Photographing birds in flight is a real challenge, and the key to nailing those shots is getting the exposure spot on. Exposing for birds in flight is a bit hit or miss, and you will find that you bin just as many images (and if not more) than you actually keep. It is important not to get too disheartened by this, as it happens to us all. Over the years I have found some useful tips and tricks on taking photos of birds in flight that have significantly improved my hit rate and they may well do the same for you. My steps in photographing birds in flight are as follows:-
Set the camera in al servo focus mode so once it locks on to the subject you can track the bird as it moves around the scene and the camera will retain a lock and not hunt around.
Set the camera in continuous shooting or burst mode. Firing off several shots in quick succession increases the chances of getting not only a sharp shot but also one with a pleasing composition. If you fancy a real challenge you may want to set the camera to single shot mode, however I would never recommend it.
Set the camera in shutter priority mode. Okay, I appreciate you may prefer to shoot in manual mode (just like I do) however flying birds move so fast there is no way you will get all the settings dialled in and get the shot as well. In order to get around this you will have to use a semi-automatic mode and I would suggest shutter priority (to freeze the action) and let the camera determine the aperture. It is important to dial in a shutter speed that is not only fast enough to freeze the action and eliminate blurry photos due to subject movement but also a shutter speed that is fast enough to eliminate blurry photos as a result of camera shake. As a rule of thumb you need to go for a speed that is at least one over the focal length (remembering to take in to account the camera’s crop factor). So, if I was using a 400mm on my Canon 7d I would use a shutter speed at least 1/640 (being 1 over 400x1.6) to ensure camera shake is not an issue.
Set the camera in evaluative metering mode (spot metering uses an area that is too small and problems will occur) so the camera considers the entire scene in helping to set the exposure.
With the shutter speed set and the camera in spot metering mode the next step is to point the camera towards the sky and adjust the aperture until the exposure needle shows an over exposure, the amount of which depends on whether it is bright blue skies, light clouds or dull and overcast. You may need to experiment a bit here but you will need to dial in an aperture resulting in an intentional over exposure. Even though the camera shows an over exposure the image should be correctly exposed (or very close) so there’s no need to worry.
As the birds come in to view it is then a case of getting them in the view finder, tracking them as they fly through the scene snapping as you do so.
Other related bird photography articles
If you found this article interesting/useful below are some other related bird photography articles you may want to take a look at.
“Quick and easy bird photography tips” is an article that, as the name suggests consists of quick and easy bird photography tips that will lead to instantly improved photos of birds.
“Best lenses for bird photography” is an article focused on the best birding lenses. The lens you use plays a big part in the photograph and choosing the best lens for the job at hand can make or break a photo. For the best type of lenses for different bird photography situations (and the lenses I use) you may want to take a look at this article.
“Best camera for bird photography” explains the features your camera needs to get the best bird photos possible.
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