Photographing Birds in Flight

Posted by on Dec 30, 2012 in Techniques | 0 comments

Photographing Birds in Flight

Capturing photos of birds in flight is something I quite enjoy doing.  There is something about birds gliding through the air wings outstretched that is fascinating to watch and capture.  But to capture these images takes the right equipment, planning, patience, practise and just a bit of luck.

Egret Glide by Tony White
1/1000sec @ F5.6, ISO 400, 300mm

The first element you need to successfully capture birds in flight is the right equipment, you need a good long lens.  For this I have the Sigma AF 100-300mm f/4 EX HSM APO, it is a great lens from my experience and from the experience of both Ken and Lawrie who also own this lens.  Though an important note with this lens is that Sigma no longer make it, so locating it in a store is highly unlikely, your best bet is online and overseas, just make sure you get the correct one for your camera, it is available for Canon and Nikon.  Any lens 200mm and over is a good starting point, but the longer it is the less likely you will have to crop later, the image above is about 80% of the original.

So now that you have the right lens, what about the camera settings?  What I recommend is to use Aperture Priority mode, Av on Canon or A on Nikon.  As your target for the photograph will be in the sky with hopefully nothing more than blue sky and clouds behind it, you need to have a low aperture number such as F4 or F5.6, this will also aid in having a fast shutter speed.  As you are going to be tracking the bird whilst it flies, it is best to keep it in the centre of the frame so you do not clip the bird’s wing, tail or beak.  And as the bird needs to be exposed correctly more than the sky or clouds, therefore you will want to use either spot metering or centre weighted metering, rather than the normal evaluative metering (check your camera manual if you are unsure how to change this).

Seagull Racing by Tony White
1/500 sec @ F8, ISO 200, 276mm

Next you need to choose an appropriate ISO, this will largely depend on the length of your lens and the lighting.  As a rule of thumb you want your shutter speed to be at least 1/(lens length mm), so for my lens at 300mm, 1/300 sec is the lowest I would use for this.  To start with I would set my ISO at 200 and see what shutter speed this gives me by taking a test shot of a bird as it flies and adjust if required.  The final camera setting to change is your Auto Focus mode, you will want to switch this to “AI Servo” on Canon or “AF-C” on Nikon, check your camera manual if you are not sure how to change this.  This focusing mode will allow you to keep the bird in focus whilst tracking it through the sky.

Launch by Ken Dickson
1/500 sec @ F6.7, ISO 250, 276mm

Planning – Most of us just cannot step outside and find birds flying around just waiting for us to photograph them, so we need to plan where we are going to go.  This is going to take some research and trial and error.  A good place to start your research (for those in the Brisbane area) is this guide to bird locations in Brisbane – have a look for the locations that offer the larger birds such as Pelicans, Osprey and Kites.  You also need to consider time of day and time of year.  Mid afternoon to sunset is when you will find birds returning to their roosts for the night and quite often will circle their roosts checking for predators offering you great opportunities to capture photos as they do so.  As the sun goes down you will generally find that there is not enough light to be able to distinguish the features of the bird, so silhouettes might present themselves.

Sunset Takeoff by Ken Dickson
1/1600 sec @ F5.6, ISO 200

Also some birds are migratory and others such as Egrets get plumage during mating season that can provide interesting photos, so checking into some of these things can open up opportunities you might otherwise miss.

Finally Practise, a great way to practise is to find a location with Seagulls, and buy yourself some hot chips, though for these you probably wont need that long lens.  No matter your target bird, the more you practise the better your images will be and you will be more likely to able to capture that once in a life time shot when the opportunity arises.

Speed Limited by Ken Dickson
1/1500 sec @ F5.6, ISO 200

Happy New Year and happy shooting from all the team at OzLight Photo Adventures.

By Tony White