Capture birds in flight

Photographing birds in flight is a challenging subject. Tom Mason shares his advice for increasing your airborne success rate…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Want to get closer to wildlife with a wide-angle lens? Tom Mason has the answers...

Wildlife photography is often considered a game of long lenses, with big 500mm telephotos used to capture stunning close-ups and portraits. However, the most intriguing and interesting shots are often those taken with wide-angle lenses, placing the subject into context by adding habitat and a narrative to an image.

Master the basic approach 

For wide-angle images, knowing when and where your subject is going to be is key. Working in a local patch is often the best way to get started, or with familiar subjects to aid in your attempts. Find out where they feed, perch and pass and this will help you to set up your images. 

It's important to survey the scene - where is the animal going to appear in the frame and what’s the relationship between it and its background? Maybe it's a garden bird on a feeder or a seabird near a cliff. Look at the environmental features to work out the best viewpoint - think about whether the image would be a decent shot without the animal in it, making the subject the icing on the cake. 

Just add remote triggers 

In terms of kit, chances are you’ll already have most of it. A standard wide-angle like an 18-55mm is a solid option, as depth-of-field rather than faster apertures is what we’re after. For the best results, lenses with decent close focus are most well suited. I love my Nikon 20mm AF-S f/1.8, as its 20cm close focus makes it ideal for this type of shooting. 

More specialist kit can be used when it comes to triggering the shot. Radio triggers are perfect for when you’re in position and watching, though if your subject is more elusive you might be better off with an infrared or laser trigger. This will allow you to remotely fire the camera when your subject passes through a specific location. However, this approach is far more involved and requires leaving gear unattended for long periods. 

Radio triggers are available at a range of price points, from £15 to £300+. I use PocketWizards, simply because they’re reliable and built to last. Cheaper alternatives will, of course, do the job and are perfect for testing the water before investing heavily.

Set up and wait it out 

Setting up a camera can take a bit of practice to perfect. Firstly, you need to work out your composition (based on where you think your subject will be) before setting the camera for the correct exposure. If lighting conditions are stable, manual mode is preferable, though when conditions are changeable, try working with auto ISO.  

I find underexposing slightly works best to avoid clipped highlights, bringing them back up at the post-processing stage. Focus wise, you’ll be wanting to work manually, with a larger aperture of f/8 or more. Once focused, using a piece of gaffer tape to hold the zoom and focus rings in place can help them from slipping and ruining the shot.

Once you’ve set up your remote triggers, retreat from the camera and wait it out. This technique is great for the back garden, as from the comfort of your arm chair (and with a mug full of hot coffee) you can wait it out in style and still take some first-rate images of your local wildlife. Also, access to Wi-Fi means you could work with remote tethered shooting for even more of a tech happy approach.

So, get out there this month and work wide. Remote photography can be frustrating, but stick with it and in time you’ll get some unique shots.

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

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