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How To Get Tack Sharp Photos Of Birds In Flight

How to Get Tack Sharp Photos of Birds in Flight

What’s the most challenging aspect of bird photography? 

Nine out of ten times I believe the answer will be “to photograph the birds in flight,” right? It’s the most frustrating part for many photographers around the world. That’s for a good reason too. Because, arguably it’s the most challenging type of photography there is.

If you have had tough time getting tack sharp photos of birds in flight, I’ve a good news for you. I’ll outline very few simple and practical steps to increasing your keeper rate—the good photos.

I’d like to tell you that getting tack sharp photographs of birds in flight has these five key ingredients that has to work in tandem:

  1. The Perfect Light
  2. A Smaller Aperture
  3. A Faster Shutter Speed
  4. Proper Autofocus Point Selection
  5. Your Skills to Track the Bird

Below you’ll learn to apply all these skills in the field to increase the success rate. But then, you have to practice them as long as it requires to become better at it.

Important Note

If you want to increase your chances of success and get pleasing photos of birds in flight, I’d strongly urge you not to skip any steps. I’ve taken great care to lay out all the nitty gritty details here in the hope that I can help you out. Your thorough reading is what I ask in return.

#1. Always Shoot in Front Soft Light

While this step is the most important step in bird photography, it’s critical when it comes so birds in flight. A soft front light is when the Sun is at your back and is directly illuminating the bird. 

Six Reasons Why Front Soft Light is Critical to Getting Tack Sharp Images of Birds in Flight

When the light illuminates the bird from the front you’ll get the following benefits:

  1. Autofocus works like magic because of the good contrast between the bird and the background. It’s the most critical aspect for getting good birds in flight shots.
  2. You’ll be able to set higher Shutter Speeds thereby increasing your chances of getting tack-sharp images.
  3. It’s very easy to achieve perfect exposure when the light is soft and illuminating the entire bird.
  4. You’ll get the catch light in the bird’s eye which makes the bird come alive.
  5. There’ll be no harsh shadows that’ll obscure part of the bird.
  6. You’ll be able to get away shooting at higher ISO without necessarily introducing too much noise.
Settings: Nikon D750, Nikon 600mm f/4 Prime Lens @ f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO 400, -0.3 EV, Aperture Priority, Matrix Metering.
Photo: A Painted Stork landing on marshland in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, officially known as Keoladeo Ghana National Park.

So, next time you are in the field, the first thing you want to do is position yourself for the success.

#2 Stop Down the Aperture A Bit for Sharper Results

If you are using a telephoto zoom lens like Canon 100-400mm, Nikon 200-500mm, Tamron/Sigma 150-600mm lens, or similar I’d recommend to stop down the Aperture a bit to get sharper results.

These lenses are soft when wide open at their maximum focal length. I.e., while shooting @ 600mm with a Tamron 150-600mm f/5.6-f/6.3 lens, the maximum aperture is f/6.3. At this aperture, the lens produces soft results.

So, it’s wise to use an Aperture setting of f/7.1-f/8 to increase the sharpness. When you stop down the aperture, you’ll quickly see sharper results.

The side effect of stopping down the aperture is the increase in depth of field which might affect the bokeh or the background blur. But, it’s far better to get sharper result than getting a slightly better bokeh.

Remember that these zoom lenses aren’t going to give you that creamy background the way a fast prime lens like a 500mm f/4 or a 600mm f/4 lens. There are several factors to it. But what’s important is to know that by keeping the background as far from the bird as possible, you can get better bokeh effect. 

So, most often you have to go to the location or position yourself such a way that there’s a good separation between the bird and the background. It might seem impractical, but it’s not. You just have to watch the bird behaviour take a good look at the possibilities and the opportunities that lie before you and set yourself up for success.

Settings: Nikon D750, Nikon 600mm f/4 Prime Lens @ f/5.6, 1/2000, ISO 400, -0.3 EV, Aperture Priority, Matrix Metering.
Photo: A Common Kingfisher landing on a stump in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, officially known as Keoladeo Ghana National Park.

It’s not correct to assume that if you use a prime telephoto lens, you’ll automatically get the creamy effect that you find in most photos. Nope. It’s usually because the photographer is more skilled. 

Think about it, unless you are rich, you aren’t going to invest in a $10000 lens to get better bokeh effect. Isn’t it? If you are to invest so much money, you better be sure.

The moral? Work on your skill today with whatever you have, if you ever wish to achieve what you want, in the future.

