Birds in Flight: Part I


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I’ve recently had questions about photographing birds in flight. Today I will begin to address some of the techniques and tips for flight pictures, although to some degree it will be somewhat general, as there are so many different species of bird, each found in a different size, and each with its own way of moving (fast, slow, ponderous, etc.) that there is no single “best” method. Photographing a Western Bluebird in flight varies greatly from capturing a Brown Pelican, which is different from an Osprey with a fish… And even an osprey with a fish can have different possibilities, depending on the angle and the composition desired.

An Osprey with a fish, shot head on

There are three preferred angles for shooting birds in flight that will generally net you the best results. Head on, side on, or from directly underneath. Once the bird has passed, even a little bit, and the shot is more from the tail side, the photo has already lost some of its power. This is a generalization, however, and there will be exceptions.

Male Northern Harrier (Marsh Hawk) shot from the side

When photographing birds from underneath, especially if they are at a slight distance, your camera often will not set to the proper exposure. All of that sky in the image can confuse it, and depending on how bright or dark the sky is, you will have to adjust your exposure. I find that to capture detail in the bird, I often have to over expose the image by about 2/3 stop. Sometimes this will leave the sky a little washed out.

Coopers Hawk in flight, overhead and turning

This can quickly change however if that bird turns, and its underside is suddenly hit and highlighted by the sun. In this case, the sky can be more properly exposed. I often try to have the underside lit by the sun when possible. The trick to doing this is to watch their flight and behavior, so that you can guess when those turns will take place. Also time of day is very important. Early and late in the day, when the sun is closer to the horizon, it is much easier for the sun to light the under side of a bird, since it is shining from the side instead of from over head.

It is different to shoot many birds versus single birds

As you may have noticed yourself, it is a very different thing to shoot birds singly, or as a flock. Composition is immediately affected, and you will have to plan accordingly.

Western Bluebird hovering as it hunts insects

Size does matter. If you are photographing smaller birds, it is necessary to be closer, as they are smaller and will take up less space in the image the farther they are from you. I would not shoot a Bluebird from the same distance as I would a Great Blue Heron. A Great Blue Heron can fill most of the frame from thirty feet away and the right lens. Use the same lens at the same distance on a bluebird, and it will be a speck in the corner of the image. The larger the bird, the farther you can be. Also smaller birds generally will move more quickly and require a faster shutter speed than a larger bird, which can be more ponderous.

White-tailed Kite on the hunt, head on

Flight is action. Try to capture your images in such a way, that even when frozen in time, that actions is somehow conveyed. You can do this through shutter speed- shooting slow enough that there will be a slight blur at the wingtips, or perhaps fast enough that you freeze some of the water droplets as they come off of a bird that is leaving the water. It will depend on the situation.

Notice the water droplets trailing off of this Bonaparte's Gull

Hopefully this will begin to whet the appetite of Victor Ho (you can see some of his photos of Puffins in flight here)

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website-
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14 Responses to Birds in Flight: Part I

  1. Victor Ho says:

    And why do we love birds in flight. It’s so much harder to come home with a satisfying image.I see that you’ve got a great collection of birds in flight. Excellent! And thank you. The osprey with the fish is wonderful, an even harder to capture the moment.

  2. mike585 says:

    Wonderful images, Galen.

  3. Thank you so much Galen for answering some important questions. I learned a lot with your post. The tip on getting the right angle really alluded me, now I will be more patient. I did stumble on the one from below though. Also, over exposing, figured that one out on my own after fixing the images in Photoshop repeatedly. Now for getting the camera settings right from the start. The action tip is another good one. Will try that too.

    I prepared a post for Sunday night that I am now going to include a link to this post. You must know by now how much I admire your work. I entered a photo contest with some of my bird photos and was lamenting my inability to shoot birds in flight in the post. The two contests I noted (which you may be well aware), have gorgeous submissions of wildlife and some spectacular images of birds in flight. I will have to look for your name in the one, as you could certainly win the big prize.

  4. Maggie L R says:

    Thank you for the great tips. I am going to learn patience if it kills me.

  5. This are stunning. I can’t even begin to say which is my favorite.

  6. maggiemagnolia says:

    These really are beautiful photos…and thanks for sharing all the great tips here!

  7. One says:

    What a wonderful and beautiful post! Donna of GardenWalkGardenTalk has been speaking very highly of you and I can see why. Thank you for the tips. Shall be back.

  8. What a great service you are offering. I’m adding your blog to my reading material and will be using your tips to get more exciting photos of birds while volunteering at various national wildlife refuges.

  9. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and vision with us. I’ll definitely be following your blog and trying to improve my bird photography. Currently I’m volunteering at Sacramento NWR in the upper Sacramento Valley, CA and have millions of subjects to practice on.

  10. eileeninmd says:

    Thanks for all the great tips. Awesome shots of the birds in flight! I could really use some lessons. I love all the birds and enjoy taking photos of them.

  11. Brian Comeau says:

    Wow…. These are fantastic! I’m jealous.

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