I get a lot of questions asking how I photograph birds in flight or how do I improve my success rate with photographing birds in flight.
To be honest I used to really struggle with capturing decent sharp images of birds in flight but through:
- Research – Yes, I did read other photographers tips
I became a lot better and can now usually achieve 90%+ success rate on these images.
So here are my top tips on improving your images of birds in flight.
Shoot using continuous autofocus. First, you’ll need to set your camera to its continuous focusing mode. That way, whenever you half press the shutter button, the focus will engage – then it will refocus as your subject moves. (Nikon and many other manufacturers call this mode “AF-C,” though Canon calls it “AI Servo.”)
Use back button focusing. There are several reasons why back-button focus is advantageous, and they apply to a variety of shooting situations. For starters, you no longer have to spend time switching between AF-C and AF-S, because when you lock focus (by releasing the back button) you can fire the shutter without the camera hunting or refocusing. This also means that you don’t have to use AF-L or switch to manual focus to lock AF. This is particularly helpful when photographing sports or wildlife.
Select the correct Autofocus Grouping. I always use Group Autofocus. I find this works great on blue skies, birds flying past distant trees, and even in dense bush as long as I could track my subject. Group-area autofocus works by activating all the focus points at the same time, giving you a larger focus area. Dynamic autofocus patterns only activate one point at a time (with additional sub-focus points depending on mode..i.e d25, d72, d125), so while they may cover more the viewfinder (and search for subjects), they don’t actually give you as large of an area of active main focus points to acquire your subject. Also, group-area autofocus gives priority to what is closest to the camera, resulting in less focus hunting than with dynamic modes. And finally, because of the larger active autofocus pattern, group-area autofocus sticks to your subject better than dynamic modes. I’m sure there are situations where dynamic autofocus will work great, especially with an erratically moving subject, but I still got my best results using Group-Area autofocus. I will also add here. This is my opinion. I know a lot of photographers that swear by single point and d25 etc etc.
Select Auto ISO. Auto ISO is a feature, common to most digital cameras, that allows the camera to automatically pick an ISO for each shot. You can use Auto ISO in Manual, Aperture Priority, or Shutter Priority mode, I use Aperture priority mode and set the minimum ISO to be 1000 this means that the camera will always select the correct ISO to maintain 1/1000 shutter speed no matter what aperture I select. This is useful when a bird is flying across a dark and then light background. The same can be true with shutter priority mode. But the camera will then select the aperture to maintain the chosen shutter speed. Shutter Speed of 1000 is often suitable for most birds in flight. However if the bird is particularly fast moving then I will switch to Shutter Priority and put the shutter speed up to 1/2000 or 1/3200. The camera will then select the correct aperture and ISO to maintain the chosen shutter speed.
Select the correct Aperture. Selecting the right aperture is also important as you will probably want more than just the bird’s head in sharp focus. Focusing might not be as pin-point accurate when shooting birds in flight as when shooting static subjects when you can use a single AF point and focus lock onto the part of the subject you want sharp. With this in mind, to provide some focusing latitude, aim for an aperture of around f5.6or f8. I also do shoot wide open if there is limited light.
Metering Mode. I tend to use Matrix/evaluative metering it is usually the most advanced and hands-off metering system on a camera, it usually gives me the required results. I find with spot or centre weighted the exposures can be thrown off if the bird moves erratically.
Burst Mode. This setting also called continuous shooting mode, is when you set your frames per second. Set this as high as you can. On Nikon the required setting is CH. This will enable many frames to be taken consecutively.
Research. If you want to become really good at photographing birds in flight, then you’ll need to study birds. Why? Once you know birds, you can predict their movements. For instance, many birds, especially the larger species like herons or eagles, will relieve themselves just before they fly. Knowing this can give you a split-second warning that translates into a beautiful take-off shot. A lot of this studying will occur while you’re out photographing. Just by watching the birds, by identifying their behavioural habits, by seeing what they do and when they do it, you’ll accumulate plenty of useful knowledge. For instance, did you know that shorebirds tend to run down the beach in a consistent direction? So if you want close-up shots of skittish shorebirds, determine their direction, position yourself down the beach, get on the ground, and wait for them to come to you!
Find a good location. Try and position yourself level with the bird. Shooting up at it or down on it is not as visually pleasing at being on the same level. This is not always possible. But for water birds that take off by running along the water if you lay down and get at the same level as the water then your shots will be more pleasing. For Seabirds – they usually follow similar flight paths when returning to the cliffs, so observe them and position yourself accordingly to get the best possible position.
For birds flying towards you – again it is all about observation. Try and position yourself in a good location where you can see the bird from a distance. Start tracking it as soon as you can see it using the back button focusing mentioned earlier and then as it becomes bigger in the viewfinder start shooting.
The most Important Tip
Practice. It really is a case of putting the time in to perfect everything. Experiment. The above settings are only a guide. They work for me. But find your comfort zone. Find what works for you. It has taken me many years to find what works and what I am comfortable with. The best place to practice is local to you. Any area of water nearby that has seagulls for example is perfect. Gulls are great subjects to practice with. They fly fast, slow, erratically, they can take off from anywhere and are very common.
For example. Years ago, I went on a boat trip in Scotland to photograph White tailed sea eagles taking fish from the side of the boat. I messed up every shot. They were all out of focus or incorrectly exposed. So I returned home, rebooked the trip for 2 months later and spent every Saturday for the next 2 months at my local park photographing gulls and cormorants. Week by week I improved my technique and mastered my settings. The next time I photographed the eagles I achieved a very high success rate.
After you have mastered the basics. Try something different. Try slow shutter speeds. Try Panning. Go out in the rain or snow and try different more dramatic compositions. Look at backgrounds. What will make a better shot. Then position yourself there to make the best of your images.
I shoot with Nikon. Currently the D850 but the above can be applied to all camera makes and models.
I run one on one coaching and tutorials in the Glasgow area. I offer support and help to get the best out of your camera for birds in flight.
If this is of interest then please get in touch.