How to: Birds in flight photography tips



Haliastur indus - Brahminy Kite, fishing Brahminy Kite in flight, Canon 40D, Canon EF 200mm 2.8L II USM, ISO 100, 1/1600s, f/4.0, India.


Many people wonder, how to photograph birds in flight? Bird photography is one of the most popular genres of nature photography and it is my biggest passion. Photographing birds, especially birds in flight, is very interesting and challenging. Beautiful capture of a flying bird represents the essense of what these winged creatures are - flight. Flight is the ability, that charms and mesmerizes us about birds. So by capturing well composed and good lit birds in flight photographs, we can express the spirit of the birds. In this small article I'm going to share my thoughts and experience on the subject, I hope that it will give some clues how to improve your brid in flight photography skills and get better birds in flight shots. This is not intended for advanced photographers, but I wish that it will be helpful for those who want to try bird in flight photography.

Capturing a perfect shot of a bird in flight has always been a challenge to photographers. Birds are very fast and some of them are very small. You will need some special skills and equipment to capture attractive avian in flight images. It seems the most successful bird photographers are not only skilled in photographic techniques. They also have an in depth understanding of birds behavior and habitat. Most importantly, they are all in a deep love with their subjects.

If you are new to bird photography, you may wish to read my Bird Photography Tips article.

Haliastur indus - Brahminy Kite, fishing Brahminy Kite in flight, Canon 40D, Canon EF 200mm 2.8L II USM, ISO 100, 1/1600s, f/4.0, India.



Birds in flight is one of the toughest and thus most interesting subjects to photograph. They move fast and are relatively small. So they are much harder to track with a camera, than a race car for example. The action occurs in a very fast pace here, sometimes you have only a fraction of a second to capture those precious moment. You should know you subjects habits and behavior and your gear very well to be successful.

The best teacher in birds in flight photography is your own experience. I wish to give some clues and hints that will make learning process easier. Knowledge will help avoid some common mistakes and make your shooting experience more pleasent and fruitful.

You need a lot of practice to master birds in flight photography. Best learning subjects are common water birds like gulls, ducks and geese. These birds are easily available at a nearest park or pond. They don't afraid people so you can approach them easily. They are neither too small nor too fast so they are an excellent trainig target for bird in flight photography. As these birds live near the water space you will have good chances to have shots with clear, not distracting background and bird reflections in the water. All this will make photographs more visually appealing.


Brown-headed gull in flight

Brown-headed gull, Canon 7D, Canon EF 200mm 2.8L II USM, 19 point AF, ISO 200, 1/2500s, f/5.6, Spain.


When bird flies it has different speed during various phases of flight. They are slowest and easier to photograph when they takeoff or landing. During this phase of flight they are usually not too high over the ground or water surface, so it is easier to get a shot from birds eye level. Many birds hover for a moment before they land. It is the best phase of flight to take a shot. Birds are the creatures of habit, so they usually sit on the same spot. You should notice such a spot, prefocus your lens on it, than wait while a bird return and take some shots.

Black Kite in flight

Black Kite in flight, Canon 40D, Canon EF 200mm 2.8L II USM, ISO 100, 1/2000s, f/4.0, India.



Choose your position carefully. Mutual  relationship of the wind,  the sun and your position  is  the key factor to be aware of  when you’re photographing birds in flight. Birds will always, essentially, almost always  take off and land into wind or even light breeze if it is present. Getting the wind under their wings help them lift. For example,  If you wish to shoot birds while they fly  towards you, position yourself in the right place to get the wind at your back. To get  the best flight shots choose your position in such way to let sun shine from the left or right side, not directly from your back.  This will prevent your subjects from looking flat, when the light source is directly behind you it happens.

Sometimes it may be a very good idea to shoot from inside of a car. Birds allow cars to approach them very close. Birds of prey like falcons and kites often hunt flying slowely along roads. It is very good idea to shoot them from a car window or sunroof.


Cormorant in flightCormorant in flight, Canon 7D, Canon EF 200mm 2.8L II USM, 19 point AF, ISO 100, 1/1000s, f/5.6, Spain.



How to your make birds in flight shots look more attractive? Shoot in good lighting, birds in flight photography benefits from morning and evening lighting as all other types of photography do. Whowever shoting in the middle of the day is not useless, as with the light source above the subject you may get beautiful backlit image with semitransparent plumage. Have a look at Brahminy Kite images at the beginning of the article.

