Jun 252015
Bird in flight photography tutorial (BIF)

bird in flight photography tutorial
The above picture was made with a 280mm Canon lens (Canon 200mm f/2.8 + Kenko 1.4 dgx). This is why the image is heavily cropped. The used high sensitivity also not helps in picture quality. The grain/noise is quite apparent. The colors / sharpness not bad I think. This picture shows that bird photography is the most demanding regarding equipment.

Highest quality long lenses, noiseless expensive Dslr cameras gives the best results.

1. Find a bird, and think a little bit about it

What kind of bird do you want to photograph ? Big bird or small bird ? Waterbird, singing bird, birds of prey ? Common bird or a rarity? Dark or a white bird ? Fast flying or slow bird ? Thinking is needed how to achieve your goal. A distant picture of the flying bird is not so impressive. Need to think about it how to get close enough, to get the desired shot. For this knowing the birds behavior is essential, to know what to expect in different situations, when the bird leave, arrive, fight, eat, etc.

If I assume here 80% is to get the bird, 20% to make the shot.

Difficulties / challenges: 1. find the bird, 2. go close or let the bird come close 3. make the shot

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In my mind the thinking goes like this:

1. Find a good place for flying bird photography. Places with water, trees, free areas combined is the best. Bushes, trees can be used as hides.

2. Who arrive first ? Funny little arguments:
a. the bird arrives first, after you, the bird fly away.
b. you arrive first you know the bird will come, wait, make the shot when the bird arrives, after the bird fly away, unless you stay in a hide.

Some tips to get close

-Think about a tower or a house with more levels in a naturally interesting area. It can give good opportunities to get closer to the flying birds.

-Boat, birds not so fear of boats as people, a boat can give very good opportunities, especially if combined with a hide

-At the shore of a lake a hiding blanket is an interesting solution. At the corners some fixing to the ground is preferred. Must lay under though.

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Shutter speed

If I want tack sharp shot at least 1/1000s handheld. It depends on light conditions, lens brightness, and bird distance as well. If the bird is far away, or moves fast higher shutter speed is needed 1/2000s or even higher. If you want to see some artistic movement like the above photo 1/400s is a good start. The above photo was made with 560mm lens, at 1/400s. Some movement is visible.

3. Hides

Cannot neglect the hides, most bird photographers uses hides all the time. If I only concentrate the output (the image) hides win by a big margin over normal photography. It can be a natural hide, a tent, built hide or just a blanket or military net.

Usual hide types: bird feeder, drinking/bathing place, winter eagle feeder, hide next to the water or hiding boat. Most winning pictures at photo competitions made from hides. I don’t have a place for a hide, I sometimes use mobile sitting hide with/without a glass, mostly use natural hides, like trees/bushes.

-Mobile hide, I made one from chipboard. I made it from 4 separate elements, the top and the back which is absolutely necessary covered by a blanket (on the top there is a chipboard as well). The height is defined how tall are you when you sitting. The width is defined by the car internal dimensions. Mine is something like 1.1×1.1×1.45m. The round holes are the smallest in diameter.
Using this absolutely need to know what you want to photograph. You can sit in a forest for ages actually see any birds, and bigger animals can scare you as well from close distances.

The hide has a version with a glass and without glass. The glass is a Stopsol clear type half mirror insulating glass which gets 1-2 stops of shutter speed. Only one direction is good, it can be checked with a torch or light how reflecting or better to make a shot through it. I prefer to use without glass, for better image quality and faster shutter speed. The glass is useful if you have a really good place, with birds in close distances which you want to protect.

If you have a good long lens, the car, if you have it can be a good hide as well in certain cases.

4. Usual flying direction of birds. If you know the place you can identify the usual routes of the birds. Waterbirds for example flying between two lakes. Tits and grebes often going parallel with the river, birds of prey can circle up the sky

2. Equipment

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I have a Dslr camera and a decent lens. The optical finder of the Dslr cameras are the best for this task. You see clearly, without delay, blinking, too bright or too dark image in the viewfinder. The lens is much more important than the camera. A very good fast autofocus is very useful for this, but you can manage the shot with manual focus as well if you like. In some cases I prefer manual focusing.


