Mike Atkinson Bird Photography

Bird Photography Tutorial 9: Photographing Birds in Flight (BIF)

Bird photography is regarded by many as the most challenging branch of wildlife photography and taking pictures of birds in flight is certainly the most difficult type of bird photography. With the right techniques, though, your hit rate for flight shots can be dramatically improved, making it possible to capture birds at their most spectacular.

In this tutorial, Iíll revisit some of the topics covered in my earlier tutorials, but with advice related specifically to flight shooting. If you intend to do a lot of flight photography, this fact will influence your choice of equipment and how you set it up, as well as the techniques you use in the field.

Flight shots A combination of good technique and good equipment can enable you to capture even the fastest flight action (Sand Martin emerging from nest hole).

Basic equipment requirements for flight shots

Photographing birds in flight poses a real challenge for cameras and lenses. They have to be able to focus on rapidly-moving targets and stay locked on to them long enough to enable images to be captured, even if the bird flies in front of Ďdistractingí backgrounds. They have to be able to automatically set a correct exposure in fast-changing scenes and operate with shutter speeds fast enough to freeze the action. Finally, to give you a reasonable chance of getting a shot with the birdís wings in a decent position, they need to be able to capture a burst of images in rapid succession.

Realistically, apart from the occasional shot of a large, slow-moving bird, this rules out compact cameras and digiscoping; it is definitely an area where Digital SLR cameras come into their own.

Flight shots are possible with most DSLR/lens combinations but, again, there are restrictions on the types of flight shots that can be handled by budget to mid-range gear. Almost all DSLRs can use shutter speeds of 1/4000th second or faster, which is fast enough to freeze virtually any flight action. They can also rattle off three or more frames per second, which will give you a reasonable burst of well-timed shots. Where budget models struggle, though, is with autofocus ability, making it very difficult to lock on to and track your subject. This doesnít mean you canít get decent flight shots with this gear, but does mean that you will need to work hard on your technique and your hit rate may still be low. On the plus side, if youíre happy to practice flight shooting and patient enough to fill up your memory cards, you will get some shots that are every bit as good as those taken on top-end gear.

Basic flight shots Even with the most basic camera equipment, itís possible to get pleasing images of larger, slower birds such as this Whooper Swan.

If you can afford to buy professional equipment, you will find it much easier to acquire and track flying birds, and will be able to take extended bursts at up to ten or more frames per second, making the chances of success very much greater. You should be aware, though, that technology still canít replace good technique. If you want to be sure youíll be able to make the most of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, you need to develop your skills beforehand.

Even if you canít afford the latest pro gear, buying wisely within a given budget can make flight shooting much more successful.

If youíre working to a tight budget, itís even possible to get flight shots with non-autofocus lenses, enabling you to take advantage of the used market for older, but still high quality lenses. Iíll cover techniques for manual focus flight shooting below but, if possible, itís better to go for a capable autofocus (AF) setup.

Key equipment capabilities for flight shooting

The main factors to consider are lens AF speed and camera body AF ability.

With some AF equipment, the focus can move from the closest to the furthest distance in a fraction of a second, but other gear can take several seconds to achieve this. In general, as youíd expect, the more expensive lenses tend to focus more quickly, but lens AF speed isnít just down to price, so you need to check carefully before making a purchase. In particular, zoom lenses tend to focus more slowly than fixed focal length (Ďprimeí) lenses.

At one stage, I spent over £1000 on an 80-400mm zoom lens that focused so slowly that I got virtually no decent flight shots from thousands of images. There are cheaper 300mm and 400mm prime lenses that would have been much faster.

Irrespective of the lens AF speed, the camera body still needs to be able to detect your intended subject so that it can tell the lens what distance to focus at and also to keep track of your subject as it moves. This is certainly an area where the Ďproí bodies leave the budget models standing.

With a slow-focusing lens on a budget body, a typical scenario is that you will see a flying bird and line your camera up on it, half-pressing the shutter button to start the AF, but the lens will fail to detect the bird and so you will watch in frustration through the viewfinder as the bird comes into focus and then out again. The lens will then hunt backwards and forwards trying to find something to focus on, or will lock on to background features behind the bird. You then have to take your finger off the shutter and start again, by which time all but the slowest-moving birds will be out of range or out of view. Once youíve experienced this many times and missed numerous one-off opportunities, youíll appreciate why people reach the stage where theyíll spend ludicrous amounts of money on pro gear.

Another factor to be aware of is that focus speeds tend to be slower when teleconverters are used. You should take this into account if, for example, youíre considering a 300mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter as an alternative to a 400mm lens.

Also, AF doesnít normally work with lenses that have maximum apertures smaller than f/5.6. For example, if you had a 300mm f/4 lens, then a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter would make the effective maximum aperture f/5.6 or f/8, respectively. You would therefore get AF (albeit slower) with the 1.4x, but no AF with the 2x. (The exception to this is that some higher-end bodies are capable of limited AF at f/8.)