#3 Go With Faster Shutter Speeds of More than 1/1000th of a Second

Just don’t worry about all that theoretical aspects of shutter speed. Go ahead and start with the Shutter Speed of 1/1000 or more. For medium sized birds and smaller birds, go with 1/1600 or more.

You can safely shoot at ISO 400-800 provided you have good light as mentioned in #1.

Remember this, there’s no point in skimping on the shutter speed to get the clean image by using a low ISO. Most DSLRs that we use for bird photography these days are pretty good at ISO 400 and some are good at ISO 800 too. I’d recommend you to keep it at ISO 400.

ISO Vs Shutter Speed

If you are getting a Shutter Speed of 1/2500 @ ISO 400 for an Egret which is probably much easier to freeze at 1/1000, don’t reduce the ISO to 100. It isn’t going to do much in most cases. If you are only shooting Egrets that day, then you can perhaps choose a lower ISO. If you are like most other bird photographers shooting various birds, then just use the ISO 400 as base ISO for birds in flight.

If you are using an entry-level DSLR that’s not so good at ISO 400, then you can consider shooting at a lower ISO. But, understand that you got to wait for a bit brighter light.

Just because you need higher Shutter Speed, don’t push the ISO too far. Most cameras are too noisy after ISO 1600. Some are bad after ISO 800. Just know your camera’s capabilities and work accordingly.

Settings: Nikon D750, Nikon 600mm f/4 Prime Lens @ f/5, 1/3200, ISO 1000, 0 EV, Aperture Priority, Matrix Metering.
Photo: A Painted Stork flying with the nesting material in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, officially known as Keoladeo Ghana National Park.

A Word of Caution about the ISO

My suggestion is to not believe on the exaggerated ISO range that a camera manufacturer seem to boast. Many a times it’s a marketing gimmick. May be it works under controlled scenarios that you’ll usually find as test results and sometimes as field test reports. Be weary of such claims.

You never know who’s paid to do these tests. And as a common human trait, they’d be obligated to say good things. Some professionals have admitted it openly too.

It doesn’t take much to test it out. Just go ahead and take several shots at different ISOs whenever you are killing time in the field. Then, come back home and check these series of shots on your laptop/PC. You’ll know till what ISO can your camera be pushed. 

This small exercise will pay you huge dividends because the underlying concept is never gonna change.

#4 Choose the Right Number of Autofocus Points 

Autofocus point selection is based on the following criteria:

Bird flying against the Sky

You can safely choose 9-point autofocus (Expanded AF Area selection in Canon and d9 Zone Autofocus in Nikon) or more if needed. Because the contrast between the sky and the bird is too high, autofocus system will have no problem finding the bird and locking on to it. So, choosing a higher number of autofocus points will make it easier for the autofocus to track any erratic movements.

But remember that more autofocus points you engage, the more work you are giving to the autofocus system, as it has to check every single sensor before deciding which one should be locked on to the bird.

So, try to go with a smaller number if you can keep the autofocus points on the bird.

If you want to increase your success rates, try to start photographing birds against that sky and learn all the necessary skills before moving on to other type of background. Keep the autofocus points at the centre of the frame until you are well versed with the technique to move it to where you want.

Most often it’s all about getting the tack sharp focus on the bird in flight than getting the right composition in the field.

Bird flying against the Busy Background

This is where the real problem comes with bird in flight photography. When bird flies past the busy background, the autofocus system gets tricked due to lot of information to process before deciding where the bird is.

Your best bet is to use smaller autofocus points here. Single point focus at the cente would be ideal as it’s the most sensitive autofocus sensor. But, the issue is that you’ll have to keep track of the bird at all times. And you’ll have to try and keep this point on the bird’s face if possible. This could become a major issue with longer telephoto lenses.

Otherwise, you can use the 5-point Expanded AF Area selection in Canon or Group AF on latest Nikon or 9-point autofocus (Expanded AF Area selection in Canon and d9 Zone Autofocus in Nikon).

A bird against a busy background might mean too much distraction and a lack of good contrast, that results in giving a tough time to autofocus system.

Here are a few guidelines to increase your chances of success:

  1. See if you can achieve the autofocus on the bird while it’s still in the sky and keep the focus on the bird as you track.
  2. Learn to keep the autofocus point(s) on the bird as much as you can.
  3. Make sure to shoot when the bird is far away from the background so that there’s good enough contrast between them.
Settings: Nikon D750, Nikon 600mm f/4 Prime Lens @ f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO 160, -0.3 EV, Aperture Priority, Matrix Metering.
Photo: Great White Pelican getting ready to land in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, officially known as Keoladeo Ghana National Park.

