A shot of a bird in flight has always been a challenge to photographers. Seeing a perfect print image only serves to make them eager to create the same result. Photographing a bird in flight presents one problem, but capturing that one special bird-in-flight shot that’s in focus and has good composition plus good light can represent a whole set of problems. Everyone has his share of good flight shots where the bird may be just a tiny bit soft. Those are easy. But, how do you get a great flight shot?
The camera technology of the last several years has made flight photography easier than it was before, but there are still lots of variables that need to be added to the equation to make good bird-in-flight photography a common part of your repertoire. Here are some fundamentals to help you increase your supply of flight shots:
Camera Body Features
The camera body equipment out today has made action photography much easier than it was when manual focus was the rule rather than the exception. The first handy feature to set is the continuous focus mode called AI Servo on Canon and Continuous Servo on Nikon. This setting allows the lens to keep changing the focus as long as the shutter button is depressed halfway and the subject is in the set auto focus point.
Second, Canon has a custom function that expands the auto focus point activation area to either 7 or 13 points. This is a great function, as it allows for the subject movement to remain in focus even if you don’t keep up with the movement of the bird in your primary AF point.
Drive mode is the third camera function to set. Here, the best setting is “high-speed continuous” where you get the most frames per second that your camera body will allow. While you’ll burn quite a few shots with this setting, it will allow more shots to choose from for the wing position and lighting you like best.
Lens selection is a very subjective topic with plenty of correct answers. Being a Canon shooter, I’ll refer to Canon lenses, but many other brands have some comparable lenses. If you want to do flight photography handholding your camera and lens, the best choices are the 400 f/5.6 and the 100-400 IS. These are, by far, the best lenses on the market for flight photography. (Canon shooters have the advantage here, as the comparable Nikon lens, the 80-400 VR, is very slow to focus. People in my workshops have wanted to throw their Nikon lenses as far as they could when they couldn’t force them to focus fast enough.)
When handholding, try to keep your hand as far out on the barrel of the lens as possible to provide better balance while you’re panning and moving around with the subject. Also, tuck your elbows into your body as far as you can and keep your legs about shoulder-width apart. This position helps you turn your body into a tripod.
Your skill level also plays a part in proper lens selection. When you’re starting out in bird photography, it’s best to use the above lenses as opposed to “big guns” such as the 400 f/2.8, 500 and 600mm lenses. The reason is that shorter focal length lenses will provide easier tracking of the birds in the viewfinder. With the larger lenses, you have a very limited viewing range when the birds are close. You have to get them in view when they’re farther away and stay with them until they move close enough for you to take your shot. After time and practice, you’ll find it easier to focus on them when they’re close, but even then you’ll miss some shots. Longer focal lengths also allow you to work at greater distances with less change in subject position. Birds going across the frame are easier to track, particularly with a long focal length, than those coming directly into the camera, since they stay at roughly the same distance.
If you plan to shoot from a tripod instead of wanting to hand hold the camera/lens combination, a big lens will definitely do the trick. If you’re setting up a big lens on a tripod, by far the best option for a tripod head is the Wimberley head. The gimbal action is designed for action photography and makes panning with the birds easier than you could imagine if you’ve never used one of these heads. You can use a sturdy ball head, but you have to be careful with how loose you keep it. I primarily use my 400 f/2.8, sometimes with an extender, with the Wimberley head and then keep a second body close at hand with a 70-200 f/2.8 lens and either a 1.4 or 2X extender attached.
The faster the f-stop of the lens, the better, as quick shutter speeds are imperative in getting sharp flight shots. It’s best to be able to stick with a f/2.8 lens but this isn’t always an option, depending on how much money you can spend. F/4 and f/5.6 are about as slow as you want for getting quick action shots, whether the subject is birds-in-flight or any other fast-moving subject.
Advancing lens technology has made flight photography much easier, but not foolproof. Auto focus is the major development that has helped to capture action. Be aware that owning an AF lens is not a guarantee of sharp results. There is no substitute for good technique. However, auto focus does yield a higher percentage of acceptable images when you’re shooting birds in flight, especially if you have a camera body that can shoot upwards of eight frames a second or more.
