Ivory Gull

Photographing birds in flight is possibly the most challenging area of bird photography. The legendary work of Steven Dalton represents the pinnacle of what can be achieved with the right sort of 'high-tech' equipment. Dalton's, now quite old, image of the Swallow drinking at his garden pond must surely rate as one of the greatest bird photographs ever. But what can the average birder hope to capture with less sophisticated gear... well you'll be surprised. I hope these images coupled with the notes will inspire you to try for yourself.

But remember, don't
set your aims too high to start with - its best to practice on larger subjects; gulls, herons, geese and swans. All these families tend to fly slower than smaller birds and you don't have to get so close. They are, therefore, easier to follow through the camera as you won't have to pan as fast and, of course, you don't need to concentrate on one bird since flocks of geese, ducks or waders in flight make great images anyway.

bird photo - Grey Heron

Gulls, like the Aldborough Ivory Gull (see above), are a good starting point; a few left over slices of bread or fish offal (if you have any !) are all you need to bring them in and being white they do not present the same exposure problems as darker birds when photographed against the sky.

It is better to take flight shots either early or later in the day when the sun is lower and the underside of your subject is not in shadow. I prefer, if possible, to have some sort of background other than all sky. Sometimes I add this in with Photoshop after, but that's a whole new subject......click here.

bird photo - Kestrel

Exposure is the biggest problem, but modern cameras have made this a whole lot easier. I tend to use evaluative metering; this is accurate most of the time but another technique is to take a manual reading from a similarly lit subject and set the camera to this. Auto bracketing can be used but the problem is that it seems that the best posed shot is always one of the wrongly exposed ones, but if it works for you stick with it.

In the old days before auto focus the trick was to set the focus and follow the subject until it came into focus, then shoot, not always satisfactory, but it did yield results. Now modern servo a/f and predictive a/f make this side so much easier. If you can select the focusing point so much the better. I usually set the central point only and avoid using eye following a/f (Canon) as this will often default to the background, which can be most annoying.

bird photo - Hammerkop
bird photo - Northern Lapwing

If not image-stabilized then a loosened off 'ball and socket' head on your monopod or tripod will help keep the camera steady, and take the weight off your arms. This is important as prolonged holding of the camera at eye-level will make your arms tired and more prone to shake.

Long lenses are better for bird photography - 300mm to 500mm being essential if you wish to capture a wide range of images.

Now Canon and Nikon make image-stabilized lenses. Hand holding the camera is also less likely to present camera shake problems. This means that you can use slower shutter speeds which in turn gives the opportunity to get images with some movement which can add 'life' to the shot. Most of the time though it is best to use faster shutter speeds of 1/1000 sec so it may mean loading with 200 or 400 asa film.

bird photo - Pied Kingfisher

I am not that familiar with digiscoping with digital still or video, but I am sure that with some practice of panning it is very possible to get good flight shots also. I use a Canon D30 digital SLR body for some of my images. When using digital cameras exposure is not such a great problem as so much can be done to correct the images afterwards using image software programs. You can even create completely new ones !

bird photo - Yellow-billed Storks

For a beautiful portrait of a Sparrowhawk by Nigel (click here) - for more flight images by Nigel have a look at the surfbirds wader gallery