Learn how to master photography of birds in flight

Side-profile of a merganser photographed mid-flight. Image credit Melissa Groo. Side-profile of a merganser photographed mid-flight.

Photographing birds in flight is practically a sport — it requires stamina, quick reflexes, excellent hand-eye coordination, and lots of practice. And that’s just for the photographer! As for your camera, the pursuit of nature photography calls for a high shutter speed and a blazing fast autofocus system. For me, birds in flight are the most challenging — and exhilarating — kind of nature photography.

The act of freezing a bird in motion, that is moving so fast your eye can barely track it, can be greatly rewarding. There’s nothing like looking at your photos afterwards and seeing that you have nailed the perfect flight shot. Bird photography definitely gets addictive!

With camera bodies and lenses improving all the time, and gear getting lighter, even beginner bird photographers can capture breathtaking flight images. At the same time, there is no getting around the need to understand what tools and techniques will give us the best chance of success, both while shooting and when editing in Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop.

Choosing the right camera and lenses for bird photography

Ideal choices for flight photography are a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a rate of at least 8-10 frames per second, enough megapixels that you can crop a decent amount and not suffer too much loss of image quality, and a telephoto lens with a focal length of anywhere from 300mm to 600mm.

Fixed telephoto lenses, for instance a 500mm f/5.6, have historically offered better optical quality than zooms, but rapid advances in digital technology are resulting in zoom lenses increasingly capable of sharp images. Typically, you want a “fast lens,” one with a maximum f-stop of /5.6 or larger, like f/4 or f/2.8. These are called fast lenses because they let more light in, and thus can achieve the same exposure with a faster shutter speed.

A common tern photographed mid-flight as it dives downwards.

Image credit Melissa Groo. A Forster’s Tern photographed mid-flight as it dives downwards.

How to ensure steady shooting

What mechanics will you use to hold and move your lens to follow the bird? Will you rely on the power of your arm, or a tripod or monopod? The weight of your gear, as well as your arm strength, will determine whether you can handhold it or not. Many people successfully photograph birds in flight with their rigs on tripods, but in my own personal experience, there is nothing like hand-holding a lens to free me up to move quickly in all directions and at all heights. That’s why weight is a big consideration for me with the gear that I choose — I really must be able to hand-hold.

In terms of tripods, make sure you choose one that's rated for the weight of your lens, and never skimp on quality. I can’t tell you how many people I know who spent a good deal of money on the camera and lenses, and then, to save money, bought a cheap tripod. They always end up throwing away the cheap tripod and investing in a high-quality tripod. It really matters.

Note: If you use a tripod or monopod, gimbal heads provide the best panning motion for birds in flight.

If you hand-hold, try to imagine your body as a tripod. Take a firm stance with your legs placed comfortably apart, tuck both elbows into your sides for stability, and swivel at the waist as you pan with the bird. A trick that works for me is to also hold my breath as I pan.

If you are photographing smaller birds, or birds far away, teleconverters can be essential tools for extending reach. However, they will reduce your light and speed. A 1.4x teleconverter reduces the maximum aperture of the lens by one stop, so my 600mm f/4 becomes a f/5.6 lens. I usually start out with my teleconverter attached, if I have good light to work with. If I’m having trouble tracking a bird, I will take the teleconverter off, as I always have an easier time grabbing focus with just my 600mm f/4.

What if you do not want a long telephoto lens or can’t afford one? There are some places where birds are practically tame, such as Florida, where you can use a 70-200mm lens on the beach and get great shots of terns or pelicans diving for fish at close range, or resting near you on the beach. There are also bird photographer meccas where birds gather in large numbers at certain times of the year, offering a rich range of opportunities for wide-angle lens photography, like Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, in fall and winter. Here, sandhill cranes and snow geese gather by the tens of thousands. But for the truly serious photographer of birds in flight, long lenses are critical.

Working with the weather and light

Just as important as your gear and settings, is being in tune with light and weather conditions. One of the things I absolutely love about this kind of photography — it requires me to be closely aligned with the elements, with the quality and angle of light, and the direction and strength of wind. Maybe the best tip I can give you is that if the wind and sun are not at your back at the same time, avoid shooting birds in flight. It will just be an exercise in frustration.

A Roseate Spoonbill photographed mid-flight as it descends above a lake.

Image credit Melissa Groo. A Roseate Spoonbill photographed mid-flight as it descends above a lake.

I have learned from much trial and error that if the sun is rising and I stand with it behind me — but the wind is blowing from the west — all I will get pictures of are well-lit bird butts. Why? Because birds prefer to fly into the wind. They even sit facing into the wind when resting, at the ready to flee in case of danger. So if the sun is coming from behind you, but the wind is coming from the opposite direction, the birds will be flying away from you. So you always want things to align — wind and sun coming from the same direction, as much as possible. A westerly wind in the evening, an easterly wind in the morning.

I also like to take advantage of strong wind, particularly in winter, as it can provide a great opportunity to photograph birds in flight. The wind will slow the birds down considerably as they fly against it, making them easier targets for your AF system. It is also a good time to find raptors hover hunting, like rough-legged hawks and kestrels.

A Cedar Waxwing photographed in flight.

Image credit Melissa Groo. A Cedar Waxwing photographed in flight.

That being said, of course there are exceptions, as shooting against the sun (backlighting) can provide for some really artistic shots. Know the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist, as the saying goes!

Be ready and stay ready

Recognizing signs of birds’ impending flight will help you to be prepared for fast action. Signs include when the bird defecates, or suddenly looks more alert, lifting their head high and looking around. Think about your positioning vis-à-vis the bird, and if you can without disturbing them, place yourself in their projected flight path — i.e., upwind of her.

