There are typically 9 different types of birds in flight shots:
- Bird Taking Off
- Bird Landing
- Flying Sideways or Parallel to the Camera
- Upper Wings
- A flock of birds in flight
- Motion Blur
While there could be multiple variations of the above nine types but the idea remains the same. In this article, you’ll learn about all these nine different types of bird in flight shots and some field techniques.
But first I’ll recommend you to also read How to Get Tack Sharp Photos of Birds in Flight to learn the top-notch professional field techniques. You’ll also learn about the lesser-known settings for birds in flight shots.
There are specific settings and special considerations to be made for slow-moving birds (the bigger birds) and fast-moving birds (the medium and the smaller birds) in flight. Here we’ll be dealing with the general case without going too much into detail.
Download this beautifully designed Infographic where I have highlighted these 9 types in a simple and easy-to-remember format with different images.
Birds In Flight Shot #1: Bird Taking Off
Most big birds give some kind of a clue—defecating or shaking off loose feathers or stretching, etc.—before flying. So, it’s very important for you to learn the birds’ behavior to be able to pull off great shots of birds taking off.
The medium-sized and smaller birds are quite tricky to understand. So, your best bet is to go to a great location where you can aim to get more chances.
The focus-lock technique (described in my Bonus eBook) works wonder for take-off shots. Once the focus is achieved on the bird, lock the focus in place and wait for the bird to take off. When it does, just fire off as many shots as you can, without reengaging the focus. This’ll ensure that you get the tack sharp shots. This is where the back-button focusing technique helps as you just have to release the focus to lock it, once the focus is achieved.
A Word of Advice
If you want to increase your chances of getting better and sharper images of the bird taking off, try to aim for the bird that might take off sideways or parallel to your camera sensor. This way you’ll have plenty of time to take multiple shots and also you’ll not lose the focus.
Birds In Flight Shot #2: Bird Landing
Wind plays a key role in making incredible shots of birds landing because, most birds—big to medium-sized ones—land into the wind. Remember to track the birds way before it’s about to land so that you have it in sharp focus. Keep the bird in the center of the frame so that you have enough space around the bird to accommodate the wingspan and also to utilize the superior autofocus capabilities of your camera.
Remember that it’s quite tricky to get the exposure perfectly on the bird when it’s underwings are bright white. So, you have to compensate for the same in the field before the bird lands.
Remember that most birds have specific favorite perches. The best is to figure out where the bird is going to land and lock the focus on the perch and just lock the focus there and wait for the bird to come in. In such cases, you should also have the exposure set perfectly considering the exposure needed for the bird also.
Read How to Do Exposure Compensation in the Field to understand the vital role of this lesser-known concept called Exposure Compensation Technique.
Birds In Flight Shot #3: Flying Sideways or Parallel to the Camera
Photographing the bird as it flies sideways is your best bet to increase the success rates. The more parallel the bird is to the camera sensor, the easier it is to keep the bird in focus and its eye in sharp focus as the needed depth of field is less.
Remember that tracking is the key to getting the best photographs of birds in flight. Wait for the autofocus to achieve the focus before shooting if you want to be ultra-sure that you get the tack-sharp photos. Keep the bird in the center of the frame so with focus point(s) in the center, because, the center focus point is the fastest in any camera. You can crop it later in the post-processing stage for composition.
Always start tracking (or following the bird to keep it in the viewfinder) the bird when it’s still far off. This allows the autofocus to have enough time to achieve the focus. Once the bird is sharp enough in the viewfinder, wait until the bird is almost parallel to the camera sensor to get the best looking photographs.
Birds In Flight Shot #4: Approaching
Photographing an approaching bird is the toughest as the autofocus is not very good in judging the change in distance in the Z-direction. In fact, our eyes also struggle to judge the change in the distance when the bird (or any object) approaches us. You are better off using center autofocus points and use a smaller Aperture like f/8-f/11 or more to ensure there’s a greater depth of field as the focus most often will lock on to the wings of the birds.
A Word of Caution
It’s a lot harder to photograph an approaching bird than anything else. You’ll miss a lot more shots than what you could comprehend. The key is to go to a place where the activity can be repeated and keep doing it until you understand how it all works and get better at it.
There are a total of 18 cases of birds in flight. If you are keen on improving your birds in flight shots instantly, as well as all other types of bird shots, then I’ll recommend you check this unique and only field pack available for bird photographers—Bird Photography SETTINGS Field Pack—50 Time-tested & Proven Professional Field Techniques.
Birds In Flight Shot #5: Upper Wings
It’s quite rare to see birds in flight shots where the upper wings of the bird are displayed. You don’t have to be at a higher elevation to take such shots, you can take them while standing on level ground. Just that you require an understanding of the bird flight patterns, some practice, and some patience to get such shots.
