Thursday, January 5, 2012

Photographing Birds in Flight, Lillian's Tips

Posted by Lillian Stokes
Pileated Woodpecker. This bird was not leaving a nest hole, I saw it leave a tree and got on it.  
Roseate Spoonbill, photographed at Ding Darling NWR, FL.

Groups of birds, such as these Black Skimmers, are fun to photograph in flight.
When photographing groups of birds, increase your depth of field.
American Robin. Zero in on one bird in a flock.
Snow Bunting
Upland Sandpiper flying over Kennebunk Plains WMA, Maine
Tree Sparrow. Focus on your bird feeder and anticipate when a bird will leave.
Red-shouldered Hawk, juv. Hawk watching sites can present photo ops.
Great Shearwater, a pelagic species you need to go out on a boat to see. 
It's challenging taking flight photos from a moving, rocking boat, so it helps to brace yourself against the boat.
Tree Swallow in flight over our fields. Swallows, with their erratic flight, are a challenge to photograph
Cedar Waxwing. Pick up a bird when it is quite distant and track it with your camera's auto focus and start shooting as it gets a little closer. If you wait until it's upon you, you will never get the photo.
Roseate Spoonbill, coming in for a landing.
My favorite type of bird photography, by far, is photographing birds in flight. I love, love, love, to anticipate and capture the exciting action of birds in the air. Above are a few of my photos and here are some tips.

How do photographers get such photos?

Here's what you need:

High speed digital SLR cameras like the Canon 7D, or Canon 1D Mark IV (which I have) or other such cameras. The faster, and the more continuous frames per second your camera will shoot, the better. Get a camera that shoots at least 5 frames per second, preferably more. Know your camera dials and settings very well and be able to change them in an instant. For most flight photos you need to have at least 1/500th of a second shutter speed, preferably 1/1000th or more. Set the ISO high enough to attain this shutter speed. Set the camera on continuous shooting mode. Most people use autofocus for birds in flight. Set the camera focus mode to AI Servo AF. This allows you to focus and lock on the bird as it moves, by depressing the shutter half-way. Put the camera dial on AV (aperture priority) to give enough depth of field to have the whole bird in focus. Most people use an aperture of f/8 in good light, but may go to an aperature of f/5.6 in duller light. To take the photo, depress the shutter all the way.

Good telephoto lens that is at least 300mm long, or preferably 400mm or more (some add a 1.4 teleconverter to a 300mm lens as I do.) Some photographers use longer lenses, such as the Canon 500mm or 600mm IS lenses for flight photos. If you have those, you need a good tripod with a smooth moving head, such as those made by Whimberly, Bogen or Kirk Enterprises. A few strong photographers can actually hand hold the heavier lenses like the 500mm lens. If you are using a tripod you lack some mobility, so it helps to shoot at a good location, such as that at Ding Darling NWR or other national wildlife refuges, where a lot of birds fly in, in a predictible flight route. Set the lens AF/MF switch to AF (auto focus.) Some recommend setting the minimum focusing distance of the lens to its furthest setting.

(By the way, Don and I are now blogging, for the winter, from Sanibel Island, FL, home of the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. On Feb. 24th, Friday, Don and I will be leading a special, private, half-day tour through Ding Darling, as a fundraiser for the refuge. We will have the refuge to ourselves, as it it closed on Fridays. Don will be on one tram, focusing on bird identification, and I will be on a second tram, giving you bird photography tips and maybe helping you get some outstanding photos of birds in flight, like the ones above! For more information and to sign up for the tour, contact or Versatch at 239-292-0566. 100 percent of the proceeds from this fundraiser will benefit wildlife and education programs at the refuge.)

- Good situations for photographing birds in flight, such as open areas of water or open sky where you see birds coming from a distance and can get on them early with your autofocus, plus you will have a clear blue background. Keep the sun at your back. Try to shoot with the birds moving along a predictable flight path that is perpendicular to the front of your lens.

- Good eye-hand coordination and fast reflexes. Find the bird by spotting the bird when it is at a distance, and I mean very distant. Do not wait until the bird is close, because by then it will be moving too fast for your to get on it. After you spot it, raise your camera to your eye and lock the autofocus on the bird. Most photographers set the camera's autofocus selection point (AF point) on the center point because it is the most sensitive of the points and allows you to keep focused on the bird. Also your camera will be less likely to lock onto the background as you try and stay on the moving bird.

- A willingness to practice lots and take lots and lots of photos, only some of which will turn out. (At least with digital you are not paying for film.)

- A strong motivation and desire to take flight photos.

- The expertise and programs to process your digital photo to make it look its best. Most photographers use programs like Adobe Photoshop. Here is the camera equipment that I use.

My advice is even if you don't have all or some of the above, try anyway. You might find it addictive like I do.

Most importantly, have fun!!!


  1. Nice tips. I will take those suggestions on camera settings and do some experimentation.

  2. Great post, Lillian, and many wonderful photography tips!

  3. This is one of my favorite posts on any bird blog. Now if I can just get a few shots like those...

  4. I have an earlier Canon XTi with Canon 100-400mm image stabilized lens--a common camera/lens combo for birders.

    That camera has some trouble focusing on busy backgrounds, or if there is too much movement. Imagine my problem on pelagic trips! I take many photos of seabirds in flight. However, I have many photos of beautiful waves with an out-of-focus bird flying in front!

    But the autofocus does grab if the bird flies above the horizon or is close.

    Settings that work best for my camera/lens combo are ISO 400 and f7. For flight photos, it does seem best to select the more distant focus range. That way, if I "fall off" the bird as it flies, the camera spends less time seeking--focusing in and out to find it again.


  5. I loved this post! So much info....and gorgeous photos of course! :-)

  6. Julie, Oh my gosh--these are incredible!! A challenge to get a good photograph of a bird in flight--closer to an impossibility, but you have mastered the technique perfectly. Thanks for sharing all the info--It may be a long while before I (even by accident) take anything close to your perfect pictures. Hope your New Year is off to a great start--your blog certainly is! Hugs, Mickie :)

  7. You're killing me, Lillian!

    I think it's worth mentioning that, even when a person has the finest equipment and all the best tips on how to use it, it still takes an intense understanding of bird behavior to anticipate the right moment to take the shot, as well as a keen eye for composition. Something you obviously have in spades.

    Thanks for sharing your beautiful work and the helpful tips, too!

  8. Informative post filled with outstanding images! Terrific tips on photographing birds in flight.

  9. Just found your blog and I really love the tips. I started birding this year and have an awesome camera, but your birds in flight shots are truly outstanding. Tomorrow is my REAL first attemp with my new toy at hawks in flight and I think I succeeded, but like you mention in this post....some birds are tricky. I was trying to film a chickadee in Wisconsin and those little critters are erratic....and my camera got one okay shot out of several. I look forward to following your blog...have a good weekend. Chris