A final set of related considerations are the size, weight and focal length of the lens. Obviously, longer focal length lenses tend to be bigger and heavier. Big lenses such as the 500mm and 600mm supertelephotos can be very unwieldy and tiring when used for flight photography. To some extent, this can be addressed by using a tripod with a gimbal head (see below), but this doesnít help the fact that these lenses also have a very narrow field of view, and so trying to point one at a flying bird such that it appears in Ė and stays in Ė the viewfinder is not easy. Trying to keep an AF point on the bird is even harder.

Equipment recommendations for flight shots Ė December 2014

Ok, Iíll give some specific equipment recommendations, but bear in mind that products and prices change all the time, especially with camera bodies.

For the reasons stated in my general equipment tutorial (Tutorial 3: Equipment), my recommendations will be from the Canon range, but alternatives are available from other manufacturers (although I would strongly suggest you stick to either Canon or Nikon gear).

An ideal starter kit for photographing birds in flight would be a Canon mid-range body and 400mm f/5.6 lens. As a rule, the ĎxxDí Canon bodies (e.g. 50D, 60D, and 70D) have much better AF performance than the ĎxxxDí or ĎxxxxDí models (e.g. 700D or 1200D). You would therefore be better buying a used 60D than a new 700D for flight shooting. An ĎxDí or Ď1Dí model would be even better. The 7D, 1D MkIIN or 1D MkIII are all capable of good AF performance and these can be found second hand at very good prices. In fact, itís difficult to choose between these three bodies for flight shooting, because they all have their pros and cons. If pushed, I would tend to favour the 7D for reach, the 1D MkIIN for AF ability and the 1D MkIII for image quality.  The 5D MkII has even better image quality, but loses out on both reach and AF ability.

These bodies have been mentioned because they can all be picked up for under £500 second hand, and all can give good results for flight shooting when coupled with the Canon 400mm f/5.6, which can also be bought for around £1000 new or £700 used.  If your budget wonít run to this gear, then go with the recommendations in my general Equipment tutorial and practice with whatever gear you can. If you get the chance to test equipment before you buy, try to check AF speed and capability as far as possible.

If you can afford more than this, then your next worthwhile upgrades are the Canon 1D MkIV body and/or a professional prime telephoto lens.

On the body front, there are three excellent options around the £1500 mark: the 1D Mk IV (used), 5D Mk III (used) and 7D Mk II.  These bodies all have more sophisticated AF than those mentioned above and all can be configured to accurately locate and track flying birds.  The 1D Mk IV has the oldest AF system of the three but, like all 1D series pro bodies, has the benefit of a higher-powered battery that drives lens AF motors more quickly.  The 5D Mk III has a newer AF system with more AF points and the 7D Mk II has further improvements.  These three bodies also have different sensor sizes and megapixel counts, which combine to give different 'reach' values: for every 1000 pixels in a 5D Mk III image of a bird taken with a given lens from a given distance, the 1D Mk IV would have around 1200 pixels and the 7D Mk II would have around 2300 pixels.  On the flip side, it would be very much easier to locate a flying bird in the viewfinder of the full-frame 5D Mk III than it would with the 1.3x cropped view of the 1D Mk IV or the 1.6x cropped view of the 7D Mk II.  This would make it possible to use the 7D Mk II at a greater distance from the birds or to use a shorter focal length lens or to avoid use of a teleconverter, all of which are significant advantages to bird photographers.  The 5D Mk III and 7D Mk II are both relatively small and light compared with the 1D Mk IV, whose 30% weight increase is not insignificant for flight shooting.  Finally, the 10 frames per second shooting rate shared by the 1D Mk IV and 7D Mk II leave the 6 fps 5D Mk III standing when it comes to, for example, having a range of wing positions to choose from.  In summary, I would tend to favour the 7D Mk II for reach, 1D Mk IV for AF speed and the 5D Mk III for image quality.

Going up in price, the only other option in the Canon system is the 1D X body which, at the time of writing, costs around £4800 new or £3500 used.  As well as costing more than twice as much as the above batch, it is even heavier (almost 70% heavier than a 7D Mk II) and has even less reach (having only around 800 pixels on the bird in the above example).  What it does have, however, is an excellent AF system, powerful AF battery drive, full-frame ease of subject acquisition, up to 14 fps shooting, pro build quality and weather sealing and, last but by no means least, excellent image quality from the widely-spaced pixels, especially at high ISO settings.  Despite its reduced reach, its combination of speed and quality does give it an edge over the other bodies mentioned in extreme shooting situations such as those often encountered by BIF photographers.

On the lens front, the aforementioned Canon 400mm f/5.6 prime has been favoured by BIF photographers for many years due to its low cost (less than £1000 new), excellent sharpness, compact size and its fast AF (especially compared to almost all zoom lenses).  For flight shooting, its lack of image stabilisation is not a major issue.

