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Easy Guide to Taking Photos of Birds in Flight

Simon is an avid urban wildlife photographer, capturing beautiful species close to home.

Canada Goose in flight

Canada Goose in flight

Birds in Flight

Taking photos of birds in flight is no doubt one of the most challenging aspects of wildlife photography. It look me months to learn to capture them in action. Here I will show you what I've learned and how to do it. The following is a quick summary:

Settings and Tips

  • Manual Mode
  • Camera Settings: 1/2000s or faster, f/8, Auto ISO
  • AI Servo or AF-C (autofocus continuous) with automatic or all AF point selection
  • A telephoto or long lens (e.g., 100-400 mm)
  • Turn your vibration control/image stabilization off
  • Clear and sunny conditions

Using the advice above and a little bit of practice, you will be soon capturing great birds in flight shots!

Camera and Lens Gear

  • Basic Canon DSLR Rebel T5 camera
  • Tamron 100-400 mm F/4.5-6.3 Di VC USD telephoto zoom lens

Camera Settings

The best camera setting to use is Manual mode. This gives you the most control. I set mine at 1/2000 shutter speed, f/8 aperture, and Auto ISO. When you set your camera on Auto ISO, it automatically tries to get the correct exposure with your chosen shutter speed and aperture settings.

Here are the reasons you want to use those above settings. You want a fast shutter speed, 1/2000 or faster, so you won't end up with blurry images: your camera freezes the bird in action. A small aperture, f/8, will give you better depth of field so that there is a better chance your bird will be in focus.

Set your camera to the settings above.

Set your camera to the settings above.

Autofocus Settings

Your autofocus should be set to continuous (AI Servo or AutoFocus Continuous). I also recommend that you use the automatic selection or all autofocus points. This gives you a better chance of getting the bird in focus than a single point. Say you have it focus on the centre point, if it moves out of there, there's a good chance that the other point will be able to keep it in focus.

I use back button focus. What I do is aim the camera at the bird, press the back button focus to get it into focus, then keep that button pressed as I follow the movement of the bird. You can do the same thing if you have shutter release button focus. Just make sure you track the bird and keep the focus button pressed.

Telephoto Lens

To get good images of birds in flight, you will need a telephoto or long lens. I currently have a 100-400mm Tamron telephoto zoom lens and it works great. You could get a longer lens to get better close-up of birds, but they may be heavier to hold and pricier.

This brings me to my next point. It's best to hand hold your lens/camera so that you are able to pan it and track the movement of the bird more easily.

The one thing that lead me to good photos of birds in flight was turning off the vibration control/image stabilization on my lens. You don't need it. Because your shutter speed is already fast and won't cause motion blur, you don't need the motion compensation in your lens. If you have the vibration control on, it could make your images blurry due to the motion compensation.

Best Conditions

The best conditions for taking photos of birds in flight are clear, blue, sunny skies. Having no cloud or other distractions in the sky means you are helping your camera better focus on the bird. Sunny conditions are best because it gives you the brightest possible light. This means that you can get away with using lower ISO, so there is less noise. Shoot with the sun at your back.

Extra Tips

Here are some other tips that will help you get good bird in flight shots:

  • Set your camera to continuous shooting instead of single shot. Shooting at multiple frames increases your chances of getting a good photo.
  • It's almost always better to try to take shots of larger birds such as herons, geese, and raptors. They fly much slower so you have more time to focus and track them.
  • To increase your chance of success, go to conservation areas with lots of trees, marsh, lakes, or ponds. You will likely find more birds there than in the city.
  • The best time to go photographing birds is in the morning. At this time, they are busy, flying around looking for food.
Mallard Ducks in flight

Mallard Ducks in flight

Final Thoughts

Photographing birds in flight can be tough. I often throw away a lot of my shots. But I hope with these tips, you will have better success at capturing these birds in action. Practice does make perfect. Sometimes, it can also be luck. So best of luck and have fun!

© 2022 Simon Lam