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How to Photograph Birds in Flight with Sharp Results

Updated: Sep 18, 2022

Recently, you learned on Photography Life what the best camera settings are when photographing birds. Today’s article takes a more detailed look at bird behavior, biology, and environment. The goal is to teach you how anticipate what birds will do, and ultimately reach the holy grail: to take very sharp, high-quality photos of birds in flight.

Atlantic Puffin returns from the sea with a catch. NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II @ 200mm, ISO 1250, 1/5000, f/5.6

Birds have always stimulated the human imagination. In some historic cultures, birds have been so privileged that they have even entered the exclusive company of human gods and goddesses. Whether it was the Greek Harpies, the Egyptian Hor, or the Phoenix, birds have always been part of peoples’ mythologies across the world.

What is is that fascinates humans about these feathered creatures, which inhabit our planet in approximately eleven thousand species? The answer must be sought in the ability of birds, which we humans can only clumsily imitate: the ability to fly.

Coconut Lorikeet. NIKON D500 + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm, ISO 6400, 1/3200, f/5.0

Whatever you do as a photographer, it is always useful to learn as much as you can about the subject you are photographing. This is all the more important when we are dealing with the most agile creatures on our planet, which can easily outmaneuver an unprepared photographer. I highly recommend learning as much as possible about birds if you are interested in photographing them, especially in birds in flight…

Get Familiar with Bird Biology

To be able to predict a bird’s flight path with at least some probability of success, you should first learn a few principles that will help you plan your images better.

The Great Sapphirewing inhabits the highest forested areas of the Andes. NIKON D850 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 5000, 1/800, f/6.3

The first is the principle of the nest. Birds usually take care of their offspring in a nest, and the parents frequently leave and return from it to feed their chicks. As such, you can expect increased activity and many more opportunities for photography if you are in the vicinity of a bird’s nest.

When waiting for the bird to arrive to its nest, it’s useful to observe the bird from a distance and over the course of a few days to understand its daily rhythm and schedule. Are there still eggs in the nest, or are the parents already reading their nestlings? What time of day, and for how long, do the parents tend to leave the nest in search of food? This period of observation is crucial, and it also lets you be a better judge of how to approach the nest to a photographable distance without disturbing its inhabitants, and how long of a lens you may need.

For cavity nesters – woodpeckers, toucans, bee-eaters, parrots and many owl species, for example – we can often predict from the position of the entrance hole where the parent will be coming from. But with birds that build their own nests on top of trees or something similar, it can be harder to predict what direction they’ll fly from. Thus finding the right angle for a photo can depend somewhat on trial and error.

Grey Heron arrives at the nest with a load of fish for its nestlings. NIKON D800E + 300mm f/2.8 @ 300mm, ISO 3200, 1/1000, f/3.5

Sometimes, the presence of a human can trigger a strong reaction in a bird and cause them to fly away from us in distress. After all, we are the apex predators of the planet and a potential threat to their nests. This is especially true if there are a lot of people and dogs around.