June 09, 2015  •  5 Comments

  I really enjoy the challenge of photographing birds in flight and people seem to love seeing images like the one above. I am always asked how I capture these images and truth be told there is a certain level of skill involved. It is not all skill, the time of day, the equipment used and your camera settings are all equal components. I will explain how I make my images. Now I said, 'my images'. Others might have other ways of photographing these magnificent birds in flight. This is what works for me and what I teach people in my workshops. I think, if nothing else, using these tips will give you a strong foundation to enhance your skill level.


Unfortunately you will need certain equipment and that equipment will be expensive. It is just the price of doing business.  I use all Nikon products. I am not saying Nikon is the only cameras or lens you should use. There are many great cameras and lens companies. Canon is one that comes to mind but there are others.  My camera is a D300s and I have had it for about twelve years. The lens I used for all these images was a 80-400 VR (vibration reduction) with a variable aperture 4.5 - 5.6. This combination works great for the way I photograph.


Settings :

This is the one area that I receive the most questions about, so for all of those who have asked, here are the answers.

MY ISO is always 200-400 when shooting in my favorite time which is early to mid morning. What is ISO? Okay, a fair question but if you have been shooting for a while and don't know, I would be shocked.

In very basic terms, ISO is the level of sensitivity of your camera to available light. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive it is to the light, while a higher ISO number increases the sensitivity of your camera. The component within your camera that can change sensitivity is called “image sensor” or simply “sensor”. It is the most important (and most expensive) part of a camera and it is responsible for gathering light and transforming it into an image. With increased sensitivity, your camera sensor can capture images in low-light environments without having to use a flash. But higher sensitivity comes at an expense – it adds grain or “noise” to the pictures.

I try and always shoot the birds at 1/1200 up to whatever the light allows me at the lowest ISO.

You should increase the ISO when there is not enough light for the camera to be able to quickly capture an image. Anytime I shoot in really early morning (right after sunrise) or in cloudy weather, when the light is low, I push my ISO up to usually 800. You do need to worry about "noise" but there are many great Noise Reduction Programs out there including the Lightroom 5 and up. Many times the noise will come in the high contrast areas (under the bird's wing in the shadow area). As you gain experience you will learn what combination of ISO and F stop  (aperture) works best for you. Your starting point should be to set the widest possible aperture (5.6) My reason for this setting is depth of field and allowing the most light to hit the camera sensor which will enable you to shoot at higher speeds (1/2000 sec). Most times when photographing a flying bird, I want a small depth of field. This will make the birds look sharper and pop off the page.

Exposure Mode;

 I could write many words on Exposure Mode but I won't.  I am writing about birds in flight and my method. I use Aperture Priority 99.9% of the time, maybe more !!

Why Aperture Priority? Because in bird photography, we are often shooting in lower light with a longer lens. A longer lens will usually be slower (at least the ones most of us can afford). That means you need to keep your aperture set at its widest usable setting to gain speed. 

​Aperture-Priority mode is therefore the best setting for almost all bird photography because it lets you fix a wide aperture and have the camera set the shutter speed.

I know some will say that a pro should shoot in only 'Manual' That way I have total control. True, but it is much slower for most of us and that is one reason you bought your expensive camera for the computer and sensor to work for you.

Shutter Speed:

Remember we said that shutter speed will be set by your expensive camera in Aperture-Priority? With that comes a warning. It is important to be aware of your shutter speed. There are limitations on the shutter speeds that you can use hand held with a long lens. A good rule of thumb is that you can only hand hold a lens at a shutter speed that's at least the inverse of the focal length; a 400 mm lens  needs a shutter speed of at least 1/500 of a second, UNLESS ! 

What are you saying Jim? There is an unless? Pray tell what is it? What I consider is one of the most important advances in bird photography and even more important as I get older, Vibration Reduction. Remember I said my lens had a Vibration Reduction setting? It is unfortunate that image stabilized lenses often come at a premium because some photographers opt for the cheaper lens without image stabilization. Especially for telephoto lenses, your image stabilization will be absolutely vital to the success of your photography of birds in flight.

Metering Mode;

My workshops go into metering in more depth. Here I'll touch on it because it is important. Metering is how your camera determines what the correct Shutter speeds and Aperture should be, depending on the amount of light that goes into the camera and the sensitivity of the sensor. Back in the old days of photography, cameras were not equipped with a light 'meter' which is a sensor that measures the amount and intensity of light. Photographers had to use hand-held light meters to determine the optimal exposure. Obviously, because the work was shot on film, they could not preview or see the results immediately which is why they religiously relied on those light meters.

