12 tips for Practicing Your Bird Flight Photography

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Bird portraits are rewarding to photograph, but once you have good portraits it’s time to move onto action. Flight photography is dynamic and exciting, but technically a bit more of challenge. So where do you start?

  1. PRACTICE – In order to get good at anything you need to practice, practice, practice. In order to practice flight photography you need a pool of several birds that will fly. Song birds are not a great choice, they are small and really fast. I highly recommend a trip to the beach to practice on seagulls. There are a lot of them usually, they fly often, are a good size and don’t move terribly fast.
  2. EQUIPMENT –  I assume you have a SLR camera with a long lens, something in the order of 400mm or longer. Fixed lenses with 1.4x or 2x extender can get you a good start. A sturdy tripod with fully maneuverable head that is taller than you supports the weight of the lens and allows free movement to pan with a flying bird.
  3. CONDITIONS – You want to shoot for a blue sky day with lots of light. Morning and evening light are prettier but you need a good amount of light to get fast shutter speeds. I also don’t want to shoot against a bland white sky. Avoid windy days as the vibration in the lens and tripod can lead to lack of sharpness.
  4. SHUTTER SPEED – I prefer a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second. You can never have too fast of a shutter speed to stop action.
  5. ISO – adjust as needed to get faster shutter speeds, but try to keep as low as possible for quality.
  6. APERTURE –  You do not need a high aperture for flying birds, I usually shoot around F4 – F5.6. If you have multiple birds and a lot of light up to F8 sometimes.
  7. EXPOSURE – What to do about exposure? Go to manual, set the exposure for the sky and you should be good to go. Typically plus 1 should do it. Make sure you don’t blow out the highlights on a white bird. Try to shoot the bird in even light or slight side light, avoid shooting into the sun for now. As long as the lighting conditions don’t change, clouds moving across the sun for example, the exposure shouldn’t change regardless if you have a dark bird in a blue sky or a white bird in a blue sky.
  8. FOCUSING – I tend to center focus my flying birds, as I find the center focus point to be faster and more accurate than the side points. Several cameras allow you to cluster a set of focus points, this allows for more accuracy over a wider area.
  9. AUTO FOCUS MODE – Continuous shooting combined with AI Servo or AF-C enable the camera to track a moving subject better.
  10. IS/VR – many long lenses have 2 or more IS or VR modes. Read the instructions that came with your lens to see which mode fits your shooting situation.
  11. WHITE BALANCE – set for existing lighting conditions.
  12. REVIEW – review images as you shoot and make any adjustments to settings.

So head to the beach and enjoy shooting those gulls, they can still make for some great shots!

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