Digital photography of flying birds is part nature photography and part action, or motion, photography. You can read a number of PhotographyTalk.com articles about nature and action photography; however, this two-part article focuses specifically on the tips and techniques to take sharp and spectacular digital pictures of birds in flight.
Photographing birds perched on a branch or fence post can test many of your skills. Capturing those same birds when they are flying is even more of a challenge. For that reason, pictures of birds on the wing require a DSLR camera and a lens of a specific focal length. Occasionally, you may be close enough to a bird in your yard or the park to take a reasonably good digital photo with a point-and-shoot, or compact, camera. It is nearly impossible to photograph a flying bird with that same camera. One of the best reasons to invest in a DSLR and the correct lens is that today’s high-end cameras provide you with more tools to take amazing flying bird photos. The equipment can only go so far, however. There are other techniques and skills that you must learn and practice.
DSLR Camera Benefits
Learning how to focus a lens manually on a moving object is a good skill to acquire; however, the better DSLR cameras include a continuous focus mode that will help you create beautiful digital photos of flying birds. (On some cameras, this is designated as “AI Servo” or “Continuous Servo.”) Frame and focus the flying bird at the auto focus point, depress the shutter release halfway and the camera will refocus on the object as it moves closer or farther from you.
Expanded Auto Focus Point
Your DSLR camera (or one you buy) may have a setting that makes the auto focus point space bigger. The moving object doesn’t need to be in the exact center of the focus point. This makes it easier for you, especially if you’re trying to hold a camera body and long lens steady.
Burst, or Continuous Shooting, Mode
This tool is essential to action photography because any action, especially a flying bird, is difficult to frame and stop, so it is sharp and well composed. Use the highest speed possible. You’ll quickly learn that you must take many digital photos of birds on the wing to record “the one.” There are so many variables of which you have little control: lighting, angle to the bird, its wing position, its place in the frame, etc. In a sense, you’ll take the one digital photo you hope to capture somewhat accidentally.
Picking a Lens
Sharp digital photos of birds in flight require a fast shutter speed, which means the lens aperture or, opening, must be large to allow enough light to enter the camera. (For complete information about the relationship between shutter speed and aperture, read the five-part series of PhotographyTalk.com articles, starting with Digital Photography—Taming the Three-Headed Exposure Monster, Part 1.) This translates into a lens with a 2.8 f-stop, with a focal length of approximately 400mm. Typically, the wider the lens opening (the smaller number), the more expensive the lens. You may be able to use an f/4 or f/5.6 lens, which is about the limit for a sufficiently fast shutter speed.
Another important factor in picking the right lens for digital photos of birds on the wing is your experience with long focal length lens. It’s best to start your bird photography adventure with the shortest focal length that will still do the job. You’ll find it much easier to keep the birds in the frame compared to a 500mm or 600mm lens.
Learn more tips and techniques in Digital Photography—How To Take Spectacular Pictures of Birds on the Wing, Part 2.