How to Capture Birds in Flight—Photography Tutorial

Updated on March 17, 2017

Wildlife photography is a highly popular type of photography, and capturing birds in flight is one of the most challenging and rewarding pictures you can ever capture because, usually, there’s no second chance.

Any modern DSLR is capable of capturing birds in flight. People talk about the crop factor and how it gets you close to the birds, but it isn't really a limiting factor when it comes to capturing the great shots. More appropriate will be to find a camera that has a great autofocus system; whether that’s full frame or cropped, it doesn’t matter because getting close to your subject, if you can, is going to have a much bigger effect. So, don’t worry about the crop factor.

The Lens

If you’ve got a full frame camera, you’re ready to go. Having a good long lens is an absolute must for capturing birds in flight. These can get expensive, which is not always great, but they offer excellent quality, they focus fast and often they have tracking image stabilization which will help you keep that bird in your frame where you want it. Cheap kit type lenses like the 70-300mm often just don’t have the fast-focusing capability to be able to capture those birds in flight on a consistent basis. Something like the Canon 400mm would be perfect. It’s light, it’s not going to break the bank entirely, and you can check many online reviews about the lens to decide if it’s a good option for you.

Image Stabilization

Image stabilization isn’t massively important. When we go through the camera’s settings, we’re going to use a high shutter speed which will freeze the action anyway, so any sort of shake in your camera won’t make a massive difference. If you have a bigger or heavier lens, you can use a tripod, monopod or a beanbag, something to take the strain off your arms. Many photographers prefer to handhold, and that’s what the Cannon 400mm lets them do, it just gives them a bit more versatility to get out and get into the location where they’re going to capture those birds flying. When we talk about technique, it’s easier when you’re handholding.

Settings to Use

Let’s check out the settings you are going to use. The first thing you need to do is to go into the autofocus setting and change it to continuous autofocus. In the Canon camera, this is called the Servo AF mode, and it’s usually known as AFC on the Nikon. This will continually track the focus on the focus point that you select rather than locking it in as you do on one shot focus. Some people will use the AF button on the back to use the autofocus to take the focus away from the shutter button. This lets you have the best of both worlds: one-shot and the servo AF because as you focus with the back button you can then release it and the focus will lock just as it does in the one shot.

When you’re tracking the bird, you need to keep the bird over the focus point you have selected. One way to do this is to use the very center point, but play around with your autofocus system, some people for example rather use the five center autofocus points. It depends on your camera and how many autofocus points and settings it has, so play around and start off with full auto, and then narrow it down to the focus point that works for you

The next thing you need to do is switch to manual mode; this may sound scary, but it’s not as bad as it seems once you see the settings you’re going to use. The most important thing to set first is the shutter speed. You want to have a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 of a second or faster because that’s what’s going to allow you to freeze the action of the birds. Any slower than that might make you start getting some blur, and it’s going to get much harder to capture those sharp shots.

For the aperture, when you’re capturing birds in flight, you probably want to stop down to something like 7.1 or F8 because it increases the chances of capturing sharp shots by increasing the depth of field slightly. If you are in dark conditions, you will have to balance that out with ISO. If you’re on a beautiful bright day, you might be able to keep your ISO, but you will need to use it to balance your exposure in certain situations. A usual setting is ISO 1000; you should try not to go over that since in a lot of conditions that will work for you just fine, especially with the excellent noise handling of modern cameras. ISO1000 is the maximum, but try anything underneath that depending on your light conditions.

The Technique

Let’s now discuss the technique. If you’re handholding try to watch where the birds are going, plant your feet nice and firm, with slightly bent knees and bring the camera up to your face. It’s then it’s just a case of twisting at the hip. A little bit like capturing a panoramic landscape. You’re going to start and then just pan around as you are shooting. The camera is up to your face, you’re looking through the viewfinder, and you can then just track the bird around nice and smoothly because you want to be able to keep that bird on the focus point. This is where IS -image stabilization- can help, since it lets you track the bird a little bit easier taking some of that movement out of your pan.

Have your camera on continuous shooting mode so you can capture a few frames at once. Don’t go too crazy because when you go to post-processing, you will just have too many shots to go through, but do use continuous firing because there is somewhat of an element of luck. You’re not going to be able to see if you’ve got a great shot at the time.

If you don’t want to be hand holding your camera all day long, another technique you can follow is to use a tripod. Lock your lens onto your tripod, and then you can just leave it. If you’ve got a ball joint let it loose so you can pan around. You can also use a monopod. Again, you’re going to track around with that as well. It’s going to take the weight off your hands.

The premium option, when it comes to tripods, is to use a gimbal head attached to a nice big tripod to have that firm base. You’ve got lots of movement in that tripod, and you’ll be able to go up and down, left and right, to track those birds. Again, though, you should first try hand holding your camera. If you get a lens like that it isn’t too heavy, it gives you the ability to go out and be bit more mobile to get into some much more interesting locations without having to waste time setting the tripod up before you start shooting.


Submit a Comment
  • rosettaartist1 profile image

    Rosetta Ceesay 

    3 years ago from United Kingdom

    Awesome! I think I need to take a class and buy a really good camera. Inspired now!

  • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

    Chitrangada Sharan 

    3 years ago from New Delhi, India

    This is quite helpful tutorial! I love taking Nature photographs. Yes it needs some expertise to click moving creatures. Thanks for sharing the tips and suggestions in this well written hub!


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