Going up in price, the next major contender is the Canon 300mm f/2.8 which, although bigger and heavier (and several times more expensive), has superb image quality and fast AF, even with a 1.4x extender fitted.  Without the extender, its possible to get the improved AF capability provided by special AF sensors in some camera bodies when used with a lens at f/2.8 or wider.  When coupled with a high-reach body such as the 7D Mk II, this lens is a powerful BIF tool.  New prices for the Series II version are around the £5000 mark, but used Series I versions can be picked up for half that amount.

Next up would be a Canon 500mm f/4 which, although bigger and heavier than the 300mm f/2.8, is still hand-holdable by most bird photographers.  That said, its size and weight make it hard work for BIF shooting, not least due to the difficulty of getting it to change direction to track an erratically flying bird.  An alternative would be to use a tripod and many bird photographers use this technique.  For BIF shooting with even bigger lenses, such as 600mm and 800mm superteles, a sturdy tripod with a gimbal-type head becomes even more necessary.  Most of my flight shots have been taken with my 500mm f/4 Series I lens and almost none of them have been taken using a tripod because I much prefer the 'action' of handheld shooting: when panning using a tripod the point of rotation is such that you have to 'walk' round the tripod to follow the bird, rather than just rotate about your body axis.  The price of the Series II 500mm f/4 lens is around £7000, but used Series I versions can be picked up for £4500 or less.

Lenses longer than 500mm are useful for only certain types of BIF photography, so I wouldn't recommend them as general BIF lenses.  They can, however, be advantageous in situations where the angular rotation of the lens is small and the path predictable.

There are therefore several good choices available depending on the type of flight shooting you want to do.  I've settled on a combination of the 500mm f/4 and 300mm f/2.8 and find these cater for almost all BIF situations.  I never use a teleconverter with my 500mm lens, but sometimes use a Canon 1.4x converter with my 300mm lens, because it has enough sharpness and AF speed to handle it.

Finally, to avoid compromising on shooting speed, make sure you buy high-speed memory cards, such as the latest range from Sandisk.

Camera settings for flight photography

For flight shooting, most camera settings should be the same as those used for general bird photography (see Tutorial 4: Camera Settings for recommendations).

The main exceptions are in the exposure mode, ISO sensitivity, AF point selection and lens stabiliser mode settings.

In my earlier tutorials, I recommended setting your exposure mode to Aperture Priority, with a wide aperture to ensure the fastest possible shutter speed is used for a given light level. For flight shooting, itís obviously even more important that a fast shutter speed is used, and so Aperture Priority is still a good option. However, with flight shots, itís more likely that your subject will have a rapidly-changing background and so, if this is the case, using the Manual exposure mode can be a better option. This is especially true if the background is constantly changing from sky to trees or other dark areas as you track the birds.

Whether you choose Aperture Priority or Manual, you will need to do a check of what shutter speeds the light level allows and, if these arenít fast enough, consider raising the ISO sensitivity.  Some DSLRs have 'Auto ISO' features that raise the ISO setting automatically if the shutter speed would drop below a defined setting.

Forcing high shutter speeds obviously doesnít apply if youíre deliberately trying for more artistic, blurred flight shots but, in most cases, your intention will be to freeze the bird with no blur from either subject movement or equipment movement. In fact, some blurring of the birdís wings can be acceptable or even desirable, but the rest of the bird should normally be pin sharp.

Exactly what shutter speed is needed to achieve this depends on several factors, such as the birdís speed, distance and angle of travel relative to the camera. These, together with the effectiveness of your Ďfollowingí technique and the amount of Ďcamera shakeí, combine to give a speed of movement of the bird within the frame (i.e. how fast itís moving across or around your viewfinder). This is the main movement youíre trying to freeze.

Letís take an example. If you have your camera on a sturdy tripod locked on to a hovering Kestrel, you could freeze the birdís body Ė ignore the wings for now - with a very slow shutter speed (even 1/30th second). If the Kestrel was flying across the frame, youíd need to use a much faster shutter speed, especially if it was relatively close to you (at least 1/1000th second). However, if you were able to pan precisely with the bird (e.g. keeping the centre AF point precisely on its head on a smooth-panning tripod), you could still use a slow shutter speed (say 1/250th second), because the bird would be almost stationary within the frame. On the other hand, if your panning was inaccurate or jerky, the bird would be moving left and right, and possibly up and down, within the frame and so, again, a faster shutter speed would be needed.

Shutter speed for flight shots To freeze this Kestrelís head, the important factor is how quickly the bird is moving across or around your viewfinder. This is determined by subject movement, panning/following accuracy and camera shake. In this case, the bird was hovering, so camera shake was the dominant factor. The camera was hand-held with the image stabilisation on my 500mm lens switched on, so I could have frozen the head with as little as 1/125th second. However, the wings would have been very motion-blurred at that shutter speed, so I took advantage of the bright conditions to use a faster shutter speed of 1/1000th second.

