Photographing Birds in Flight

Barn Owl

Our top ten tips for photographing birds in flight.

  1. Go big – With birds, longer lenses are better, so go as long as you can.
  2. Not so wide – If you consider a common 300mm lens (e.g. Canon EF 75-300, f5.6 – £99 at today’s prices) set to f5.6, taking a picture of a subject at 10m has a depth of field of 23cm.  If you close the aperture to f8 the depth of field is 32cm.  Don’t always use the widest aperture, as you limit your chances of a sharp image.  Try a depth of field calculator for yourself –
  3. Speed is of the essence – A rough rule of thumb for sharp images of stationary subjects is 1 / focal length.  So a 200mm lens would need 1/200 second shutter to get a reasonable image.  With moving a moving subject like a bird in flight – double that – 1/400s.  If you want blurred wings back off to slower speeds but you must track the subject in the frame.
  4. Set high ISO – Don’t be afraid of higher ISO settings.  Modern cameras are often very good even at ISO 800 and above, and modern software is clever at removing the noise too.
  5. The RAW deal – You will get more chances from RAW to recover a poor image with software when the images are not well exposed.
  6. Captive audience – Birds bred in captivity are easier to find and less likely to leave the scene of the shoot when you turn up.  Not the same a wild, but we can’t all spend 3 days undercover to get one photo.
  7. Use AI servo and centre point focus – AI servo will focus continuously, giving you the best chance of an acceptable captured image.
  8. Spot meter – Images taken against the sky, which is where the bird will usually be, need to be exposed on the subject only – otherwise, you will get a silhouette.
  9. Use a monopod – A compromise, between the inflexible stability of a tripod, and the arm fatigue of hand holding.
  10. Pick your targets, learn the fieldcraft – Knowing where the subject lives, and the behaviours of the subject will help you.  Some are fast in the air, some slow.

Setting up your camera to photograph birds

Photographing wild birds

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