Photographing Birds in Flight
Senior advocate and wildlife photographer Adhik Shirodkar shares his experiences and suggests some simple techniques to get that perfectly timed shot.
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Better Photography.
Pursuing wildlife photography requires a tremendous amount of patience and endurance, especially for a wildlife photographer whose specialisation is birds. While birds perched on tree branches make for a pretty photograph, a bird in flight has its own beauty. The unique design of their wings, distinctive patterns and kaleidoscopic colours are a sight to behold and a dream to photograph. One has to sharpen reflexes to photograph birds in flight. By keeping some of the following basic rules in mind, you can increase your chances of success.
If you are new to photographing birds in flight, it is always better to start with locations like a nearby lake, park or a sea shore. The simple reason for this is that the birds at such locations are used to human presence and therefore, are easier to approach. Swans, sparrows and seagulls also make ideal subjects to hone your skills.
Know the Subject’s Behaviour Pattern
It is a boon for a wildlife photographer to understand their subject’s characteristics, their feeding and breeding pattern. With birds too, knowledge of their behavioural patterns will help you predict a subject’s movement, thereby enabling you to shoot better images. For instance, a bird defecating is an indication that it is about to fly. Speak to the experts, browse the internet or read books on birds’ behaviour to gain an insight into their habitats, quirks and specific features and habits.
Gear Up Correctly
At the beginner’s level, you can start with medium-range lenses like 100–200 and later on move to 300–400mm lenses. But when moving on to serious bird photography, good equipment is a must. Zoom lenses are an asset in wildlife photography, as neither the subject nor the photographer can move. A combination of a good DSLR and lens will certainly render good results. Some photographers prefer the additional advantage offered by fast lenses with high speed auto-focus and vibration reduction functions. However, if you wish to handhold your camera and shoot, then the best choice is a 400mm f/5.6 lens.
Practise Basic Techniques
It is always wise to practise basic techniques like panning before you head out to photograph birds. For instance, shooting a flock of birds is relatively easier compared to photographing a single bird in flight. This is because it can be quite tricky to achieve focus on a single moving subject. In order to pan and shoot, stand with your legs shoulder-width apart and firmly tuck your elbows inside. This helps in balancing your body during the panning action. Once you have gained the posture, rotate your upper body from the waist. Follow your subject through the lens and take multiple shots. If necessary, use a tripod or a monopod to master the technique, and develop eye-hand coordination while shooting.
Lighting is Essential
Like any other genre of photography, the right lighting is essential for photographing birds. Frontal lighting is best to shoot birds in flight, as it shows the beauty of birds in a brilliant manner. It also allows you to capture the colours and feather details in appropriately. The light during dusk and dawn (magical hours) can help you capture stunning silhouettes of flying birds.
Aim for Sharpness
Once you have mastered the technique of identifying the right moments, panning a bird in flight and tracking its motion, the next step is to practise focus locking. One way to achieve this is to pre-focus the camera after predicting the subject’s position. Alternatively, set the focus to predictive AF (AI Servo on Canon and Continuous Servo in Nikon). This setting allows the lens to keep adjusting the focus and tracking the subject as long as the shutter button is depressed halfway.
Play with Shutterspeed
To take your photography to the next level, remember to experiment with both slow and fast shutterspeeds. You could aim to have blurred wings and a sharp head or a sharp bird against a blurred background. While panning, make it a point to continue the panning action even after you have taken the photograph. To achieve a completely sharp frame, shoot at the highest shutterspeed possible.
Compose for Effect
It can be tricky to compose constantly moving subjects like birds. The idea is to get some basic rules of composition absolutely right. For instance, always compose the frame in a way that the subject has space to fly into. You can achieve this by predicting the subject’s movement and keep space in the frame, either to the left or to the right. These techniques are simply glimpses of what you require to shoot great bird images. But constant effort will get you beautifully composed, perfectly sharp images.