Rick Hobbs Photography

Wildlife/Nature/Outdoor Photography

Photo Tips

Photographing birds in flight

Due to the high speed of the subject, getting sharp photographs of birds in flight has always been very challenging. Thankfully, technology has come to the aid of the photographer. The five major areas I will cover are equipment, film, technique, lighting and location.

Great Blue Heron

Equipment - The equipment I find essential when doing my flight photography include a solid tripod, a Wimberley head, fast autofocusing lenses, camera bodies with fast motor drives, and occasionally a warming filter. Since I shoot Canon equipment I will be referencing the Canon system, users of the Nikon system, or others, can use the equivalent equipment.

Tripod and Head - I need to use a solid tripod when shooting my Canon 400mm f/2.8L IS lens. To support this lens my choice is the Gitzo 1410, or 410. Combining these legs with my Wimberley head gives me a very solid, easy to use, and flexible shooting platform.

If you plan to do much shooting with big glass mounted on a tripod I highly recommend using a Wimberley head instead of the traditional ball heads. I immediately noticed significant changes once I switched. For one thing, my arm and shoulder fatigue went down dramatically. With my Wimberley head I do not have to support any of the weight when I free up the lens for potential shooting. Also, I no longer experience the lens "flopping" over like when using a traditional ball head. I can simply let go of the camera and lens whenever I want and never worry about it getting away from me.

Certainly, you can get great results using a traditional ball head, however, the Wimberley head is designed specifically for action work making panning with flying birds very easy.

American White Pelican

Lenses - I prefer to use fast lenses with high speed autofocus and image stabilization. Generally, for flight shooting you need shutter speed. Also, you want a lens that will be sharp at f/5.6 since that is the aperture you should use the majority of the time.

General statement - always use the lens hood made for the lenses you shoot.

The choice of lens basically comes down to whether the lens is going to be handheld or mounted on a tripod. Some people suggest the most used focal length for flight photography is a 300mm. For capturing birds in flight I usually find myself working with focal lengths in the 200-800mm range.

When handholding, you want a lens that is easy to carry and can focus quickly. Telephoto lenses in the range of 300mm f/4 - 400mm f/5.6 are ideal lenses for flight photography due to their weight and power. Some people like to use the Canon 100-400mm zoom. When handholding, I regularly use my 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens with either a 1.4x, or, 2x teleconverter. I can cover the 140-400mm range at f/5.6 without purchasing another lens and get great results.

Often, when mounting a 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4, or one of these with an added teleconverter on a tripod, you can actually be more productive than handholding and using a shorter focal length. For birds that are flying from one side to the other, or coming directly toward you, the changing of their position is greater in relative amounts the closer they are to you. Longer focal lengths allow you to work at greater distances with less effective change in subject position.

Also, birds going across the frame are much easier to track, since they stay at roughly the same distance, than those coming directly into the camera. The closer you have to work the bird due to shorter focal length lenses, the worse this becomes. I use a 400mm f/2.8L IS lens mounted on my tripod. I add a 1.4x (560mm f/4), or 2x (800mm f/5.6) when I need more reach.

Advancing lens technology has made flight photography much easier, but not foolproof. Autofocus is the major development that has helped wildlife photographers to capture dynamic action. Be aware that owning an AF lens is not a guarantee of sharp results. There is no substitute for good technique, however, autofocus does yield a higher percentage of acceptable images when shooting birds in flight.

Finally, both of the lenses that I use for flight photography have image stabilization built into them which helps smooth out camera movements and generally can produce better results than non-stabilized lenses.

Sandhill Cranes

Camera Body Features - When shooting birds in flight I find that I always depend on two important features on my camera body. The first is follow focus, in the Canon system this is called AI Servo. This allows the camera to continuously autofocus on a moving subject as long as you maintain pressure on the shutter release button.

A fast motor drive is an essential feature when attempting flight photography. There will be a lot of wasted film when shooting flight and it's likely only a few frames will be worth keeping. Firing a series of shots will increase your odds of getting a few keepers because you not only need to get sharp photographs, but also the wing position will have a bearing on the overall impact of the image. I use the Canon 1V camera body and can fire at a rate of 10 frames per second. I won't know which frame is best until I get the film back but I feel confident that the best wing positions will be in there somewhere, as long as I don't run out of film.

Trumpeter Swan

Filters - Occasionally, I will use an 81A or 81B warming filter or a polarizing filter if the situation warrants.

Film - As for all subjects, film for flight shooting is a personal choice. Since you will need to get as much shutter speed as possible I highly recommend a 100 speed film. Higher shutter speeds are required to stop the motion of your subject and the subtle movements of the photographer. Kodak E100VS and Fuji Provia F 100 can both be pushed one stop to pick up even more shutter speed. I push most of my film because I can always use the extra stop of shutter speed or depth-of-field, depending on my subject.

Trumpeter Swan

Technique - When shooting birds in flight your panning technique is critical. When releasing the shutter it is important to continue panning and not to stop once the shutter has been released. This follow through will make the process smoother and produce sharper images. Also, it helps to continue to shoot until your subject flies past the sweet spot. While the last frame or two will likely be shot too late, and be throwaways, the well composed images should be sharp.

Make sure you hold your camera and lens properly. Your right hand is on the shutter release, while your left hand should be positioned far out on the lens barrel. Tuck your elbows snugly against your body with the camera pressed firmly against your face and swivel from the waist.

Great Egret

Lighting - Pre-visualization plays an important role in making sure the light will be coming from the desired direction for the type of image you want to create. Generally, the most common lighting situation is front lighting. All you need to do is position yourself so the birds you are photographing are coming toward you into the light. Also, it will help to be aware of the wind direction since birds take-off and land into the wind. Ideally, you want the wind, and light, coming from your back.

Of course, if you want to capture the birds in flight silhouetted against a colorful sky then positioning yourself for back-lighting would be best.

Great Blue Heron

Location - Now you simply put yourself in the place of most potential. That may mean doing some research to determine when the birds will be in a certain area and when they look their best. Once you have determined when and where to photograph with the best chance of success you need to put yourself in position. Make sure you arrive ahead of time so you are in the right place at the right time when the action starts.

In summary, photographing birds in flight, while still challenging, can be fun and exciting. If you can take advantage of the technology available today and use solid technique in the field you should be able to create great photographs.


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