How to Photograph Birds in Flight the Easy Way

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Introduction: How to Photograph Birds in Flight the Easy Way

About: Scientist, photographer, writer, cyclist, tinkerer.

With a simple set-up, you can produce excellent photographs of birds in flight--from the comfort of your house! Birds are attractive targets for wildlife photographers. They are aesthetically pleasing, ubiquitous, and charismatic. But once one has mastered the "bird on a stick" photo, a photographer may feel challenged to produce more interesting photos. Bird in flight (BIF) photos are dramatic, but much harder to get. Some degree of chance is usually required, and a long time in the field. The method demonstrated here is relatively simple and allows one to take BIF images in the dead of winter, when birds are most drawn to feeders. Meanwhile, the photographer is warm and cozy.

Supplies

Materials

Bird feeder

Bird seed

A long stick

Camera

Tripod

Shutter remote (optional)

Step 1: The Set-up

This project involves carefully planning of the arrangement of objects in space. First, you need a bird feeder. You may already have one, but make sure it is placed in an optimal location, typically near a large window of your dwelling. Place a perch 8 to 10 feet away from the feeder, opposite the direction of the house and somewhat off to the side. This plan takes advantage of the fact that birds like to land near a feeder and check it out before flying to it and consuming the seed. Photograph the bird when it flies from the perch to the feeder.

The type of feeder doesn't matter much. I use only sunflower seed in my feeder, as most birds really don't care for the other seeds in mixed bird feed. I also use a suet feeder, which is a great way to attract woodpeckers.

It's best to use a natural stick, such as one that's fallen from a tree. You can jam it into the ground or use a support like an umbrella stand to hold it up. The top of it should be about the same height as the bird feeder. By using a natural stick rather than a human-made object, you can get natural-looking photos of a perching bird if you want them. You may need to move it around to find the spot that the birds prefer. It's also better if there are not competing objects that can be used as perches nearby. Finally, try to use a location that will result in photographs with a pleasing background.

Inside the house, place your camera on a tripod as close to the window as is practical. Ideally, the sun should be behind the camera, which may affect which window you choose to use for this project. If the sun is directly behind the bird, you will get only silhouettes of birds, which are not very gratifying. The window should be thoroughly cleaned inside and out. Make sure there are no reflections in the area of the window through which you are shooting. If the end of the lens is very close to the window, there should not be any reflections in the images. Adjust room lighting if necessary. Even double-paned windows should have little noticeable effect on image quality.

Step 2: The Photography

Equipment

The camera must have some degree of manual controls. Almost any DSLR will do, and many superzoom point-and-shoot cameras will also work (my equipment is detailed in a photo above). The length of the lens required depends on how far the feeder is from the window. If the feeder is far away, a longer, presumably more expensive lens will be needed. The tripod doesn't need to be fancy, as long as it holds the camera firmly.

Settings

The camera should have Av mode, or Aperture Priority. Set the camera on this mode and adjust the aperture to F/8, or about two stops above the lowest F-stop. This setting will provide adequate depth of field and minimal aberrations. Set ISO to the lowest natural level of your camera. For example, my Canon 7D can be set as low as ISO 100, but its true minimum is 160. You should shoot on a sunny day, otherwise higher ISO will be needed and the images will become more grainy. White balance should be set on automatic or full sun. These settings work in your favor in that the camera will automatically choose the highest shutter speed that can produce a properly exposed image, resulting in freezing the motion of the bird's wings. If you have the equipment and know-how, you could set up a remote flash and probably get more consistent results, but that's beyond the scope of this Instructable.

Place an object halfway between the perch and the feeder and prefocus your camera on it using manual focus. Leave the camera on manual focus and try not to bump it. Set the lens at a zoom level that is reasonably wide. If you zoom it too tightly, you'll cut off bits of the birds in every frame. It's better to have the entire bird in the frame and crop it later.

Shooting

If you have one, connect a remote shutter to the camera to minimize camera shake. Set your camera on burst mode if available, and wait for a bird to land on the perch. Now place your finger on the shutter button (or remote button). As soon as the bird moves to fly, hold down the button to take a rapid series of photos (a burst). Let off the button when the bird reaches the feeder. At some point during the bird's flight, it should be in focus and in frame for at least one image. Delete the rest. It will likely require some experimentation and adjustment to get the best results. Some photographers prefer not to use burst mode, instead using their own natural skill and timing to capture a single ideal image of such a natural moment. This strategy takes considerable skill. Birds are fast!

