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How To Photograph Birds in Flight

Updated on September 15, 2016

Tips for Photographing Birds on the Wing

There is a reason why birdwatching is an ever growing popular outdoor hobby: birds are magnificent animals and wonderful to watch. Some species can be difficult to find and spot, and it's even more difficult to capture them on film. Learning how to photograph birds in flight is an essential skill for an outdoor enthusiast or a wildlife photographer. Fortunately, with current technology it's getting more accessible.

Learning how to photograph birds in flight requires a combination of elements going in your favor. 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 how to use your camera properly, and the way to set it up for the rapid shots you'll need to succeed.

This article focuses on how to photograph birds in 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 if you want to get more into bird photography, and the best equipment and bird photography cameras for the job. Let's begin!

Tips and Recommendations

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 it's OK to not get it right straight away. Be patient, stick with it and take LOTS of shots and good things will come. Here are a few specific clues you'll want to pay attention to.

  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 a lot of being quiet and patient, and it's not exactly easy. The best thing to do is treat it like hunting, except your trophy is the final perfect photograph. You'll still need a telephoto lens (more on that later), but you can actually get great shots with a fairly basic lens if you do it right. The best photographs of birds in flight are taken when the photographer gets surprisingly close to the subject.

    One note: 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. And do not litter, leave it cleaner than you left!

  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 focused images at the touch of a button. If the background is complex, you may need to do a bit of manual control work, however.

  3. A good telephoto lens helps:

    To photograph birds in flight, you'll want a good quality telephoto lens, it's as simple as that. 75 - 300mm or 100 - 400mm is a good place to start. Technically it's possible to get good shots with a more 'standard' zoom lens, it's just much trickier. Lots 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 cheaper 300mm lenses out there these days.

  4. Fast shutter speed, rapid shot:

    A fast shutter speed is essential for decent bird flight photography shots. That's why mirror lenses aren't always practical. 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!

Optimal 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 difficult to set up or too heavy. Either one helps greatly with photographing birds in flight.

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: Consider flying bird photography to be like hunting. You'll want all the proper gear 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.

Nikon D7100: A good DSLR camera for bird photography

This is an example of a great camera for learning how to photograph birds on the wing. This set includes the Nikon D7100, which is fantastic all-around choice with a standard lens perfect for general use, vacations and what have you. It has a stunning 24.1 megapixel sensor, 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, this awesome camera comes with a VR telephoto lens. The VR stands for 'vibration reduction', something really worth considering if you're an aspiring bird photographer. The idea is that the lens helps to reduce the handheld small vibrations when taking shots, leading to clearer pictures and an easier experience.

In addition to the camera and multiple lenses, it comes with two UV filters, a wireless remote control for remote photos, a compact camera bag, a 57" tripod, and a 64GB memory card with high speed storage.

If you're hoping to photograph birds on the wing, this kit has a lot of what you'll need.

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

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