Photo How To: Capturing Birds In Flight

Birds in flight can look marvellous, especially if we see them at the point of a non-typical flying position. For example, with wings fully down and not typically outstretched.

Most of the time the bird flying towards or across the frame is going to look better than flying away. We wouldn’t photograph the back of someone’s head, so it’s also good to see the bird’s face.

Here are some tips on how to achieve a good bird pic:

Wind - The bird will always take off into the wind, so try to work out how to be upwind of it, or you’ll be watching the bird fly away from you.

Sun - The sky is usually brighter than the bird, so have the sun over your shoulder for better pictures. Backlighting birds will often result in overexposed backgrounds and hazy photos, so it’sbetter to have the sun on the bird over your shoulder.

Time of Day - The light is more diffused and mellow at the start of the day. From dawn to 3 hours after sunrise is the opportune time to photograph birds in most cases and an hour or so before dusk. If the weather is hazy, overcast or your shooting in the arctic you can shoot all day!

Settings: 

SHUTTER SPEED

For birds in flight, the shutter speed is most important to cut down on camera shake and motion blur. The best setting, to begin with, is 1600sec - this will stop most movement and capture a sharp image of a bird in flight.

APERTURE

Aperture aroundf7 to f8 will capture most of the bird with a telephoto, but this will depend on light.

ISO

Finally, you want to think about ISO. The lower, the better. We’re shooting in low light a lot of the time so try to keep it below 2000 ISO - 400-800 is ideal, 3200 is okay if necessary. It’s better to have higher ISO (grainy shot) than a blurry shot (slow shutter speed or shallow depth of field aperture)

SHOOT MODE

Select high-speed burst mode.

FOCUS

For to general shooting, the auto-focus mode is ONE SHOT. You hold down the shutter button to lock focus.

For birds in flight, we can track
a moving subject by changing this mode to AI SERVO. Once you half depress the shutter button, it will stay on the bird as it is shifting.

Do this via Quick Menu (Q button on back of camera) - change ONE SHOT to AI SERVO

We can preset custom functions on a DSLR by assigning this mode to
a button to make it quick and easy to select in the field without fiddling with menus.

To set custom function, go to:
Custom Controls (set) > DOF Preview Button (set) > ONE SHOT/AI SERVO (set)

Now, when you need to follow a flying bird in focus, you can press and hold the button on the front of the camera with your index finger while shooting to keep the focus on the flying bird.

HOW TO GET THE RIGHT SETTINGS

The bird will usually be against a brighter background (the sky) while in flight. It’s extremely hard to think of and change settings when the bird takes off, so it is best to pre-set the camera.

Point your lens at an object that you think might have the same kind of tonal value as the bird. Remember that birds usually have some white feathers and don’t want to overexpose for those, so point your camera at a lighter kind of object with the same light falling on it to get your settings. Now when the bird takes off, you’re ready to roll!