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photographing birds and birds in flight


  • high quality, shallow depth of field (DOF) photography of birds in flight is a very demanding area of photography usually requiring a combination of very expensive equipment (800mm focal length field of view at f/5.6 with a camera capable of fast burst rates, good high ISO capability and fast C-AF with tracking, mounted on a high quality tripod with a gimbal tripod head to allow fast tracking of the bird), lots of practice, patience and access to interesting locations and birds.
  • if you want to travel lighter then a high end cropped sensor camera such as the Olympus OM-D E-M1 mark II with a Olympus mZD 300mm f/4 PRO lens is an awesome combo.
  • as many of these opportunities occur in wetlands, many will wear waterproof waders and set up in the water with their tripods
  • others will sit and wait in camouflaged bird hide or blind
  • season of the year can effect a variety of aspects including:
    • what birds are there
    • visibility - leaves in summer can make like difficult
    • color of background and aesthetics
  • birders often need to be shooting in the “Golden hour” around sunrise or sunset as this often gives the best lighting and also the birds are more likely to be active then
  • weather becomes important
    • windy days are tough to shoot in causing camera shake at such high magnifications, ruffle the feathers too much for aesthetic shots and cause sea spray to damage your gear, but are also sometimes best for coastal birds
    • rainy days impact your gear and birds can get scarce
  • there are so many photos of birds now on the net, the challenge is to come up with something special

general tips

  • use a fast memory card to allow fast burst capture
  • shoot when the sun is low in the sky or just below the horizon
  • have the wind and sun behind you (birds like to take off and land into the wind)
  • try to have a nice background - preferably not busy and out of focus - this is helped by ensuring the background is some distance away from the bird
  • preferably have the bird in same plane as the sensor to ensure adequate DOF covering the bird
  • ensure the bird is not looking away from you when you take the shot
  • usually the bird's closest eye is the most important part - so wait until it shows a catchlight reflection of the sun or bright sky and focus on the eye preferentially
  • keep the camera steady
  • aim for as long a focal length as you can achieve eg. 500-800mm in 35mm terms
  • aim for aperture less than f/8 so you can have good blurring of the background, adequate DOF and a fast enough shutter
  • aim for shutter speed 1/1600th-1/3200th sec unless you plan to pan with the bird in flight in which case a slower shutter speed may give you some interesting shots
  • lowest ISO that will allow the above - if shooting in low sunlight at f/5.6-8, then ISO around 800 or so
  • use MANUAL exposure (as camera auto modes will be fooled by changing backgrounds) and expose for the whites to ensure you do not get any blown highlights on the birds
  • if light levels fall, adjust shutter speed (or increase ISO but this is slower to do) to keep the meter in the same position
  • consider C-AF tracking (AI-Servo on Canons) and start tracking early, or if your camera is not good enough, lock AF if the bird is not moving closer or further from you
  • consider burst mode unless you have a noisy dSLR and not a mirrorless camera and you don't want to scare the bird



Down the hatch by Christopher Schlaf using 850mm focal length at f/5.6 on a Nikon D4 sports dSLR at ISO 800 and shutter speed 1/3200th sec


Just in the nick of time by Christopher Schlaf using 840mm focal length at f/5.6 on a Canon 1D X sports dSLR at ISO 2000 and shutter speed 1/2000th sec

photo/birds_in_flight.txt · Last modified: 2019/07/01 01:14 by gary1