Photographing birds in flight

Birds for many will be where the journey into wildlife photography begins. It might be the collared doves nestling on the garden fence, hedge sparrows picking scraps around park benches or a sparrowhawk hovering beside the road on your morning commute – they’re one of the most visible and ever-present forms of wildlife around us. Once you start to take notice, you’ll quickly discover more than just sparrows, doves and roadside raptors; you’ll uncover hundreds of species surrounding us on a daily basis that you’d previously been overlooking.

I believe it’s a combination of being easy to see/find and the diversity of species that makes birdlife a prime starting point for many wildlife photographers. There is, for most, ample birds surrounding us when you’re starting out as a photographer, and then as you progress you’ll begin to seek harder-to-find species and aspire to shoot more than just individuals perched on a branch or water bath.

This brings us to the main point of my article – to help aspiring wildlife and bird photographers take the next step and advance their art; capturing birds in flight. I’ve listed some of my top pieces of advice below to hopefully help you shoot birds in all of their mid-air magnificence!

  1. Adjust Your Elevation

We’ve already established that birds can be one of the easiest wildlife subjects to find and shoot, so it’s important to stand out and show the people viewing your images something different. If you do a quick Google search of most bird species, you’ll likely notice that most images from ‘beginner photographers’ of birds in flight are shot from below; they’ve stood on the ground, aimed skywards and taken the shot.

My first piece of advice is to adjust your elevation, when possible.

Instead of shooting at ground level, look for opportunities to gain altitude – whether that means scaling a tree, ascending a nearby building or simply standing on top of your car… the closer you can get to your subjects’ level the better!

This will hopefully produce a refreshingly unique perspective of your subject in flight, and show your viewers a different view of the species you’re photographing.

A Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) became tangled in river weed after diving in the water to capture prey. A couple of seconds later the bird shook the vine free and flew away up the shoreline of the River Nile.
  1. Take Note of the Background

When you’re looking for an ideal position from which to photograph, seek somewhere that gives you an opportunity to shoot your subject against a backdrop of more than just the sky. It is very common to see images of birds against blue, white or grey backgrounds and you don’t want yours to fall-in with the rest!

If you’re able to find a spot that allows you to photograph your subject against a background of cliffs, countryside, buildings (or anything else that’s not sky) then you’ll already be on your way to capturing an awesome image.

At the same time, remember not to clutter your image – don’t pick a backdrop with too many objects, branches and other features; as this can distract the viewer from the bird you’re photographing.

  1. Shoot Away from the Sun

It can be easy when tracking a subject in flight through your lens, to lose a sense of where you’re turning and what direction you’re shooting in. I want to encourage you to always consider where you’re shooting and make every attempt not to shoot towards the Sun.

Sometimes it can be appropriate; when you’re looking for a particular style of creative photograph – but if you’ve been shooting away from the Sun and track your subject in the opposite direction (towards the Sun) without realising, then it’s likely your in-camera settings won’t have changed and your image will be little more than a black silhouette against an overexposed sky.

Shooting away from the Sun will allow you to include more colourful and exciting backgrounds, whilst also maintaining greater levels of detail in your subject as well!

A Japanese Tobi or Black Kite flies low over the banks of a river in Kyoto.
A Japanese Tobi or Black Kite flies low over the banks of a river in Kyoto.
  1. Fast Shutter Speed

It goes without saying that most birds in flight are going to be fairly fast-moving. You’ll likely also be moving your lens/camera as you track your subject through the sky… and it’s for these reasons that my fourth piece of advice is to shoot with a fast shutter speed.

Use your camera with a fast shutter speed to help massively in reducing any camera shake and motion blur. This will help you to capture crisp, clear images of birds in flight just as a professional would. Shooting with a faster shutter speed will allow less light into your lens, so please remember that you’ll probably need to compensate for this by using a higher ISO and possibly adjusting to a higher aperture, which leads nicely on to the fifth tip…

  1. Mid-Range Aperture

Though it can be tempting to shoot at the highest aperture possible, resulting in an image with a beautifully shallow depth of field – it isn’t something I’m going to recommend because you’ll be drastically reducing your chances of success.

Even though the autofocus and focus-tracking abilities of newer cameras are remarkable; if you’re shooting a subject that is relatively small and far away, there is still a good chance that a percentage of your shots are going to be out-of-focus. The shallower your depth-of-field then the larger the margin for error, and this is why I’m recommending using a slightly lower aperture.

Using a lower aperture means that more of your shots are likely to be in full focus, which is extremely important if you only have a limited opportunity to shoot your subject (very often the case if it’s already in flight!).

