Photographing birds in flight and getting beautifully lit, sharp images is quite a challenge. I captured this gorgeous eagle in flight over the Susquehanna River in Conowingo, MD. Eagles gather at the dam in the fall on their southern migration and fatten up on fish that have been temporarily stunned as they pass through the dam. It’s easy fishing for the eagles and a great photo op for photographers.
The key to getting great flight images is in being prepared. The following tips will help you get better photographs:
1. Scout locations in advance and find spots where birds are abundant so you have lots of opportunities. Backyard bird feeders are a great place to start.
2. Spend time watching the birds so you know their behavior and can anticipate their movements.
3. Be aware of wind and sun direction. Birds will typically take off and land into the wind for maximum lift, so keep the wind and sun to your back or side for great head shots.
4. Wild birds are skittish so you will need a long lens of at least 300mm or a photo blind to get close. Stay far enough away that you don’t disturb natural behavior.
5. Preset your camera and take some test shots to optimize settings. You will need a fast shutter speed to get stop-action shots of wings in motion (at least the reciprocal of your focal length). I typically use Aperture Priority mode with a shallow depth of field and a sufficiently high ISO to achieve the desired shutter speed.
6. Use predictive autofocus to track focus on a flying bird (AI Servo for Canon & AF-C for Nikon). I use spot focusing on the bird’s eye or head to ensure that critical part is tack sharp. (Consult your owner’s manual to learn how to set the focus spot to just the one in the center of the viewfinder.)
7. Shoot in burst mode. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to time shots in which actions occur in just fractions of a second. By shooting in burst mode you increase your chances of capturing just the right moment. Set your camera for the highest burst speed possible, but hold the shutter down only long enough to capture the anticipated action (typically 3-5 shots). Then stop for a second or two and fire off another series of shots.
8. Practice, Practice, Practice! Whether you hand hold or use a tripod with ball or gimbal head, you will need to practice tracking the birds as they fly. Ideally you want a steady, fluid motion and should continue to pan even after depressing the shutter.
That’s it! Eight simple steps to getting great shots of birds in flight that will draw oohs and aahs from your friends. Don’t be discouraged if at first you don’t succeed. Persistence and determination will get you the images you want and you’ll have lots of fun trying!
Shutter Speed 1/2000 sec. Aperture f/10. ISO 400. Lens: Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS set at 400mm. Camera: Canon EOS 60D. Handheld.
TODAY’S QUOTE: “Practice, which some regard as a chore, should be approached as just about the most pleasant recreation ever devised.” --Babe Didrikson Zaharias
Dee Langevin bio:
Dee became serious about photography when she retired as an Analytical Chemist in 2006 and bought her first DSLR. She joined the Delaware Photographic Society in 2008 and the Photographic Society of America in 2009. She has received many awards and distinctions, including being listed in the PSA Who’s Who in Photography for the past two years as one of the top 25 exhibitors in North America, and has achieved the PSA EPSA distinction. Her passion is shooting nature images, including wildlife, scenic and macro photography.