How to get sharp photos of birds in flight

Photo by Vic Berardi

Photo by Vic Berardi

Trying to photograph birds in flight can be frustrating. It may seem like complete randomness at first, but there are actually a few techniques that will significantly increase your chances of getting a sharp photo, some of which are presented in this article.

Although there are many lens choices for photographing birds, our discussion will focus on the medium length hand-holdable telephoto lenses.

When using the medium length telephoto lenses (e.g. Canon’s 300mm f4, Canon’s 400mm f5.6, Canon’s 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 and Nikon’s 200-400mm f4), it’s always advisable to use a tripod for the sharpest photographs possible. However, one type of photography virtually renders a tripod useless: photographing birds in flight and in particular, fast moving birds like raptors!

How to hold your camera

Photo by Ann Berardi

Photo by Ann Berardi

Photo by Ann Berardi

Photo by Ann Berardi

The two photos above show the proper way to hold your camera and lens. It’s important that your hands and entire body are in a relaxed position and that your position allows you to pivot easily. Confine your position and you’ll compromise your ability to move accurately as a bird weaves across the sky.

You will see in these photos that I have one hand firmly on the camera and the other hand relaxed at or near the end of the lens. This is the best way to have full balance and control of your movements.

In the first photo, I’m holding the camera in a somewhat level and horizontal position. Many times you’ll encounter a bird perched, and this position will allow you to not only take sharp photos of a stationary bird but also be ready if it takes flight and flies close to the ground.

In the second photo, I’m holding the camera for a bird in flight. You will notice that the position of my hands is virtually identical to the horizontal position. Again, it is important that your stance allows you to move in multiple directions, even to the point of almost turning around completely. Fast moving birds like hawks and falcons allow very little time for adjustments. So, being ready for their sudden shifts in direction is vital.

How to setup your camera

The next thing to consider is what camera settings to use. There are two mandatory requirements for shooting birds in flight:

Use a fast shutter speed, but don’t compromise good exposure or depth of field. Shutter speeds of 1/1000 or faster are recommended. Using high shutter speeds helps compensate for any minor unsteadiness and will also freeze the motion of the bird.

Maximize the burst rate on your camera. To maximize the amount of photos you can take in a burst, switch your camera to JPEG mode. Since JPEGs are significantly smaller than RAW, they won’t fill up your camera’s buffer as fast as RAW. Here’s a series of six photos that illustrate why a fast burst rate is important:

Photo by Vic Berardigos_6281pgos_6282pgos_6283pgos_6284pgos_6285p

All photos above were taken by Vic Berardi, (c) 2009

This sequence of six photos was taken with the camera set at the highest possible burst rate of 6 fps. The entire sequence of this shot lasted only 1 second total.

In general, there are three things to look for in a good bird image: sharpness, exposure and natural pose. Although all these shots were perfectly exposed, only one photo (#3) was both sharp and with the bird in a natural position. Had I not used a high burst rate, I may have missed this shot completely. And trying to get a bird in flight with a natural pose with only one shot being fired is pure luck. Take most of the luck out by using a high burst rate. This photo was shot with a Canon 300mm f/4L IS USM lens with the camera set at ISO 400 and f/4 at 1/2000 second. Oh, by the way, the bird is a juvenile Northern Goshawk.

Photo by Vic Berardi

Photo by Vic Berardi

Personally I like to set my camera in manual mode and use JPEG only.

Manual mode allows me to not worry about the camera changing settings as a bird moves past visible terrain of various shades or when the camera’s light meter misreads the scene such as when a bird moves in and out of your frame across a bright sky.

Shooting in JPEG lets me use the highest burst rate without any chance of the camera stalling as it sometimes does with RAW bursts. But keep in mind these are just my personal preferences. Plenty of bird photographers use either aperture priority or shutter priority along with RAW and achieve amazing results. Experiment and see what works best for you.

Just remember that your time of opportunity with a fast moving bird may only be a second or less!

Oh, and if you’re interested in learning more about raptors, please check out my new blog, The Raptorphile.

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vicbAbout the Author: Vic Berardi is a raptor lover that lives in the Midwest. He is the founder of the Illinois Beach State Park Hawk Watch and every weekend of the year you’ll find him searching for hawks and photographing them. Several of his photographs have been published in a leading raptor journal and in articles he has written. During the year he gives presentations teaching others about hawks and hawk migration. Vic also photographs dragonflies and wild flowers and is always respectful of nature and its creatures.

Comments

  1. Hi Vic, l can’t be more happier when l found this site. Great pictures and l’m jealous as l can’t get as clear a photo as you do. Here is what bothers me. l have a Nikon D90 with a 150-500 lens . l find it a bit hard to handle free hand and am considering one of the following and hope for your recommendation. l was going to purchase the Nikon lens VR 80-400mm F4.5-5.6 D ED AF (cost $1,630 approx.) or go all out and consider the Canon EOS 7D DLP with lens 100-400 (cost approx $3,000). l know the difference in price, but l really like shooting wild like in flight or action. This will be my final purchase for a while for sure. l am 73 now and photography is my hobby now. If you help me with this decision or have another recommendation, please let me know. Ron

  2. Hi Vic, l forgot to check the follow up email in case l miss any recommendations on my previous question. ron

  3. Pat Stoddard says:

    I am excited to find this website. I’ve been trying to photograph birds for years and am very interested in catching them in flight.

  4. John Williams says:

    Hi Vic,

    “Oh, and if you’re interested in learning more about raptors, please check out my new blog, The Raptorphile.”

    Has your blog site been highjacked . When I click your link The Raptorphile, all I get is blog on education. It makes no sense.

    Cheers,
    John

  5. My oppinion as to what lens to have.
    If you can afford a Canon -24-70 & 70-200-2.8-ii-is lens i believe you got most of the photography cover.
    Please comment.
    Have a safe1

    • I love my 70-200mm but in general I find it not long enough for ‘birds in flight’. I use a 300mm f4 that Vic has listed- and wish I had the 400mm most of the time! Vic’s tip about manual exposure has been helpful for me and may give me the confidence to move to jpg and crank the motor drive.

  6. Your website came up to me because I am going on a birding trip on Friday, hopefully no rain, on the Alafia River. I am somewhat new to the SLR but have a Canon 75-300mm that I use. I can adjust the settings with shutter speed but also wonder about the lighting at dawn. Any other helps would be helpful and appreciated!

  7. Hi Vic, :-) wish u could guide me with my gear which is a nikon D5200 +sigma 50-500mm. I mostly shoot birds on their wings and am disappointed with my blurred shots.All my shots even the big birds like eagles are not sharp! some of which are rare to get ones living in a city like singapore.My settings goes like this F8- 1/1500 ISO limited to 800 and using AF-C 9 point auto focussing.I’ve been going all out to get sharp shot of a Storkbilled king fisher diving for fish since last year when i bought my bigma lens.Down blame my lens cuz i have gotten some great sharp shots of birds perching in trees.Pls advice.Regards Shan

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