The Essential Guide to Photographing Birds in Flight

by John Stapel

a guide to photographing birds in flight

If you want to photograph birds in flight like a pro, then you’ve come to the right place.

As a longtime bird photographer, I’ve spent countless hours tracking birds through the viewfinder, dealing with the frustration, the difficulties, and the exhilaration that comes from nailing a perfect shot.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes – and I’ve also discovered many, many tips and techniques that’ll instantly elevate your photos.

And in this article, I aim to share it all. I’ll explain all the birds in flight photography basics, including gear choice, location choice, lighting, composition, and more.

Let’s dive right in.

1. Pick the best location for flying birds

Beautiful flying bird photography begins with your location.

Certain areas will have no birds at all; others may have birds, but they’ll be in the wrong places, or in a place that offers limited photo access. In my experience, it’s best to set up near rivers or lakes, because they offer an abundant food source for the birds, and you’ll often be able to move along the water’s edge for different angles.

You might also try doing a quick search online for the best birding locations near you. Alternatively, you can find a birding forum or a birding blog that lists bird count data; that way, you can head to the locations that interest you based on your target bird species.

Once you’ve found a location, observe the flying birds for a few moments. Look for a position – on a bank or a hill – that will put you as close to the bird’s level as possible. (In other words, you don’t want to be shooting up at the birds from below or down at the birds from above. You want the most direct, dead-ahead angle possible.)

And check out the position of the sun, because you should not be shooting into it. Light coming from behind you or from the left or the right of your position is preferred.

Also, birds will generally take off and land into the wind, so knowing the wind direction will help you predict the flight path of the birds you are photographing.

canada gees in flight

Finding the best bird in flight locations will take a lot of trial and error. Many of the locations you check out will be duds – but it’ll be worth it, because very occasionally, you’ll find an area you can return to again and again and again. Scout enough locations, and you’ll end up with a good list of these hotspots!

2. Only shoot during the best light

If you want great birds in flight photos, you need to head out during the best light, at least when you’re just starting out.

(Over time, you’ll learn tricks for working in bad light – but as a beginner, shooting in dismal light is a recipe for dismal photos.)

So what counts as the best light for birds in flight photography?

The golden light of morning and evening, often referred to as the golden hours , is perfect, thanks to its gorgeous, soft effect. Really, as long as you shoot in the two hours after sunrise and the two hours before sunset, the light will look great (though remember that you need to carefully choose your position; you want the birds to be illuminated from the front, not the back!).

Also, because you’re photographing birds in the air, you’ll still get nice lighting on your subject even if you shoot a little before or after the golden hours (just make sure the light doesn’t get too harsh!).

3. Make yourself invisible

Most birds are various levels of skittish, so if your goal is to capture frame-filling images, you need to make yourself as invisible as possible.

Start by avoiding brightly colored clothing. You can also stay low to the ground as you approach a bird hotspot or use natural cover (e.g., trees). As you get more serious, you might consider wearing camouflage clothing, using a blind, or even shooting from your car window (birds tend to be less bothered by cars, so you can often drive close to birds that would normally fly away).

Once you’ve found a nice spot, keep relatively still. Don’t make any sudden movements. Instead, keep everything slow and steady as you set up your camera, then take a seat if you can (I recommend maintaining that low profile).

birds in flight duck

4. Use the right gear

You can photograph birds in flight with pretty much any modern DSLR or mirrorless camera, but the best models offer:

  • A viewfinder (so you can easily track the birds as they fly across the sky)
  • Fast continuous shooting speeds (so you can capture a sequence of split-second images, at least one of which will hopefully look good)
  • Good high-ISO performance (so you can boost your camera’s ISO in low light without worrying about noise)
  • Good autofocus performance (so you can track your subject as it weaves and dives through the air)

Often, you’ll need to compromise when starting out, but try to check as many of the above boxes as possible.

You’ll also want to get the best-possible lens, which will generally offer these four features:

  • A long focal length (at least 300mm, though 500mm or 600mm is better)
  • A wide maximum aperture (f/4 is ideal, but f/5.6-f/6.3 can work, too, especially if you don’t plan to shoot in low light)
  • Sharp optics
  • Fast autofocus

Again, a compromise is likely in order here; the best birds in flight photography lenses cost thousands of dollars, which just doesn’t make sense for a beginner. So get the best lens you can afford, then learn to use it well!

heron in flight

I’d also recommend you grab a sturdy tripod and a good gimbal head. It’ll help you balance your setup while tracking birds (though a less expensive option is a pan head, which can also work well). Finally, while ball heads can be used for birds in flight photography, they’re not a very stable solution for large lenses, so I don’t generally recommend them.

5. Study your subject

If you want to become a great bird photographer, then you’ll need to study birds.

Why? Once you know birds, you can predict their movements. For instance, many birds, especially the larger species like herons or eagles, will relieve themselves just before they fly. Knowing this can give you a split-second warning that translates into a beautiful takeoff shot.

flying heron in fall

Really, a lot of this studying will occur while you’re out photographing. Just by watching the birds, by identifying their behavioral habits, by seeing what they do and when they do it, you’ll accumulate plenty of useful knowledge.