Always remember about composition. Leave some space before birds head, this will give space for the motion and let the photograph look better. You should keep your subjects eyes in focus, this is common rule for wildlife photography.

Swallow in flight

Swallow in flight, Canon 7D, Canon EF 400mm 5.6L USM, 19 point AF, ISO 200, 1/2000s, f/5.6, Russia.


How to setup your camera for birds in flight photography? I use aperture priority and evaluative metering for about 90% of my birds in flight shots. Sometimes automatic metering will fail, for example in bad weather, with overcast sky I use manual metering mode. When the sky is grey and there is no sun the bird will be very poor lit compared to the brightness of the sky, camera will meter by the sky and you will getjust black silouette of a bird. In such difficult lighting condition it is wise to revert to manual exposure.

To capture bird in flight with sharp details you need fast shutter speed to freeze the motion. I recommend that it should be at least 1/1000s. Birds move very fast and the shorter shutter speed is the better one. You may need to use ISO 200, 400 or even 800 to keep shutter speed fast enough. I recommend aperture values between 4.0 and 5.6. This will give you reasonable DOF and fast shutter speed. Adjust your shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings according to actual lighting conditions.

You may experiment shooting with much slower shutter speeds. The result may be awesome, if your subject is hovering or if you shoot with panning. If you have birds eyes, head and part of body in focus and wings blurred with motion, your shot will express dynamics in much better way!


Cattle Egret in flight

Cattle Egret in flight, Canon 7D, Canon EF 400mm 5.6L USM, 19 point AF, ISO 400, 1/6400s, f/5.6, Philippines.



Autofocus performance is the most crucial point in action photography. It is vital to customize your camera AF settings to work in the most efficient way according to shooting conditions. Using continuous focus mode called AI Servo on Canon and Continuous Servo on Nikon works best in most situations.

Many modern cameras have advanced AF settings, that allow you select various AF points configurations and tracking sensitivity settings. Experiment with them to find out what works best for you. I shoot with Canon 7D and foun following settings to be most efficient for bird in flight photography: Select 19 point AF mode for smooth background or when the background and subject colors are noticeably different, for example a white bird in green grass. If the background is busy, select single point or expanded single point and try keeping it on subject, it is more difficult to keep only one point of your subjects eye all the time, but if you manage to, you will get a good shot. Custom functions set to:

1. AI Servo tracking sensitivity - FAST (+1 or +2)
2. AI Servo 1st/2nd img priority - 0:AF priority/Tracking priority
3. AI Servo AF tracking method - 1:Continous AF track priority

I found following setup to work best for tracking on very busy background or even when your subject is flying through obstacles, it works good with 19 point AF mode:

1. AI Servo tracking sensitivity - SLOW (-2)
2. AI Servo 1st/2nd img priority - 0:AF priority/Tracking priority
3. AI Servo AF tracking method - 1:Continous AF track priority

Don't rely on autofocus always, whatever camera you have there are situations where AF would struggle. For example if you are shooting a bird that is going to take of from a branch, the best idea is to manually focus a lens on a place where it should be, wait and hope that your reactions are fast enough.

Set drive mode to the fastest setting available, it is usually called Continuos High Speed mode. This will give you bettre chances of getting wings in most spectacular position. Get approaching bird in a viewfinder, and track it with shutter button half-pressed. When it is in the best position - shoot in short bursts of 3-4 frames.

When you’re panning a flying bird, stand steady with your feet shoulder width apart, one slightly forward, knees should be slightly bent, hold you camera with right hand and support lens with left hand, push your elbows to your body, continue the panning motion even after you’ve taken the final shot. Following through will keep that last shot in focus better than if you abruptly stopped the movement.


Long ear owl in flightLong ear owl in flight, Canon 7D, Canon EF 400mm 5.6L USM, 19 point AF, ISO 400, 1/1250s, f/5.6, Russia.



10. Choose proper gear for the task. One can go birding with almost any DSLR camera and a lens that is at least 200mm long, but the results may vary depending on photographic skills and gear performance. Bird in flight photography is very demanding for both skill and equipment. Shooting birds in field conditions usually requires fast and robust AF and quality long optics. Fast shutter is essential too, I mean both low shutter lag and continous drive frame rate. My friends often ask me what camera gear they should use for birding. If you already have a DSLR, it is a good idea to start go birding with it. For those who are keen about bird photography I can recommend following gear:

Canon and Nikon are best choices for serious birding, they both have camera bodies with capable AF and a selection of long, high quality lenses. Other brands are limited to 300mm lenses, so think twice before you pull the trigger.

