Birds in flight (BIF) is one of the most fascinating and in many respects most difficult parts of nature photography. It does not only require skill and experience but also proper equipment. A proffesional bird photographer might spend tens of thousands of dollars for equipment and thousands of hours of time and patience in the middle of nature.
An enthusiastic photographer on the other hand might neither have these funds, nor the time. However this doesn’t mean the door is closed. BIF can be practiced with cheaper equipment too and with less time. Of course the chances to get great photos might be lower depending on subject. But it’s still worth trying!
Regarding equipment the telephoto lens is mandatory. A fast camera, preferably DSLR would also be highly recommended. I for example use my 70-300 VC Tamron on D7100. This is only a general purpose telephoto that doesn’t have the AF performance and accuracy of professional lenses. Also the focal distance is sometimes too short, yet I am striving to get the best out of it. Photography is not only about expensive equipment but also about skill, hard work and … passion.
Now let me share with you some of the findings regarding shooting birds in flight.
1) Let’s start with settings. I always use continuous autofocus. After all, the subject is moving, doesn’t it? The shutter speed is usually high, say 1/2000 seconds. The lens is not wide-open but more like a f7.1 aperture to minimise chances that the subject gets out-of-focus. The mode I prefer is the manual one (M) with auto-ISO so I can easily adjust the shutter speed and aperture if required. Regarding white balance I use daylight but I correct this in Lightroom anyway. I prefer to use burst shooting, then in the selection process I keep the best photos. Last but not least I turn off any image stabilisation features (a.k.a. vibration reduction or vibration compensation). It’s no use having this enabled when shooting at 1/2000 and it can only slow the lens AF.
2) As my lens is pretty “lazy” in low light I take BIF photos only when the weather is sunny and the skies are clear. You would ask me: why do you only talk about your lens? Well the answer is simple: no matter the equipment, one should know its limitations and when it can be used at full potential. In my opinion this is a key success factor in all possible photography genres. So it’s not about my lens, it’s about knowing one’s own equipment well.
3) The second reason for preferring sunny weather is that in my opinion the pure blue sky brings the best contrast and colours to the flying subjects. However a thing that should be taken seriously into consideration is the position of the sun. You wouldn’t want to photograph the bird with the sun behind it unless you desire to get a silhouette. It’s best to observe the exact position of our star and how light falls on the subject. You can do this straight from viewfinder while “panning”. Then you can wait for the bird to arrive in the correct position and shoot. And remember one thing: the sunlight caught in its eyes makes a great artistic difference!
4) Also due to the slower lens AF I sometimes prefer to prefocus at a distance approximately equal to the one I expect the bird to be. I don’t switch to manual focus (although this might sometimes be a solution) but only set an “initial focus distance”. This decreases chances of missing the subject due to slow AF. Probably if you have a fast lens you shouldn’t worry too much about this. However you might want to use the focus limiter button (if you have one) to ensure the minimum allowed focus distance gets increased and thus the AF speed becomes even higher.
5) I take into account the fact that each bird has a different behaviour. For example seagulls, pigeons and crows are pretty predictable. They are pretty much used to human presence. On the other hand the magpies are very fast and easy to scare. I approach them carefully and when I see them sitting on branches I try to anticipate that in any moment they might take off. I try to predict a direction of their flight and point my gear into that direction. In the same time I use my lateral view to continue to observe the subject. Then when it starts flying I shoot in bursts until the bird vanishes.
6) When intending to shoot BIF I always keep my camera ready for this. The settings should have already been done when the subject appears. Of course as enthusiastic photographer I don’t only capture birds-in-flight in my shooting sessions. If I see an interesting landscape I will change my settings accordingly and have it photographed. But then I immediately switch back to the BIF settings, which is the “default” for that session. After all, the landscape doesn’t go anywhere. But a flying bird does! So don’t miss opportunities because you haven’t prepared your camera for this. If you have gear that supports creating pre-defined settings you can use one of the banks for the required setup. In my Nikon D7100 I have the U1 and U2 modes, U2 containing the settings for moving birds. When I turn the wheel to this position and the image stabilisation button to off my camera is ready for action. It only takes 2 seconds!
7) BIF is not only about settings and being prepared. It’s also about knowing the place thoroughly. It’s about knowing which birds live there in which season, what kind of behaviour they have and which the best shooting positions are. It might take several visits to determine this. Knowing the area and the shooting sweet spots increases the chances of getting desirable results. A hint would be to search for places where there’s plenty of water: lakes, rivers and the sea. After you have found a good place, just visit it as often and possible. Search for new positions, probe different angles and finally you won’t get disappointed.
8) Last but not least a few words about framing and composition. When shooting BIF I always use the central focus point and don’t bother about them. There are two reasons for this: on the one hand the bird is flying and won’t wait for me to carefully compose the photo. On the other hand in many situations the focal length is not large enough for the subject to fill the sensor area (so I would have to crop at editing anyway). Consequently the essential thing is to take the photo(s) and adjust framing and composition in post-processing. You would ask me: but then why do we need so many focus points? The answer is simple: we can setup the surrounding focus points to help the central one in “locking the target”. I do this by setting for example a 9-points dynamic area on my D7100. If the camera supports it more points might need to be setup especially when the subject is unpredictable and has an erratic flight technique. It’s better to test more settings on various subjects in order to get used to the AF system of the gear.
Well, that would be it. I hope you’ll find these pieces of advice useful. As usual I’m looking forward for your comments, thoughts and opinions about this challenging topic.
Happy BIF shooting 🙂
PS. Check these posts too: