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5 Tips to Master Photographing Birds in Flight

Written by Thomas C

• 

Posted on May 11 2019

5 Tips to Master Photographing Birds in Flight 

Thomas from Alotech
Wildlife Photographer | Guide | Podcast Host for the PhotoCast | Founder of Alotech

Tired of deleting your awesome birds in flight photos because your images are out-of-focus? Want to know exactly where and when a bird is going to take off while being in the perfect spot to capture the best angle? 

After reading my article you will learn how-to: 

1. Use the wind to always capture be best angle

2. Precisely predict exactly what a bird will take off by understanding five key behavioral signs 

3. The power of going low occasionally high

4. Never take an out-of-focus image again by mastering the 'V'

5. Capture the best wing position and body angle 

Tip #1

The most important foundation for photographing birds-in-flight is understanding the wind. The wind direction dictates the orientation of the bird’s take off. Most birds will take off flying into the wind. Wind direction means the direction that it is blowing; if there is an eastern wind, then a balloon will fly west.

Therefore, when you are photographing birds-in-flight with the sun to your back in the morning, an eastern wind will yield birds flying directly at you. Also, if you are photographing birds in the afternoon with the sun setting behind you—west—then a western wind will allow you to photograph birds flying directly at you.

Northern or southern winds will yield profile photos as the bird flies parallel to you. Also, in the afternoon, a northern or southern wind will cause birds to fly parallel to you. 

Tip #2

If you have ever been caught with the camera by your side as a bird takes off, all you need to do is analyze bird behavior. The tell-tale signal for a bird about to take flight, immediately or within a couple of minutes, is defecation. If a bird lightens its load to take off, then you should analyze the wind in order to position yourself to get the best angle. This tip often works with larger birds. 

Other behaviors that could indicate a bird taking flight are resting on one foot and then transitioning to standing on both feet, as well as certain vocalizations. Also, a quick indicator that a bird is seconds away from taking flight is a quick drop in the bird’s head/body before it leaps into the air to fly. Lastly, if you are photographing a bird that spends its time in a flock, like Ibis, then if one takes flight, most likely, the others will follow suit.

Tip #3

The third technique is to get low when photographing birds standing in front of you, ready to take off. I prefer a lower angle when photographing larger birds taking flight because you are able to create a large separation between your subject and the background, causing the bird to pop against a background that is completely blown out. If you photograph a shorebird, looking down at it, then the background is much closer, creating more background distractions. 

There are always exceptions to this technique:

Tip #4

If you see a bird flying towards you, the fourth technique to wait for is the “ V,” or cone of focus. If you see a bird is hundreds of yards away and immediately hold down the autofocus to track its progress towards you, then your autofocus will most likely miss when the bird is at the best angle to capture photos. You should set your camera with the button on the back for autofocusing, and the shutter button for metering/taking a photo. This is called back-button focus. When a bird is hundreds of yards away, half press the shutter button to activate the metering. Then, just tap the back button, do not hold it, to keep the bird at least 85% in focus. When the birds gets into your “V,” or cone of focus, hold down the autofocus button and shutter to capture the action.

Tip #5

The last technique is to select the best frame from the photos in your “V.” If you are taking a photo, imagine a large “V” extending from your sternum outward. This is the sweet spot when a bird is flying because it will yield the best body/head angle. In most instances, you do not want a bird flying away from the camera in any direction. These are not the most aesthetically pleasing images.

Also, the best wing positions are either fully up or down. If the wings are fully up, keep in mind that if you are photographing when the sun is higher in the sky, it will create a harsh shadow underneath the wing.


My favorite bird positions are when a bird is flying at the camera and when it is flying parallel, slightly facing the camera, yielding a nice head angle.

I hope these techniques help you the next time you are photographing birds. The more you shoot, the better you will get.

What do you think about my 5 tips to mastering birds in flight photography? Comment below to let me know!

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