For instance, did you know that shorebirds tend to run down the beach in a consistent direction? So if you want close-up shots of skittish shorebirds, determine their direction, position yourself down the beach, get on the ground, and wait for them to come to you!

(That’s the kind of thing you learn after spending hours and hours watching birds on a beach!)

6. Get your birds in flight camera settings right

To determine the right camera settings for birds in flight photography, you’ll need to balance your artistic needs – such as depth of field and sharpness – with exposure needs. And it can get a little complex.

However, I do have some recommendations that should simplify the process immensely.

First, use Aperture Priority mode; that way, you have control over your aperture and ISO at all times (and by boosting your ISO or widening the aperture, you can increase the shutter speed).

Second, set your aperture to around f/8 or so. This is where your lens will be most crisp, plus it will give you enough depth of field to get wingtip-to-wingtip sharpness.

Third, set your ISO to its lowest value, which is generally around ISO 100. The goal here is to avoid boosting the ISO, which will create noise. That said, when photographing in low light, you’ll need to raise the ISO to increase the shutter speed.

Now, in birds in flight photography, the shutter speed is probably the most essential setting, because if you get it too slow, the bird’s wings will blur, and this rarely looks good. In general, I’d recommend using a shutter speed of at least 1/1000s, and 1/2000s and beyond is better. (Your minimum shutter speed will change, though, depending on the speed of the bird; large birds in flight, like herons and geese, are slow, whereas small birds in flight, such as wrens, dart through the sky.)

Anyway, dial in the aperture and ISO, then look at your shutter speed, which your camera will select based purely on exposure considerations. Ask yourself: Is this shutter speed fast enough? If so, then you’re golden – but if not, you’ll need to either raise your ISO or widen your aperture so that your camera has enough light to boost the shutter speed.

I’d recommend boosting the ISO before you adjust the aperture. But if your ISO is creeping into noisy territory, it might make sense to widen the aperture rather than risk a too-noisy image.

Once you’ve dialed in all your settings, I’d recommend doing a quick test. Capture a few photos of nearby birds (they don’t need to be well composed – the goal is to make sure your shutter speed is fast enough and your aperture is narrow enough). Zoom in on your camera LCD, make sure everything looks good, then have fun photographing birds in flight!

heron as a bird in flight

7. Learn good focusing technique

Birds are fast, which means you’ll need to put in some serious work to get consistently sharp shots.

First, you’ll need to set your camera to its continuous focusing mode. That way, whenever you half press the shutter button, the focus will engage – then it will refocus as your subject moves. (Nikon and many other manufacturers call this mode “AF-C,” though Canon calls it “AI Servo.”)

You should set your camera to its fastest burst mode, also known as its continuous shooting mode. This will let you capture a series of images in quick succession as a bird flies by.

Next, you’ll want to engage your camera’s tracking AF-area mode. It’ll tell your camera to track the bird through the frame, even as it flies left and right, up and down, etc. The specifics will depend on your camera, but some form of “tracking” should do the trick. Also, if your camera offers it, try activating your animal Eye AF, which will specifically identify and track birds’ eyes through the frame.

bald eagle flying over nest

Then, once your camera is set, start focusing on the bird when it’s either a) perching and about to take off, or b) flying far off in the distance. Half-press the shutter button, and keep tracking the bird as it takes off and/or comes closer. Once the bird flies into the prime area, press the shutter button down completely, fire off a burst of shots, and – fingers crossed! – you’ll get a good result.

A few additional tips:

When the bird flies by, keep panning even after you’ve stopped shooting. This follow-through motion will keep your last image in focus better than an abrupt stop.

Also, when panning as the bird flies by, you want to match your panning speed to that of the bird. Even if you’re forced to drop your shutter speed, perfect panning will keep the bird sharp while the background blurs.

Aim to keep the bird’s eye in focus and sharp; this is key. If you are handholding your setup, try to keep your left hand under the barrel of your lens and your elbows close to your body, as this will help you maneuver the camera as steadily as possible. If you are standing, keep your legs spread out to create a good sturdy base.

Finally, if you’re planning to hold your location and position for a time, I recommend a tripod. This will help keep your camera steady, especially if you’re using a very heavy lens.

8. Aim for a powerful composition

Composition can be tough for beginner bird photographers, but don’t worry; there are a few basic rules you can use to capture consistently well-composed birds in flight shots.

First, you can always use the rule of thirds, which tells you to position the bird (or the bird’s eye) a third of the way into the frame, rather than dead center.

And I’d also recommend using the rule of space, which urges you to put more space in front of the bird than behind it (a good guideline is to have at least two to three times the space in front of the bird, which will help you follow the rule of thirds anyway!).

gull flying in snow

Also, while most birds in flight photography includes just one bird, look for those occasions where you can capture two or three birds at once for a well-arranged result.

Birds in flight photography: final words

Birds in flight photography isn’t easy, and it will take lots of practice to get that perfect shot.

But once you get it right, you will be hooked!

So remember these tips, get out with your camera, and have fun!

Now over to you:

Which of this birds in flight advice do you plan to use? What birds do you plan to photograph? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

The Essential Guide to Photographing Birds in Flight