Most people use Canon or Nikon equipment. The best cheapest lens which produce truly excellent images is the Canon 400mm f/5.6 and the Tamron 150-600mm. The Sigma 150-600mm is similar. For Nikon the Nikon 300mm f/4 is also very good. None of these lenses cheap, but this how it is. The Nikon cameras are better than Canon cameras (less noise, better colors, except red, more dynamic range) according to my judgment. Sony has a 70-400mm as well. Pentax recently will release a Pentax 150-450mm lens.

Prime or zoom lens ? Prime lenses are usually better optically and usually brighter as well, but many of them extremely expensive. The good focal length is 400mm on a crop camera for bird photography, like the Canon 70d or Nikon d7100. With the focal length of 600mm it is very hard to work for bird in flight shots, the sharp area is very small and the view also very narrow. The trick below can help to some extent. On the other hand the focal length is very convenient from longer distances for non moving birds.

3. Overexpose

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If you want to photograph a dark bird against the bright sky what happens ? The bird will be black without not many detail. If you want to make silhuette shots it is good, but otherwise must overexpose the shot to get some detail of the bird. I mostly use evaluative / matrix metering. The other options are the spot metering, and the center-weighted. For this kind of photography the spot metering would be the best (little subject in the center or somewhere in the frame) in theory, but:
It is the easiest to make an unusable shot in spot metering, so I would advise not to use at all it for fast action shots. Why ? With spot meter must focus on a 18% grey object to have a proper exposure, if the bird is dark, no way to make it (the sky is bright, the bird is dark). If you have a grey bird or a bird sitting on a branch for minutes perhaps you can try to find a grey something to meter on.

Center weighted metering

I do not really experiment with center-weighted metering don’t know what it does, how is it calculated (like spot but calculates for a bigger central area, meant for portraits). If you familiar with it, and it is predictable for you in different situations what it does also can work same way as the matrix method with compensation.

Matrix/evaluative metering

Matrix/evaluative metering depending on the manufacturer, are designed to work in all conditions reliably. Most photographers use only this metering exclusively. I also use matrix/evaluative mostly which gives the best results usually all the time, but needs exposure compensation in certain cases. It can be learned only by experimenting it, how much you need to adjust, you can try to overexpose +1 stops for a dark bird against the sky for start, after you can decide it needed more or less compensation.

4. Burst mode

I mostly don’t like burst mode, but for fast action, which I don’t see with my eyes I seldom use it. Most cameras make 5-6 shots/sec, hundred would be preferred.

5. Autofocus settings

The center af point is the most reliable on most Dslr cameras, and the lens is also the sharpest at the center. So I mostly use the center af point. This also helps that a fast moving bird is stays in the frame.

6. Pro Tip: Dof button

Some cameras has a Dof button, usually down in front of the camera, next to the lens.
If you use a long prime lens, you can have trouble even to see the bird through the lens. First must prefocus at a distance you think appropriate (usually 10-15m), and secondly you can use the Dof button. How it works, and why ? Smaller apertures gives you more depth of field meaning you see wider range through your lens. For example you have an 400mm f/5.6 lens, or something similar. You can set the aperture to f/8-f/11 to have some extra dof after focusing you can turn the aperture back where you wanted to be if needed. Too small apertures are not practical because, the viewfinder image will be too dark, unless there are many light available. With smaller aperture you will see even more range through your lens, which is preferable. You can check before the actual photography how much dof you gain.

7. Avoid quick movement and flashy clothes (white yellow big contrast)

Train yourself to always move slowly and quietly. This gives you lot better pictures. Try to hide your eyes behind the camera. (This scares birds the most). Use camo or clothes with colors fit to the surrounding.

8. Leaving / arriving birds

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The easiest to photograph leaving or arriving birds. There are signs which shows the bird is about to leave. If you study bird behavior you can easily recognize this and can make a photo.

9. Practice patience

Some time is needed to make decent shots. Don’t be discouraged if doesn’t make the best shot first, experiment and practice. Patience is also neeed to wait for the best moments, this is what I like the most never know what happens next, an interesting bird or other animal.

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