Slower shutter speeds In a similar situation with the same equipment, lower light levels meant I couldnít use a fast shutter speed: I was limited to 1/125th second. Even at this slow shutter speed, though, the birdís head was frozen, but the rest of the bird is heavily motion-blurred, especially the wings.

Now add to this the effect of camera shake on a flimsy tripod or in hand-held shooting. This causes the bird to randomly Ďdance aroundí in your viewfinder. For a 500mm lens, youíd then need to use 1/500th second even for the original scenario of the hovering Kestrel, although this could be reduced by good technique or lens image stabilisation. Add this movement to your attempts to pan with a moving bird and you can imagine that youíd need a pretty fast shutter speed to overcome the combined movement (again, at least 1/1000th second).

Bear in mind that, if you are trying to photograph a large bird flying across your view at 30mph, you will be able to do so from much further away than you could for a smaller bird whilst getting the bird to occupy a reasonable proportion of the frame. This will mean that you can pan much more slowly and so are more likely to get away with a slower shutter speed.

You will also get away with slower shutter speeds with birds that fly in a straight line, rather than those with undulating or unpredictable flight paths. This is not about how fast the bird is moving, so much as how erratically you are moving your camera in an attempt to track the bird.

As a rule of thumb, I suggest you aim for 1/1000th second for birds that move slowly through your viewfinder and 1/4000th second for birds that move more quickly.

To achieve these speeds, other than on the brightest of days, you will need to set a wide aperture and a high ISO sensitivity, both of which have their downsides. Wide apertures always reduce depth-of-field, making focusing more critical and, in some cases, preventing the whole bird being in focus. With cheaper lenses, they also result in a significant loss of image quality. High ISO sensitivities cause increased digital noise, but this is almost always preferable to motion-blurred images. With more expensive gear, full aperture image quality and high ISO noise performance are greatly improved, enabling you to shoot perfectly well at f/4 and ISO 1600 or higher; this lets you use shutter speeds easily eight times faster than with cheaper gear for a given light level.

Faster shutter speeds For extremely fast subject movement, even a high shutter speed wonít fully freeze the movement, especially for birdsí wing-tips in mid-stroke. I used 1/2000th second for this captive falcon, but the wing-tips were still motion-blurred. By using the maximum available shutter speed Ė 1/8000th second Ė I could just about have frozen this movement, but (a) Iíd have needed to use a high ISO setting, which would have increased digital noise, and (b) I quite like the suggestion of speed caused by this motion blur.

The next key setting is AF point selection. In most DSLRs, you will see a pattern of AF points in the viewfinder and will have the ability to focus using a single AF point or with all AF points active. In theory, the latter is ideal for flight shooting, because it allows you to acquire and track the bird without having to keep a single AF point on the bird. In practice, the effectiveness of this feature depends on the AF capability of your camera. With all but the professional camera bodies, the best setting is normally to have just the centre AF point active, otherwise focus will tend to be inaccurate and often distracted by background or foreground features. With high-end bodies (e.g. the 1D, 5D and 7D series Canon models), best results are normally obtained by setting multiple AF points active.

The last of the key settings is the lens IS mode. Image stabilised lenses normally have Mode I and Mode II settings, the first of which performs stabilisation in two directions, whilst the second works in only one direction.

To illustrate, if youíre panning to track a bird flying horizontally in front of you, Mode II would stabilise any vertical shake whilst ignoring any movement along the line of flight. Mode I, however, would also attempt to stabilise the horizontal movement, which can result in a jerky movement of the bird within the frame. With Mode I, it is therefore unpredictable as to whether the stabilisation will be jumping forward at the instant of exposure.

Stabilisation Mode II is therefore a better option than Mode I for flight shooting. This is especially true for the artistic, blurred flight shots mentioned above. However, if you are shooting in bright enough conditions to allow the use of high shutter speeds (e.g. 1/4000th second), it may even be better to switch off image stabilisation altogether.

Many lenses also have a distance limiter switch, enabling the AF range to be limited to just a portion of the full focal range of the lens. For example, if youíre photographing birds flying at some distance, setting the lens to the furthest focus range (e.g. 10m to infinity) will reduce the time the AF spends Ďhuntingí to reacquire focus. This can give a big improvement in your hit rate.

As a final note on settings, some of the more advanced cameras have Custom Functions that allow AF behaviour to be tuned. The main option is the setting that determines how quickly an AF point will change focus. Intuitively, you may think this would be better set to be as quick as possible. In practice, though, that causes loss of tracking as soon as an AF point moves off your subject, or as soon as the bird flies behind a foreground object such as a tree trunk. Itís therefore best to set this setting to be relatively slow.

Basic techniques for flight photography

Ok, letís assume for now that youíve got a Digital SLR with an autofocus lens, all set up as described in the previous section, and look at a basic BIF scenario.

