6 Useful Tips for Photographing Birds in Flight

We’ve been lucky enough to photograph countless species of amazing birds here in Ontario, from Ospreys to Caspian terns. The ultimate way to capture many of these beautiful animals is to photograph them in flight. However, shooting a bird in flight can be one of the most challenging tasks a wildlife photographer faces.

With the following recommendations, you should begin to see a big improvement in your photos. The tips we share are most useful with a DSLR camera and a prime telephoto lens such as the Canon 400mm F/5.6L. (You can view the rest of our gear here)

bird in flight
This Short-eared Owl did not stick around for long, we had about 60 seconds to capture this breathtaking moment in time.

All of the photos on this website were taken by us using modest camera gear. We certainly didn’t start capturing great photos of birds in flight right off the bat, it took years of practice and dedication. One of the main goals of this website is to share our best bird photography tips with others, so they can fast-track their way to where we are now.

6 tips for photographing birds in flight

Considered to be one of the ultimate photography challenges, capturing a beautiful bird in flight can be both exhilarating and nerve-racking. Wildlife photography opportunities like this don’t come often, and there is little room for error. Once they fly out of view, you almost never get a second chance. Next time your favorite bird lifts off, be ready to capture the moment with these 6 useful tips.

Bird photography
A Snowy Owl in the early morning sunlight

Use a quick shutter speed:

Like all bird photography scenarios, an adequate exposure speed is crucial. For a fast-moving bird in flight, we recommend an exposure length of 1/1000 or faster. By moving your lens along with the bird’s movement, you can help “slow them down” in your photo. The goal is to capture the entire bird in sharp focus and to do that you’ll need a quick exposure.

For a fast shutter speed to properly expose the bird, you’ll need an adequate amount of sunlight. Under darker conditions such as the early morning, bump up your ISO if necessary to reach the recommended exposure length of 1/1000 – 1/1500. You may get lucky with a sharp shot in the 1/500 range, but don’t count on it.

Northern Pintails
This pair of Northern Pintails were startled as we passed by, so we took advantage of the action with this shot.

Use Continuous Autofocus:

You’ll want to use continuous autofocus mode as well. AI servo is likely the best choice for most bird in flight situations because the camera can make slight adjustments internally. AI Servo mode was designed to detect a moving subject and maintain focus as your release the shutter. The USM (Ultrasonic motor) in the Canon 300mm f/4L Trevor uses works fantastically with the Canon 7D.

Even with the camera’s dynamic autofocus function running, you’ll need to keep the bird centered into the viewfinder for the best chance of a sharp shot. If your camera includes advanced autofocus settings such as AF point selection, you may want to experiment with these options as well. I personally just stick with automatic AF point selection and keep the bird as centered as possible.

Snowy owl
This Snowy Owl fly so close, we weren’t able to capture the entire bird in the frame!

Consider stopping down your aperture:

Many bird photographers simply shoot with their lowest f-stop at all times to harness as much light as possible in each shot. And why not? The more light you let into your lens, the faster your shutter speeds can be.

The problem is that a fast aperture of F/4 or below can often create a depth of field that is too shallow to capture the entire bird in focus. This look can make for some dynamic shots when shooting small birds but is less effective when capturing a larger bird in flight.

Try stopping your lens down to F/6.3 or higher to capture the entire bird from wingtip to wingtip. If you’re having trouble getting enough light for a quick exposure, you’ll have to increase the ISO. Noise is repairable in post-processing, focus is not!

Bird in flight
A Killdeer can be a difficult bird to capture in flight as they change course often.

Keep the sun on your back:

As we discussed in our post about understanding the importance of light for bird photography, you’ll want to take your shots when the bird is well lit. Ideally, your subject will eventually fly opposite the sun and you can capture the true color and beauty of its feathers.

Birds that are lit up from the front are almost always a better choice than being backlit. Shooting into the sun with a telephoto lens is never a good idea, especially if you lose track of the sun and happen to scan right over it. This can be dangerous to your eyes and can damage your camera sensor. Consider the angle opposite the sun to be your window of opportunity.

For added aesthetics, aim to capture the bird during the golden hours of the day. The hours right after sunrise and before sunset can create an unforgettable scene. If all goes well, you’ll have a bird lit up with golden light and a dark contrasty background behind it.

Caspian tern
A Caspian tern with a fresh catch

Consider your final image composition:

A common practice for bird in flight photography is to include negative space in front of your subject. This basically means intentionally keeping the bird to one side of the frame in your final cropped and processed photo. This composition can create a feeling of movement in your image and is a clever way to capture a more natural depiction of the action.

Rather than attempting to frame the bird this way while shooting, anticipate this framing option after the fact, during your post-processing stage. Trying to properly focus a bird that is off-center is challenging for both the user and your cameras autofocus mode. Leave plenty of room around all sides of the bird while shooting, so you’ll be able to frame the image however you like afterward.

Northern shoveler
A Northern shoveler puts the breaks on for a rather comedic landing.

Shoot using high-speed burst mode:

It should come as no surprise to hear that the more shots you take, the better your chances of nailing a sharp shot. This is why high-speed continuous shooting is such a powerful technique to use for capturing birds in flight. Your focus will still need to be bang-on, but a burst of 6-8 shots will most often result in at least 1 or two critically sharp images of your subject.

Once you have gone through to see which ones are razor sharp, its a matter of selecting the one with the most dynamic pose. If the bird’s wings are blocking their face, or creating a shadow, or have a slight motion blur – keep shooting. Often times, the best shots are when the bird’s wings are fully extended.

It’s not uncommon for us to shoot 100-300 images of a single bird during one session. For this reason, don’t skimp out on the size of your memory card!  We both shoot using Transcend 32GB Class 10 memory cards. View current price on Amazon. The last thing you ever want to see on your camera’s display is “card full”, so make it a tradition to start every bird photography session on a full memory card.

Although the lighting conditions were not ideal, an interesting angle of this Hawk presented itself.

Bonus Tip:

Keep your feet planted as you as pan your camera lens along with your subject. It’s better to gradually turn your upper body without moving your feet to avoid any unnecessary camera shake. You’ll also the avoid the possibility of tripping over something, as you’re full attention will be on the bird’s flight path. When you’ve reached the point where you can’t twist anymore, look down, re-adjust your footing, and start the process over again. This technique has served us well in the past.

One last trick I like to use is to keep both eyes open while tracking the bird. It makes it a little easier to keep up with your subject, as you’ll be able to spot any changes in the flight path. It also helps to avoid any mishaps when there are other people around you!

A Short-eared Owl in flight

We hope you have enjoyed our tips for photographing birds in flight, and that you put these ideas into action the next time you venture out on a birding trip.  If you would like a behind the scenes look at how we improve our images in post-processing, have a look at the following video tutorial where Trevor discusses how to sharpen your photos in Adobe Photoshop.

Video Tutorial: How to make your photos of birds sharper

Tips for photographing birds in flight

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