Most of the birds of prey will fly in circles as they search for their prey, that’s when you get to shoot upper wing (as well as Underwing) pattern easily. It’s the easiest sort of a shot to take. But, seldom I see bird photographers taking advantage of it. Now that you know, you should be adding a lot of variety shots into your portfolio!
Birds In Flight Shot #6: Underwings
Photographing underwings pattern is pretty obvious as you are mostly shooting from ground level. However, I’d like to remind you that just having underwing patterns shown doesn’t necessarily make for a great photo. It’s important to aim to use underwing patterns as your compositional element.
For instance, taking a photograph of a bird as it’s about to land with its wings in an upward position completely stretched out is a great photo. It’s not an easy shot to get, but not necessarily impossible too, especially if you follow the tips mentioned in approaching shots.
The key to making these shots work is to compose these shots carefully. For information on how to compose such shots, as well as a whole load of other seemingly arresting shots, I strongly recommend you to consider checking out The “Other” Rules Of Composition — 30 No-brainer Rules to Make Your Bird Photos Good. Even Great. The only eBook that talks about composition techniques for bird photographers.
Birds In Flight Shot #7: A flock of birds in flight
While photographing a flock, you still have to consider it as a single bird in flight shot. Here’s what I mean: You should first single out a bird to focus on, it’s better if you pick the one that’s closest as it’ll be easier for your autofocus system to focus and track, and then you just use a smaller Aperture like f/8-f/16 to keep as many birds in sharp focus as possible. Remember that you need much higher Shutter Speeds to freeze as many birds as you can. If possible all of them, which will usually be the case. Which means you have to use higher ISO.
Most often the birds in flock give a great clue before taking off or landing. They normally communicate with each other by making loud calls and looking out carefully before taking off or landing. So, it’s a bit easy to know when to press the shutter. Remember that birds fly in batches, most often. So, you keep shooting as and when the batches fly to increase your chances. Make sure to check the output and adjust the Shutter Speed as needed.
The most important thing to remember is to fill the frame with birds to avoid too much gap. In other words, go for a tighter crop to make it more engaging. Look for some kind of pattern in the field and in the post-processing stage and crop accordingly to get some strong composition.
Birds In Flight Shot #8: Motion Blur
Motion blur is a creative aspect of bird photography that requires a lot of practice and understanding of bird behavior. A typical motion blur shot will have the bird’s face and/or body in sharp focus and blurred wings. You can either use the Shutter Priority Mode or Manual Mode and start with slower shutter speeds like 1/125 to 1/250th of a second.
You’ll be able to get better motion blur shots when the bird is taking off or landing. Because, at the time of take-off or landing, especially at the time of landing, birds often beat their wings much faster than usual, helping you to blur them. The same concept can be applied to birds that hover over, like Pied Kingfisher, before plunging to hit their prey.
Working with the flock of birds which follow a suit like Ducks, Geese, Pelicans, etc. increases your chance to get better results. While in a flock, when one takes a bath, the other is sure to follow, when one flies the others follow, when one lands, the others follow, etc. So, you’ll have plenty of chances to nail the Motion Blur shots.
Birds In Flight Shot #9: Panning
In the case of panning, you’ll have to track the bird while you shoot. Meaning, you’ll move the camera with the bird as you shoot in slower Shutter Speeds to blur the background while still keeping the bird in focus. Start with a slower shutter speed like 1/125th of a second (or even less) and move on to the higher Shutter Speeds if necessary. For faster birds, you could choose 1/250 or more.
A bird moving left-to-right and parallel to the camera sensor (i.e., sideways) is the most suitable as it’s quite natural for you to track the bird. Shoot with a smaller Aperture of f/8-f/16 to include more background so that you can clearly see the panning effect.
Go to a location where there are repeated actions. The more birds fly in the same direction presumably with the same speed, the more your chances of getting the settings right and also the shot right. Work with slow-moving birds like Swan, Pelican, Crane, etc when they fly low against the vegetation giving you plenty of opportunities to try out.
Millions of dollars have been spent by bird photographers from all around the world to buy the next best equipment… In the hopes that it’ll give them better reach, better ISO performance, better fps, and faster autofocus.
While I can’t deny that better equipment gives you an edge, but it won’t necessarily get you better or sharper images. What matters is your field techniques and your skills. You have just now seen a glimpse of nine different types of birds in flight photos that’ll add amazing variety to your portfolio.
But you still need to practice these in the field. And you need to learn the proper field skills and the settings needed for each of these cases and also the sub-cases AND more importantly, you need to practice them in the field. Without applying the concepts that you learned, it’s absolutely of no use. As I mentioned before, just the Birds in Flight has eighteen different categories.
Why spend your top dollars on upgrading your equipment in the hopes that you’ll magically get better and sharper results when you can do it all by yourself? Why struggle with more and more confusing concepts and to remember them in the field?
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P.S. Download this beautifully designed Infographic where I have highlighted these 9 types in a simple and easy-to-remember format with different images.