A good starting point for practicing BIF skills would be a situation in which you have a steady stream of large birds flying towards you, such as wildfowl coming in to land on a lake in front of you. This is ideal because, since the birds are flying towards you rather than across in front of you, you should be able to follow the approaching bird with a minimum of camera movement (panning).

To start with, pick a bird whilst itís still distant (it can take a while to get used to the action needed to point your camera in the right direction, especially if you have a long focal length lens attached). If youíre acquiring distant birds in this way, it helps to have your lens pre-focused at long distance (either by setting it close to infinity manually or autofocusing on something distant). Once you can see the bird in your viewfinder, try to place your central autofocus point (AF) on the bird and then activate the AF by half-pressing the shutter release button. Watch what happens as the bird gets closer. You will probably find that, unless you are able to keep the AF point precisely on the bird, the AF loses its target and starts to hunt. At this point, with most cameras, itís better to take your finger off the shutter and then half-press it again.

After a while, youíll realize that itís better not to start tracking birds at too great a distance because, by the time theyíre close enough to photograph, you will have lost focus again, especially as your arm gets tired holding up the lens. Just watch the bird until youíre a few seconds away from wanting to take the shot, then lift, aim, lock on and gently press the shutter to take a burst of shots.

I recommend that you take relatively short bursts of shots, commencing at the point when everything Ďlooks rightí, rather than blasting away throughout the whole time the bird is visible in your viewfinder.

Practice on Ďsoft targetsí Big birds coming straight towards you against a clear sky are a great starting point for developing your skills.

Use the highest shooting rate available on your camera to maximize the chances of getting at least one shot that is not just perfectly focused but also perfectly posed: in any one sequence, some wing positions will be more aesthetically pleasing than others. You may also find that some frames have a wing obscuring or casting a shadow on the birdís head, or a distracting item in the background, so donít hold back too much!

Itís important to always ensure the birdís head is in focus. This can be tricky in some situations, e.g. for birds with long necks that are flying towards you, because the AF will often lock on to the bigger body, rather than the smaller head. Another common situation is where the AF locks on to the near wing of a bird flying across the frame. If you have enough light, it can be helpful to use a smaller aperture, especially with bigger birds, to ensure there is sufficient depth of field to make sure as much of the bird as possible is in focus.

A smaller aperture will also be important if youíre trying to photograph more than one flying bird at once, such as a pair of ducks or a flock of waders. Iíve taken photos of a flock of birds flying in close formation only to be amazed that just a single bird is in focus, because too wide an aperture was used.

Once youíve mastered this technique, try following birds that are flying at more of an angle across your field of view, then progress to birds that are smaller, faster and that donít just fly in straight lines.

Donít worry if you canít find the ideal starting situation described above: just practice on any opportunities you can find, e.g. gulls circling whilst someone throws bread to them. Just be aware that if you go straight for tricky subjects like Swallows or Blue Tits, your low hit rate is likely to be disheartening.

In all cases, itís important to limit your shooting to situations in which the birds are flying either perpendicularly across you or, to some extent, towards you. Stop shooting as soon as the bird has passed its nearest point to you or is flying even slightly away from you. Images of receding birds are just not worth processing.

Incidentally, if youíre following a bird thatís heading directly towards you, stop following the bird before it passes overhead, especially if you have a heavy lens. The first time I did this, I nearly dropped my gear because, once it passed the vertical, it suddenly started falling backwards. Only then did I realize that I just use my left hand to cup the lens for support, and so have no grip to pull it forwards once gravity starts working the other way. A heart-stopping moment that I hope you never experience!

Panning technique

On the subject of panning, itís important that you try to anticipate which direction the bird will be in at the point when you want to take the shot, and then angle your body so that it is most comfortable in that direction. This will mean that you may be more twisted and uncomfortable at the point where youíre trying to acquire the bird in the first place, but your posture will be optimized for the shot itself. With practice, you should be able to achieve a smooth, pivoting action thatís both stable and strain-free. You will almost certainly find itís best to bend at the knee and keep your whole upper body, arms and head fixed as you rotate. At the point of shooting, your left foot should be in front, pointing forward, whilst your right foot is pointed to the side behind you. Your knees should both be bent and your upper body should be leaning forward slightly, not upright.

Smooth, accurate panning is essential if you want to try for the artistic, blurry flight shots mentioned above. For these shots to work, the birdís head needs to be as sharp as possible, even if everything else in the frame is motion-blurred. Use Stabiliser Mode II if available and aim for a shutter speed of around 1/30th second. After every few shots, review the frames to see if youíve managed to keep the AF point on the birdís head. If not, look at the direction of the blur on the head to see if you can tell where youíre going wrong, e.g. horizontal blur means youíre panning too fast or too slow, whereas vertical blur means youíre probably struggling with the weight of the lens. In the latter case, you may need to resort to a tripod (with a smooth-action head) if you canít find a more stable panning action.

