Are you looking to take up the challenge of photographing birds in flight? This can be an incredibly rewarding activity and can add a whole new dimension to your birdwatching. However, if you have never done it before, it can also be a highly frustrating process!
Bird in flight photography (or BIF) requires a good knowledge of “the light triangle” so it’s best to watch a few YouTube videos and practicing lots on a still subject to avoid annoyance when the moment is crucial! The light triangle is essentially balancing the amount of available light by using aperture, shutter speed and ISO. We won’t go into too much depth on this in this blog but there’s plenty of resources available for further reading.
In this blog, we thought we would take a closer look at some of the most important factors you should consider when photographing birds in flight.
Bird in flight photography settings
Slow vs Fast Shutter Speeds
BIF photography is, by its very definition, fast. So unless you’re going to try and get a cool artistic blurred shot, you need to use a fast shutter speed. The important thing to think about here though is that by using a fast shutter, you will lower the amount of light hitting the camera’s sensor, resulting in a darker image unless you balance out with aperture or ISO (or both). Ideally, you’ll use a fast enough shutter to freeze the wingbeat but not so fast that the image is black. What I mean here is that you will need to assess the speed of your bird’s wings and use a suitable shutter speed. For example, a swan flaps slowly, so a shutter speed of 1/250 should be enough to freeze the beat; whereas a kingfisher is incredibly fast and will need a shutter speed of around 1/4000 to completely freeze the movement. Shutter speed is probably the most important setting.
Depth of field & Aperture
The problem with BIF photography is that because you’re forced to shoot at a fast shutter speed, the aperture is usually just left wide open – with a low F-number. This allows as much light into the camera as possible but only gives a very narrow depth of field to play with. To be honest though, 99% of the time, it’s best to shoot with the aperture wide open. This might be F4 or F6.3 but avoid going too high on the F-number unless you have plenty of light to use.
Okay so I have two options here… one beginner and one advanced. For newbies to BIF photography, set your ISO to auto and let the camera do the legwork. In Auto-ISO your camera will take into account the shutter and the aperture and expose the image “correctly”. Nine times out of ten this will be absolutely fine but might result in slightly noisier images. The more advanced option is to set your shutter speed and aperture and then manually set the ISO to expose the subject correctly. The bonus of this method is that as you subject is moving and the background is changing, then you know that the subject will remain exposed correctly; whereas if you let the camera work it out, you run the risk of it over/under exposing the subject. (Sorry, that all got a bit technical)
This is a small point but an important one if you’re using auto-ISO. Your camera uses a “metering” setting to work out how to expose the image. Check your own camera’s settings but it’s normally something like centre, average or edge metering options. The way metering works is to take a light measurement at preset locations on the image and correct exposure to balance all the points. For a well balanced imaged, this isn’t usually a problem as the general exposure is correct already; but for a BIF against the sky, the camera might underexpose the subject to correct the metering. (See images below)
Every photographer has a different preferences when it comes to modes of autofocus. Some say 3D tracking is best as it will allow the camera to track the bird around the viewfinder, while others prefer to use a range of focus points to give a wider spread or one single point. Each camera system will have a few different autofocus settings so it’s best to familiarise yourself with your own setup. Focus modes might also include the area which is using the autofocus: eg spot, area or whole. Your camera will autofocus fastest when it’s only tracking in a small area, but it will be harder to keep track of the subject.
I say this on everything I teach: photograph at the subject’s eye-level whenever you can! Shooting at eye-level creates a sense of connection with the subject which shooting from above or below simply can’t replicate. This might mean getting down low or using a tripod but this will give a much more interesting image. Photographing from below can show some really interesting details and create great compositions but you run the risk of losing detail in the background as with the example to the side.
Panning and Tripods vs Handheld
Birds can move incredibly quickly and often have very erratic movements. This can make them particularly difficult to track and keep in the centre of your frame. With this in mind, you have a couple of options. Either you shoot handheld or you opt for a tripod or monopod with a gimble or panning head. Each have their own benefits and risks.
Shooting handheld means that you aren’t limited by only moving within the restrictions of a tripod. You can quickly move up, down, left or right which makes it much easier to keep up with the subject. However, cameras and lenses are heavy and it can be quite taxing to use like this for a long time. Remember that when shooting handheld, try and keep as many points of contact with a stable object. For example, lean against a tree or lie on the ground to keep the shot stable.
Tripod or Monopod
These options are great if you know where the subject is likely to be (or at least you can predict where it’ll be!). A tripod or monopod allow you to rest your arms and can keep an image really stable but risk missing the shot by their manouverability. When looking for a tripod it’s also important to bare in mind whether you will use a “panning” head or a “gimble” head. Panning heads are generally useful for filming and are good at lateral movements. They’re light but don’t work so well when you’re working on moving up and down too. Whereas the gimble head works really well for BIF photography, with fluid movement in any direction, but is heavier and more ungainly.
Trying to capture this movement using your viewfinder is near impossible. That is why panning is crucial when it comes to capturing pictures of birds flying. Developing your panning technique is a key skill for bird watching, no matter whether you are using a large telephoto lens or a smaller handheld option. When starting your birds in flight photography journey, many photographers prefer to begin with a handheld option. This allows you to practice your technique and develop your skills, and garden bird photography can be a great way to put everything you have learnt to the test.
A good tip is to start with your lens zoomed out so that you can find and centre your subject, then quickly zooming in to get the correct composition without losing the subject. It can be hugely frustrating and require practice and quick hands but before long you’ll be a master!
Composition of Birds in Flight
Another area to focus on when it comes to photographing birds in flight is the composition. This is often a subjective topic, but whatever your style, you should always try to provide an area within the frame for the bird to look into or fly into.
Sometimes, it is not uncommon to find that there might be a cropped wing when reviewing your images. This is not an automatic reason to delete that image; instead, you can try clipping other aspects of the image to create a dramatic and captivating image. The important rule with BIF photography is to always try and make sure the subject is looking across the image and not out of the image. (See below for an example of what I mean). It’s simply not an appealing image to the human eye!
Set up your birds in flight shot
Before you start capturing birds in flight, you will need to set yourself up to ensure you can take the perfect shot. When doing this, there are three key factors that you should consider:
- Ensuring that the wind and the sun are behind your back.
- Working to predict the flight paths that your chosen birds will take.
- Try and ensure that you are shooting against a clean background to help make sure the bird stands out.
How to photograph birds in flight with a smartphone
While there is no substitute for a professional camera, smartphones are becoming increasingly more sophisticated. Most of the leading devices on the market are able to autofocus and track a subject, but this is a little limited in comparison to manual control, so you should always switch to that where possible.
If you are planning on zooming in on your subject, then the slightest knock can result in your image becoming blurred. That is why you should opt for a delay timer to keep the image in focus. Most smartphones automatically set the ISO, which is your camera’s sensitivity to light. While this is often designed to help you capture the best picture, in some situations, you might need to increase or decrease it to ensure the very best birds in flight photography results.
Another important area of consideration is the size of the image. The larger the file size, the more information the image contains and the more you have to work with during editing. To maximise yours, make sure that you have set your phone to capture them in the highest pixel dimension possible and saved in a .Tiff format.
Birds in flight photography FAQ
There aren’t any “best” settings for BIF photography because each has it’s benefits. Just make sure you have enough light to compose your image correctly, even if this means pushing your ISO a little higher than you might normally. It’s very difficult to save an image which is too dark
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