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7 Tips for Better Bird-in-Flight Photos

fotb1Photo ©Danny Hancock. All rights reserved. Photographed @ Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Birds are a challenging subject and when they're on the wing, they're probably one of the most difficult things in nature to capture well. On the other hand, getting that shot of a bird in flight just right is an incredibly rewarding experience. Getting it right is usually going to be more than just a matter of luck. Let's explore a few things that will help you improve the odds of getting that once-in-a-lifetime image.

Use the Best Lens you Can Afford

This is probably the first tip you'll find on any list or tutorial about bird photography and it's important enough to be first on this one, too. Yes, it's true that exceptional skills can overcome many of the limitations in photography gear, but with a subject like this one, those limitations can become real hurdles.

Photo ©Kenneth Hanson. All rights reserved. Photographed @ Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Obviously, a fast lens is nice, but there's much more to consider. Chromatic aberration, distortion and other factors will really come into play in many of the lighting situations for these shots. You'll also want a lens with fast, quiet autofocus. Remember that prime lenses will cost less than zooms, so that's one way to save.

If all you can afford is your 75 – 300mm kit lens, then by all means, use it and expect to do a lot of culling and post-processing. If you have a little bigger budget, consider picking up a good quality prime lens with a minimum focal length of 400mm.

Stop Down

Photo ©Steve Yabek. All rights reserved. Photographed @ Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

You're going to want the highest possible shutter speed and the first thought for most photography is to open up the aperture. That's a good plan for birds at rest or even walking around on the beach. When your subject has its wings outstretched, however, you may need more depth of field for good overall sharpness. This is especially true with larger birds. Push your ISO up and keep your aperture near the sweet spot for your lens.

Continuous Focus with a Single AF Point

Most DSLRs will offer a continuous focusing mode, though it goes by different names (AI Servo for Canon, AF-C for Nikon). You're going to be panning with a fast-moving subject following an unpredictable path. By the time your autofocus system has made its adjustments, the distance will have changed. Set your AF mode to continuous and set a single AF point as active. Line up that point on your subject and press the shutter release halfway, then hold it while you follow the subject, until you take the shot.

Continuous Shutter in Short Bursts

Photo ©Robert Dunn. All rights reserved. Photographed @ Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Setting your shutter to continuous mode will help you capture the right instant when you do press the shutter release, but firing off 10 or 12 panning shots is only going to fill your camera's buffer as well as result in out-of-focus shots. Take two or three shots at the moment you want to capture and then let go.

Follow Through

Many novices stop panning when they start shooting and that's going to result in blurred pictures every time. Always continue with a nice, fluid motion while holding the shutter release and for a second after you release it.

Turn your IS/VR Off

This one is bound to raise a few eyebrows. You're shooting hand-held with a big lens and I'm telling you to disable your image stabilization. Here's the thing: You should be shooting at very high shutter speeds, especially if you're having trouble panning smoothly. That means that camera shake isn't going to be a huge factor. Meanwhile, image stabilization/vibration reduction can slow down your autofocus.

If your shutter speeds are dropping below 1/500sec or so, you may want IS on. Otherwise, switching it off will speed up your focusing system and your shots.

Learn to Anticipate

Photo ©David Hanson. All rights reserved. Photographed @ Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

This tip covers a lot of area. Most of the work for a successful in-flight shot happens before the shot. You should be thinking ahead from the get-go: Is that perched bird going to fly? Focus on it while it's still and hold the shutter release. What kind of background will be behind the flight path? Maybe you need to adjust your position. Is it about to land or grab its prey? Wait for the instant just before to start shooting.

Bonus Tip: Location, Location, Location!

Photo ©Steve Yabek. All rights reserved. Photographed @ Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Often, the key to getting the right shot is being in the right place at the right time. One of the best places and times we know for improving your bird-in-flight techniques with plenty of subject matter is the annual Festival of the Cranes presented by Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.

This unique annual event offers amazing, up-close-and-personal opportunities for photos of large migratory birds, particulalry the beautiful Sandhill Crane. Not only are there thousands of cranes, ducks and geese in a picturesque New Mexico setting, you'll have the opportunity to work with and learn from 12 seasoned professional bird photographers. There are over 300 seats available in 25 workshops over a 6-day period in November. Registration opens in September, so those seats will fill up fast! Visit the Festival of the Cranes website today to find out what's offered and be ready to register!


