How to Photograph Birds in Flight with Sharp Results By Libor Vaicenbacher 24 CommentsPublished On April 12, 2022«1. Understanding Bird Behavior2. Camera Settings and Equipment3. Locations and Composition4. Reader Comments»Table of ContentsUnderstanding Bird BehaviorCamera Settings and EquipmentLocations and CompositionReader Comments
Thanks! Very helpful information which I will put to use.
I’m very pleased to read that, Dan, thank you.
Hi Libor, Your article was really insightful esp as I am transitioning from taking bird portraits to shooting more action. I use a Sony mirrorless (a7iii ) with 200-600mm lens. Here are few areas where I am struggling.
1. I have tried doing handheld, but I really suck at it. Because of camera shakes, and esp looking up while shooting birds in flight, I invariable end up with multiple blurred pictures . ( I don’t go beyond 1/1600 in my shutter as I end up compromising my iso). So, I end up using my monopod with gimbal head most of the time, waiting at once place, and trying to get action shots. Any advice here would be really valuable.
2. I fear I will never be able to use my setup handheld even for action shots. The weight of the setup and the fear of getting blurred shots gets to me ( sorry, if I am sounding very dramatic here). I would then use my monopod and would miss out on shots which otherwise I could have got handheld. Of course if the light conditions are really good, I am happy pushing the shutter to much faster and then I am quite happy getting the shots handheld. Have you faced such an issue? How did you overcome it?
3. While shooting action shots – say while taking off, even though I try and anticipate the action, by the time I click burst mode, most of the frames have a part of the bird, and not the full bird. Seems like there is a time lag between my pressing and the action happening. Did you face something like this in your early days and if so how did you solve this?
Realy long post, but I really wanted to get your advice. Many thanks in advance.
thank you for your question. Definitely don’t give in to frustration. Photographing birds in flight is the royal discipline of this branch of photography. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert in it either. You will achieve mastery if you photograph birds in flight on a daily basis. It’s like any other sport or psycho-motor activity – practice makes perfect.
For a start, I’d probably put down the monopod. A gimbal head is certainly a good thing, but it’s not ideal for photographing birds in flight. Why? Because the axis of rotation is somewhere in the middle of your setup. This leads to the fact that while the bird is flying to one side, your body has to move (somewhat counterintuitively) to the other side. Without the monopod, the camera will be an extension of your arm and the results will be better.
If even 1/1600 sec is a time that leads to unsharp images, consider the following:
– For small, fast-moving birds, this time is quite long (shorten the shutter speed)
– Is the unsharpness due to air waves caused by high temperature? (shoot in the morning)
– It’s better to deal with noise than blur (increase ISO; there’s an article coming out soon on noise in photography, so stay tuned)
I hope I have helped. Have a nice “hunt”.
Very good article. Tried some of the settings you suggest and increased my percentage of good shots and the quality of flight shots. I found that if the subject doesn’t cover most of the focus points chosen though that focus wasn’t good. So for farther away subjects or smaller subjects I had to use a smaller area of less focus points. And yes less is better but you need enough to keep a few on the bird as you attempt to track the bird. got one set from a Canada goose pair as they came in for a landing under cloudy sky’s that tracked excellent through the shots.
Hi David, I’m so glad to hear that I helped you increase the number of keepers. At least with DSLRs, classic shooting skills remain a big advantage. Practice makes perfect. As for the number of focus points. Using the rifle shooting analogy, more points is like a shotgun. Most of the time you’ll hit, but you might also hit the end of the wing. Less points is like a rifle. It’s harder to hit, but if you can do it, the results are perfect. But let’s stick with cameras, where even after an accurate shot, our “catch” goes on to live a happy life.
Stunning images, every one! Very informative guide, thank you!
Thank you for your kind words, Kevin. I’m very glad if my article enriched you.
Really good, in depth, article covering bird behaviour as well as the technical aspects.
One camera feature not mentioned is the shutter control. On my Pentax k1 you can choose to have the camera only release the shutter after focus has been achieved. The default is to have the shutter release as soon as the button is pressed regardless of whether the shot is in focus.
Also, do you recommend continuous shooting or single frame mode for some scenarios?
Hi Matt, good point, thank you. In any case, I have shutter priority selected on continuous AF (even in single frame). I only use single frame mode where I’m very confident that the subject I’m shooting won’t start to move (i.e. landscapes for example). Even with a perching bird, I can’t be sure it won’t spread its wings and fly away the next second. Moreover, continuous focusing compensates not only for the subject’s movement, but also for the photographer’s movement. This can be very crucial when shooting with long telephoto lenses (unless you’re using a tripod).
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article, learned heaps. Thanks so much.
Dear Rick, I am very glad that you found something in my article that enriched you.
One of the most informative articles I have ever read and I am 81 next birthday!!!
I have never photograph a bird in my life but I do sports photography. I think manual mode 1/2000 f5.6 Auto ISO is a good starting point for my genre. Thanks again.
Dear Stan, I am very pleased to read such words from a man with so much experience. Sports and bird photography have a lot in common. Only avian athletes are a bit more unpredictable and a lot faster.
Very informative article, beautiful pictures of birds in flight. Thank you.
I thank you, Udayan, for reading it. It was a long article. If you found something in it that interested you, I’m very glad.
Kind of Bible for wildlife photographers….. many thanks.
But what about flash? On your picture, all of the three wildlife photographers have a flash on their kit…..
Hi Bernard, thank you so much for your kind words. I’m glad to read that my work is meaningful.
About the flashes. I think the last time I had a flash on my camera was in 2015, when I was photographing my friends. Since then I have only used flashes off the camera body. The fact that I stopped using flashes I owe to a better camera (nikon d500) and switching to better software (Capture One).
Thanks, I agree with that….(nikon Z6 II)
=> In my bookmarks.