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How to Photograph Birds in Flight

Birds in flight are great subjects for nature photographers. When you’re photographing a bird in the nest or at rest, the bird may soon take off in search of food or to pick up building material for a nest. This type of opportunity is the best of both worlds: You get to photograph birds at rest, at work, and in flight.

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Tips and settings

When you get to an area where birds congregate, get ready to photograph birds in flight. Photographing birds in flight takes practice and anticipation. Here are some tips and camera settings for getting great images of birds:

  • Use exposure compensation if needed. If you’re photographing a bird that is flying overhead, the underside of the bird may be dark. If so, use exposure compensation to increase the exposure. The bird will be properly exposed.

  • Use the longest telephoto lens you have. You’ll need at least a 400mm focal length to get close enough to get a good picture. You can get by with a 200mm telephoto lens and a 2X tele-extender.

  • Shoot in Shutter Priority mode and use a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second or faster. The fast shutter speed freezes the motion of the bird.

  • Switch to Continuous Auto-Focus mode. In this mode, your camera updates focus as the bird flies closer to or farther away from you.

  • Switch to Continuous Drive mode. You can capture a sequence of images as a bird takes off and lands, or a series of images of the bird in flight.

  • Use image stabilization to compensate for any movement when your arms get tired after tracking birds with a long telephoto lens. You’ll find image stabilization especially beneficial when you’re doing a lot of shooting.

  • If possible, leave more room in front of the bird than behind the bird. This gives viewers an idea that the bird is going somewhere.

  • Anticipate the bird’s movement. Birds often lighten their load just before taking off.

Panning to capture birds in flight

When you photograph birds in flight, you have another option. You can take a photograph in which the bird is sharp and in focus, but the background is blurred. This type of photograph shows the artistry of a bird in motion. To photograph a bird in flight and depict the beauty of motion, follow these steps:

  1. Switch to Continuous Auto-Focus mode.

    This enables your camera to continually focus on your subject as it moves closer to or farther from you.

    Enable image stabilization if your camera or lens has this feature. This stabilizes the motion of the camera as you pan with your subject, which yields a sharper image.

  2. Switch to Shutter Priority mode and choose a shutter speed of 1/80 second.

    You may have to use a slightly higher shutter speed if you’re using a focal length that is the 35mm equivalent of 200mm or greater.

  3. Spread your legs slightly and move your elbows to the side of your body.

    If you’re using a digital SLR, cradle the barrel or the lens with your left hand and position your right forefinger over the shutter button. This helps stabilize the camera as you pan with your subject.

  4. Pivot from the waist toward the direction from which your subject will be coming.

  5. When your subject comes into view, press the shutter button halfway to achieve focus.

  6. Pan the camera with the bird to keep it in frame.

    When you photograph an object in motion, it’s a good idea to have more space in front of the object than behind it. This shows your viewer the direction in which your subject is traveling.

  7. Press the shutter button all the way when your subject is in the desired position and follow through.

    If you stop panning when you press the shutter, your subject won’t be sharp.

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