Shooting birds in flight is one of the bird photographer’s biggest challenges. Getting the best results requires a combination of good positioning, forward planning, and a thorough knowledge of your camera’s autofocus controls.
Just as with composing a static bird, try to place a flying bird in the frame for a pleasing composition.
500mm lens | ISO 50 | 1/500 sec at ƒ/5.6
The biggest hurdle to overcome when taking good flight shots is finding the opportunity to be in the right position. Regular flight paths that provide opportunities include bodies of water where wildfowl will be taking off, such as on the edge of a tern colony or perhaps on a migration route. By carefully identifying such locations, good opportunities will come your way.
Whenever you are out with your camera, be on the lookout for unexpected flight shots. You might find that some of your best images will come from spotting a bird heading toward you and then being ready to take advantage of the situation very quickly. Using quick-release plates on lenses will help you speed up when whipping your lens off a tripod.
Flight shots do not always have to be frame-fillers: here, the ice and the splash from this common tern’s fishing success were captured with a shorter lens.
300mm lens | ISO 200 | 1/1750 sec at ƒ/8
Autofocus will have no problem locking onto birds against clear backgrounds, such as blue sky or water, but problems can arise when you track a bird against a landscape—if your autofocus point wanders off the bird, it may easily lock onto the background, so that suddenly you are struggling to lock the focus back on again. When this happens, take your finger off the shutter button and depress again once the bird is in the viewfinder—by keeping the shutter button depressed, the autofocus might start hunting and the opportunity will be lost.
When it comes to focusing on birds in flight, try using the middle autofocus sensor for tracking flying birds, and on a big bird aim to focus on the neck or head so that the eye will be sharp. By focusing on the body when firing the shutter, it is possible to lock onto the wing on the downstroke; if you are using a shallow depth of field, the head of the bird will be out of focus—of course, this is easier said than done!
Seabird colonies are good places for flight shots. You can always deliberately select a slow shutter speed in order to blur their wings for artistic effect.
500mm lens handheld | ISO 100 | 1/1000 sec at ƒ/8
Because of their low contrast, white birds can cause autofocus systems to hunt. There is no easy answer to this, other than using a combination of autofocus and manual focusing if your lens allows. You may find yourself resorting to focusing manually on a preset point and shooting a burst of images as you see the bird coming into focus in the viewfinder. This normally captures at least one sharp image.
Flight photography is best attempted with lightweight 300mm and 400mm lenses; but don’t let that put you off trying to hand-hold a 500mm lens, or whatever lens you might have. The key requirement is to use a fast enough shutter speed, at least 1/500 sec.
The Bird Photography Field Guide is David Tipling’s expert reference to teach you everything you need to know about capturing birds in all their beauty. With useful advice on the essential equipment and photographic techniques, as well tips on composition to get you thinking more creatively, you’ll be taking superb photos that show off your subject in the best possible way.
The Bird Photography Field Guide
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