If you canít get any decent results at 1/30th second, try a faster shutter speed first, such as 1/125th second, then gradually reduce your shutter speed as your technique improves. This is the only situation in bird photography where I would recommend using Shutter Speed (Tv) priority.

When trying for blur shots, make sure you avoid images that are a Ďhalfway houseí between blurred and frozen as these just look unintentional and amateurish.

Blur shots Using a slow shutter speed of 1/60th second with this Red-breasted Merganser as it took to the air resulted in plenty of motion blur, but accurate panning ensured the eye and head stayed sharp.

Use of tripods and other types of support

Let me first of all reiterate that I much prefer hand-held shooting to using a tripod. In fact, I only use a tripod for around 2% of my shots. I use a beanbag for around a third of my shots, but this is normally for non-flying birds: beanbags arenít great for flight shots. Two-thirds of my shots are taken hand-held.

Despite this, I bought an excellent Gitzo tripod and full Wimberley head so that I would be well equipped to deal with any circumstances for which tripod shooting would be an advantage.  So far, I havenít really come across many such situations, and so my tripod is normally left at home. However, I can still see the potential for exploiting this type of shooting in the future.  For example, I sometimes find myself pointing my camera at a bird that Iím convinced is about to take flight, hoping to catch the moment of take-off. Invariably, however, my arm gets tired and I end up lowering my camera just at the instant when the bird takes off. If I ever decide to capture take-off shots as a mini-project, Iím confident that my tripod will prove invaluable.

Using tripods for take-off shots Having taken some standard portrait shots of Sand Martins at a breeding colony, I set myself the challenge of catching them as they flew out of their nest holes. Pre-focusing the camera on a tripod was the only way I could keep the camera in position for the many hours and thousands of shots required (see also opening image above). A shutter speed of 1/3000th second was used to freeze the action.

Similarly, tripods can be beneficial if youíre trying to capture birds as they land. For these situations, I normally prefer to track the bird as it flies in. Once or twice, though, Iíve pre-focused my camera, mounted on a tripod, and used a burst of shots to capture a bird as it flies in to a perch.

Using tripods for landing shots Having watched this Jay repeatedly visit the same tree stump, I decided to try to capture it as it landed. I put the camera on my tripod and pre-focused slightly behind the stump, then took bursts of shots as the bird came in to land.

Some photographers are prepared to go to great lengths to set up remote cameras, triggers, flash units and a whole range of other contraptions to get flight shots where everything is controlled. Obviously, tripod shooting is essential for this type of photography. I have to say, though, that I have no interest in such contrived, artificial shooting, even though it can generate truly stunning images.

As mentioned above, although my personal preference is for hand-held shooting, many people would not be physically able to wield the high-quality, long focal length lenses needed to capture great flight images. If thatís the case for you, an excellent option is to choose a strategic viewpoint from which flying birds can be photographed using a tripod from a relatively static position.

Obviously, there is a full spectrum of physical abilities, but you should be able to find a style that suits you. I once saw an elderly lady park up by a lake, get into her wheelchair, then set up her camera on a tripod, from which she was able to photograph the comings and goings of the wildfowl with ease.  It gave me hope that I will be able to continue to enjoy my bird photography into old age.

Like all physical activity, the more you work at building the specific muscles used, the easier it becomes. The first time I spent a day out with my 500mm lens, I could barely get out of bed the following day. After a while, though, it becomes much easier.

On the subject of using a car to get you to a suitable location for bird photography, it would be possible in theory to take flight shots without even getting out of your vehicle. However, although cars make excellent hides for static birds, the limited mobility makes them very difficult to use for flight shooting. Iíve tried this many times, but normally with a very low hit rate.

A technique I did use successfully on one occasion was to photograph circling Swifts whilst lying in the back of my estate car (station wagon) with the tailgate open. Every time I got out of the car, the Swifts would move away, but I couldnít follow their erratic movement through the small side windows. Getting in the back of the car caused some bewildered or disparaging looks from the occasional passers-by, but the birds were less threatened and so came closer. Sometimes, you have to be prepared to make an idiot of yourself to get the best shots!

Challenging subjects Swifts have a very rapid, erratic flight, so should only be tackled once youíve mastered the basics. Hand-held shooting whilst lying inside the back of my car was one of my more unorthodox techniques.

As a final note on camera support, I wouldnít bother with monopods for flight shooting. Monopods force your camera to move in arcs that donít match either the birdsí flight paths or your bodyís natural movements. Go with either a tripod or hand-held technique instead.

Final thoughts on automatic and manual focus

Initially, itís much easier to shoot birds against a plain sky or other featureless background to help your camera to focus more accurately. Once your skills improve, you will find youíre able to keep your cameraís AF point on the bird for longer and longer periods, allowing you to maintain focus even when the bird is flying across busy backgrounds.

