus. After all, it’s not very often that you photograph flying birds that are within the near-focus range of your lens.
- Shooting/Exposure Mode: You can use any shooting mode that you prefer, but photographing birds (and all wildlife) in manual mode has significant advantages. In manual, the proper exposure will be maintained (as long as the overall light doesn’t change) regardless of the tonal composition of any particular frame, or whether the bird flies between light and dark backgrounds.
- Aperture: Use large apertures so that depth of field is minimized. These bigger apertures draw attention to your subject by presenting a sharp image against a softer-focus background. Larger apertures also allow more light to reach your camera’s sensor, which lets you shoot at higher shutter speeds to help freeze action.
Use Fast Shutter Speeds
Too often, photographers try to find the minimum shutter speed that will stop the movement of the bird. Although this makes sense because it often allows you to photograph at lower ISO settings (thus minimizing noise in your images), I prefer not to worry about my ISO and the resulting noise. I don’t hesitate to photograph at ISO 6400 if that’s what is necessary to achieve shutter speeds of 1/4000 or greater. Not only will these high shutter speeds reduce the blur associated with the motion of the bird, they will also result in sharper images overall.
Use Behavioral Cues
Knowledge of bird behavior is as important as photographic skill when it comes to creating compelling images. Remember that birds will typically take off and land into the wind. Knowing this will allow you to anticipate action and better position yourself to get the best possible composition. Trying to capture a bird taking flight is challenging, but birds will often provide cues about what they might do next. For instance, sandhill cranes tend to lean forward before taking flight, and many raptors will defecate (poop) shortly before leaving their perch. Learning as much as you can about your subject will help you capture more interesting photographs.
Locating and tracking a bird through a telephoto lens is a skill that must be practiced, much like you would prepare for a musical performance or an athletic contest. Practice as often as you can, even if it’s just a few minutes a day. Also, you don’t need to go to a bird sanctuary or birding destination to practice; you can find plenty of opportunities in your own backyard or neighborhood. And it doesn’t matter what species of bird you use for practice. Even squirrels and other small, moving critters will work. What matters is improving your skill at quickly framing, focusing and following a moving subject.