10 Top Tips for Shooting Birds in Flight (Bird Photography)

how to take pictures of birds while flying

Bird in Flight – Jim Harmer

Living in SW Florida where there are hundreds of species of beautiful shore birds, many photographers are interested in how to shoot birds in flight.  Shooting birds in flight can be tricky at first, but these tips will get you headed in the right direction.

Bird Photography Tip #1: Watch your composition. Strong composition for a moving subject usually means that the photographer places a large amount of negative space on the side of the frame to which the bird is traveling.  By allowing some space in this side of the frame, the viewer will not be distracted by wondering what is in front of the bird, and will be able to focus on the subject.

Bird Photography Tip #2: Adjust your elevation. Usually birds in flight look best when the photographer is relatively close to the same height as the bird.  This can be tricky in some situations, but know that your best photos will likely occur when the bird is swooping down low or when you can get on a hill or in an elevated bird stand.

Bird Photography Tip #3: Adjust your camera settings. You will certainly want to use continuous focus (AF-C on a Nikon, or AI Servo on a Canon), select the proper focus point (I usually use the center point or dynamic autofocus), a sharp aperture, and a fast shutter speed somewhere around 1/1200th of a second.

Bird Photography Tip #4: Use the user programmable modes. Some new DSLRs allow photographers to set a user-programmable collection of settings that can be activated by simply spinning the mode dial.  When I shoot birds in flight, I have these user-programmable modes ready with a setting for panning, and a setting for a still bird.  This will allow me to quickly change all my camera settings in an instant if the occasion arises.  Very useful.

Bird Photography Tip #5: Shoot away from the sun. Usually backlit birds will not be as nice-looking as front-lit birds.  Simply planning to stand in the correct spot will significantly improve the quality of your images.

Bird Photography Tip #6: Shoot in short bursts of 2 or three images. This will increase your chances of getting a sharp photo without filling your buffer too quickly.

Bird Photography Tip #7: Don’t skimp on depth-of-field. Beginning birds in flight shooters often use the lowest aperture they have available to get a high shutter speed.  While a high shutter speed is certainly important, skimping on aperture is not the answer.  Many birds have a large wingspan, and a low aperture will often put the wing tips out of focus.  If you need more light to increase your shutter speed, use a higher ISO.

Bird Photography Tip #8: Shoot with both eyes open. This is a matter of personal preference, but I learned how to shoot with both eyes open because I used to teach shotgun shooting classes.  Applying this technique in photography allows you to see what is in front of the bird so you can prepare your shot.  If the bird is swooping down to catch an animal, I can see it BEFORE it’s too late.

Bird Photography Tip #9: Pay attention to the background. While a background of a pure blue sky can work in some situations, many birds in flight images will be much stronger if a more interesting background is captured.  Wait for the birds to swoop down low where trees or water can provide a compelling background.

Bird Photography Tip #10: Don’t skimp on Image Stabilization. It is unfortunate that image stabilized lenses often come at a premium, because some photographers opt for the cheaper lens without image stabilization.  Especially for telephoto lenses, your image stabilization will be absolutely vital to the success of your photography of birds in flight.

Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. Ivar says

    I would add the technique of using manual exposure setting, often using a view of the ground (grass if I can find it, for 18% gray) to dial in an appropriate exposure. The sky around a bird in flight nearly always causes an under exposure, in automatic modes.

    I wonder about your #10. Others pitching advice on birds-in-flight assert that it is better to remove the IS, to get faster focus.

  2. Mare says

    I attend to visit show of birds (eagles) with falconer at castle landskron (Villach). I need some help. OK, AF-C, 1/1000 s (1/1200 s) or faster, aperture 2.8-4.0, ISO AVTO (200-800 ISO)
    Which focus point to use in my Nikon D800 ? Center point and dynamic 21 point or. 51 point (in manual of Nikon D800, 51 point dynamic area, is the right choise)? What about a stabilization? Some people advice to remove IS because it slow down the AF sistem?
    What about metering? Matrix or SPOT?
    I will use Nikon 70-200 mm f/2.8 ED VR II lense.

  3. Riaz says

    thanks for the details.. but sometimes u can’t buy a lens with image stabilization.. like i am working with 400mm f5.6. what do you think i should do to improve my skill of birds photography

  4. Deborah says

    I’ve read that you remove image stabilization only when you’re using a tripod, not when taking hand-held shots.

  5. Kelly says

    IS and VR are not as important when using high shutter speeds and can slow down the auto focus. So if I’m shooting at a low shutter speed, I turn VR on. If I’m shooting at a high shutter speed I turn it off. This is in regards to bird-in-flight shots.

    I keep meaning to do #4 but keep forgetting. I think I’ll do it right now, thanks for the reminder.

  6. jjm says

    One other great tip that helps me, is to aim as if im ducking, and once you get close with the center focus, try to keep it on the birds head or wing pit at the body. and let it rip machine gun style at the fastest possible, This will get the cover shot. As I shoot and live on the pacific coats of Costa Rica. The Red Macaw Parrot is our most photographed bird, and shooting up with back light always is very hard. Better shots will come for the more aggressive , to climb a tree, and even set up a scaffold to shoot down, Hard work always pays off..

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