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Photograph birds in flight

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Tips from Digital Photographer, by Mark White
May 17, 2016

Learn Digital Photographer’s essential tricks for capturing dynamic images of our feathered friends in motion


Successfully capturing images of birds in flight can be a difficult skill to perfect. Not only is the subject moving – sometimes at great speed – but its direction can also be unpredictable.

Erratic flight patterns are usually associated with small birds that have rapid wing beats, such as blue tits, swallows, kingfishers and the like. Capturing sharp, well-framed images of these is extremely difficult and requires lots of practice – plus a bit of luck. While some large raptors also fly erratically, they’re easier to photograph as a result of their size and slower wing beat. For those new to shooting photographs of birds in motion, it’s a good idea to start out with larger birds, such as mute swans, geese and – in this case – grey herons.

There’s nothing more frustrating than focus tracking a bird, waiting for it to reach that optimum point for the perfect shot, only for it to disappear behind an obstacle. With this in mind, selecting a good shooting position with a clear area devoid of possible obstructions is of paramount importance. On reaching your preferred location, spend some time studying typical flight paths before choosing your spot to set up. Other aspects to consider include equipment, settings and shooting techniques, so read on to discover how to use these for incredible shots of in-flight birds.

1. Get the best equipment


A lens with the focal length of 300-500mm is the preferred choice for photographing birds. Ideally, this should be used in conjunction with a tripod and gimbal-type head for panning stability.

2. Check the lens mode


If your lens is tripod mounted, ensure the image stabilisation or vibration reduction is disabled. However, if you’re shooting handheld, this mode should be appropriately set for panning movements.

3. Set the focusing mode and distance


Make sure your lens is set to autofocus and, if applicable, the optimum focus range setting is selected (6m to infinity, in this case). This will aid a faster lock onto moving targets.

4. Set to continuous focus


A continuous focusing setting should be used because a burst of several frames will usually be necessary. Canon refers to this as AI Servo, while Nikon calls it Continuous Servo.

5. Set camera exposure modes


Manual is best. On bright days, ISO 200 to 400 can be used, with apertures of f4 to f5.6, depending on your lens. Shutter speeds of 1/1,600 to 1/2,000sec are fast enough for slow wings.

6. Take up a good stance when panning


Assume a sturdy panning stance to help minimise lens vibration. Select the centre focus point when locking on to a target, then fire a burst of shots when you’re happy.