Bird Photography Without the Big Lens

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Boy, there's nothing quite like dragging out the 600mm f/4 L IS USM and grabbing a few shots of some beautiful birds, right? Wait – what's that? You say you don't have that $10,000 lens in your bag?Neither do I. I guess we can't possibly take great bird photos, right? Wrong.

Although having a long lens is a clear advantage in bird photography, it isn't an absolute necessity. In fact, you may find that using a mid-quality shorter lens gives you better results than a cheaper telephoto. It's often a matter of where you shoot, the kind of photos you take and how patient you're willing to be. Here are a few ways to get great bird shots at focal lengths below 300mm:

Set up a Blind

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If the goal is to get in close, camouflage is one way to get the job done. There are numerous portable blinds on the market and it's easy enough to build your own. It doesn't have to be anything fancy; a simple a-frame made from branches will do. If you're shooting waterfowl, you can even use an existing duck blind during the off-season. Just make sure it hides you well and that you'll be comfortable enough to be there for a while.

The key to using one is to get into it early and cause the least amount of disturbance in the process. Settle in and be quiet, while you wait for the birds to come to you.

Shoot from your Car

Photo ©Jean Fripp. All rights reserved. Photographed @ Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

A vehicle makes a fairly good mobile blind, too. Birds in many locations, like other wildlife, tend to be less shy of people inside a vehicle, especially if the vehicle is where it belongs, in a road or parking area. This can get you in surprisingly close. I've shot a lot of very nice bird images from my SUV at 200mm or less.

Go Urban

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If you're not out to shoot exotic birds, head for your nearest Super Center parking lot. Depending on where you are, gulls, jays, grackles, crows and other interesting characters will be there begging for scraps and most are not camera shy. If you live in a coastal area, it's hard to say who might show up:

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Visit the Refuge

3032abbd49728d2caa95ad4cPhoto ©Robert Dunn. All rights reserved. Photographed @ Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Wildlife sanctuaries, refuges, nature centers and the like are excellent places to get in close without top-of-the-line gear. Because the birds in these areas aren't hunted, but are accustomed to people, nice, slow movements, a quiet voice and patience will often reward you with great images, even with your normal lens.

If you're smart, you can even get expert help in taking those great shots by attending annual festivals like the Festival of the Cranes in New Mexico. This unique event is an amazing opportunity to get close to large, colorful migratory waterfowl, including Sandhill Cranes, geese and ducks. It's set within 57,000 acres of the most picturesque bird habitat you'll find, so the backdrops are awesome. 12 masters of bird photography will be there, and you can choose from an incredible number of workshops during thie 6-day event. Registration is coming up in September and it's an opportunity you won't want to miss. There's too much to describe here, so please visit the website and find out what it has to offer you.

Shoot the Flock

Photo ©Steve Yabek. All rights reserved. Photographed @ Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

If you can't get in tight on an individual subject, why not photograph the whole flock? Some of the most dynamic and exciting avian images include larger numbers of birds. You don't need a telephoto to capture dramatic, artistic photos this way.

Pets and Parks

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There's no rule that says your bird photos have to be taken in the wild, so don't forget about people's pets and those ducks, geese and other birds at your local parks and even zoos. All of these can provide you with opportunities to get a little closer to birds that are more accustomed to people and not so shy.

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Raptor Exhibits

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This is one of my favorite venues for working with birds up close. Watch for advertisements for raptor shows or demonstrations. These typically happen at zoos, big parks and wildlife preserves. Trained handlers will be there showing you what these majestic birds are capable of and you'll get the chance for some awesome portraits and even in-flight shots. In some locations, you may even see some of the birds capture prey naturally.

There are raptor events scheduled at the 2016 Festival of the Cranes, too, so don't forget to check it out.

Photo ©Sigmond Whitener. All rights reserved. Photographed @ Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

I hope that you've found some ideas in this article to help you grab some amazing bird images with the gear you've got. As you can see, it's mostly a matter of planning and patience, but you really can photograph birds without that multi-thousand dollar lens.

Have fun shooting!

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