Understand the Environment and Good Locations
Knowing a good spot to photograph birds can dramatically increase your chances of getting successful photos. You could be in the most bird-rich corner of the planet and not see a single feather. Sometimes it’s literally meters that separate success from failure. How can you increase the chances that a birding expedition will pay off? There are basically two ways.
The easiest way is to entrust yourself in the hands of a reputable travel agency that specializes in birders or, better yet, bird photographers. Similarly, it is possible to hire a local guide on the spot to take you to the birds.
The other option, which is not nearly as easy but which I personally find more satisfying, is to study the available resources before the trip itself. Read field reports of birders and photographers who have visited the area you are going. By doing so, you’ll discover specific locations where the chances of seeing your dream species are the best.
Set your priorities and key species, then plan your itinerary accordingly. Do you want to capture the widest variety of species, or will you focus on a smaller number that you want to document as best you can? If you don’t want to use a guide, it’s definitely worth learning to recognize the sounds of the birds you want to photograph. Without this skill, you will find it very difficult to locate them in the field.
Also, be aware of the best time of the year to go to your destination. Rainy or dry season? Spring or autumn? When shooting on the seashore or in the mountains, you should also be concerned about the direction of the winds and thermal currents. This is because many birds like to take advantage of rising air currents to be carried along cliffs. Look for such birds on the cliff edges. That way, you can get close to birds that would otherwise be flying far below you in other climatic conditions.
Don’t forget about your own safety, transportation and of course accommodation options. There is a lot to consider when planning your trip, but the time invested is well worth it.
And with all that background knowledge, there is only one thing left to take amazing photos of birds in flight. If you want your photos to be aesthetically pleasing, you should…
Composition in wildlife photography is quite a challenging thing. Apart from our aesthetic sense, the stumbling block is the low willingness of the subjects to cooperate in the creation of the shot. Sometimes it feels like deliberate sabotage. With birds in flight, this is even more true than usual. Nevertheless, there are some general rules that we can follow and that can shift our work to an aesthetic level.
One of my first recommendations to participants of my wildlife photography courses is: “Don’t get too carried away with the animal itself. Always try to perceive the scene as a whole.” Your brain can perfectly filter out the distracting parts of the scene in front of you, yet those elements will show up clear as day in your photo. Therefore, in addition to the flying bird itself, try to think about the background, which contributes significantly to the final impression of the photograph.
Another amazing ability of our brain – and, again, something that is unfortunately in conflict with the quality of our photos – is a phenomenon that could be called “brain zoom.” A bird that fills barely ten percent of the viewfinder will be perceived as filling the entire frame. It seems great at the time, but when you load the photo on your computer, the bird is tiny! Your 45+ megapixel supercamera will suddenly turn into a historical artifact with a resolution of 10 megapixels or less, thanks to all the cropping you need to do. Therefore, do everything you can to compose more tightly to get the most out of your camera’s potential.
Where in the frame should you place the bird? Every composition tip you’ve ever heard or read about applies here. We have a complete guide to composition on Photography Life, as well as several individual articles that can be found in the Composition section halfway down our list of all PL tutorials. I’ll go through a few of my favorite pointers below.
First, try to leave some space in front of the bird for it to “fly into,” compositionally speaking. This isn’t always needed, but it helps give the photo a story – specifically, where is this bird going and what is it up to? Telling a story is an important part of composition, since it helps your viewer feel attached to the image.
Another way to interest your viewer in a photo is to do something different or unexpected. For example, most bird photographs are by definition taken with the photographer down on the ground and the bird up in the sky. Try to find a location that will help you break this stereotype. It could be a bridge over a river, a rock wall, a cliff over the sea, or an observation tower. Your photos will get a fresh angle and a different background than the sky. Plus, the upperside of the wings is often more interesting than the underside.
If the passing bird gets to about your eye level, try to capture the surrounding landscape as well. This may require a lens with a shorter focal length, and/or using a narrower aperture to gain more depth of field. Both approaches will show more details in the background and give greater context to your subject.
The direction the bird is flying also plays a big role in a successful or unsuccessful composition. For example, a bird flying toward us or directly sideways can have an interesting shape and make a great subject. But when the bird starts to fly away, I almost always stop shooting. The image of a disappearing bird is rarely as impressive, other than special cases like a silhouette where it’s a small element in your composition.
This brings me to my next recommendation. If conditions allow, you don’t need to shoot every bird-in-flight photo with a telephoto lens! You can also get much closer and use a shorter focal length with good results. I’ve recently been taking bird in flight photos with a 24-120mm zoom, and I’m at the 24mm end much more often than you’d think.
For the photo below, I went even further and chose an 11-16mm zoom. Robert Capa’s statement “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” can clearly be applied to bird photography, too. Not all birds let you get this close, but for the ones that do, the results can be pretty unique.
Then there’s the question of light. As photographers, we use the palette of light and color provided by nature. It’s important to learn to perceive their qualities. Harsh midday sun often has deep shadows and overexposed highlights, and it’s rarely our ally as bird photographers. (Even the birds seem to know this and are not very active at this time of the day!)
The birds that break this trend and look good in harsh light are usually species that have structural colors. Structural colours are the result of light reflecting off microscopic structures on the surface of the bird’s feathers. They’re found on hummingbirds, many ducks, pheasants, and even some songbirds. In general, structural colours look best in the diffuse light of a semi-cloudy sky, but they can work better than usual in sunlight, too.
If you don’t want to lounge in the shade and wait for the sun to go behind the clouds or for the golden hour, you can try to photograph bird silhouettes. The sun’s rays passing through the delicate structures of bird feathers can produce interesting effects. Just be careful that the sun itself is not in your frame if you’re shooting with the optical viewfinder of a DSLR.
After all I’ve written above, my final recommendation about composition rules is, “Don’t be afraid to break composition rules.”
Throughout this guide to photographing birds in flight, I’ve introduced you to the most important facts about bird behavior, camera settings, bird environments, and composition. That’s the background you need to know in order to start off on the right foot and capture some great images of birds in flight.
With a little practice, great photos of this difficult-to-capture subject will land on your memory card, and you’ll be allowed to admire the aerial skills and elegance of birds. Without a camera, many of these breathtaking moments plucked from the flow of time would have eluded our eyes, so it’s a special thing to preserve them for others to see.
If you have any tips on how to photograph birds in flight, or questions about the information in this guide, please let me know in the comments section on the following page!
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