You remember those holidays with Mom and Dad, right? When they brought their little point and shoot along to the beach and took some snaps of the seagulls flying by (just before they got sand in the camera)? Like many tourists, they were probably excited to see those shots in print - and then disappointed to discover that the birds that seemed so close and photographic at the moment the shutter was released are nothing more than blurry specs on an overexposed sky. Sigh.
Despite the rapid advance of camera technology, the same problem might plague you even today. But don't sweat it - owning a camera doesn't automatically make you a National Geographic photographer. Those stunning shots of bald eagles catching an updraft and pelicans cruising above a sandy shore are hard to master, and are often accomplished with expensive equipment and a whole lot of wasted frames. So does that mean it's impossible for a hobbyist to capture a beautiful shot of a bird in flight? Not if you keep these tips in mind.
[Top image Seagull by Flickr user FreddieBrown]
What equipment do you need?
Sadly, if birds in flight are hard to capture with a DSLR, that means that they are next to impossible with a point and shoot (so Mom and Dad's shots of those seagulls really were doomed from the start). For the best crack at this type of photography, you should use a good quality DSLR with a high burst rate; more shots are better, especially when following a moving subject of any kind. You'll also need a mid-length zoom, something in the range of 200 to 400mm. You can't really get by with less than that or you'll have that same spec problem that plagued your parents' beach holiday shots - and more than that doesn't work either, since you can't hand-hold a heavier lens. In most cases, you'll find it easier to follow your subject through the sky if you're supporting your lens with your hand rather than with a tripod.
Choose the right subject
It's a very good idea to start by photographing larger birds. One obvious reason is because it's easier to fill the frame with a large bird, and one less obvious reason is because larger birds don't fly as fast as smaller birds, and they spend more time gliding. This makes it a whole lot easier to keep them in the frame and in focus. Water birds such as geese or seagulls also make good subjects, because they gather in large flocks - which gives you a lot of individuals to choose from during any one photo shoot. Seagulls can be a particularly good choice for a beginner because they tend to be less afraid of humans, which will make it easier for you to get close to them.
Keeping the bird in focus
Birds in flight are moving fast and it can be hard to keep them in focus. To give yourself the best odds, start by choosing the shutter priority setting on your camera, then set your camera's shutter speed to at least 1/1000. Because both your subject and your camera are going to be moving, it's important to make sure that you can freeze that motion. Speeds below 1/1000 may not be fast enough, especially for smaller birds.
Make sure you have a relaxed grip on your camera and lens (not too relaxed, you don't want to drop the thing). One hand should be positioned towards the end of the lens, which will help you keep the camera steady, giving you the best possible chance at a sharp image.
Make sure your auto focus is set to "continuous," so that it will keep making minor focusing adjustments as you follow the bird through the sky. Note that that it's harder for your AF to keep up with a subject that is approaching you than it is for it to follow a subject that is flying from left to right. You may want to start your birds-in-flight experience by focusing only on birds that aren't flying towards you or flying off in the opposite direction.
Panning technique is important - try to move your whole torso smoothly with the camera as you follow the bird's flight path. It can be hard to find a moving subject (especially one at a distance) in your viewfinder, so start by zooming out, locate the bird through the viewfinder and then zoom in. Now make sure you follow your subject as smoothly as you can.
Don't neglect your other settings
Don't get so wrapped up in keeping that shutter speed high that you neglect your aperture. You should aim for something on the order of f/8, which will help you keep the entire bird in focus, from wing-tip to wing-tip. You may have to adjust your ISO in order to maintain a decent f-stop as well as a fast shutter speed, especially as the light changes.
Know your subject
A lot of photographers underestimate the importance of this tip. You're a photographer, not a biologist! But having an idea about what your subject is going to do before it does it can only help you get a great picture. Make sure you know the species that flocks in your area, or the area you're visiting, and just do some quick research before going out in the field. Find out what they eat, what their hunting habits are, and what sort of terrain they prefer. You don't need to write a dissertation on the subject, but a few basic facts will take you a long way.
Most birds are active in the early morning and the late afternoon. Aha! Those are the magic hours - how's that for serendipity? But make sure you know the specific daily habits of the bird species you plan to photograph. If you want to get really serious about photographing birds in flight, find out where your species roosts and watch them come and go to get a feeling for how they behave during, before and after flight. The more you know about the species the better your photos are going to be.
All branches of photography require some practice, but it's true for birds in flight in particular. You already know that animals are tricky subjects, so don't be disappointed if your first attempts at getting a perfect shot of a flying bird don't come out so well. You'll need to waste a lot of frames before that blurry spec on an overexposed sky becomes a photo that just might put that Nat Geo photographer to shame.
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