A Word of Advise

Autofocus systems will be tricked when the bird zips across different backgrounds and starts to lose focus. While it’s frustrating to lose focus on the bird when the action was so good, you must understand that there are limitations to everything. Instead of blaming yourself or the camera, just know that every bird photographer—professional or not—misses far too many chances than you might ever imagine. 

For every one good shot or a series of shots, there are several hundreds that were bad ones. An experienced photographer have done it so long that he/she understands the reality and waits in patience for another chance.

Try to embrace the challenges and have fun.

#5 Tracking the Bird in Flight Makes or Breaks the Image

If tracking the bird is an alien concept for you, then it might be the solution you were looking for all along.

Here are the steps to track the bird:

  1. Watch the bird’s activity through your eyes, not through the viewfinder.
  2. Look for the bird long before it comes to a position where you want to shoot. Or, long before the bird comes parallel to the sensor while flying sideways.
  3. Once you see the bird flying from a far off distance and know that it’s gonna to come to a position you are waiting for, you start focusing right then.
  4. Since when the bird is far off, it’ll be small in the frame, making it easier for you to find the bird through the viewfinder.
  5. Now, assuming that you are using a single point focus or a 5-or 9-point focus at the centre (as described in #4), you’ll have to start half-pressing the shutter button or pressing the back-button if you are using back-button focusing.
  6. While the camera tries to achieve the focus on the bird, you’ll have to keep moving the lens or tracking the bird so that autofocus point(s) remain on the bird. The key is to move at the same relative speed as the bird by keeping it at the centre of the frame all through out.
  7. Once the bird is in the shooting position, you can quickly fire off as many shots as your camera high-speed continuous shooting supports, until you see the bird flying away from you. Or, until the buffer runs out.

The key is to keep tracking the bird, or maintain the autofocus, long enough that you start to feel comfortable and in control. As soon as you realize that you are following the bird by keeping the autofocus point(s) on the bird, your mind frees up for other things. And that’s when you can see what’s happening on the background. Yes, it’s critical to your success.

When you can easily see the background as the bird zips past one background to another, it’s just a matter of your choice when you want to dip the shutter. It’s perhaps the most satisfying for any bird photographer when he/she’s in control in such situations.

Settings: Nikon D750, Nikon 600mm f/4 Prime Lens @ f/5, 1/1600, ISO 320, -0.7 EV, Aperture Priority, Matrix Metering.
Photo: Greater Spotted Eagle landing in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, officially known as Keoladeo Ghana National Park.

You’ll know it when you do it the first time, then the second time, and then third time. That’s when you realise the value of tracking the bird. 

Hopefully, you’ll remember me then and thank me. I look forward to those days.

Bonus Tip: Finding the Bird

Finding the bird through the viewfinder while the bird zips across while using a telephoto lens is a major challenge. There are four solutions to this problem:

  1. Practice shooting with both eyes open. One eye on the viewfinder and another open and scanning the actual scene. It’s possible and many photographers do it. You just need to practice. This’ll help you to keep tracking the bird through the eye that’s not on the viewfinder while giving enough time for the autofocus to focus on the bird.
  2. Manually Pre Focus at a distance that’s close to the plane where bird is flying or about to fly by. Now, it’s only about making sure your lens is pointed in the right place and autofocus will quickly grab the focus. This might take a lot of practice and a knowhow of where the bird is possibly going to fly. Just remember not to focus too close or too far. 
  3. Start tracking the bird when it’s way far and small in the frame so that autofocus has enough time to focus and you have enough time to adjust to the bird’s speed.
  4. Slightly work with a wider focal length (if you are using a zoom lens) so that you can quickly see where the bird is in the frame and zoom in as you let the autofocus achieve the focus. This method is tricky but works well if you can do multiple things at once. Also, make sure that the bird is in the centre of the frame so that when you are zooming you don’t loose it.
Settings: Nikon D750, Nikon 600mm f/4 Prime Lens @ f/5.6, 1/1000, ISO 500, 0 EV, Aperture Priority, Matrix Metering.
Photo: Bronze-winged Jacana flying against a marshland in Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, officially known as Keoladeo Ghana National Park.

Try to practice all these techniques and see which one works best. It doesn’t hurt to know more tricks than necessary. You never know which one will come handy in the field.

I lifted this bonus tip directly from the new bird photography product that I briefly mentioned in the last week’s article. You’ll soon receive more information about it in your mail box. Be sure to check it out as it might be one of the most useful products that I ever wrote.

