As you will probably notice from the amount of photographs in this gallery in flight photography is a great favourite of mine.
I find it very challenging but at the same time very satisfying, especially when I manage to get it right. There are many aspects that need to be considered in taking good flight photographs, so I have given a few tips below.
I'm not guaranteeing that after reading these tips that you will be able to take good bird in flight shots but this is the way I do it and I think you will agree that this method works for me.
As you read these tips you will find that in general I use Canon's terminology for most of the camera and lens settings etc. However other makes of cameras usually have the same or very similar settings that can be applied although they may be named slightly differently.
I would recommend a DSLR camera body that can shoot at least five frames per second in continuous shooting mode. The more frames per second the better as this will give you a greater chance of catching the wings of the bird in the position you most desire. This isn't to say you can't shoot birds in flight at less than five frames per second it just means your hit rate of keepeable shots may be lower.
Ideally a fast focussing telephoto lens. I use the Canon 400mm F5.6L USM lens. It's probably not the fastest 400mm lens but it is light for a 400mm, it's exceptionally sharp even wide open and it's generally acknowledged as one of the best lenses available for in flight photography. I wouldn't attempt birds in flight with anything less than a 300mm lens and idealy 400mm. 500mm lenses and zoom lenses can be used but generally the higher the magnification the larger and heavier the lens. This makes hand holding the lens much harder and can be very tiring on the arms. It is possible to use a tripod for photographing birds in flight but personally having tried this I found a tripod to be far to restricting and I missed many shots that would have been possible if I had been hand holding.
I am now also using the Canon 500mm F4 USM IS lens for a lot of my in flight shots finding that the longer reach gives me a few more opportunities than the Canon 400mm F5.6L lens. It is heavy without a doubt but I seem to have found a technique with it that works for me.
Camera and lens settings.
Set the manual/auto focus switch on the lens to auto. If the lens has a focus limiter switch set this to it's furthest setting, limiting the focus distance of the lens will enable it to lock on to the subject more easily. Set the camera to high speed continuous shooting mode. Set the camera auto focus to A1 Servo AF mode. I use the centre focus point and with the Canon 7D I use the expanded auto focus mode. Set the camera metering mode to centre weighted average. Set the camera to aperture value mode. In aperture value mode the camera looks after the shutter speed. I find an aperture of F5.6 to F8 is usually the best, depending on how close the birds are going to be. On a bright day these aperture settings combined with an ISO speed of 400 will generally give you a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. I like to achieve a shutter speed of at least 1/1600sec and preferably higher. If you can't get a shutter speed of at least 1/1600sec then increase the ISO speed until you can or try again on a day with better lighting conditions.
If the birds are against a lightish background such a a pale blue sky then you will need to apply positive + exposure compensation by + 2/3rds of a stop or even more. If the birds flight path takes it down to the point where you have a landscape background such as water, grass or reeds then you will need to apply normal or even minus - exposure compensation. Most DSLR cameras will allow you to change the exposure compensation whilst firing a burst of shots off although you have to be pretty quick and nimble with you hands to do this.
There is no hard and fast rule to exposure settings it all depends on the lighting conditions at the time and the colouration of the bird you are photographing. Experience is the key to this one.
Firstly you have to learn how to find and track the flying bird in the viewfinder of the camera. Not as easy as you might think but with practice it does become much easier. I'm not going to tell you how to hold the camera and lens that is something that many people do very differently. What I will say is hold the camera and lens in a manner that you are comfortable with and in a way that you can pan and follow the birds movement. Smooth panning is one of the secrets of holding the auto focus point on the bird and getting good sharp images. When you are certain the camera has achieved correct focus on the bird by holding the shutter button halfway down then depress and hold the shutter button fully down and fire the sequence of shots, remembering the smooth panning technique. Always carry on panning for a while after you have taken the last shot in a sequence. Don't abruptly stop the panning movement as the last shot is taken or the last shot will be blurred. If you lose focus by letting the auto focus point move off the bird and the camera focusses on something in the background just release the shutter button altogether and refocus. It's the quickest and easiest way to get that focus locked on the bird again.
Early morning or late afternoon is best with the light coming from behind you. You can get the shutter speeds required at other times of the day but the light is often a bit harsh around the midday period. Obviously sunlight is best to achieve the shutter speeds needed and to bring out the detail in the birds plumage.
Practice, practice and practice more. It's not an easy subject to master but is very rewarding when you get it right. I'm no expert and what works for me may not work for you but you will certainly have fun trying.
Please note: All the photographs in this gallery can also be viewed in there respective galleries as well.
© Lincsbirder wildlife photography