Canon 7D is the best non-professional Canon body for bird in flight and action photography, it has highly customisable AF system, fast frame rate (8fps) and good image quality. It is suitable for action shooting. The only serious limitation is the lack of point metering linked to AF point. In the Canon line up only 1D series bodies have this useful feature.

Canon 60D has the same sensor as Canon 7D, but it's AF system is inferior to 7D. You can achieve good results with it, but it will require more effort from you.

Professional Canon 1D Mk IV is the best birders camera from Canon. It offers best low light and AF performance available.

Nikon offers excellent D3s for professionals, it is probably the best for serious wildlife photography. Nikon D700 is very capable camera too, it is slower than D3, but offers excellent AF and image quality.

Nikon D300s and D7000 can be a good birding options if you prefer Nikon gear and are on a budget. Nikon D300s have better AF system, it is the same with Nikon D700 has the same 51 point configuration as AF in professional Nikon D3s. AF system in Nikon D300s and Nikon D700 is excellent, however it is slower than one in Nikon D3s.

In bird photography lenses are far more important than camera body. If you have professional Canon 1D Mk IV with EF 24-105 L zoom, and a very basic Canon 1000D with Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM, for example, the chances of getting awesome bird capture is much higher with 1000D. So it is wiser to spend more on lenses than camera body.

There are 2 approaches to bird in flight photography. One is to shoot with tripod, probably from a hide. Another too shoot handhold. For the first type i can recommend getting any supertelephoto lens that you can afford. For handhold photography it is difficult to use anything bigger than 500mm f/4 lens. For most people it will be too heavy to handhold for extended period of time. I recommend 400mm f/5.6 lens for handhold bird in flight photography.

Both Canon and Nikon have similar set of long super telephoto lenses. Both have 300mm f/2.8, 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4 with image stabilization and superior ultrasonic focusing drive. Both Canon and Nikon offers 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters. Nikon have very versatile 200-400mm f/4 zoom and 1.7x teleconverter. Canon EF 200-400mm f/4 L IS USM is anounced and have built in 1.4x teleconverter, that can turn it in a 280-560mm f/5.6 lens instantly, but I don't know when this lens will be available yet. On the other hand Canon offers unique EF 800mm f 5.6L IS USM, the longest super telephoto today. Canon recently updated their super telephoto lenses to the second version. New lenses offer superior optical and AF performance, are noticeably lighter, but are more expensive too. Super telephoto lenses have a super price tag too.

Canon supertelephoto Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM and Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lenses will be available from December 2011, they can be preordered at Amazon now. I consider Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM and Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lenses to be the best choice if you shoot birds in flight from tripod.

You will need a sturdy tripod to support steady supertelephoto lenses. I recommend getting Gitzo carbon fiber tripod with a Whimberley Gimbal or equivalent head. Tripod should be rated for at least 2 times the weight of your camera and lens for maximum stability.

Most birders have to choose something more affordable. Canon has superior choice of relatively affordable birding lenses. Canon EF 400mm f/5.6L USM is unique offering on the market, it is probably the best birds in flight lens ever made. It is relatively light weight, very sharp wide open, has the best AF speed in this price class, and it is more affordable than Canon EF 100-400L f/4.5-5.6L IS USM. Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM and versatile Canon EF 100-400L f/4.5-5.6L IS USM are very popular birding lenses too.

Best affordable Nikon lens for bird in flight photography is the 300mm f/4.0 AF-S. Unfortunately I can not recommend Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D VR for in flight photography, due to slow focusing speed.

If you want to support this site, you can buy photo equipment at Amazon, Adorama and B&H.

Black kite attack

Black kite attack , Canon 40D, Canon EF 200mm 2.8L II USM, 1/1250s, f/4, ISO 100, India.


Furter reading. If you are really keen about bird photography, I encourage you to read books. I can recommend following ones:

Great bird in flight photography book. Miguel Lasa has awesome eagle, owl and other birds shots. His photography inspired me to try birding myself.

Art of Bird Photography: The Complete Guide to Professional Field Techniques by Arthur Morris, the book is excellent if you want to learn about photographing birds.

Creative Bird Photography by Bill Coster. "...all working and wannabe bird photographers will benefit from Bill Coster's Creative Bird Photography."— New Scientist.

Beautiful photographs of raptors by Kate Davis, Rob Palmer and Nick Dunlop.

More books on Bird Photography.



Thanks for reading!


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