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Flight Photography: Stacking The Odds in Your Favor

If you are reading this blog you are probably a fan of birds, and I'm guessing you'd agree with me that one of the awesome things about class Aves is flight capability (at least for most members.)  Capturing bird flight in photos can be a classic two-edged sword.  While the desire to get cool flight shots is high the difficulty factor can also be daunting.  But don't despair- there are ways to stack the odds of getting nice flight shots in your favor!

First, it is important to realize that there will be times when you just can't get good flight shots.  It still may be worth burning some memory to get reference or documentation pics, but if the elements don't line up right then sometimes it is best to put the camera down & just enjoy the birds.  On the other hand, if certain elements do come together you may find yourself awestruck by what you see on your review screen.  Here are some things to look for or try out the next time you are in the field with the hopes of capturing some flight shots.  (I hope you will also feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments below!)

1) Pre-focus.  It will cut way down on your camera's autofocus (AF) search time (or your own if you are manually focusing) if your lens is already in the right general range.  I like to pick a tree top, sign post, or whatever sits at about the anticipated distance to my target to pre-focus on.  If my AF misses (which it will do a lot) then I re-set on the stationary object and try again.

2) Practice & get good at tracking your target.  AF systems will do best if you keep your target in the camera's selected AF area while it searches for a target.  Like shooting skeet, there is no replacement for lots of practice.  You want to be able to point your lens where you want it and keep it on a moving target without thinking about it.  If you see even the blurriest smudge in your viewfinder where the bird should be then keep it in the AF area as long as possible to give the lens a chance to lock on it.

3) Wind can be your friend.  An ideal situation is a stiff breeze or even wind coming from the general direction of the sun.  This way birds flying towards the light (and thus well lit) will also be flying with slower ground speed.  Sometimes they will almost stall, providing a nearly still target.  When they turn to go the other way with a tail wind, forget about it…

4) Big birds, bueño.  If you are just getting into the game, start with bigger birds like waterfowl, large shorebirds, or cranes.  They not only are easier to find and track (both by your eye and the camera's AF) but they also typically have more predictable flight paths.

5) Busy flight paths, bueño.  It helps a lot if you have birds flying the same way over and over.  The idea here is kind of like taking swings in a batting cage over and over.  If you find a flight path that birds are repeatedly or continuously using, such as geese landing in a corn field or shorebirds following a beach, then you can get advantageous position and try again and again with similar motions.  This will also give you a chance to adjust settings if upon review you realize something isn't working right and then try some more.

6) Grip it & rip it.  Shoot a lot.  Take advantage of your burst mode.  Sometimes there will be a gem lurking in a series of frames & the opportunity will come and go faster than any human can react, so give luck a chance to strike.  Caveat:  Also be willing to delete many if not most (& sometimes all!) shots from a photo phrenzy.

A couple of weeks ago I had all of the above elements converge on a road that bisects a marsh in Weld County, Colorado.  American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts were nearly continuously flying around the marsh, repeatedly crossing the road as they vocalized.  A nice breeze from the southeast slowed down birds heading into the morning light, and I found that most of the time the birds followed the outer margin of the marsh so I could set up close and try repeatedly for shots as they orbited.

AMAV_weld-julAmerican Avocet, Weld County, Colorado, July 2011

Black-necked Stilt, Weld County, Colorado, July 2011

You can really increase your odds on nightmarish birds like swifts and swallows if you can find a situation with many or most of the above elements.  I finally got an OK Chimney Swift flight photo this past June in North Dakota when I noticed a small group of the speedy little devils repeatedly crossing a small park where my group was having lunch.  I pre-focused on a tree that the swifts would often come by as they headed into the breeze & sun, ignoring nearer or farther birds.  Many passes would transpire without me even seeing the desired bird in my viewfinder but occasionally I'd get in a burst.  Quite a few of these were empty due to the constant hinking and jinking of the birds and others had only blurry suggestions of swifts in the frame, but a few came through that were worth saving.  Not tack-sharp, but a step in the right direction!

Chimney Swift, Tuttle County, ND, June 2011

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Bill Schmoker

Bill Schmoker

Bill is known in the birding community as a leading digital photographer of birds. Since 2001 he has built a collection of digital bird photos documenting over 640 species of North American birds. His photography has appeared in international nature publications, books, newspapers, interpretive signs, web pages, advertisements, corporate logos, and as references for art works. Also a published writer, Bill wrote a chapter for Good Birders Don't Wear White, is a past Colorado/Wyoming regional editor for North American Birds and is proud to be on the Leica Birding Team. Bill is a Colorado eBird reviewer and is especially fond of his involvement with the ABA's Institute for Field Ornithology and Young Birder Programs. Bill is a popular birding guide, speaker, and workshop instructor, and teaches middle school science in Boulder, Colorado. When he isn’t birding he enjoys family time with his wife and son.
Bill Schmoker

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  • Great observations! Will keep them in mind, especially the next time I try to photograph swallows. One other thing: birds are often dark against a bright sky; so dialling in the appropriate amount of exposure compensation beforehand helps,

  • Bill, Lori and I have always loved your photos. Great advice here, but it all depends on the lens. What are you using?

  • Hi Bob & Lori- thanks for the note. I think these tips apply to any lens but for sure a faster lens will be more flight photo-friendly. My main two lenses now are a Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR (often with 1.4X teleconverter) and a Sigma 50-500mm f/6.3 (smaller and thus more travel-friendly.)

  • Great tips Bill. It’s nice to see that someone who is a considerably better photographer than me struggles with the same issues. I used the “flying into a stiff breeze” method to get some relatively decent shots of Northern Rough-winged Swallows last year. I find swallows to be near impossible to track.

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