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How to Successfully Photograph Birds in Flight


July 12, 2015

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All kinds of photography have special challenges, and the special challenge of Bird photography is without a doubt, capturing birds in flight. In the end, flying is what sets birds apart from (most) other vertebrates. However, getting a sharp photo of a bird in flight is easier said than done, so wildlife photographer Alfredo Fernandez has done a 5-tip list to help you improve your photography!

 

Continuous Auto-focus

Most DSLR cameras have 3 types of focusing options: Manual, Single AF and Continuous AF. In order to photograph bird in flight, you will need to choose the Continuous option. This option will smoothly focus on your subject as it moves towards/away from the camera, as long as the focus point is on top of the subject, and you keep pressing the focusing button. I personally use this feature 99% of the time.

Red-and-green Macaw - Photo: Alfredo Fernandez

Red-and-green Macaw – Photo: Alfredo Fernandez

 

Fast Shutter Speeds

Fast shutter speeds of above 1/1000 of a second are a must if you want to ‘freeze’ a fast moving object, like a bird in flight. Obviously different birds need different settings. A slow moving bird, like a stork might be fine with a speed of 1/1000, but for a swallow or a hummingbird, you will want a much higher shutter speed. In order to ensure these speeds, keep a relative high ISO and a shallow aperture.

 

Hand-held

While tripods are a must for bird photography in dark scenarios –where the shutter speed is normally bellow 1/100- however, they greatly limit mobility. In order to maintain a homogenous panning and being able to perform quick movements, you will need to ditch the tripod. Don’t worry; with a speed of over 1/1000, you won’t notice the difference in image quality.

Large-billed Tern - Photo: Alfredo Fernandez

Large-billed Tern – Photo: Alfredo Fernandez

 

Pre-focus & Limit the lens

In order to greatly improve the Autofocus performance of your equipment, I highly recommend to manually pre-focusing on your subject. Also some lenses have AF-limits with limit the distance range in which they will autofocus. This feature works great most of the times. For example when photographing a bird that you know wont get closer than 10m, you can limit your lens AF to 10-infinity, and double the AF-speed.

 

Equipment

Last but not least, Equipment matters. Not all cameras cost the same, and that is because not all cameras are made the same way. Higher end DSRL have much bigger and better autofocus systems that allow them to perform complex calculations much quicker. Faster lenses such as 2.8 and 4s, also allow for a lot of light to hit the sensor, which will improve the focusing speed considerably.

 

Black Skimmer - Photo: Alfredo Fernandez

Black Skimmer – Photo: Alfredo Fernandez

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