Post-processing

It almost goes without saying that you should crop the photo and make some global lighting adjustments to make the best image you can. You may capture birds in some interesting positions. I provide a couple of examples here.

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    11 Comments

    0
    shalnachywyt

    Love the pics! Unfortunately, when I had the bird feeder on my south deck, whose door is opposite my computer desk, and had gone through the trouble of also putting in a solar-powered water fountain so the birds had somewhere to drink, the (&&##(@*&& expletive deleted) racoons got into it and caused a lot of damage. :( No more birdie pics and/or videos :((

    0
    Show Me Joe
    Show Me Joe

    Reply 2 days ago

    You might notice a squirrel baffle on the bird feeder pole. That and the pole's height keep the squirrels and raccoons out. I've suffered greatly from raccoons in various ways over the years, so I can relate.

    0
    RobertK255
    RobertK255

    Reply 8 days ago

    I feel you frustration!! This is the main reason we hesitate to put up a bird feeder!

    0
    shalnachywyt
    shalnachywyt

    Reply 8 days ago

    I moved the bird feeder over to the north side of the house underneath the Japanese Cedar tree, but in such a way that I still have access to it to fill up the feeder. I put it there because the cat can still see the birds if she looks out the north window, but it's far enough away that mice, who like to eat the uneaten seeds that drop, don't get the idea that my house is a good place to look for food, which was the whole reason I got the cat (but she doesn't do anything but look at the mouse and then turn away and goes back to sleep!)
    That feeder was not even up a day when something, probably a raccoon, jumped up, grabbed it and dragged it down to the ground, and all the seeds spilled out. I went and re-attached it to another branch with a stronger knot. Nevertheless...
    I'm completely convinced that after humans kill themselves off with climate change, wars, virus and other inimical-to-human-life incidents, that raccoons, who have opposable thumbs, will be taking over the Earth. Well, them and cats, dogs and chickens. :)

    0
    RobertK255
    RobertK255

    Reply 8 days ago

    Yes! Yes! Yes!! Raccoons or as we call them Trash Pandas will prevail! First let me explain. We lived in a home near the Intracoastal waterway in NC that was on pilings, ground floor was the garage and entryway. We had a bird feeder on our back deck which was on the second floor, this deck was cantilevered so nothing touched the ground. Those rotten, dirty Raccoons climbed up the hose hung on the back of the house below the deck, climbed up the angle support and onto the deck 18’ above the ground, and knocked the bird feeder off the hook so they could feast on the seeds below. They left behind black muddy paw prints all over the deck support and everywhere they climbed. We cleaned it up and took the feeder away. They came back the next night creating the same mess only to find no feeder, HA! That’s why we don’t put up feeders.

    0
    shalnachywyt
    shalnachywyt

    Reply 8 days ago

    LOL! A friend told me that raccoons will climb up onto roofs to get at food. When I first put out my chicken tractor (moveable coop), a raccoon got into it at some ungodly hour in the morning. I got out there, lifted up the roof section to the run, grabbed a stick and smacked the hell out of the bugger. You would not believe the frightened look on its face. It tore out of there and must've told some of its friends not to go to my place because I didn't see any of them for about a year. Then about two years later, one was slowly crossing the road towards my house and I kept yelling at it, but it ignored me. I got close enough and it looked like it was drunk. Continued to yell and it ignored me and continued to slowly move in my front yard. Finally, having my keys in my hand, I smacked it across the face with the keys and it looked at me with this "whad'ya do that for, lady?" look on its face. A friend told me that it was probably in the beginning stages of rabies!

    0
    charlessenf-gm
    charlessenf-gm

    9 days ago

    Well thought out project and instruct-able, thank you for posting.
    Did you try a video or two?
    I may try this setup using my trail cameras as I don't have a camera like yours.

    0
    Show Me Joe
    Show Me Joe

    Reply 2 days ago

    I've not tried it with video, but the idea certainly has potential. I think one could get some really neat slo-mo under the right conditions.

    0
    John DuCrest
    John DuCrest

    7 days ago on Step 2

    Fantastic work. I can not wait to try it out and see the results, thank you very much.

    0
    Raphango
    Raphango

    9 days ago on Step 2

    Awesome photos! Congratulations! God bless you!