Today, every DSLR has an integrated light meter that automatically measures the reflected light and determines optimal exposure.

Matrix Metering or Evaluative Metering mode is the default metering mode on most DSLRs. It works similarly to the above example by dividing the entire frame into multiple 'zones' which are then all analyzed on individual basis for light and dark tones. One of the key factors (in addition to color, distance, subjects, highlights, etc) that affects matrix metering is where the camera point is focused. After reading information from all individual zones, the metering system looks at where you focused within the frame and marks it more important than all other zones. There are many other variables used in the equation which differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. Nikon, for example, also compares image data to a database of thousands of pictures for exposure calculation. I sometimes use Spot or Centered metering but will save that for another day.

Autofocus Mode: DSLRs normally let you choose between One Shot AF mode and a continuous or AI Servo mode. This mode locks on to the subject you focus on and continues to track the subject as long as the shutter is half pressed.

Since birds are normally moving continuously, you should use the second option most of the time. Exceptionally, you may want the additional control of the first mode, e.g. to enable you to fix your focus while recomposing your shot. Personally, I never use this option: for control over composition, I normally use alternative AF points.

In addition to using the central AF point, DSLRs typically let you select one of four or eight additional AF points distributed around your viewfinder. In bird photography, 99% of the time you should be focusing on the bird's eye. By using alternative AF points, you can do this whilst positioning the bird in the frame in such a way as to give a good composition. Frustratingly, camera manufacturers place the alternative AF points in the central portion of the field, and so this technique gives limited composition options. If you wanted, for example, to place the bird's eye at the extreme top-right of the image, you would need to revert to an alternative technique such as using the AF lock button (my preferred option), using One-shot AF or using manual focusing.

An additional focusing option built into DSLRs is the ability to make all AF points active so that, for example, a flying bird could be tracked by any AF point that you could manage to get on to it. This can be useful for birds flying in a featureless sky, but can be more trouble than it's worth if a bird is flying against a background of trees or sea, because the camera tends to focus on these rather than the bird. For this reason, I don't normally use this setting. 

In Continuous or AI Servo mode, the camera will probably automatically select 'predictive AF', if this feature is available. This feature predicts where a moving subject will be at the exact point of exposure and focuses accordingly. If it's not set automatically, make sure you select this option.


 Drive Mode; (very important)

​In addition to taking a single exposure when you fully depress the shutter release, you will certainly have a continuous shooting mod. USE IT!!!

This is one of the reasons that I capture some of these amazing images with the wings frozen at angles you would not normally see. I see a bird approaching or about to leave its perch and I start shooting till it is out of range, sometimes bending my head backwards shooting straight up. I understand you will have more images to go through on your computer but your chances of stopping at one and being amazed is greater in my opinion. In the film days (if you don't know what film is ask your grandparents), it was expensive to buy film and process it. Now shoot away. All you're spending is time and if you do not enjoy it, you might want to stick with point and shoot cameras.

These next three images were all shot between 8:38- 47 sec. and 8:38-49 sec.

I would consider all of these keepers. If I tried shooting one at a time, I might have made one of these images.

 All right. These are some of my tips for photographing birds in flight. I have used a 70-200 VR also which is a little cheaper but you will need to get closer to the bird. In post production, you can always crop. I will touch on that in another post. Let me know if you use these tips and how they worked for you.


5.Glenn Schatzberg(non-registered)
Where are you located and when are your workshops?
4.Louiae Roy(non-registered)
I read your tips and am trying to use them. Your images on here are beautiful.
3.Denise Daddario(non-registered)
Thank you Jim for sharing your expertise and knowledge. Because I am a novice photographer, I appreciate any knowledge I come across, especially from someone as accomplished as yourself. I love your work!
2.Chris Deno(non-registered)
Well I have read through. A little advanced for me.I have a Panasonic Lumix 1000. Use automatic mode almost exclusively. So far a few nice images.Usually have to crop etc. Have only shared two that I edited. Wondering about "Macro" too. So. Will keep trying. Thanks for sharing your tips!
1.Becky Black(non-registered)
Awesome photos Jim, and very generous sharing of your expertise!!
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