Because digital cameras keep improving the quality of images you get at higher ISO settings, it’s now alright to push the setting to 200 or even 400 to get good flight shots, depending on the available light. The caution to keep in mind is that a shutter speed of at least 1/500 is needed–preferably even 1/1000 or more, if possible. Doing a little bit of testing with shutter speed and f-stop will help you determine what the ISO needs to be for you to obtain the desired shutter speed.
As with any other subject, lighting is critical with flight photography. The best light condition for flight photography is front lighting, with the sun at your back and the birds coming towards you or across in front. The best light is still those two golden times of day when the sun is low on the horizon, but because the subject is high in the sky, you can extend your shooting time as the higher sun can still bounce nice light off the bird.
A key detail to keep in mind when you’re composing flight shots is which auto focus point is set. You need to become adept at changing the auto focus point on the fly for you to get good flight shots. As multiple birds are flying around your location, you have to be aware of which point you’ve selected for the best composition.
The best compositions have space in front of the bird in the direction the bird is flying. Having its beak/ bill crowded against the leading edge of the shot makes for a potential throwaway image, even if everything else is right with the shot. Your subject needs room to breathe, and continually changing the AF point for better composition will provide the space you need to maintain in front of the bird.
Starting out, keep the AF point on the center point and try to get the bird’s eye focused there. This will ensure there is room in front of the bird for it to fly into the frame. While the eye will be in the middle of the frame, the majority of the bird will be behind it, so you’ll be keeping the full bird from being centered in the frame.
The farther away you can get the subject into your viewfinder, the better. If you try to focus only on a bird that’s close to your position, you’ll never get a good flight shot. As you see a bird coming in your direction, get it in the viewfinder, and track with it as it moves closer. Once it’s in the position you like (the preferred frame size and in good light), you can fire away.
When you’re panning a bird in flight, continue the panning motion even after you’ve taken the final shot. Following through will keep that last shot in focus better than if you abruptly stopped the movement. It’s the same idea as a golfer doing a follow-through on her shot or a baseball player continuing with his swing. A good way to do this is to continue shooting after the bird has passed you by. The last couple shots will be throwaways, but you’ll have included the shot you really want.
The eyes have it. As with any wildlife photo, you need to have the eye in sharp focus. If the eye is out-of-focus, then the shot is not of a technical quality suitable for publication. If possible, try to set your AF point on the eye. If you can’t do this, at least get the focus on the neck, as the neck of a bird is on the same plane as the eye.
The biggest factor to keep in mind when you’re shooting flight photography is the relationship of the wind and the sun. Birds will always (well, almost always) take off and land into whatever wind or breeze there is. Getting the wind under their wings help them with lift and drag. Putting yourself in the right position to get the best flight shots means having both the wind and the sun at your back, allowing the birds to come towards you.
As you see, there are plenty of factors to keep in mind when you’re taking flight shots of birds. You have to think about how much you want the bird to fill the frame, what the background is like, and the direction of the subject in relation to the sun. Since these variables change from picture to picture, you begin to understand that creating great flight shots requires more than just getting the subject sharp. You’ll need to give yourself time and practice. In the meantime, you always have the delete button on both the camera and the computer.
My 600 f/4 sitting on a Wimberley head with my camera set to high-speed continuous and the sun and wind at my back will keep me happy for a good long time. I try to get caught up with what’s in front of me, fly with it, and become part of the action. The next stop for me will be in front of my computer, looking at lots of shots of birds in flight and, hopefully, lots of keepers.
About the Author:
Andy Long is an award-winning photographer / writer who devotes his photography work to the beauty of the world around us. As a leader of workshops ( http://www.firstlighttours.com ) since 1994, Andy likes to help people explore new areas and to go home with a memorable experience as well as great images.
With more than 100,000 stock images, work has appeared in more than 30 publications and books as well as appearing in National Geographic and Animal Planet television shows. Besides these, Andy’s work has also appeared in Birder’s World, Outdoor Life, Audubon Regional Field Guides, regional AAA magazines, Montana Magazine, Outdoor and Nature Photography, Photo Media, National Cowboy Museum’s Persimmon Hill, Ancient Images note cards, travel brochures, Sierra Photographers Focus and in ads for Rollei cameras. He is a previous winner of the national RoseWater Network Photographer of the Year award.
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