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Birds In Flight: Location, Instinct And Gear All Play A Part Bookmark and Share

One of the biggest challenges in nature photography is taking a great frame-filling picture of a bird in flight. Just having the hand-eye coordination required to keep the bird in the frame is a big deal, but then you have to keep it in focus, watch the background so it’s not busy or distracting, use the right shutter speed for the effect you want, be aware of the light and get a decent exposure. And all of these things have to be considered in a very brief span of time—2 seconds or less.

Even if you are the most skilled of nature photographers, your ratio of great pictures to the number of frames you take will be very low. (You’ll have a higher keeper rate of lightning pictures!) The following is a list of things that go through my mind when I’m photographing flying birds so you can see the strategies I use to get pictures like (#1) a black-browed albatross in the Falkland Islands, and (#2) flamingos flying in formation at Lake Nakuru, Kenya.

All Photos © Jim Zuckerman


Focusing Tactics
The toughest issue of all is keeping a flying bird in focus. There are many factors that directly influence the outcome of your pictures.

If the birds are flying across your field of view, like the roseate spoonbills I photographed in Tampa Bay, Florida (#3), you will have a much easier time keeping them in focus because the subject-to-camera distance doesn’t change very much. You can pan with the birds and have a reasonable expectation that they will stay in focus.


However, the point of critical focus changes every millisecond if the bird is flying toward or away from you. The wood stork (#4), and the African white pelican (#5) are examples, and even though these are relatively slow flying birds, the focal point was constantly changing as they approached my shooting position.



Focus Points
How many focus points in the viewfinder should you use? For most of my photography, I like to use only the central focus point. This way I can control exactly where my lens focuses in the scene or on the subject. For birds, I use all the focus points because it’s very hard to track one in flight and keep it in the center of the viewfinder.

This is especially true if you are tracking a bird that appears small in the frame. As they fly and you pan with the action, the bird will move off the central point of focus and then the autofocus mechanism goes haywire trying to focus on the sky. The picture is lost at that point. If all the focus points are chosen, as the bird spreads its wings many of the focus points will intersect with the wings or some part of the bird’s body, and the camera can lock focus on the subject. That’s how I photographed a black kite (#6) in southern Ethiopia, and a great egret (#7) in St. Augustine, Florida. As cameras evolve, they get better and better in many arenas, and one of the most important improvements is ultra fast autofocus tracking. Modern cameras do a great job of locking the focus on a fast flying bird and allowing you to get a shot.



If your autofocus mechanism isn’t as fast as you need it to be in order to hold focus on a bird in flight, you have another option. You can focus the lens barrel manually, and choose a point ahead of the bird’s expected flight path. Just before the bird comes into the focal point, start shooting—on motor drive—and hope you get a shot in focus. I have done this many times, sometimes I’m successful and sometimes not. This is how I captured the wood stork (#8) in focus.


Fill The Frame?
The next issue is how tight should you shoot. If you are using a telephoto zoom lens, is it best to fill the frame with the bird or allow more background? The tighter you shoot, the more critical focus will be. On the other hand, if the bird is too small in the frame, it will be easier to keep it in focus but then you’ll have to crop the photograph so the subject has impact. I rarely crop my images, so I opt to fill the frame as much as possible. You may not mind cropping your pictures and therefore your approach may be to include more background in an attempt to guarantee a sharp picture.

Shutter Speed And Depth Of Field
There are 2 ways to photograph birds in flight. You can choose to freeze their wings with tack sharp clarity, as I did in the picture of a Wilson’s storm petrel in Antarctica (#9) or you can blur them artistically. If you want to freeze them, you need the fastest shutter speed possible given the ambient light, your maximum lens aperture and the ISO. Birds that flap and glide—like ravens, vultures and eagles—are easier to photograph if your intent is to capture the body and the wingspan with every feather sharp. The bald eagle in (#10) is an example, although having a “context” shot like this makes it easier to have it all sharp with even a fairly wide aperture.



By comparison, the white-backed vulture (#11) had just taken off from a branch and I used a 500mm lens plus a 2x teleconverter giving me a focal length of 1000mm. Notice how the feathers in the middle of the bird’s back are sharp, but the wing tips are blurred. I used 1/320th of a second to shoot this and I needed a shutter speed of at least 1/1000. I was shooting wide open—f/4 minus 2 f/stops due to the teleconverter, which gave me f/8—and ISO 400, and this limited my shutter speed in the relatively low light. (I could have raised the ISO to gain more shutter speed but frankly the camera I was using at the time dropped quality beyond the ISO 400 setting—thankfully high ISO results in today’s cameras are much better.)


When you want to freeze a bird’s wings, depth of field is not a luxury you can afford unless you are shooting in bright sunlight. To get the fastest shutter speed, I set my Exposure mode on Aperture Priority and choose the largest aperture on the lens, or I opt to use Program mode. Program mode is programmed to give you the fastest shutter speed the light, the maximum aperture on the lens and the ISO setting afford.

