As photographers, we're often told to avoid chaos. "Keep it simple" is one of the many rules that we try to follow, which is why you may find it difficult to photograph flocks of birds. What could be more chaotic than a bunch of shrieking geese or a flock of pigeons? But the good news is that it is possible to capture some sense of order in those crazy flocks, you just need to have a plan. Keep reading for some ideas.
If you've ever spent time photographing birds, you know that even one bird can be a challenge. You have to have a long lens and a lot of patience to capture great bird photographs, and that tends to be true for flocks of birds as well. But while you can stalk a single bird and just wait for it to do something interesting, when you're shooting flocks of birds you really need to have an idea about what you're trying to accomplish.
The cool thing about flocks of birds is that they create a sort of pattern. It's a chaotic pattern, to be sure, but it is a pattern nonetheless. The way birds move in flocks is infinitely interesting and photogenic, so zooming out to capture large numbers of birds is one good approach. You can also approach flock photography in terms of capturing behavior—use the flock as a backdrop for a shot of one or two individuals engaged in activities such as feeding, fighting or courting. The most important thing to do is to think it through. Have a look at the scene from a distant perspective and ask yourself what the most compelling way to shoot that scene might be.
Know your species
The first thing that you really need to do is make sure that you understand the species you plan to photograph. What kind of behavior might you expect to see during nesting season, for example? Where do they flock? What times of the day do they come and go? What do they hunt or eat? If you know the answers to these questions you will know what kind of behavior to look out for when you are on location. You can always learn as you go, of course, but that's a slow way to get to where you need to be in order to really start taking some fabulous photos of bird flocks.
What you need
Most of the time when I'm telling people how to photograph birds I recommend a telephoto lens. And you do need one for photographing flocks of birds as well as for photographing individuals, since you can never really get that close to a flock of birds without scaring its entire collective self into the sky. So you need to hang back, which means that the 300mm lens that you use for photographing individual birds is still going to come in pretty handy for flocks. But I am also going to recommend a wider angle lens, because you also want to have a few images that include many thousands of individuals—you can't truly capture the size of a large flock without going pretty wide. So it's a good idea to have two lenses on hand when you're photographing birds so you can do a little zooming in and a little zooming out as the situation calls for it.
Flock as background
Let's start with that first idea, because it tends to feel the most comfortable when you're first getting started with photographing flocks of birds. Hang back a little and, using your telephoto lens, try to find one or two individual birds who are doing something interesting. But don't quite fill the frame with those individuals. Instead, zoom out a little so that you've got plenty of other birds in the background. You do need to make sure you're using a wider aperture it so that you can get a shallow depth of field, otherwise that individual in front is just going to blend in with all the other birds in the background, and your viewer won't know which bird is supposed to be the subject of the photo. Remember the rule of thirds and the "room to move" rule—ideally, you want to place your subject on one of the two vertical rule of thirds lines, with more space in front of the bird than behind. Once you have your settings dialed in and your depth of field looks about right, you can fire off a series of photos for an indefinite period of time without having to change much. This is a really good way to remove some of the chaos from the shot while still maintaining that feeling that your subject isn't a lone bird but part of a group.
Another great way to photograph flocks of birds in a less chaotic way is to capture them as silhouettes. Try going out at sunrise or sunset and photographing the flocks against the orange sky as they take to the air. Now again, you will need to know something about the behavior of the species that you're photographing—certain species only really move together at certain times of the day, so if your birds like the morning better than the evening you need to make sure to factor that into your plans.
Remember that to capture an effective at silhouette you need to be exposing for the sky and not for the silhouetted object. And you need to be quick—use your spot meter to get a reading off of the sky before the birds start to fly, and use that setting to photograph the flock. Look for a pattern in the way they move—birds move together as they fly in flocks which can make for some remarkable curved patterns or v-shapes in the sky. For added interest, look for one or two individuals that don't seem to be conforming to what the rest of the flock is doing—those individuals can serve as a focal point for your photograph, which will ultimately make it more interesting.
Energy, Bird Storm Silhuette, Kakadu National Park by Flickr user BRJ INC.
Flocking birds look more interesting if there is good contrast between the birds and the background. This is why a flock of white geese looks so astonishing against a cloudy sky, while a flock of Canadian geese kind of gets lost in that same background. Tried to stand with the sun to your right or left or even behind you, and pay attention to what the background looks like compared to the colors of the flock. If the sun will illuminate the birds but the background will remain dark, the results will be an eye-popping image that retains some of that flocking chaos but is much easier to look at.
Another good way to separate a few individuals from the flock while maintaining that flocking dynamic is to use motion blur or panning. Panning is a technique that will create a streaky background and a sharp subject. I can be difficult to pan certain animals, especially mammals, because their legs move, which means it you'll get a blur in the limbs as well as in the background. But birds are different because birds often glide. If you can catch a bird mid-glide when it's not really moving its wings, you can get some wonderful panned backgrounds with a little bit of practice.
A successful panned image is shot with a slower shutter speed somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/15 to 1/30. Start panning with your subject before you release the shutter button and keep panning until after you hear the shutter close. Try to keep your subject in the same part of the frame for the duration of the exposure. Pan as smoothly as you can—don't move your feet during the pan, only move your torso. Remember that panning takes practice, and even people who are very good at it don't get an excellent shot every time. So if you're new to panning, you definitely don't want to only pan during that entire photo shoot or you may end up with precious few usable images. Mix this technique up with some of the others that we're talking about so you'll have a nice range of shots to choose from when you return home. And don't be too disappointed if you don't get a lot of great panned images or if you don't get any at all the first couple of times you try. This is definitely a technique that you need to do over and over again before you finally start to get satisfying results.
Rush hour! (best big!) by Flickr user Rainbirder
Another technique you can use to cut back on the chaos of those flocks of birds is layering. This is where you find patterns in the landscape as well as the flock. For example, you may have some reeds in the foreground, some water in the middle ground, some white birds in the sky and some dark blue or gray clouds. All these elements together form a pattern of different tones in stacked layers, which can bring a sense of visual order to an otherwise chaotic scene.
These are some of the things that you need to be looking for before you decide how you're going to photograph that flock. Instead of just showing up with your camera and shooting, you really need to think about how you can use the chaos to your advantage. Because there's never going to be a moment when you look at that flock and think that there isn't some element of chaos, the question is really how you control it and use it to your advantage. This is the kind of activity that requires lots of practice so don't just plan for one afternoon with that flock of geese, come back time and time again until you're finally starting to get pictures that you think are really good. Once you've mastered that flock of white geese, you can move on to that flock of starlings or flamingos. Each species of bird is going to offer different challenges, so there's really no end to how much you can learn and how many interesting and unique photos you can capture.
- Know your species
- Understanding behavior will help you anticipate the best shots
- What you need
- Bring a telephoto lens and a wider angle lens
- Flock as background
- Use a wider aperture to blur out the flock and focus on one or two individuals
- Meter for the sky and try to capture the flocking birds as silhouettes
- Look for strong areas of contrast
- Pan with a gliding bird to create a streaky background
- Look for different colored and textured layers
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