At this age of digital revolution, photography has gone beyond skies capable of capturing micro second mesmerizing moments of wildlife and nature. One such moment, which is a dream of most wildlife photographers is capturing birds in flight. The reason that is so special is because of bird’s real beauty of wings and colours unveil when birds are in flight. And, birds portray a whole new dimension of their beauty while in flight; that beauty is never to be seen when birds are in a perch. The truth is even experienced photographers struggle to master this technique and let’s find out why.
Does Bird in Flight needs an expensive lens?
Seeing my birds in flight (BIF) pictures, one question I always get is – What lens do I use? What drives this question is, the general perception that to capture birds in flight we need very expensive DSLR with a expensive prime lens. The answer is a Big ‘NO’. All you need is a decent DSLR with lens (at-least 400mm for the reach) which has fast auto focus ability. The good news is, technology is growing so fast that you get that even in a mid range kits. Just to prove that point, all the pictures shared in this blog are taken with NikonD7100 + Tamron 150 to 600mm lens and NikonD810 + Tamron 150 to 600mm lens. You may reach a point in your wildlife photography when you start printing most of your work; that’s the time you may really need a prime lens. If most of your work is in digital format and shared in social channels like Facebook, Instagram, Flickr etc., then you are very much fine with mid DSLRs. The links take you to my social photography pages and all the pictures are web optimized to a size of 200-250kb and you won’t see any difference on quality at the small screen.
Unless, you want to zoom your tiger picture to the eye of the tiger and see yourself in the eye, you don’t need a prime lens. A prime lens makes real sense if you are printing your pictures or selling prints in sizes of A1 or bigger.
Understand your Subject
Photographing a bird in flight is so different from photographing a bird in perch. Most birds fly at speeds of 40-50 kilometers per hour. So if you are in a setting to capture a bird in perch, then the same setting and technique won’t yield you the results you are looking for. Now with that understanding, let’s see the key setting and factors for capturing birds in flight.
The key steps are:
- Shutter speed / ISO
- Autofocus Setting
- Mastering the Technique
- Capturing the Birds in Flight
The first and foremost setting is your shutter speed. To freeze action of a bird in flight, we need a very fast shutter speed. I normally use a shutter speed of at least 1/1500th of a second and the fastest I used is for capturing the Sunbird in flight which is 1/3500th of a second. One question which always being asked is why not always keep the fastest shutter speed? The answer is ‘yes the faster the shutter speed it is better but that also depends on another factor the ISO’. Do understand that when your shutter speed is high and if light is not good, your ISO have to be high. So when lighting is good, I normally use ISO of about 500-800 to achieve shutter speeds of 1/1200 to 1/1500 and when by evening when the light is dull, I will pump up my ISO upto 1500 to achieve higher shutter speeds. This is just by my experience and since you now understand the ISO and the Shutter speed you can play around and understand them your way.
Tip: Don’t assume what shutter speed you will achieve since light changes every second. Once you are ready see through your view finder, focus and be sure you will achieve the shutter speed needed else take a dummy shot and check the shutter speed achieved. Once again – Keep in mind, the lighting changes every second and so keep a good watch.
Exception: There were instances where you intentionally keep a little slower shutter speed to show a blur only in the wings of the bird. How much slower depends on the bird but by my experience shutter speed of around 1/300 to 1/500 would get you that effect on the wings.
Understand your environment
Most wildlife photography training content won’t have this else as a last point but I consider this as very critical in bird photography i.e., for birds in flight. When a bird perches it is static but when it is in flight – your backdrop changes, your lighting changes and you may be in a place where there could be multiple birds which are different in colours. Setting for a dark bird in shadow is totally different from a white bird on direct sunlight. So when you set your ISO and shutter speed, be aware of what kind of different exposures may be needed. I would suggest to keep two settings kept ready in memory to use for the two different situation I just told above. I’ll talk more in detail about this exposure related challenges in another blog since that is common for all subjects not only for bird in flight.
The setting needed for capturing birds in flight (BIF) is AF-C Mode for Nikon and AI Servo for Canon to burst continuous shots. Also keep the focusing point expanded and use at-least AF-9 (9 points activated) or use features like Grp to acquire focus. You can activate all the focus points but in my experience I felt that is actually makes acquiring focus really slow.
Photography Technique for Birds in Flight
All set ready, now comes the crucial part – The Technique. The flow of action is Acquire Focus, Track with Focus On, Pan and Zoom (if zoom lens), Capture. Without losing focus, keep panning to track the bird in flight and take multiple shots. If anyone say ‘that I have a hit rate of 100% in birds in flight’, just give it a good laugh. The reality is there will be missed shots where you have lost track of bird and it went to a corner in the frame or lost focus etc. But, if you are able to reach a success rate of 60-70% in birds in flight within few days of practise, it is a great start and then keep taking that rate higher. As you practice, you will get better.
Setting I use:
Manual Mode, Aperture F8, ISO 500-800 (good light), pump ISO upto 2500 (low light conditions), AF-C AF-9 (I’m a Nikon User), Tracking with Focus On – fast, Shutter Speed 1/1500 to 1/4000 (depending on the bird), VR-on and centre weighed metering.
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Tip: Photography is capturing what you love the most. Keep that in mind. Bird in flight needs a lot of patience and it can be tiring sometimes, those times just rest your kit and enjoy the beauty of birds in flight on your naked eyes, you will gain the energy back to shoot. All the best!!!
Feel free to post any follow up questions or any suggestions on your kit down below in the comment section. I would be glad to help you.
About the Author:
Alvis Lazarus is a Wildlife Photographer from Nazareth. Top Shot Winner 2017 (National Geographic) and Your Photo Winner 2017 (BBC Wildlife). Alvis’s work is published in Nat Geo, BBC Wildlife and Conde Nast Traveller Magazines. See his work here: Instagram | Facebook | Website