I’d recommend you to read my article on Digital Photography School website—10 Surefire Tips for Photographing Birds in Flight—for more information on birds in flight.

And, I also recommend you to read 10 Tips to Capture Amazing Photographs of Birds in Flight article on 121Clicks.com. The photos that I have used in this article are taken with 70-300mm, 100-400mm, and 300mm f/2.8 lenses which will give you a good idea about how you can get tack sharp bird photographs with inexpensive lenses too.

In fact, now-a-days, almost anyone can own a lens that can reach upto 600mm and let me tell you that was a dream just a few years ago.

Till then, have fun and have a great time.

If you feel this article was helpful, let me know about it in your comments. It feels great to get some encouragement from you. Please do share it in your social circles and photography clubs. Thanks in advance.

Best Regards,

Prathap

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo Da Vinci.

Free eBook on Bird Photography! A 66-page eBook that's packed with some great field tips and techniques.
Free eBook on Bird Photography! A 66-page eBook that’s packed with some great field tips and techniques.
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Prathap

Prathap is a professional nature photographer and founder of Nature Photography Simplified blog. He aims to simplify every photography concept to help beginners and amateur photographers.

Download his highly recommended FREE eBook "Bird Photography – 10 Mistakes and Solutions" which has been instrumental in helping thousands of bird photographers.

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This Post Has 10 Comments
  1. Hi Prathap, thank you for this nice article and useful tips. My only issue is that most of us can’t afford the $10,000 prime f/4 lenses (as you pointed out) and are likely using zoom lenses at a max of f/5.6, yet every single photo you used here for examples are from a 600mm f/4 lens. How about you use a zoom at max of f/5.6 next time so mere mortals like us can see what we can achieve by applying your tips?

    1. Hi Elmer, you are most welcome!
      I am sorry about that. I didn’t realize it at all. May I recommend you to please check out my article 10 Tips to Capture Amazing Photographs of Birds in Flight on 121clicks.com. All the photographs there are taken at a maximum focal length of 400mm!
      Also, here’re some more examples to inspire you to take some great bird in flight photos with your telephoto zoom lens. Please check this and this.
      Best Regards,
      Prathap

    2. Not a perfect solution, perhaps – but have you considered zooms? In the past, they’ve been regarded as “poor cousins” and looked down on. But in recent years, they’ve improved enormously.
      I picked up a SIGMA 150-600 sport zoom from a young lad who hardly used it, and it was virtually brand new, but not much more than half the normal retail. And depending what you shoot with – but a good combo is the Nikon D500 with their 70-200 f/2.8 (constant aperture, non-expanding) zoom, which of course becomes a 105-300 on that camera.

      1. I agree, Richard. The new releases from Tamron and Sigma Sports version are making waves. I am yet to try any of them, but I am sure they are much better than what was always just a few years ago. All that we knew was 70-300mm lens 🙂
        Thanks for the suggestions.
        Best Regards,
        Prathap

  2. Can anyone use a bridge camera like Nikon P1000 to get tack sharp images of birds in flight ? This camera 📷 has 2000mm zooming power.

    1. Hi Parthasarathi,

      Here are a few suggestions while using the point and shoot camera like Nikon P1000:

      1. Try not to use the maximum zoom. These cameras start to wobble when zoomed all the way. In your case zooming at 125x is insane. I’d recommend you to zoom it just 40x or so. The idea is simple. Whatever the zoom you are using, the live preview where you are seeing the images should be stable. If the image isn’t stable while you are viewing it on the LCD screen or the Viewfinder, you won’t get a sharp image.
      2. The maximum aperture of your camera is f/2.8 to f/8. So, at 125x zoom, it’s at f/8 which means the images are going to be either too noisy or will have lower shutter speeds because the aperture is small. Don’t mistake these Aperture values as same as a DSLR lens. They are not. It’s a long story. But, in essence, these tiny sensors and lenses are extremely poor in handling the light. That doesn’t mean your images aren’t good. They will be good in good light and good conditions.

      Keep both these points in mind, I would recommend you to firstly, shoot only, I mean only when the light is good. Perhaps, when the light is very good, and secondly, shoot with smaller zoom.

      I hope these tips help.

      Best Regards,
      Prathap

  3. Hey Prathap,
    Informative & lucidly explained. I have this huge handicap of my inability to pick the bird (even on its perch) leave alone in flight, moreso the small skittish ones.
    As suggested will keep trying out whenever I get an opportunity.
    Appreciate the time you’ve taken to explain these points
    Look forward to more such useful tips
    Regards

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