How to Photograph Birds in Flight

Looking to take your bird photography from the beginner to intermediate level? We can help! Photographing birds in flight is very exciting and when you get a great shot you’ll surely say “Wow!” Successfully capturing flying birds requires improving on techniques we introduced in the post Basics of Backyard Bird Photography. We’ll define the intermediate approach with this post and get you all set to step it up a notch with great pictures of birds in flight.

Ethics of Wild Bird Photography

When photographing wildlife, it is important to approach animals, including birds, respectfully. This is one of the first things we teach students in our “In the Field” photography class along with “leave no trace” ethics. Please do not approach a bird and cause it to react – especially off of a nest – in an attempt to capture a great photo. Even though we know most of you would respect your local wildlife, a friendly reminder never hurts.

How to Photograph Birds in Flight: Manual Mode

How to Photograph Birds in Flight

For best results when photographing flying birds, embrace manual mode. In this configuration, the camera does not automatically set the exposure – it lets the photographer control the exposure settings. Follow these guidelines:

  • Aperture – use the lowest F/stop your lens will allow, which brings the most light into the camera. Only with a lens of 400-500mm+ will you need to consider bumping up the F/stop to increase depth of field.
  • Shutter Speed – 1/1000th of a second is the minimum, if lighting conditions allow, use 1/1600th or faster. This range will freeze wings in motion.
  • Metering – Spot Metering is key with this intermediate technique. It allows the metering to be based on the bird and disregards the background. It is OK to under- or over-expose the surroundings if the exposure of the bird is just right.

Adjusting ISO

To get started with this approach, consider setting the parameters defined above as constants and then tweaking ISO. For example: Aperture F/5.6, Shutter Speed 1/1600th, and Spot Metering – then vary ISO as follows:

  • ISO – values between 100 – 1250 are recommended. On a sunny day, set ISO as low as possible and enjoy sharp images. If there’s a shortage of light, adjusting ISO up to 1250 will let you keep the three previous settings intact to capture the bird in motion with slightly less sharp results, which can be improved in post-processing.

For the example image above, the Red Tail Hawk was photographed using ISO 1250 during cloudy conditions. Using manual mode and adjusting the ISO to match the ambient light for this photo was very important such that it rendered in focus during flight.

How to Photograph Birds in Flight: Auto-Focus Lock

Focus is one thing we’ll let the camera do automatically, and it is an essential setting. Today’s cameras are able to keep rapidly moving birds in focus. This is achieved by using an auto-focus lock button usually on the rear of the camera body (Nikon AF-L, Canon AF). Pushing this button tells the camera and lens to keep the bird in focus as the camera is panned to track the bird’s flight. Consider this example with a pair of Snow Geese:

How to Photograph Birds in Flight

The flying birds are sharply in focus while the background is not. Auto-focus lock allows the photographer to pan the camera and still make the most of its intelligence to focus on a moving subject.

Additionally, consider investing in a lens that prevents blur while panning. For Nikkor lenses, this feature is call Vibration Reduction (VR); for Cannon lenses, it is Image Stabilization (IS).

Continuous Mode

How to Photograph Birds in Flight

By this time you may be asking “How do you capture the bird at just the right instant?” Great question! Continuous mode is the feature that enables several pictures of a bird within the same second. On Nikon cameras, configure this with the Continuous High-speed setting; on Canon, configure it as High-Speed Burst. Different camera models vary in how many pictures they take continuously – keep in mind that the type and size of image comes into play. High-quality RAW files are created slower than low-quality JPG files. Of course higher-quality images allow more options during post-processing, which is recommended.


How to Photograph Birds in Flight

By introducing the intermediate techniques of photographing birds in flight, we hope to have pushed you out of the nest and on your way, flying to new heights in bird photography. Always remember to respect wildlife. Practice with manual mode to master varying the ISO while keeping aperture, shutter speed, and metering consistent. Learn how to use auto-focus lock and continuous mode to get sharp images of a moving bird within a single second. Enjoy this new approach and levels it will take your photography!

If you have questions or want to learn more, remember we’re here to help!