Plain vs. Ďbusyí backgrounds Swallows are even harder to keep in focus than Swifts, especially against mixed-tone backgrounds. On the other hand, flight shots can get monotonous if theyíre always against blue skies or other plain backgrounds. In this case, even with a motion-blurred background, you can still tell that this Swallow was flying across a sandy beach, which provides a Ďsense of placeí.

Plain vs. Ďbusyí backgrounds Similarly, the rough grassland behind this hunting Short-eared Owl placed the bird in its natural habitat. It may play havoc with your autofocus, but the results are worth working at.

At this point, itís worth mentioning a couple of techniques for flight shooting that have been used for decades, even before AF lenses existed. These can be an option if youíre working to a tight budget. The techniques can be used with manual-focus lenses or with AF lenses set to their manual focus mode. The first technique involves simply using the lens focus ring to manually focus on the bird as it flies. This is virtually impossible for some flight shots, but perfectly usable for others, especially with large, slow-flying birds. Examples would be a heron flying past, a buzzard soaring overhead or a kestrel hovering. The second technique involves setting the focus to a distance through which you expect a bird to fly and then pressing the shutter release as the bird passes that distance. This can be used even with fast-moving birds, especially if a burst of shots is taken as the bird flies through the point of focus, and if a relatively small aperture is set to increase depth-of-field. Examples would be swallows feeding over a field or a progression of seabirds flying past a headland. These techniques overcome one of the biggest problems of flight photography: the camera locking on to the background rather than the bird.

Lighting and exposure considerations for flight shots

All of the guidelines in my general exposure tutorial (Tutorial 5: Exposure) also apply to flight shooting.

The main challenge with flight shots is the speed at which lighting changes as you follow a flying bird. This means that you may need to anticipate the exposure setting that will be needed at the point of taking the shot.

For example, if youíre using Aperture Priority mode, youíll need to set an exposure compensation value that will be right for the instant of exposure.

On the subject of exposure compensation, remember that if a bird is flying against a bright sky that occupies the majority of the frame, you may need to set a positive compensation of 1 to 2 stops to avoid the bird being underexposed.

A good tip is to avoid overcast days for BIF shooting, because these generally lead to dull, unappealing shots. Some of the most appealing flight shots feature birds against blue skies, especially with front-lit subjects (i.e. with the sun behind you) to avoid shadows. Be aware, however, that the blue sky in this situation effectively constitutes a mid-tone, so using a positive exposure compensation could cause light plumage to burn out. For sunlit white birds against a blue sky, you may even need to use a small negative composition to avoid blown highlights.

BIF shots often suffer from a lack of lighting on the underside of the bird, especially when the bird is flying overhead. Itís normally better to shoot when the sun is low in the sky, allowing the bird to be side-lit or (ideally) front-lit, rather than top-lit. This works particularly well if you can catch the bird with its wings up, allowing the sun to illuminate the underside.

Exposure for flight shots With the sun high in the sky, thereís very little chance of getting light on the underside of the birdís wings. This detracts from this shot of a House Martin doing a bit of mid-air preening.

Exposure for flight shots In comparison to the House Martin image, this shot of a Common Buzzard has a much better range of tones. There are three reasons for this: (a) the sun was lower in the sky; (b) the bird was banking enough to catch the sunlight, and (c) the bird was flying over a snow-covered field that reflected light on to its underside.

I mentioned above that the birds in your flight images should be facing somewhere between directly towards you and side-on to you. Itís also important, wherever possible, to have the bird illuminated more from its front than from its rear. Images in which the tail is brighter than the head or, worse still, where the wing casts a shadow on the head, always have limited appeal.

This means that, for a bird flying directly across you from right to left, the sun should be somewhere between directly behind you and directly to your left. Actually, a better way of looking at this is that the sun should be within the 90-degree quadrant between directly in front of the bird and directly to its side, on your side of the bird. If you think of things this way, itís easier to understand what you need to do if the bird is flying more towards you, rather than across you. In the case of a bird flying diagonally towards you from right to left, you would therefore need the sun to be somewhere from diagonally behind your left shoulder to diagonally behind your right shoulder. For a bird flying precisely towards you, the sun can be anywhere from its right through its front to its left.

Lighting direction For strongly side-lit shots such as this Redshank flying across the frame, itís essential to have the sun shining on the head end of the bird, rather than the tail end.

Lighting direction For this diagonally-approaching bird, lighting from it's left side (your right) brings out the head and body detail. If the sun had been on the bird's right side, all the bird's key features would have been lost in shadows. Actually, the sun is high in the sky on this shot: a lower sun would have improved the lighting.

Of course, when it comes to photography, all rules are made to be broken. Once you've learned how to create classically-lit images that bring out the greatest detail in your subjects, you can then choose to do something completely different for artistic effect. Shooting towards the sun to get backlighting or even full silhouettes creates images that stand out from the crowd.

