“How to photograph birds in flight”, sounds exciting and simple, but its challenging. The advancement in technology has made it easy for photo-enthusiasts to meet such challenges with ease provided they understand their photographic gear. To make photographs of birds in flight, we need a camera and a long lens plus the ability to acquire focus on the subject with lightening speed. But first how to hold a camera if you are not using a tripod. Learn to be steady. The built in stabilisation and vibration reduction technologies do help, but we should not depend too much on them. While handholding the camera, try to get support to be steady or lean against a wall or a tree or a nearby vehicle. To maintain balance, stretch your legs and keep your feet as wide as is the width of your shoulders, slightly bend your knees, right hand should firmly hold camera body and keep your left hand below the barrel of the lens. Both the elbows should touch the chest and keep your eye on eyecup to view through the view finder. Such habits help in critical situations not only in bird photography, but even others. I remember having photographed the magnificent Multnomah Falls in Oregon in low light using the same technique, but there I had also stopped my breath to avoid any shake. It became a life time experience of having captured 611 feet tall roaring Multnomah Falls.
One may begin with a DSLR and at least a 200 mm lens. For many its convenient to photograph flying birds with hand held camera. Therefore, their camera and lens combo is light enough to enable easy mobility to photograph birds in flight. Those who use heavy long lenses and camera bodies having considerable weight are advised to use tripod with gimbal or ball head.
Its always good to shoot flying birds preferably at your eye level with the thumb rule of keeping eye of the bird in sharp focus. This needs good tracking of the subject which can be achieved with continuous focus mode. Some cameras offer auto focus area modes. If your camera does not have continuous focus mode or 3D tracking, you may apply sports action mode, if it has. You may set centre weighted or spot metering and auto ISO.
Those who make images with high resolution cameras and longer lenses, should be careful as these may magnify simple shakes or motion blurs in your images. While focus issue will blur the subject, camera shake would blur the image in one direction. Remember the thumb rule which states that the shutter speed should not be less than the focal length of your lens. If you want to isolate your subject, keep the aperture wide open. While capturing birds in flight, the keen birders very well understand the approximate speed at which birds of different sizes fly. On an average , the shutter speed should not be less than 1/1600 sec. However, it depends on your preference to freeze the birds with shutter speed as high as 1/8000 sec or show motion of tips of wings by shooting at low shutter sped.
Its not necessary that you always need fast shutter speed to capture birds in flight. Those who have practiced panning on moving subjects, can use it while capturing birds in flight. The basic fundamentals of shooting birds in flight are tracking and panning. First focus on the subject with central focus point or a group of focus points depending on your choice, press the shutter button halfway down , continue to keep your eye on the subject through the viewfinder and track the bird’s flight path by keeping it in the centre of the viewfinder. Your lens may constantly adjust the focus. In case the bird moves out of camera frame, try to reframe it. As the bird or flock of birds fly from one side of the frame to the other, move your body and the camera in the same direction, but maintain your balance. Maintain visual contact through the viewfinder at all times. Its not necessary that everything is sharp in such images. Practice can give you better images. Therefore, practice, practice and practice. I am of the strong opinion that keen birders observe that the bird who dares to fall, is the one who learns to fly.
While shooting birds in flight, we often observe that flying birds quickly move through different light conditions. Therefore, its advisable to photograph them in RAW. Also, do not forget to check direction of the sun and that of the wind. Preferably both should be behind you, but this may not be always possible. Also, remember the golden rule of keeping the eye of the bird sharp. The whole frame may not be sharp from corner to corner, but the bird should have acceptable sharpness. We can also photograph in overcast sky and low-light by adjusting camera settings accordingly.
Take-offs and landings of birds against light , especially in water bodies make artistic images.
The flights of birds can be erratic and they can change direction any time. Therefore, we have to compose the flying birds with a lightening speed while anticipating their movement. Prefer to track your subject through the viewfinder and not the Live View. View Finder makes it easy to move or control the camera. While composing ,try to keep negative space towards the direction the birds are flying.
Hon.E USPA, APSA, PPSA, AIIPC