How to Catch Birds in their Element

Flying Lessons: Tips for great airborne avian images.

To capture a speeding bird in flight is one of the biggest thrills in photography. Especially in great light, when you can catch all the detail in the feathers and the expression in the eyes -- exhilarating!

You don't have to travel far. Check out the parks, beaches, and wildlife refuges in your area. Learn about the bird migrations and the best times of year for the species that interest you. Most of my flight photography was taken not too far from my home.

Bringing home images like these involves time and effort. It may take several months -- or even a few years -- of practice and patience to get the ultimate action-flight shot. But anyone can get started without a huge investment of time or money.

Here are eight tips to speed you on your way.

1. Become an observer, then a photographer. Learn about the species in your area and the best times of year to photograph them. Get out every day with a pair of binoculars and a field guide. Watch birds closely, and get to know their patterns of flight. Once you've learned their habits, you can anticipate certain types of actions, helping you photograph them. By studying behavior, you will learn how to get close to your subject. Remember, birds are creatures of habit and will repeat many of their actions. Become one with your environment.

2. Start with larger, slower-moving birds. If you are just beginning to shoot birds in flight, look for subjects such as gulls and herons. Do not attempt smaller, faster birds until you have mastered the slower ones.

3. Use the right gear. Your equipment is a key to success for photographing birds in flight. The better your camera body and lens combination, the better your results. Start with a small, light lens, such as a 400mm f/5.6. Get a fast-focusing DSLR body and, as your commitment grows, pay for the best glass you can afford. Leave your tripod at home -- shooting with the camera in your hand is essential for capturing consistently good images of birds in flight. A shoulder stock can help steady the lens. And image stabilization, whether built into the camera or the lens, is also a big help.

4. Get in position. Follow these rules for proper stance and movement before pushing the shutter button:

• Spread your feet at least shoulder-width apart to allow freedom of motion while following a subject through the viewfinder.

• Do not hold the camera and lens too tightly; maintain a firm but relaxed grip.

• While panning to follow your subject, avoid sudden, erratic movement. Keep it smooth and follow through the panning while shooting -- don't stop when the shutter releases.

• Follow the bird's flight pattern with your eye, not in the viewfinder. This allows for better transfer from spotting to tracking the subject.

• You often will need to aim slightly ahead of the subject, depending on its speed.

• Always have the camera turned on and in a ready position near your chest. That fly-by can happen at any time.

5. Set your exposure. For birds in flight, the best approach is manual exposure. Meter for the intended subject and it will be exposed properly, regardless of the background. But if you're truly a beginner, start with program mode and bracket until you get the hang of it. In manual mode, use partial or evaluative metering to get a light reading for your subject. I often meter off grass, trees, and shrubs, as well as blue sky. Shutter speed is vital to stop motion -- select 1/1250 sec or faster, with an ISO of 320-400.

6. Use autofocus wisely. Most high-end DSLRs have a mode in continuous autofocus that predicts the focus on a moving subject. With this function, you press the shutter part-way, and the camera continually calculates where the subject will be, adjusting the focus as long as the subject stays in the autofocus area of the viewfinder. This is by far the best way to focus when you're shooting birds in flight.

Use the center AF point only; this is the fastest and best way to obtain focus on the bird's eye, especially on larger birds. For smaller, faster-moving birds, you can use multiple focus points. This will allow the camera to choose an AF point from an array covering a wide area of the frame. On some models you can use as many as 51 focus points. I've found that multipoint focus performs well on solid backgrounds such as blue skies, but doesn't work as effectively on varied backgrounds, such as trees and grasses.

7. Consider the sun and wind. Sunlight is crucial. Late afternoon and early morning are the best times to shoot, when the slanting light makes it easier to catch reflected sunlight in the bird's eye. This is what makes the bird look alive in a photo. Have the sun behind you at all times, with the subject in front of you.Wind is also an important factor, since it will affect the bird's flight pattern. When they alight, birds always fly into the wind. So keep the wind at your back if you want the bird to face you as it comes in for a landing.

8. Practice, practice, practice! Photographing birds in flight is not easy. Enjoy the experience, and think positive. You may have a high failure rate in the beginning, but if you're persistent and go back again and again, you just may capture the action-flight shot of your life.

An avid birder for more than 20 years, Richard Ettlinger ( is the author of On Feathered Wings: Birds in Flight (Abrams, 2008; $40). His work has appeared in Nature's Best Photography and Birder's World magazines and is currently on view at the American Museum of Natural History. He lives in East Rockaway, NY.