I know that you’re still going to want that beautifully shallow depth of field that I mentioned earlier; and a great way to achieve this whilst still maintaining a ‘safe aperture’ is simply to put more distance between your subject and the background.

One Sand Marten flies past another perched on a barbed wire fence in Essex, UK.
One Sand Marten flies past another perched on a barbed wire fence in Essex, UK.
  1. Continuous Focus

This is a simple tip, but important nonetheless… ensure you’re working not only in continuous shooting mode, but also a continuous focus mode.

Continuous focus modes mean that your camera will keep assessing and adjusting your focus automatically, based on the focal points you’ve selected. This is essential when photographing a bird in flight, because the distance between you and the subject will continually change.

If you’re using a Canon camera like me, then you’ll want to select ‘AI Servo’ mode to enable continual focus or AF-C if you’re shooting with a Nikon camera.

  1. Room to Move

A great rule of composition to utilise when photographing any wildlife is called ‘Room to Move’ and it works especially well when shooting birds in flight.

It can be tempting to centre your subject in the frame, but this can leave the viewer with quite a static impression of the bird and something that you’ll want to try and avoid as you progress in wildlife photography. Instead, try to leave room in front of your subject (in the direction it is flying) as this helps to build a more complete image. Afterall, photography isn’t only about what the viewer can see in the image but also things that your photograph makes them think about and imagine afterwards.

Although it will be anatomically obvious (wings spread, legs tucked away…) allowing room in front of your subject or the direction it is flying-in will help to emphasise that it is in-flight and travelling as you photographed it. The viewer is able to look ahead and gain a better context and imagine where it may be flying and gather more information in relation to the environment or habitat.

A Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides) takes flight in search of better feeding spots along the shores of the Nile in Egypt, Africa.
A Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides) takes flight in search of better feeding spots along the shores of the Nile in Egypt, Africa.
  1. Study Behaviour

Sometimes you’ll have only a very limited opportunity to photograph your subject and especially if your goal is to shoot it mid-flight, which is why point number eight is to know your subject.

I’ve mentioned in previous articles how important it is to do your research on the species you’re photographing, to give you the best chances of finding it in the wild – from ideal habitats to the hours of the day that they’re most active and favourite food sources. All of this still applies!

Birds in particular have certain tell-tale signs as well that you should look out for, as they can indicate what an individual might do next. For example, if your subject is standing on one leg then chances are it is quite content for the time-being and unlikely to take flight soon, whereas if the bird has preened and just pooped then it may imminently launch itself skywards…

  1. Shoot from a Tripod

Chances are you’ll be photographing birds in flight with a long lens, as these will allow you to get the most detailed shots of your subject mid-air. The downside to shooting with a telephoto or large prime lens is that they can be heavy and awkward to use when tracking your subject.

I always recommend using a sturdy tripod with a fluid or gimbal head for wildlife photography that involves longer lenses. Using one of these tripod heads will allow you to follow your subject in all directions (much easier than using a 3-way head) and take a lot of the strain off of your arms when shooting – reducing the risk of camera shake and helping you to produce more sharper, cleaner images.

A Malabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus) in flight with the mountains of Sri Lanka in the background.
A Malabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus) in flight with the mountains of Sri Lanka in the background.
  1. Use a Hide

Finally, something that I’ve found invaluable in shooting all types of wildlife (not only birds in flight) is a wildlife hide.

You can buy many different types, from simple standing hides to chairs with canopies and multiple zips for shooting in all directions. Whatever type you choose, a good portable hide will nearly always help you to get closer to the wildlife you’re photographing and allow the animals you’re near to act more naturally. This will allow you to capture interesting moments of animal behaviour and unique shots of birds in flight, without them ever knowing you’re even there.

These are just a few of my top tips for capturing the best possible images of birds in flight – but remember the most important factor will always be lots of practice!

Everyone will have their own unique style and favourite techniques for capturing images, don’t be afraid to break the rules, try new things or do things completely differently. I hope that the advice I’ve given will help some of you to further develop your skills as wildlife photographers or even just give some of you different ideas to think about and experiment with… good luck!

To see more of my wildlife images please visit www.aaronnorthcott.com or use the following links to join me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram:

Aaron NorthcottOther articles by author

A multi award-winning photographer, Aaron has a diverse portfolio of powerful, inspiring imagery and an impressive résumé of clients and commissions.

Specialising in Wildlife, Travel & Landscape photography, the work Aaron produces has been seen around the world and has been used for everything from Tourism and Conservation to Outdoor Living, Lifestyle and Adventure.

Aarons passion for photography, his subjects and the world around us is always evident through the images he captures - and pushes himself constantly to be one of the most versatile, creative and innovative visual artists working in the photography industry today.

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