Photographing birds in flight relies on good focusing technique, predicting behavior and fast reactions. Without fast accurate autofocus your hit rate will drop. That’s not to say you can’t get results even with a manual focus lens. Bigger slower birds will be your likely targets but this still leaves great photographic subjects like swans, herons and egrets.
Space to fly into
The center focus point is your most accurate point. Using this point gets you the best hit rate for an in-focus bird. This will place your bird smack in the middle of the frame.
Doesn’t look exciting does it? It’s far better to give your bird some space to fly into.
You’ll notice this makes the image follow the rule of thirds. Therefore you can shoot with the middle point and crop afterwards. Your camera probably has more than enough megapixels so why not put them to use?
Shoot in RAW
Photographing birds in flight means you will often be shooting up into a bright sky. The contrast between sky and bird is too great to get everything just right. This is where you need the extra information that comes with a RAW file.
If the bird is quite small in the frame then it will appear too dark at the normal exposure setting. Your camera’s metering system takes an average of the scene. It exposes perfectly for the sky and you are left with a silhouette.
I shot this kestrel using my car as a mobile blind. Over exposing by a stop is an improvement on the default exposure but the kestrel is still too dark. Luckily with RAW we can have our cake and eat it. The sky can be darkened and because I have added 1 stop over exposure it is easy to reveal the detail in the kestrel some more too.
Focus works by contrast. Your camera loves a black bird flying against snow, it also loves a swan against a dark hill side. These situations have a big contrast between the bird and the background so it knows where to lock focus onto.
Take off and landing
Birds will slow down as they’re about to land. There’s also a window of opportunity where you can capture the take off before the bird hits full speed.
Know the behavior
Every year I go to a local herony around late February early March. It’s great for flight shots because the herons are flying back and forth with twigs as they build nests in trees. Knowing this means I can wait in position as they fly past. You can get shots of herons all year but you’ll get far more results with less effort by concentrating on the right time period.
Position yourself with the sun behind and the birds will be front lit. Here the heron has tilted and spread its wings so the front lighting has lit up all the feather detail underneath
Early mornings or late evenings can produce some silhouettes. Some warm sunset colors and interesting cloud shapes will enhance your images here. Geese will fly to evening roosts in little groups so they make good subjects for this.
Selecting all the focus points is a good idea for flocks of birds. It doesn’t really matter which bird the focusing hits so it makes sense to activate all the points. Not all the birds are going to be the same distance from you so increasing depth of field will get more birds in focus. In this example decreasing aperture to f/8 increased depth of field.