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How To Instantly Improve Your Birds in Flight and Wildlife Photos

Written by Thomas C

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Posted on June 16 2019

How to Instantly Improve Your Birds in Flight and Wildlife Photos 

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

Composition is one of the most essential aspects when photographing wildlife or birds in flight.

The viewer of your images will feel a much more powerful connection with your photos when you compose your photos well.

This guide isn’t going all the technical jargon, there are plenty of articles for that. However, this guide will dissect some photos and show you the compositional elements that I believe create more pleasing images.

Composition in the field is simply boiled down to three major topics: framing, body angle, and head angle. That’s it.

1. Framing

The wrong framing can destroy your photo’s aesthetics.

Framing is simply placing the animal in a natural or creative place inside your photo.

I’m sure you have heard of the rule of thirds, and this is a tried-and-true powerful technique.

Basically, it’s a fancy name for a tic-tac-toe board. Following this rule, you want to place the animal on four points depending on the direction the animal is facing. As wildlife photographers, we want to create photos that people feel like they are present in the scene when they are viewing our photos.


To create a natural looking image with animals are walking to the right we want to frame them on the left-hand side of the frame with empty space on the right to give them an area to walk or run. The same holds true for an animal walking to the left. Also, the rule of thirds has four points of intersection.

Polar Bear Cub | Canon 5DR R, 300mm f/2.8 IS II, handheld | 300mm, f/2.8, 1/1600, ISO 320

If you are zoomed out and the animal is small in your frame, a general rule to follow is to place them on the point of intersection. However, if the animal is larger in the frame what I like to do is to place the animal’s eye on the point of intersection. If you are photographing headshots of animals placing the eye on the lines might be impossible. You can still follow this rule because if the animal is looking to the right, you can have the eye reach the center of the frame, and just leave some dead space on the right-hand side of the image to give some room for the animal to look.  

For birds-in-flight photography (and fast-action wildlife photography) this is a little controversial, but I do not focus on framing my photos in the field. My goal when I’m in the field is to reduce any errors I can make while photographing any fast-moving animals.

The biggest mistake I see photographers make is clipping body parts/ wings of the animals they are photographing because they are zoomed in way too tight.

So this never happens to me, what I like to do is shoot with a looser frame and always place the animal at the center of the photo. There are a couple reasons why I do this:

  1. When you don’t shoot so tight, you will never run into cutting parts of an animal off. Cutting parts of an animal or bird off looks unnatural and is a huge photographic error; 99 times out of 100 this ruins an image. When you shoot looser, you will be able to be ready for any action that takes place. Yes, there are times that I want to get in close for photos like headshots, but with the sensors today cropping is no longer an issue.

  2. A looser frame will allow me to maximize the usefulness of my photo later on. For example, editors for magazines love to have the creative ability to have enough room to add text and other information. If you shoot too tight, your photos will be unusable. Also, when you want to print/ sell your images, many print sizes require some cropping. If your photo is perfectly composed, with no wiggle room, then you will be limited in how your photos can be used.

  3. Your center autofocus point is the best AF point in your camera. When you are photographing birds-in-flight you need the fastest and most accurate autofocus you can get. If you are trying to compose in the field, then using outer focus points can decrease your AF system’s accuracy.

  4. Shooting loose with the animal in the center of the frame allows me to create consistency in my field workflow. I don’t have to ever worry about moving AF points and miss shots because of this if the bird changes directions my AF point is always in the right spot, and I don’t ever have to think about framing. 99% of the time I place my AF point on an animal’s back because their back is on the same focus plane as their eye.

Unlike many photographers, I love photographing animals vertically. I personally think animals that are a lot taller than they are wide is a more pleasing image if shot vertically. The same goes for subjects like birds banking back towards the camera with their wings spread. A bonus for photographing vertically is that the image can now be on the front cover of books and magazines.

The opposite also holds true; for me, photographing animals horizontally that are a lot wider than tall creates a more pleasing image. Even though you can’t get a cover with a horizontal photo, you can get a DPS (double page spread) in books and magazines.

Gentoo Penguin | Canon 1DX Mark II, 300mm f/2.8 IS II, handheld | 300mm, f/2.8, 1/800, ISO 3200

Prairie Dogs | Canon 5DS R, 600mm f/4 IS II, 1.4x III, tripod | 840mm, f/5.6, 1/500, ISO 400

2. Body Angle

The body angle is another critical aspect of any wildlife photo. This is all personal preference, but I find the most pleasing body angle for ~80% of images is to have the animal walk or fly slightly towards the camera.

I personally find images that have animals walking perfectly parallel boring. Having an animal walk slightly toward the camera creates a more three-dimensional look.

Yes, there are always photos that buck this rule. Some of my favorite images are animals photographed from a low angle that are directly walking towards the camera because this framing makes them look powerful/ larger than life.

Reddish Egret | Canon 1DX Mark II, 300mm f/2.8 IS II, tripod | 300mm, f/2.8, 1/2500, ISO 400

Bighorn Sheep | Canon 1DX Mark II, 600mm f/4 IS II | 600mm, f/4, 1/2000, ISO 100

3. Head angle

The head angle can either make or break your photos. Just like the body angle, I fall into the camp that believes the head should be slightly looking towards the camera. For most images, this head angle is more ascetically pleasing compared to a completely parallel head angle.

After progressing as a wildlife photographer, now I do not really think photos of an animal with the body parallel to the camera with them looking directly into your lens is pleasing. In my opinion, these photos just look unnatural because the images look like the animal is making sure you aren’t a threat. Again, rules are meant to be broken, and these types of images can still be pleasing.

My favorite photos are ones that look natural. Photos that have the head slightly looking towards the camera, and mostly at something else, are my favorite because they look like the animal is undisturbed/ you get a perspective on where they live.

Northern Pintail | Canon 1DX Mark II, 600mm f/4 IS II, 1.4x III | 840mm, f/8, 1/2500, ISO 400

In summary, I always try to shoot wider not to clip any part of an animal, only utilize the center AF point because it’s the fastest, I try to place the animal in the frame, so it’s walking slightly towards me, and try to position myself so that the bird’s head angle is also slightly looking towards me.

What are your thoughts on the compositional decisions we make in the field? Comment below to let me know!

Download Your Free Guide to Mastering Birds-in-Flight Photography

  1. Use the wind to know exactly where the bird is going to fly, and always capture the best angle
  2. Precisely predict exactly where a bird will take off by understanding 5 vital behavioral signs
  3. Discover the power of going low and occasionally high
  4. Never take an out-of-focus image again by mastering the 'V'
  5. Learn how to capture the ultimate wing position and body angle