Capturing Birds in Flight

I think birds are one of the most difficult subjects to photograph unless they are standing perfectly still. I have always found it difficult to pan my camera at just the right speed and manage to stay ahead of the bird. Focussing is almost impossible since the bird is always moving. Also I tend to try to fill the frame with the bird and then when they extend their wings they are outside the frame. Then there is the depth of field issue. With my 70-300mm lens, when I am using a wide-open aperture the depth of field seems to be razor thin. So I always used to use f/8 or even f/11 to get some sort of depth (which would reduce shutter speed or increase the noise from high ISO).

Well I have learned a few things with all the practice I am getting with the abundant birds in Florida. As always, you can click the images to view larger versions.

1. Big birds move slower. I still have a hard time with small birds, but practicing the panning with big birds is helping.

2. Big birds have very large wings. So I don’t even try to fill the frame in case they move their wings. I rely on cropping later.

Roseate Spoonbills, Merritt island Wildlife Refuge, Florida

3. The lens makes a huge difference! I rented a 400mm 5.6L lens and when it is set at it’s widest aperture of 5.6 I still get rather decent depth and the sharpness is incredible.

4. Use aperture priority not shutter priority. Once I discovered that my lens was awesome at 5.6, I just left it on 5.6 and let the camera adjust the shutter speed. That way I would always get the fastest speed possible.

Ibis, Merritt island Wildlife Refuge, Florida

5. The faster the shutter speed the better. I always used to photograph wildlife on shutter priority at 1/500 second. Now I am getting much sharper images with shutter speeds around 1/2500 second!

6. Use AI Servo focus rather than One Shot so the camera continually maintains focus on a moving object. The lens also helped with this factor since it’s focussing is very fast.

Vulture, Merritt island Wildlife Refuge, Florida

7. Flying birds look great against a blue sky so don’t worry about photographing mid-day. Just avoid white sky.

8. Practice, practice, practice! (A lot easier to say in Florida than in BC.)

Egret, Merritt island Wildlife Refuge, Florida

I hope you find these tips helpful, and if you have any tips of your own please add them in the comments. I would love to get more tips while I am here in Florida to practice with my big lens and big birds.

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    • says

      Hi Len, keep trying! I wasn’t very good with birds either (unless they stood perfectly still) until I got this opportunity to practice. It is very rewarding when it finally works out.

  1. says

    I agree with Len, great images and very nice tips. I generally shoot trains and not birds, but many of the techniques are the same. Trains are just bigger!

    I upgraded to a 55-250mm IS lens (still not a pro lens) and it has made a difference in my bird photos. It focuses faster and the image stabilization really helps. I totally agree with #2 in particular.

    I usually shoot on shutter priority. I’ll try aperture instead and see how it goes!

    • says

      Hi Steve, I haven’t tried trains yet! I always enjoy seeing photos with the blur of train going by, I’ll have to try that out next time I get the chance. Thanks for your comments.

  2. says

    Great tips Anne! I also find that spending time to study the birds flight movements is a great help as well. It allows for a much smoother lens motion when tracking the bird in flight. It is still the most challenging and rewarding area of nature photography for me. You are very correct! Practice, practice, and more practice.:)

    • says

      Hi Ron! Thanks for your comments. It certainly does help to get to know what the birds tend to do. They seem to do the same thing over and over so you get to be able to predict what is going to happen. Very helpful when it all happens so fast.

  3. says

    Thanks for the post, great images and tips. The word PRACTICE is so important. Panning is a learning process. Back in the film days, I went to the Indy 500 time trials a dozen years in a row.
    It took a large quantity of slides and prints to figure it out. One thing I did to practice was pick a busy highway near my home, stand out of view of the drivers and pan with different vehicles in traffic. Have a great day

    • says

      Hi Vern, thanks for the great suggestions! Another thing I have been meaning to try is going to the dog park to practice panning with the dogs running by. Dogs are probably not nearly as predictable as birds or cars, but it would be great practice. I find panning quite difficult and need a lot more practice at it!

  4. says

    Great tips Anne! I tried to pan with a jet that was flying over my house with my new 70-300mm and every shot was blurred (I was on AV mode but my ISO was too low I think the shutter speed was around 1/500) I’m hoping to see some Bald Eagles next month if it gets cold enough, it’s been a very strange winter so far here in Utah we’ve had rain all week. I can’t remember the last time it rained in January. (not complaining, just saying…)
    Have a great day!
    Howard J recently posted..Week 2 – 52 Week Challenge – Front DoorMy Profile

    • says

      Hi Howard, panning is a funny thing, it takes a lot of experimentation. Sometimes I find a slower shutter speed works well, but only if you are panning at exactly the right speed. That way the background is nicely blurred too. It’s hard to pull off though. I usually go for a fast shutter speed instead. I haven’t had a lot of luck using the technique with my 70-300mm either. Well if you want to see rain in January, I know where you can find it! British Columbia – guaranteed year after year!! Although they got snow this year. We had rain in Florida! Strange winter.

  5. says


    Super tips! Thanks so much. I only have a 55-200mm zoom, so I’m having lens envy. I think, for my skill level, I’m doing pretty well, but you have raised the bar for me! Thanks.

    Check out my recent shoot: Blue Heron, Mallard, Canada Goose

    I love to see what you’re doing and I’m looking forward to learning more. ;->
    Lissa @ lafcustomdesigns recently posted..You gotta askMy Profile

    • says

      Hi Lissa, thank you so much for your comments. I enjoyed seeing your duck images on your blog, especially the mallard on the frozen pond, it has a very moody feel to it. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Snowy says

    Anne –

    My tip for birds in flight is to wait for them to land!
    But I like your tip too, of using bigger, slower birds as subjects. Speaking of big birds, the most dramatic photo to me is the one with the vulture set against those nebulous clouds.

    It’d be interesting to experiment with that lens on a monopod maybe, although typically you are using high shutter speeds so maybe it wouldn’t make that much difference.

    Did you find the 400mm OK to handle? It’s not as fast (or expensive)as some other Canon long lenses but looking at the specs it’s also a lot lighter. Seems you might be more likely to get it out of the closet and carry it around with you for a day and therefore have a better chance of encountering something out of the ordinary.


    • says

      Hi Snowy, about the monopod, I used one when I tried out a huge 500mm lens and it was helpful because the lens weighs so much you couldn’t hold it steady otherwise. But the 400mm f/5.6 is a very light lens and with the fast shutter speeds I didn’t need to use a monopod or tripod at all. I almost always use a tripod for my landscape images, but with wildlife it seems to hold me back and make me less responsive to what is happening around me. That 400mm was perfect for me because I could hand-hold it. It was a real beauty!!

  7. says

    Some excellent shots, Anne, and some really helpful advice. I don’t think we ever stop learning. Practice always helps. Next week I’m off skiing and hope to catch some action shots, People are fortunately bigger than birds ad when they move fairly predictably they are certainly easier to follow!
    LensScaper recently posted..The gap betweenMy Profile

    • says

      Thanks Andy, I’m glad you found it helpful. Well I’m looking forward to seeing the action shots of the skiers! It would be fun to let the skiers blur to show their movement. I think getting good exposure in the snow would be hard, but people do it. I haven’t photographed in the snow very much. Good luck!

  8. says

    I’d say all the practicing has paid off. Great series of shots Anne. I particularly like the second image. Probably because she’s such an interesting bird and I love the way you’ve the entire length of her body.
    Edith levy recently posted..Rooftop ViewMy Profile

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