The picture of the spoonbill (#12) required a fast shutter for 2 reasons: I was shooting a bird whose wings flap fairly fast, and I was taking pictures hand holding a 500mm lens from a small boat. All of that movement required a fast shutter speed to give me the kind of sharp detail I was looking for, and therefore I shot wide open at f/4 using Aperture Priority. That gave me a shutter of 1/1250 and the wing tips in this picture are sharp as everything else on the bird.


If you want to blur a bird to imply motion and/or to create an artistic abstraction, as I did with a seagull in San Francisco (#13), and an African white pelican flying past thousands of flamingos at Lake Nakuru, Kenya (#14), then the shutter speed must be chosen depending on the effect you want. For the seagull shot, I panned with the bird and used a shutter speed of 1/8th of a second. Notice how the trees in the background are much more blurred than the bird, but both aspects of the image are significantly abstracted. The same is true in the white pelican picture.



Working With A Tripod
Not all action bird photography must be taken from a tripod. With super fast shutter speeds to freeze movement, and with very slow shutter speeds to artistically blur the wings, a tripod isn’t necessary. If you are using a long lens, a tripod does more than offer a firm support. It takes the weight of the camera and lens off your neck, shoulders and arms. That’s a big deal. I have shot birds and other wildlife with my 500mm f/4 super telephoto while hand holding the lens, and it’s not fun at all. It’s totally exhausting and it’s hard to hold the lens steady.

My preference is to use a tripod and a gimbaled head such as the Wimberley Tripod Head II WH-200, (#15). With quickly accessible knobs, you can swivel the lens like a gun turret and even a monster telephoto lens feels completely weightless. The movement is smooth and non-inhibiting, except if you are trying to shoot straight up.


Exposure Tips
A bird in flight is so fast that it’s really impossible to deliberate about exposure. By the time you take a light reading, the bird is out of range. I use 2 techniques to deal with this.

First, if a bird is perched on a branch waiting to take flight, I can take a light reading on the blue sky or any middle toned area of the scene (such as tree bark, a gray rock, my jeans, etc.) and then lock that reading in place with AE lock or switch to Manual and set my camera to the f/stop—shutter speed combination dictated by the meter. Second—and my preferred method—I switch to Program Exposure mode or Aperture Priority and let the camera’s automatic metering system do its job. If you’re a little off, the benefit of digital is that you can make adjustments later, after you got the action shot you want.

Special Projects: Hummingbirds
Birds have captivated wildlife photographers from the beginning, but none is more intriguing than hummingbirds. There are 3 challenges: First, you want the tiny birds to fill a significant part of the frame. Second, you want the birds to be sharp. Blurred wings are fine for snap-shooters, but for serious photographers only tack-sharp wings will do. And third, the background should not be black. The picture should be exposed to show the picture was taken during the day. (Hummingbirds are day fliers.)

The wings of hummingbirds beat 12-80 times per second, depending on the species. The range of shutter speeds that we normally use for fast moving subjects is typically 1/250 to 1/1250 of a second. This is too slow to freeze the wings. 1/2000th and 1/4000th of a second are not even fast enough to get sharp pictures to reveal the detail in individual feathers. Some cameras go up to 1/8000, but even if this were fast enough to get tack sharp pictures of hummingbirds, the light would be so reduced that you would be forced to shoot with a large lens aperture and a high ISO—neither of which are ideal solutions.

The technique that works is to use flash. However, it’s not straightforward at all. The typical “flash duration”—the length of time that the flash tube is actually illuminated during an exposure—is about 1/1000th of a second when used on Manual. When the power output of the flash unit is reduced to 1/16th power, the flash duration becomes about 1/16,000th of a second. This is definitely fast enough to freeze the wings of hummingbirds as you can see in (#16 and #17).



The set-up I use consists of 4 elements:
1. Four flash units (I use the Canon 430EX Speedlites). Two are placed in front of the set-up, one on either side. One flash is used as a backlight to give a little separation between the subjects and the background, and one is placed to illuminate the background. Metal stands support the flash units.
2. A 24x36” matte photographic print of out of focus foliage is placed in the background. I have many different prints so all of my pictures don’t have the same background. The large ones are simply clamped to a piece of foam core or Styrofoam.
3. A wireless transmitter sits on top of the camera to trigger the strobes. This can be the Canon ST-E2 (which also works with Nikon) or the PocketWizard (
4. An attractive flower is clamped to a support such as a metal stand, the back of a chair, or anything that will work. The same sugar water that is used in feeders is placed into the flower with a syringe so the hummingbirds hover above the flower, drinking.

At 1/16th power (all the flash units are set to the same power output), the recycle time is very brief—about 1/3 to 1/2 second. That means I could shoot quite quickly to take many shots each time a bird came to feed. It is impossible to ascertain whether or not the wings are in an attractive position when I snap the shutter, so I had to take a lot of pictures to get a winner. With the rapid firing, I had a lot of great shots. (#18) is one of my favorites.


To vary the exposure from each flash, I simply moved it closer or farther away; 3-4” make a significant change in exposure. In this way, I could adjust the lighting ratio based on what I saw on the LCD monitor.

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