Learn the rules then break them! Shooting towards the sun here has created a much more atmospheric image, lighting up the mist and the outline of the Goldeneye. (Expose for the background, not the bird, in these types of shots.)

Field skills for flight shots

Once youíve mastered the basic techniques of BIF shooting, your success rate will be dependent on your approach to your subjects in the field.

You should be able to find some reasonably-sized birds on a clear day with the sun at a good angle (e.g. behind you and low in the sky), but itís also important to understand the effect the effect of the wind on birdsí flight behaviour.

Large birds in particular tend to take off and land into a head-wind for maximum lift/control. You can use this to anticipate the direction they will face at these times.

Even in mid-flight, birds will often turn into the wind, either momentarily or for extended periods (e.g. hovering or Ďhangingí in one point), giving you excellent photo opportunities.

Using the wind This Fulmar was flying backwards and forwards along a cliff-top in a strong wind. As it changed direction, it was alternating between Ďhanging in the airí and flying like a rocket. Timing the shot whilst it was moving slowly made things a lot easier.

If youíre looking for the ideal BIF conditions, then you need the best combination of light direction and wind direction. This means that, as the bird faces into the wind, itís also facing to some extent towards the light, so that you can achieve the lighting as described above.

A good tip is that, in the Northern Hemisphere, you need a wind coming from the East in the morning and from the West in the afternoon. This means that you can use a combination of weather forecasts and maps to optimize your flight shooting. The Internet is an excellent tool for this purpose.

Obviously, this isnít easy to achieve, so donít worry if you canít get optimal shots every time. On the other hand, itís always better to know what to aim for, so that you understand any compromises made.

Most of the advice Iíve given above relates to the use of camera equipment for photographing birds in flight, rather than being about the birds themselves.

To get the best photos of any one species, thereís no substitute for spending time watching and studying the species. Do as much homework as you can beforehand and then, once you arrive on location, donít be in too much of a rush to start shooting. After assessing the Ďlay of the landí, the light, the wind direction, and so on, spend some time looking at what species are present and how they are behaving. Are they resting in static poses? Are they actively feeding? Are they engaging in territorial battles? Do they look agitated? Is there a stream of birds flying in? Are the flying birds crossing plain backgrounds (e.g. a clear sky or calm water) or busy backgrounds (e.g. vegetation or a rough sea)? Where do you need to be to get the best images?

As far as possible, tune in to the birds themselves. For example, most perching birds defecate before they take off so, if youíve been watching a perched bird for a while and it becomes agitated and/or defecates, you need to get ready for the flight opportunity. Similarly, geese tend to call loudly to each other before they take off en masse, giving you plenty of warning of their departure. The arrival of wildfowl can be just as noisy, with lots of calling and, in the case of bigger birds such as swans, very noisy wing beats giving away their approach.

For practice, lakesides can give excellent opportunities to photograph gulls, wildfowl, coots, pigeons, or whatever happens to be present. A good tip is to ensure you have some food to throw to the birds. This is an excellent way to build up trust, especially since your lens-wielding behaviour can make you seem more suspicious to the birds than the typical lake visitor.

If you can get the help of an assistant, a useful technique is to get them to throw food to the birds while you take up the best position to shoot them as they fly in. If youíre practicing on fast-flying birds like Coots or Mallards, you may have a better chance of getting in focus shots if theyíre flying across you, rather than directly towards you. In any case, itís better to be able to concentrate on just taking photos, rather than having to do the feeding in between.

In a similar situation, you can get some good practice shooting birds of prey at a centre that runs flying displays. These nearly always feature relatively large, slow-moving birds coming to a baited gauntlet. If you can find a display where you can see the birds against a plain background, thatís even better.

In the end, provided you make the most of any opportunities you have available to take BIF shots, your skills will improve steadily and you will soon be capturing some great images.

Processing flight shots

As with all bird photography, getting good images in your camera is only part of the battle. You still need to process your images effectively to get good finished results.

Although flight shooting is no different from other types of bird photography in this respect, one particular challenge is how to crop flight images for best compositions.

In fact, many photographers think that normal compositional guidance, such as the Rule of Thirds, doesnít apply to flight shots. I strongly disagree with this view. You should still strive, as far as possible, to make use of the zones of an image to which humans naturally pay the most attention (the third-lines and their intersections), and aim for an overall composition that features the bird in a pleasing pose, with space to Ďfly intoí, etc. A tip that often works well for birds flying across the frame is to align the birdís body along the upper horizontal third-line, with the eye either on the centre-line or at a third-line intersection.

Composition for flight shots The Rule of Thirds canít always be used for flight shots, but you should still look for opportunities to crop your images to make the most of its benefits. In almost all cases, the bird should have more space in front of it than behind.

For further guidance on placing your subject in the frame, see Tutorial 6: Basic Composition.

If you're interested in getting some assistance with your bird photography, contact me.  I'd be happy to give advice or to sign you up for one of my Bird Photography Workshops.