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How to photograph birds in flight

by Nikolai Whitebear

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) photographed just after takeoff at Wilson-Tuscarora  State Park on 11 January 2023.
Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) photographed just after takeoff at Wilson-Tuscarora State Park on 11 January 2023.

Learning how to photograph birds in flight may feel challenging when you begin. They seem to move so fast that you don’t have time to aim your camera! But once you spend some time with them, get to know them, and understand their behavior you’ll be taking photos just like the ones seen in this article!

Camera Settings

Before each time you are out photographing please ensure your camera settings are the best for the environment. Location, time, and sunlight all play vital roles in a photographer’s work. The shutter speed should be very fast, 1/2000 of a second. Combined with the ISO set to auto, you are guaranteed a crisp photo!

Using the focus limiter will help. It eliminates objects close to you allowing the autofocus to work faster! Lastly, image stabilization can be turned off while photographing birds in flight. Having image stabilization on can slow the lens performance! Preset as many of these settings as you can before you make the trip to begin photographing. You will experience feelings of regret and frustration when you realize you were shootings in all the wrong settings.

Female Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) photographed at Beaver Island St Park in Grand Island, NY on 8 February 2023
Female Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) photographed at Beaver Island St Park in Grand Island, NY on 8 February 2023

Use your whole body

The camera can only do so much. You as the photographer must learn how to follow a subject as it moves. The best tip I can give is to move the lens with your whole body. Do not just use your arms and head to move the lens. Move your chest and core as the bird flies across the sky. Don’t forget about your legs too! Spread your feet into a wider stance. A stronger stance will allow you to aim and shoot with absolute accuracy.

This photo above I shot while the Belted Kingfisher zoomed past me. I wasn’t as close as I would’ve loved but I am certain these tips helped me capture a small bird that flies very fast.

Bonaparte's Gull (Chroicoephalus philadelphia) photographed in the Niagara Gorge on 1 December 2022
Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicoephalus philadelphia) photographed in the Niagara Gorge on 1 December 2022

Practice

Just reading these recommendations is not enough to truly learn how to photograph birds in flight. Go out and begin practicing your own photography. Develop your own methods that create the kind of photographs that you want to take! Travel to different locations, Mother Earth works in mysterious ways at times, you never know what she may gift you. That photo above I took the first time I photographed gulls in the Niagara Gorge! I was not expecting a photo that captures so much grace and elegance! Keep an open mind, breathe, and love every second of being outside!

-Niawa

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