Photographing birds in flight is a challenging subject. Tom Mason shares his advice for increasing your airborne success rate…
Zoom out, zoom in
One of the first hurdles in photographing birds in flight is picking them up in the viewfinder. With telephoto lenses having a narrow field-of-view, learning how to quickly pull your lens to your eye and track your subject is a key skill to get the hang of. When starting out, one method that can be useful (when working with a zoom lens) is to firstly find your subject when zoomed out, zooming in once you have the bird in frame to take your shot. This means you’ll spend less time searching for your subject before even thinking about the focus and exposure.
Select continuous autofocus mode
In order to lock focus efficiently when shooting birds in flight, you’ll certainly want to be in continuous AF mode in order to keep up with the erratic and fast-moving subject. In terms of autofocus pattern, you have a number of choices depending on your situation, skill and preference. If you find it easy to keep up and track your subject in the viewfinder, working with single point AF offers good pin-point performance, especially for larger birds.
The problem is that if you slip from your subject the camera can re-focus into the background or foreground, resulting in missed opportunities. For smaller, more erratic birds working with a multi-point mode such as a 9-point AF setup can provide an excellent mid-ground for accuracy. However, these modes work best with clean backgrounds of sky, sea or distant landscape because the multi points can be fooled by closer objects.
Both of the above modes work best when using rear button AF, as you can easily lift off the focus when a distracting object comes into view, resulting in less instances of the camera autofocusing on areas you don’t want too.
If the above modes are still a struggle, working with 3D tracking can be a great way to pick up birds in flight, with the camera tracking an object in the viewfinder, meaning you have to be less mindful of keeping the small AF sensor on your subject to retain focus.
Overexpose for backlit subjects
It’s important to remember that birds in flight are often backlit so your camera will often give you a silhouetted image of the birds against the sky. To combat this, you’ll often need to overexpose by 2 or 3 stops to ensure you have some detail in the underside of the feathers. On bright days, this might not be possible, as the overexposure might blow the highlights, so expose for the highlight for the highlights as much as possible. Shooting RAW will also give you access to greater detail and shadow information than shooting JPEG.
For the most dynamic results you’ll want to be out at dawn or dusk to make the most of the low light, which will lift the underside of your subjects. Often these situations allow you to expose for birds against darker skies for moody images.
To freeze or not to freeze
This key setting depends on how you want the motion to be portrayed. If you’re aiming to capture a pin-sharp image that freezes the motion you’ll want to opt for a speed in the range of 1/1000sec or faster; 1/2000sec or faster for smaller birds with faster wing beats.
For portraying movement, working with slower shutter speeds can make for wonderful images, the blur in the wings and panning action of following the bird’s flightpath working together to give a real sense of movement. For these types of shots, working with a speed of 1/60sec-1/100sec is a great starting point, with a shutter speed as slow as 1/15sec being perfect for larger, slower moving subjects.
If you’re panning, it’s important to keep as close in time with the bird’s movements as possible to get an even blur and no bumps in the streaks within your images.
As with all wildlife photography, getting great bird in flight images is all about practice, patience and persistence. Working on locations with a high traffic of birds - such as seabird islands or feeding stations - allows you to train your skills and nail your technique.
Keep at it and you’ll soon be capturing some top quality images of birds on the wing.
Tom Mason is one of the UK’s most exciting young wildlife photographers and conservationists. He leads workshops and seminars and writes a monthly blog for the RSPB. See more of his work here.