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Photographing Flying Birds

Updated on May 6, 2015

1.A vulture arriving at a kill in the Kruger National Park makes an interesting subject as the mixture of colors and movement provides an interesting and unusual picture. One of my favorites.

2. A Tern flying along the edge of the Nahoon River in East London comes quite close and in the good light of mid-day it is possible to freeze the moving object.

3. A Gull arriving on the beach at Galveston on the Gulf Coast in late evening light -the magic hour.

4. A flock of Terns fly along the beach at Trafalgar on the south coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal

5. Turkey Buzzards searching for food often come close enough to get an interesting shot and specially if they are back lit as they often/usually are.

The challenge of photographing flying birds

With the advent of digital technology and the improvement of cameras at lower cost even the casual photographer can hope to get that great photo. Birds are a great subject but another bird perched on a branch is not likely to get the heart racing and produce awe inspiring shots. So the next step is to try to photograph a bird in flight.

Birds in general, even when perched, are a challenge as they do not normally wait around for humans to approach. Some of the smaller ones are particularly hard to "catch" as they never seem to stay still for more than a second or two. Sometimes a flying bird is easier to get close to as it probably feels safer in that environment where we as humans cannot easy go.

So place yourself in a situation where birds fly past. Often in evenings and early mornings birds arrive or leave their overnight perches. The magic half hour in the early morning and late afternoon provides great background colors, but the relative low light is not conductive to freezing moving objects. Don't be afraid to take a lot of photos as the majority can be deleted. Easier said then done. We arrived back from out six month road trip in the USA with more than 25 000 photos. I am still trying to work through some of the files after several years. Never know what I might find.

Another problem is that flying birds are often found in coastal areas where high moisture and strong winds with driving sand provide serious complications to delicate camera equipment. Here it is useful to have a protective cover for your camera to keep out the elements that can damage your equipment.

Taking photos of birds in flight then must be one of the most difficult tasks facing a beginner photographer. The challenge of a moving bird, often far away, is a daunting task indeed. In taking a photo of a moving bird move your camera with the bird and do not be afraid to set your camera on the highest speed. Perhaps the best time to get a good photograph is as it leaves its perch. An expert in this area suggests that you focus on the bird and then as it takes off rock backwards before taking the photo. This enables you to keep the focus sharp.

Other photos include either a flock of birds that are moving together and present an interesting pattern or birds coming down to land. In either situation a lot of patience and luck is involved. At the local Photographic Club in East London the photo of another bird sitting on a branch is considered a waste of time, but then not everyone has the opportunity and the resources to spend the hours waiting for the perfect situation. Obviously bird hides are an ideal place to wait for that magic moment. Every bird photographer in South Africa dreams of a shot of a Fish Eagle catching a big fish as it leaves the water trailing behind it, lit up by the soft evening light.

Meanwhile each of us do the best we can with the equipment we have, knowing that we are not going to get that award winning photo that you see in the travel magazines. At the same time we have a photographic record of the image that is perfectly imprinted in our minds as we saw it. Above are some of mine.

Group of Pelicans flying over the St Lucia Estuary in Kwa-Zulu Natal against perfect blue skies


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    • Johan Smulders profile imageAUTHOR

      Johan Smulders 

      6 years ago from East London, South Africa

      They sat "the harder you practice the luckier you get" (Gary Player about golf) and It applies every where!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Great pics, Johan, and like you said, it is mostly luck. I know it is for me, and have I ever been lucky!

    • Johan Smulders profile imageAUTHOR

      Johan Smulders 

      6 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Thanks for the comment.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 

      6 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Johan. You have some great shots here, well done. It is a challenge to get them in flight. I will try your tip to rock backwards when they take off. Thanks for the tip.


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