Birds in flight are one of the hardest subjects to photograph. Although, this topic is also one of my favorites to discuss. In this article, I’ll share with you my top tips for photographing birds in flight (BIF). This is to help you succeed when heading out to capture some feathered friends soaring through the sky.
All the pictures in this article were taken on a March afternoon in and around Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach, Florida with my Canon EOS R6 and Canon RF100-500mm lens. That lens, or zoom lenses in that general focus length range, are well-suited for bird photos because they offer composition flexibility as opposed to a fixed focal length lens that limits composition possibilities. That said, some of my bird photographer friends never leave home without a Canon 400mm 2.8 lens or Canon 500mm f/4 lens – both of which cost many times more than a zoom lens.
Also, all the images in this article are hand-held shots which is the way I usually like to shoot. If you don’t like to hand-hold telephoto lenses — or want to steady your bird photos — I recommend mounting a gimbal head. This offers maximum shooting flexibility in all directions.
All the images in this article were also cropped from my original RAW files. I shoot a bit loose so wing tips and feet are not cut off. Keep in mind that cropping gives you a second chance at composition.
Okay, onto the BIF tips!
Get the eyes in focus
If the eyes are not in focus and well-lit, you have missed the shot — unless you are going for a silhouette.
Toward that goal, try to photograph a bird with the sun at your back, which will light the bird’s face and eyes. Set your camera on focus tracking, which tracks the subject right up until the time of exposure. Also, try to set the focus point on the bird’s face.
Some cameras, like the Canon EOS 5 and Canon EOS R6, have a feature called Animal Tracking which does an amazing job of tracking fast-moving subjects.
Watch the background
The background can make or break a BIF shot, or any shot for that matter. Usually, I go for a clean background. If there are trees or bushes in the background, I’ll set my lens to the widest aperture to blur it out.
Speaking of the background, it can change an automatic exposure setting. To help ensure a good exposure, it’s best to shoot on manual mode and auto ISO.
One more very important point about exposure is to set your exposure based on the brightest part of the scene. For example, this would be the white features on a bird with brown/black and white features. This will require checking the highlight alert on your camera. Take a test shot, do a quick check, and set or reset your exposure accordingly.
If the highlights are overexposed by more than one stop, it will probably be impossible to recover them in Photoshop or Lightroom.
Go for gesture
The position of a bird’s wings, head, legs, face, and even the look in their eyes is how a professional chooses their best shots from a sequence of images. When picking your “keepers,” choose them based on gesture. Wildlife photographs capturing gesture or emotion really get a viewer’s attention.
To capture subtle differences in gesture, set your camera on the highest frame rate. On that note, professional bird photographers use cameras with super-high frame rates — such as the Canon 1DX Mark III — which offers 16 fps with the mechanical shutter and optical viewfinder. It also has 20 fps with the mechanical or electronic shutter during Live View.
Speaking of gesture, here’s another basic tip: pros prefer wings up or wings down.
When photographing groups of birds, seek separation. That is, try to get a shot in which each bird is isolated in the frame. Here, too, a high frame rate camera can help.
All together now
When you combine all the aforementioned tips, you will be on your way to making some good photos of birds in flight. However, there are two more ingredients that you’ll need to succeed in your quest: luck and patience. The patience part is obvious. You need to take the time to find a good subject and then wait for that subject to take flight. But never underestimate the importance of luck too. Keep in mind that, as the saying goes, “Luck favors the well-prepared photographer.” When it comes to luck, well, I wish you the best with your BIF shots.