Background matters

Your background is just as important as your bird, whether they are flying or perched. Sometimes a bird flying against a blue background can be appealing. But often it makes for a less-than-interesting shot, and the same bird against a range of mountains or a sea of grass can be stunning. If you have a choice, wait until the bird is flying low enough so that there is some interesting color or texture behind him. This may mean you need to change your own position, getting higher if possible. Birds against white (overcast) sky can be brutal to get, unless you are purposely going for a high-key look.

Ideal camera settings for capturing flight

Shutter speed is always my top priority when it comes to this kind of photography. I don’t like to photograph flying birds under 1/1600 sec and will go as high as 1/4000 — or even 1/5000 for hummingbirds, swallows, and ducks if I have the available light. Get comfortable with high ISOs, and be familiar with how far you can push your camera until the noise becomes unacceptable. Use continuous focus and shoot wide open, using your largest aperture. Use high speed/continuous burst mode. Find out what the fastest memory card is for your camera and buy it — use respected, well-known brands. Switch over the focus limiter on your lens if you know you are working only within a certain range — it will stop the lens from hunting within at least a section of the area closest to you.

Though I preach high shutter speeds for flying birds, using a slow shutter speed (especially in low light when you do not have a choice!) to purposely create blur can make for spectacular images. I like to try 1/30 or 1/15 a second. I try to get at least the eye of the bird in focus but am often not successful!

A Black Skimmer photographed in flight as it skims the surface of a lake with its open beak.

Image credit Melissa Groo. A Black Skimmer photographed in flight as it skims the surface of a lake with its open beak.

What about auto-focus (AF) settings? These are of course critical to success. Most important is to get to intimately know your camera’s AF system. When I started out, I used only center point focus, as I thought that was the best way to ensure I did not lock on anything but the bird. But as cameras evolved, I found that selecting a cluster of points was the best choice. Many people find they prefer using expanded focus areas. It will differ for each person, and you should test out the various options on your camera to discover what works best for you.

Some mirrorless cameras now have Bird or Animal-Eye-AF capabilities, which can even lock onto a flying bird’s eye. I recently switched to a mirrorless system (the Sony Alpha 1), and this feature was a big factor in my decision.

I find that Manual mode is the most versatile for me when photographing birds in flight. Only in this mode does your exposure stay the same no matter how the background changes in tone or color behind your moving bird. When I first started out, I used Aperture Priority (and that is certainly a useful mode to keep in mind when the ambient light is changing), but I soon realized that my exposure changed rapidly as background changed, and that I needed to use Manual mode to advance in my skills.

A Willow Ptarmigan photographed in flight against a snowy bokeh background.

Image credit Melissa Groo. A Willow Ptarmigan photographed in flight against a snowy bokeh background.

Editing process for birds in flight

Making your photos look their best through editing software is an essential step for any wildlife photographer. To do this I use both Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. When I first started using them, I would employ Lightroom for basic processing needs like exposure and cropping — then, for more complex tasks like burning and dodging, or selectively sharpening a subject, I would open and work on the image in Photoshop.

Using Photoshop to adjust the curves on a photograph of a Great Gray Owl in flight.

Using Photoshop to adjust the curves on a photograph of a Great Gray Owl in flight.

Lightroom has advanced in so many ways over the last few years, especially with the recent addition of Masking tools, so I could manage just about everything I need within that app. However, I am a creature of habit, and — though I don’t tend to make many changes on my photos — I am accustomed to the toolset that Photoshop provides.

Using Photoshop's Subject tool to select the flying owl from the photograph.

Using Photoshop's Subject tool to select the flying owl from the photograph.

This photo of a Great Gray Owl that I recently took in Yellowstone National Park needed some work as it was pretty underexposed. When I brought up the exposure a llittle, via Levels, I could see that I needed to address the graininess of the image — caused by a high ISO — and sharpen the owl. I did a global Noise Reduction via the Filter menu, and then chose Subject on the Select menu, as it is such a quick tool for outlining the bird. Then I was able to apply Smart Sharpen only to the bird.

Using Photoshop's Smart Sharpen tool to sharpen only the owl selection from the photograph.

Image credit Melissa Groo. Using Photoshop's Smart Sharpen tool to sharpen only the owl selection from the photograph.

Ethical considerations

Avoid flash at night on flying nocturnal birds like owls. These birds rely on their night vision to hunt and to see where they are going. A flash may temporarily blind them (even if just for a very brief moment) and cause injury.

Side-profile of a Yellow-crowned night heron in flight against a bokeh forested background.

Image credit Melissa Groo. Side-profile of a Yellow-crowned night heron in flight against a bokeh forested background.

Never intentionally flush a bird to get a flight shot. It may be tempting to compel birds like owls and other raptors to fly, but it is unkind and unethical. Birds perch for a reason — in general, to rest or to hunt. By forcing them off their perch, you are interfering with their natural processes, and causing them to unnecessarily expend valuable energy. Please keep in mind that these are just about photos to us, but to wild animals — every moment is about survival.

Prolific practice makes perfect

The best advice of all I can give you is to simply get out there and practice. Practice is essential if you want to improve your skills. Local parks where birds are used to people fit the bill nicely. Gulls are a great target, as they are often found in parks. Having trouble finding birds where you live? Attend a soccer game or basketball game, and practice on the fast-moving athletes to experiment with different settings.

The truth is that there is no substitute for trying and failing over and over again. In time, the techniques I’ve recommended here will become second nature to you and you’ll find great joy and reward in the pursuit of birds-in-flight photography. Have fun out there!