1649809595 How to Photograph Birds in Flight with Sharp Results
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How to Photograph Birds in Flight with Sharp Results

Recently, you learned on Photography Life what the best camera settings are when photographing birds. Today’s article takes a more detailed look at bird behavior, biology, and environment. The goal is to teach you how anticipate what birds will do, and ultimately reach the holy grail: to take very sharp, high-quality photos of birds in flight.

Atlantic Puffin returns from the sea with a catch.
NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II @ 200mm, ISO 1250, 1/5000, f/5.6

Birds have always stimulated the human imagination. In some historic cultures, birds have been so privileged that they have even entered the exclusive company of human gods and goddesses. Whether it was the Greek Harpies, the Egyptian Hor, or the Phoenix, birds have always been part of peoples’ mythologies across the world.

What is is that fascinates humans about these feathered creatures, which inhabit our planet in approximately eleven thousand species? The answer must be sought in the ability of birds, which we humans can only clumsily imitate: the ability to fly.

Coconut Lorikeet.
NIKON D500 + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm, ISO 6400, 1/3200, f/5.0

Whatever you do as a photographer, it is always useful to learn as much as you can about the subject you are photographing. This is all the more important when we are dealing with the most agile creatures on our planet, which can easily outmaneuver an unprepared photographer. I highly recommend learning as much as possible about birds if you are interested in photographing them, especially in birds in flight…

Get Familiar with Bird Biology

To be able to predict a bird’s flight path with at least some probability of success, you should first learn a few principles that will help you plan your images better.

The Great Sapphirewing inhabits the highest forested areas of the Andes.
NIKON D850 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 5000, 1/800, f/6.3

The first is the principle of the nest. Birds usually take care of their offspring in a nest, and the parents frequently leave and return from it to feed their chicks. As such, you can expect increased activity and many more opportunities for photography if you are in the vicinity of a bird’s nest.

When waiting for the bird to arrive to its nest, it’s useful to observe the bird from a distance and over the course of a few days to understand its daily rhythm and schedule. Are there still eggs in the nest, or are the parents already reading their nestlings? What time of day, and for how long, do the parents tend to leave the nest in search of food? This period of observation is crucial, and it also lets you be a better judge of how to approach the nest to a photographable distance without disturbing its inhabitants, and how long of a lens you may need.

For cavity nesters – woodpeckers, toucans, bee-eaters, parrots and many owl species, for example – we can often predict from the position of the entrance hole where the parent will be coming from. But with birds that build their own nests on top of trees or something similar, it can be harder to predict what direction they’ll fly from. Thus finding the right angle for a photo can depend somewhat on trial and error.

Grey Heron arrives at the nest with a load of fish for its nestlings.
NIKON D800E + 300mm f/2.8 @ 300mm, ISO 3200, 1/1000, f/3.5

Sometimes, the presence of a human can trigger a strong reaction in a bird and cause them to fly away from us in distress. After all, we are the apex predators of the planet and a potential threat to their nests. This is especially true if there are a lot of people and dogs around.

Other birds react to humans in a different way. No doubt you’ve seen seagulls and pigeons flock to people with bread in their hand. But some bird species will actively attack humans! If you’ve ever been near a nesting pair of Great Skuas, for example, you know what I mean. They have an invisible border of tolerance in the grassy terrain where they live. If you cross it, a nesting pair will rise into the air and launch violent raids on you like a pair of jet fighters. You’ll face blows from their beaks and sharp talons. An opportunity for photography? Only if you’re crazy.

Great Skua with rocky Norwegian coast.
NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II @ 70mm, ISO 800, 1/8000, f/5.6

Beware, some bird species are particularly sensitive to disturbance. Especially during nest building or egg incubation, there is a high risk that they will abandon their nest. Please never get too carried away with the desire to take a photograph. If you have any doubts, pack up your goods and leave. After all, trying to take this photo once may scare the bird away for good, which is bad both for the bird and for your photography in the long run.

