How to
Birds in Flight

How to Photograph Birds in Flight


Birds in flight are always a majestic sight, if captured properly. The elegance of their movements, the details and colors of their feathers and the freedom of movement they represent are all valid reasons for them being interesting subjects for many wildlife photographers.

The only downside to photographing birds in flight is that they aren’t easy to capture without the right gear and some knowledge and experience. It’s also one of those types of photography that benefits a lot from higher end cameras and lenses.

So, for a lot of people, it won’t be easy to choose the right setup, especially if they aren’t aware of the specific features needed for bird photography. The aim of this guide is to show you how to photograph birds in flight and give you context on different types of gear, as well as educate you about some shooting techniques, getting the right exposure and editing the photos to get the most from your images.

See also: Audoban’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videography


Choosing the right type of gear for bird photography

Since we’re talking about smaller fast moving subjects that are often high in the sky, a good setup will be required to photograph them properly, especially if you like sharp images that are also free of noise.

So, naturally, a full frame camera will be your best bet for getting high quality images, but you could also get away with using one of the newer ones sporting APS-C sensors, if you’re interested in dropping the weight and the cost of setup. Also, take note of the autofocus systems they are using and make sure that they are rated highly by the community. 

When it comes to picking the right lens, a long telephoto is a must. You could either go with one of the more affordable zoom lenses that usually go from 500 or 600mm and are more lightweight, or more expensive and heavier prime lenses that offer better sharpness and brighter maximum aperture. 

As a side note, don’t worry about getting an image stabilized lens, since you’ll be shooting at fast shutter speeds anyways and the image stabilization itself won’t be very beneficial in those types of situations.


The importance of autofocus and shooting speed

There are two important features you should keep in mind when choosing the right camera for bird photography and that’s besides those that affect image quality. It’s the type of autofocus system inside the camera and its burst rate capabilities. 

Those two will have a direct effect on the rate of sharp and nicely focused photos you’ll be able to get compared to those that are soft and blurry. Ideally, look for a camera that sports something called Animal AF. It means that it will have the ability to adapt its focusing system to work better for any kind of animal photography, including the birds.

Also, be sure to check the total number of focusing points an AF system has. More focusing points means better coverage around the image frame, meaning that the camera will do a better job of tracking your subject even after it has moved past the center of the frame. 

Now, when it comes to burst rate or shooting speed, the higher the rate, the more photos you’ll be able to take at once in one second. A speed of 8fsp more will give you a lot of room to capture the bird’s motion and enough photos to choose the perfect one. 

Be sure that the burst rate stated on camera’s specifications supports continuous focusing and not just the Single AF option. That means that it will be able to keep your subject in focus all the time, instead of focusing on it once and keeping the focus fixed. 


How to get the best possible framing

Patience, the weather conditions outside and the knowledge of bird’s movements will be your best friends when it comes to helping you get nicely composed photos. If you can, visit your shooting location on a windy day, since birds will move slower against the wind and be easier to capture.

With the sun behind your back you will get better lightning and the birds themselves won’t be buried in shadows. It will help you reveal more details on them and have enough light to shoot at faster shutter speeds and lower ISO values. Also, shoot as many photos as you can, don’t be afraid to press that shutter button often. 

Instead of focusing on a single lone bird or just a couple of them, visit the locations that have flocks of them and study their movement patterns. If you can, find their nesting places, as this will give you an even better chance to capture them in flight considering the fact that some of them will move from and back to their nest often. 

Also, try to avoid photographing birds if you find yourself in a forest, since tree branches and leaves will give your camera’s AF system a hard time focusing on the birds themselves and will leave you with a lot of soft bird photos and sharp branch details under their feet or beside them. 


How to get the right exposure for photographing birds

If you consider yourself a beginner photographer, shooting in Shutter Priority mode will give you a good starting point. Set your shutter speed to 1/2000 seconds or more and let the camera do the rest of the work. If your photos turn out too grainy for your taste, lower the shutter speed. 

As always, switching to Manual mode will allow you to further optimize your exposure and image quality. Depending on how far from you are the birds you’re trying to photograph, you’ll be able to open or close the aperture on your lens and let more light in.

If they are far away, then depth of field won’t be an issue and you won’t have to worry about shooting at f/2.8 or f/4 and not getting them in perfect focus. If they are closer to you, stop down the aperture to f/8 or f/11, which will help you get more of the bird in focus. 

Don’t do it if there isn’t enough light around you, since you’ll have to deal with dark and noisy images afterwards. Also, be careful that your camera doesn’t base its exposure metering on the brightness of the sky, since it may leave your birds under or overexposed. Always check that the birds themselves are properly exposed before shooting. 


Editing and post processing tips 

Depending on how well you’ve exposed your bird photos and how accurately your camera has captured all the colors. it’s possible you’ll be left with very little work on them after you’ve returned home and are sitting behind your laptop or a computer screen.

If you end up with a couple of underexposed shots where the sky is brighter than the bird, lift up the shadows and tone down the highlights. Don’t go overboard with contrast or saturation, since your goal should be to achieve natural colors, which is always a better choice when photographing animals instead of still nature. 

Since we’re talking about moving subjects, there’s also a chance that some of your photos won’t be as sharp as you wanted them to be and that the increase in noise because of higher ISO values becomes very noticeable. Play around with sharpening and noise reduction and try to find the right balance between details and clean images. 


So, it’s easy to conclude that bird photography isn’t a walk in the park and that it does take some practice and commitment to get it right. Also, some muscles, if you decide to shoot handheld with one of those long telephoto primes with bright apertures such as f/2.8 or f/4.

However, it’s certainly a highly rewarding process. Coming home after your travels and after you’ve been lugging around all that gear and seeing sharp and nicely focused photos of birds frozen in time on your computer screen, it will bring a big sense of accomplishment. 

There’s no denying that nature in general is fascinating, but photographing its living, moving and breathing residents is just something else and the same can be said for the birds and their flying abilities.