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.

38 thoughts on “10 Top Tips for Shooting Birds in Flight (Bird Photography)”

  1. 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.

    1. Setting the camera to AF-C and using back button focus is the way to take full advantage of image stabilization and it focuses way faster than making the camera refocus every time you push the shooting button. Just remember to hold the focus button down while tracking and shooting. That may sound complicated to some but it is way easier than trying to hold the shooting button half way down. If you are not doing one or the other you are missing the point of AF-C.

  2. 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. 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. 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

    1. Ideas for improving your “skills” will not be found by tweaking the functions on a camera body. Getting out and learning what those functions actually do and how one affects the other is the only thing that will improve your “skill”. Knowing what settings will do what, is one thing. Applying them in the field is another. Realizing that shutter speeds will be GREATLY affected as a bird flies from a brightly lit scenario to a giant shadow cast by a huge tree, is a good example. A bird lit by direct sunshine with a nice blue background may get you a 1/2000 shutter speed if you have the proper settings. Resulting in bright, crisp images with very little noise. However, once the bird enters the shadow of a tree on its flight path, your shutter speed will drop considerably due to the drop in light, requiring you to either bump up your ISO’s or use a wider aperture to make up for it. Resulting in a subpar image.

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

    1. Rafael Cordero

      Generally speaking, you are right.

      In this case, the selected speed is so fast, it will not make too much of a difference.

      At lower speeds, I won’t recommend remove it.

  6. 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.

  7. 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..

  8. What do you mean by Use the user programmable modes? I have a Nikon D300 and it has a Programmable mode but I do not understand how it works in this case.

    1. No, it isn’t the one he meant. In recent models there are more modes that you can control and save your settings at. It should be next to the P Mode, Manula, A, S etc.

    2. these are the cameras i’m using now Nikon D3X ,Nikon D 800.Nikon D7200 .most of the times these are set on Manual which gives me better control .then Program mode .

  9. Bhawana Jaiswal

    How we use flash light to stabiliz to our flying object? is this a good method for stability?

  10. Hi I have a 3300D nikon with a 55/300 dx nikon lens I put the aperture would be auto set my shutter speed is at 1/2000 (s )on dial I will be shooting eagles on the Delaware (IN FLIGHT I HOPE)on Feb 6th I have been playing in my yard with area birds multiple exposures to capture my goal photo.I seem to be disappointed with results and have to magnify shots and I also note this causes a bit of a blur that I would like to resolve .Also noted surrounding area seems more in focus. Can you help me with this? ap 5.6 iso was 800 (on auto)

  11. I set my Nikon D 7100 on sports mode, auto iOS, and make sure I have it on the correct setting to shoot 6 FPS. I typically use the single focus point. I get great results without worrying about all of that other stuff. It works great for early morning low light situations as well.

    1. use aperture priority mode with maximum opening. this will give you fastest possible speed. use AF continuous with single center point. practice to focus on the eye and pan camera properly with your bird.

  12. one more thing is the proper panning of camera with bird. practice this for perfection . i set aperture priority setting as user setting with continuous focus. i think basic cameras do not give sharp image on high ISO. so it is batter to use 5.6 to 8 for good result.

  13. Did you even bother to read the article? It says shooting wide open is a rookie mistake for bird photography

  14. shooting anything but manual is a mistake on birds in flight imo i was doing it wrong lol even though i got some keepers i think ill get better results now, you want the whites to be white on any backround which wont happen in program modes if the bird moves from the sky to a darker backround the whites will blow out as the program mode lightens exposure for the darker backround , in manual the exposure stays set to expose the whites the same in the sky or if it flies lower against grasses or mountains.

    heres a great article to read and practice , i was dubious on +2 and 1/3 stops over a white sky but it works


  15. I see these, “how to” articles on in flight bird photography all the time, but its usually all the same tips, rehashed in a new package. One thing I hardly, if ever see regarding in flight photography, is zooming technique and tracking technique. Is it best to zoom in tight to fill the frame as soon as you see your subject in the air, knowing full well the further the zoom the more potential for camera shake? Or is it best to back off a bit and allow the frame to be filled as the bird gets closer? Or, is it best to not try to zoom in so tight to begin with, as to allow room for cropping later on?

  16. This is the wonderful lesson…I would like to add the back button focusing..!! yes.this is the technique that makes the bird in flight more easy and comfortable. I have been using this technique and quite satisfied with my result..!!

  17. Some good advice in this trail, thanks. Mine is not to over zoom to try to fill the frame as a moving tracked target can be easily lost as one follows by hand. I have a perfectly focuses image of a Condor claw and a few feathers as my target flew rather too close. Less zoom would have captured the whole bird in a perfect shot but I was too greedy! I also routinely have a telescope red dot finder attached and aligned for quick target location and long aerial tracking even with 600mm zoom equivalent on m43 Pan gx7. This really delivers as it is so lightweight for manual tracked targets. The newer 100-400 Leica zoom lens would be better but a tad costly. This m43 camera outperforms the typical birders Canon or Nikon kit with their huge heavy and costly lenses. I fully expect a torrent of criticism for this last comment but please refrain unless you have experienced the pan gx7 or other m43 units with these very user friendly lighter weight lenses.

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