Photographing Birds in Flight


As most of you photographers know, one of the most challenging projects to tackle, is to photograph birds in flight.  A few of my other blogging photographer friends have touched on the subject recently.  I thought I would put my proverbial two cents worth in about this challenge.

Of course what is needed is a fast shutter speed along with a long lens.  Most of the time I am shooting with my Canon 7D or my 70D.  My preferred lens is my Canon 100-400mm zoom.  Sometimes I use the same camera with my Canon 500mm lens attached, using my tripod with a gimbal head for fast maneuverablity.

For the larger birds, I can use the widest angle of the lens to acquire the bird, then zoom in to pan the camera after locking in my auto-focus.  The fact that the large birds, hawks, vultures, pelicans, etc, appear to be flying slower helps quite a bit.  As for the tiny birds, well, I practice a lot and therefore get lucky alot.

House Finch in flight.  Canon EOS 7D, 500mm lens /1.4 teleconverter.  1/2500 sec, f5.6, ISo 1000

House Finch in flight. Canon EOS 7D, 500mm lens /1.4 teleconverter. 1/2500 sec, f5.6, ISo 1000

One of those lucky shots was the one above of the House Finch in flight.  I was on a porch, with the described setup mounted on my tripod with a gimbal head.  The finches were flying back and forth between some shrubs below me.  I kept trying to swing the camera as the birds flew, and fortuntely the odds were with me, and I got lucky and captured it with it’s wings spread.

Red-tailed Hawk in flight.  Canon EOS 7D, 100-400mm lens.  1/3200 sec. @f6.3, ISO 400.

Red-tailed Hawk . Canon EOS 7D, 100-400mm lens. 1/3200 sec. @f6.3, ISO 400.  Hand-held.

This Red-tailed Hawk pictured above was somewhat easier.  I was driving towards Ballinger when I spotted the bird in the grass off of the left shoulder.  I moved quickly to the right hand side of the road, grabbed my camera off of my lap, where I always have it at the ready.  By then he had started to take flight.  My lens and camera easily acquired him, locked onto the auto-focus.  In burst mode I was able to fire off several exposures.

Red-tailed Hawk  Canon 40D with 100-400mm lens.  1/800 @ f6.3, ISO 400.

Red-tailed Hawk.  Canon 40D with 100-400mm lens. 1/800 @ f6.3, ISO 400.  Hand-held.

This photo is an example of being able to pan and therefore not having to use a super fast shutter speed.  The hawk and been perched atop a sotol int the desert of west Texas.  I had stopped to observe it from about 150 yards.  When it decided to take flight, I was ready.  I locked in on him and panned the camera.  Notice the 1/800 second shutter speed versus the 1/3200 speed in the previous photo.

Red-tailed Hawk - Canon EOS 40D, 1/1000 sec. @ f8, ISO 400.  Hand-held

Red-tailed Hawk – Canon EOS 40D, 1/1000 sec. @ f8, ISO 400. Hand-held.

The shot above was quite easy.  He was soaring overhead.  I exited the car and just panned as he flew around.  Again with burst mode, I got several nice exposures.  I liked this pose even though, I clipped a wing a bit.

Great Egret.  Canon EOS 7D, 100-400mm lens.  1/500 sec. @ f9, ISO 1600.

Great Egret. Canon EOS 7D, 100-400mm lens. 1/500 sec. @ f9, ISO 1600.  Hand-held.

The Great Egret was flying slowly down the Concho River in San Angelo.  I was able to pan with the slower shutter speed again.  The under-exposed dark background is the shadows of a building in the background.

Great Blue Heron.  Canon EOS 40D, 100-400mm lens.  1/1000 @  f11, ISO 400.

Great Blue Heron. Canon EOS 40D, 100-400mm lens. 1/1000 @ f11, ISO 400.  Hand-held.

Of course, what would my post be without a photo of one of my favorite subjects, the Great Blue Heron.  This photo was made near Lake Nasworthy here in San Angelo, Texas.

You may click on any of the images to see enlargements.

To update my west Texas “Big Year”, I added one more.

#85  Greater Yellowlegs.

Note:  My book, “Birds, Beasts and Buttes” is still going strong.  You can obtain one at this link, here.  Over 100 of my best photographs.

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28 thoughts on “Photographing Birds in Flight

  1. The little guys are the hardest to get in flight. In order to use the drive function, I usually trade off auto-focus to maximize “success.” Since I don’t use photo software (other than what’s in my camera), I get what I get. Sometimes it’s good, most times not.

    • Turning off AF definitely helps, if you can prefocus beforehand and not change it. Otherwise, if you depend on AF, the bird can be gone before it gets in focus. Great idea, Shannon. As far as the “most times not”, that happens to all of us. Getting that finch photo, I think I probably had about 30 or misses before I got the capture. Thanks for your great comment.

  2. I agree with your other readers, Bob – the house finch is just superb! It’s as if it’s perfectly frozen in time. But I love all the other ones, too. A great collection – Colin knows only too well how hard it is to capture birds in flight.

    • Thanks, Jo. I really love the challenge of getting birds in flight. That finch photo, though, was definitely a great stroke of luck. Not sure how long it would take me to get it again. :-)

  3. Wow! Some awesome captures, beautiful. I as a photographer,try to get the sharpest birds I can
    However using the correct lens is the key I have the Canon 100-400 love the refresh speed on that lens. I also have the Tamron 200-500, it is ok but very slow on tne refreshing speed with birds in flight. Have you ever used a flash with shooting birds?

    • Thanks, Michael. I appreciate the fine words. I use flash when photographing hummingbirds occasionally. Only once did I use it on other birds, and that was when I was photographing an owl high in a shade tree. I was able to throw some more light up there. I have ordered the new Tamron 150-600 but don’t have it yet.

  4. I love the Finch photo, Bob! It looks like a painting. I’m figuring that the high ISO setting gave it that painting kind of texture. They’re all beautiful, the Finch is just stunning! :-)

  5. Great photos Bob. I am in awe of your talent and those beautiful birds. I am practicing that panning technique, its a work in progress.. I always look forward to your posts, and your blog. Happy shooting!

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