Birds on the wing: Flight photo tips

Today’s post is a little different. Instead of talking about a particular Central Florida Photo Op, I’ll share some photo tips.

Bird photography can be very hard, and photographing birds in flight is even more so. In this article, I’ll point out several things that may help you improve your photos.

Great Blue Heron in flight
Great Blue Heron in flight, Orlando Wetlands Park, 1/1000 sec, f/5.6, 300mm, ISO 320

First of all, here are several links to information elsewhere on the web. They cover a lot of things you should do to improve your percentage of “keepers” when photographing birds.

One thing I didn’t see mentioned is how great nest building season is for bird flight photography.

Great Blue Herons like the one above frequently nest in the tops of palm trees. The female will generally stay at the nest, while the male retrieves sticks for her to use. If you come across this situation like we did yesterday at Orlando Wetlands Park, you should take advantage of it to really boost your ability to get good frame filling photos of birds in flight.

Why? Well when they’re building a nest, the birds can be very predictable. The nest is in one location, and frequently the male bird will return to the same tree or general area to get another branch for his mate to use. The nest building usually goes on for quite some time and predictable flight paths together with multiple opportunities are a huge advantage for the observant, prepared photographer.

If you watch the activity for a while, you should be able to determine where to position yourself for the best chance of a good photo. You want to be along the flight path close enough to fill the frame, and have the sun in a good position to light the bird.

Optimize your camera settings for this type of photo and take time between flights to double check your results.

  • Do you have a high enough shutter speed (generally 1/1000sec or better)?
  • Is your aperture appropriate (one or two stops down from wide open would be best for image quality and depth of field)?
  • What’s your ISO set to (as low as possible given the light and desired shutter and aperture)?
  • Have you set continuous focus mode and high speed release?
  • Did you turn off bracketing from your last HDR shot :-)?

When the bird takes off (probably into the wind) concentrate on keeping the focus mark on the bird (the eye, if possible). Pan smoothly as the bird flies. For better composition, try to leave a little room in the frame in front of the bird. Wait until there’s a lull in the action before you chimp the shots. Make sure they’re what you expect. If not, adjust and wait for the next flight.

And don’t forget to get some photos of the male as he passes the stick to the female.

One more thing – after the chicks hatch, you can still use this tip. The birds will be out searching for food for the babies, and you can stake out the nest in the same way as they return with a meal.

Great Blue Heron in flight, bringing stick to mate in nestGreat Blue Heron in flight, bringing stick to mate in nest, 1/2500 sec, f/5.6, 300 mm, ISO 640

I hope you liked this photo tip. Let me know if it helps you.

(Note: You can click on either of these photos to see a larger version on Flickr.)

©2010, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.

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