Some species of birds have regular roosts that they claim and rarely leave from that spot. Cattle egrets, cormorants, and some species of parrots and ravens come to my mind. In these spots, you don’t need to rush your photography and can wait with some consideration. In the case of nocturnal species, you can even continue after sunset, and the bird will often remain in the same spot.

Common Potoo on its night perch, from where it hunts flying insects.
NIKON D850 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR @ 300mm, ISO 2000, 1/160, f/7.1

Another principle of photographing birds is food. Birds can be spotted wherever they find suitable food in the right habitat.

For waterbirds, watch where they feed or where they lurk for their prey. In woodland, try to find trees and shrubs that attract hungry birds from far and wide. Steppe species of insectivorous and predatory birds seek elevated perches from which they hunt their prey.

Magnificent Frigatebirds play with a stolen fish on the Pacific coast of Ecuador.
NIKON D850 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 1600, 1/2500, f/5.6

Many birds, of course, are happy to eat food that we prepare for them. The prevalence of bird feeders and little old ladies on benches feeding the pigeons are proof of that. For better or worse, feeders can offer opportunities to photograph birds that may be difficult to find otherwise. I bet about 99% of all hummingbird photos are taken at a manmade feeder, and most of the remaining 1% are taken at flowers that attract these hummingbirds (which is itself a kind of feeder).

Regardless of the particular source of food, if there’s one that you scout out, you’ll quickly learn to anticipate the birds’ movements and patterns. For example, hummingbirds often visit individual flowers facing in the same direction every time. Hummingbirds also often hover near a flower for a few moments, then fly back a short distance to dip their long tongues into the sweet nectar again the next second. Try to capture both moments, in which these speedy little guys are relatively still.

White-whiskered Hermit and Green Thorntail.
NIKON D500 + 400mm f/2.8 @ 400mm, ISO 2200, 1/800, f/4.0

Although sources of food – whether manmade or natural – often allow for static shots as the bird is eating, it’s also a good opportunity to photograph birds in flight as they approach the food. This is often the best way to photograph small songbirds that are otherwise difficult to capture in flight.

To be specific, birds often like to perch somewhere nearby before coming to the food source (potentially a good time to photograph them on a branch, but that’s not the topic of this article)! From this perch, the bird will check the situation for a few moments, then take the shortest route to the food.

If you watch them fly like this over a period of time, you’ll get a very good sense of the expected flight path for the incoming bird. You’ll have a (comparatively) easy time tracking the bird with your composition and autofocus system. You may even be able to pre-compose and pre-focus with manual focus, then take the photo at the moment the bird crosses where you want it to be.

Later in this article, I’ll talk about the camera settings I recommend for situations like this.

A pre-composed photo photographed in natural backlight as the birds flew toward a food source

The final principle of bird behavior I’ll discuss is flight path. A brief glance at the sky gives us the impression that birds fly in all directions and that predicting their flight direction is about as reliable as an April weather forecast. But this isn’t entirely true.

In fact, the two most photographically attractive phases of flight – i.e. take off and landing – are guided by certain rules. Birds like to perform both of these flight phases against the wind. So, if you have the wind at your back, you can hope for attractive photographs of landing birds from a frontal view.

Harris’s Hawk.
Sony a9 + FE 600mm F4 GM OSS @ 600mm, ISO 3200, 1/2000, f/5.0

In addition to wind direction, birds use a magnetic compass for their navigation. Unless this fundamentally conflicts with the wind direction, waterfowl prefer to land in a north-south direction. This makes it relatively easy to figure out where to stand to get the best possible angles for your shot.

Photographers always mention that it’s important to understand your subject, but these are some of the concrete things that refers to when photographing birds in flight. You can also go more in depth by reading about birds and spending time in the field, especially if there are some specific species you’re trying to photograph.

But as crucial as it is to know a bird’s behavior, as a photographer, you should also get familiar with your gear. That’s what I’ll cover on the next page of this guide.

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