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How To Properly Photograph Birds in Flight

Updated on November 9, 2017
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Tips for Photographing Birds on the Wing

Birdwatching is as popular as ever, and for good reason: birds are magnificent animals and watching them is a transcendent experience. Unless you're a frustrated photographer.

Some species can be difficult to find and spot, and it's even trickier to capture them on film. Learning how to photograph birds in flight is an essential skill for an outdoor enthusiast wildlife photographer. Luckily, with today's modern cameras it's getting more accessible.

If you're trying to learn how to photograph birds in flight, know that it requires both patience and favourable conditions.

First, you'll need a good amount of luck to find and snap a shot of the bird you're after.

Secondly, you'll need the right camera, accessories and equipment in order to make sure the shot is clear, well composed and in focus. Lastly, you'll need to know your camera inside and out, so you'll be ready to take clear shots in the moment.

This article focuses on how to photograph birds mid-flight. We'll talk about the proper technique to catch them on film, and the adjustments you might need to make in order to successfully capture the shots that you want. We'll also touch on some items you might find useful, and the best equipment and bird photography cameras for the job. Let's begin!

Tips to Snap Pictures of Birds Mid-Flight

Here are a few important tips on how to properly photograph birds in flight. It'll probably be a bit of a learning curve when you first get started, and that's normal. Be patient, take LOTS of shots, and good things will come.

Here are a few things that will help:

  1. Get as close as you (safely) can:

    What's the number one trick for how to photograph birds in flight? Get as close as you can. The closer you are, the more detail your camera will be able to pick out, and the less outside scenery you'll have to crop later on. This will require being quiet and patient, and it's not exactly easy.

    The best thing to do is treat it like hunting, except instead of the animal itself, your trophy is the perfect photograph. You'll still need a telephoto lens (more on that later), but you can actually get great shots with fairly no-frills equipment if you do it right.

    Just remember to get close. The best photographs of birds in flight are taken when the shooter gets in tight.

    A caveat: getting close doesn't mean trampling all over their habitat or messing with their nests. Be careful not to harm the animals or the surrounding environment in any way. Try not to disturb them. And leave that habitat cleaner than you found it.

  2. Auto focus is your friend:

    Auto focus (AF) is a wonderful thing for any avid bird photographer. Learning how to photograph flying birds is hard enough without having to worry about making sure the focus is right.

    Modern digital SLR cameras have incredibly complex focus algorithms, meaning that you can capture perfectly crisp images automatically.

    If the background is complex (lots of brush or trees, for example), you may have difficulty with AF. It's easiest if you can capture your subject against the sky.

  3. A good telephoto lens helps:

    To photograph birds on the wing, you'll need a good quality telephoto lens, there's no getting around it. 75-300mm or 100-400mm is a good place to start. Technically it's possible to get good shots with a 'standard' zoom lens, it's just trickier. Plenty of zoom allows you to be further away.

    You'll need to decide for yourself the compromise between price and quality, but there are plenty of inexpensive 300mm telephoto lenses out there.

  4. Fast shutter speed, rapid shot:

    A fast shutter speed is essential for decent bird photography shots, especially mid-flight. Mirror lenses aren't always practical due to their lower speed, though they've caught up in recent years.

    It's up to you to decide how fast the shutter speed is without compromising exposure, but generally faster is better. A faster shutter speed also helps eliminate blur. Rapid shot is another great idea. Many modern DSLR cameras have rapid shot with frame rates of 4 - 5 per second. Take advantage of this!

The Right Gear for Flying Bird Photography

Tripod or Monopod: If you're a newer photographer, I do recommend either a tripod or a monopod for your shots. Shooting outdoors can be difficult at the best of times, and a tripod helps you steady your hand. A monopod is great if you still need a bit of movement flexibility, as it adds stability without being fiddly or heavy. Either one helps greatly with photographing birds in on the wing.

Binoculars: A good set of birding binoculars can be useful for finding the birds in the first place. Cameras are heavier and you don't want to be looking through your zoom lens all day long. A light set of bird watching binoculars can help you quickly locate and identify the bird, as well as plan your shot composition.

Waterproof Clothing: Earlier, I compared birder photography to hunting. So take advantage of that comfy hunting gear. You'll want all the proper outerwear to protect yourself from the elements and the wet. In particular, waterproof camera bags are essential, since a little water can ruin your gear, and birds often love hanging out in the muck.

Also, consider getting a decent set of waders so you can get close in swampy areas.

Canon EOS Rebel: A good DSLR camera for entry-level bird photography

This is an example of a great camera for learning how to photograph birds on the wing.

The Canon EOS Rebel is fantastic all-around choice because it comes with a standard lens which is perfect for general use. It has a stunning 18 megapixel sensor, handy WiFi upload capabilities, and it's capable of full HD movies. It comes with manual controls and a really powerful auto-focus and auto-exposure system.

Beyond that, it comes with a telephoto lens with 75mm-300mm. That's an excellent range for a beginner and it should provide a lot of flexibility. And the price tag is sensational.

I'd definitely recommend an entry-level shooter like this until you're a little more seasoned. If you're hoping to photograph birds on the wing, the EOS Rebel is a good way to get started.

How to photograph flying birds
How to photograph flying birds | Source

Last Tip: Make It Interesting!

If you really want spectacular photographs of birds in flight, don't get too caught up in the technical aspects of your shots. Perfect exposure and focus won't count for anything if it's a dull shot. And conversely, people will overlook a minor flaw if the composition and subject are exceptional.

Try to capture the bird doing something dynamic: flying, diving or swimming. A goshawk on the hunt is a spectacular subject, for example. And be mindful of lighting: early morning and sunset are great times of day to capture a beautiful image.

And while you're out there be sure to soak in nature and enjoy where you are. The photos you'll end up with are only part of the reward!

Questions or comments about bird photography in general?

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    • marvmac profile image

      marvmac 4 years ago

      This lens should have more likes