How do you take photos of flying birds?

I just want to know, how on earth do you guys get such clean photos of birds in flight? Is there a method to it or a kind of camera lens? I could never even dream of getting my camera to focus on something moving like that

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I use the classic “point the camera to the sky and pray” method, which probably explains why I don’t have very good photos in this category either.

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Before I had a camera with decent autofocus I used a manual focus lens. Lead the bird like someone shooting clays and practice a lot.

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It’s a technique you have to practice and practice and practice. Then, practice some more. You also need to have a camera that has the ability to do it, like a higher-end bridge camera, DSLR, or mirrorless. And, you’ll also need reach to be able to see the bird in the photo, so a lens that goes to at least 300mm, preferrably more. You can search Google on the topic to get lots of information and pointers. Then, go out and practice. Start with something fairly large and ‘easy’ flying, like gulls, for instance. Oh, and don’t forget you will need a fast shutter speed–1/1000 at the bare minimum, and very possibly 1/2500 or more. Hope that helps. Check out Arthur Morris and his blog (Birds as Art) and his books, both printed and pdf. He is one of the greats at photographing birds. Practice make perfect!

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One thing that can help is going out on a day that’s quite windy – if you can find a spot where the birds will be flying into the wind, they’ll be moving quite slowly relative to your camera. It also helps if you know where the birds are likely to be coming from, so that you can spot them in time to be ready. Along those lines, the earlier you can spot them, the better chance you have. If you don’t have auto-focus, or it’s just not working, shooting manual can sometimes work surprisingly well. Instead of trying to follow the focus on the bird, pick a distance that you want the shots at (and that the birds will actually reach) and focus to that distance. Then wait for a bird to approach, and start shooting just before they reach the target area. It helps if you have a burst capacity with the camera, of course. You’ll throw away a lot of shots this way, but sooner or later…

And that leads to the biggest secret in wildlife photography – if you shoot 500 frames, you’ll likely have 5 amazing shots to show the world. (And you can forget the other 495…)

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Ditto what IDbirds said.

In particular, I want to emphasize that you shouldn’t expect much from a beginner DSLR if you are photographing birds in flight. I currently use a Canon 7D for my 100-400 mm lens and a Canon T3i for the other lenses. Both quite old, and the 7D was bought used many years after I bought the T3i. Same sensor. Both are capable of entirely satisfactory photos of things that aren’t far away and moving. For photos not marred by user error, over 80% of the 7D bird-in-flight photos are as good as or better than the top 10% of the T3i bird-in-flight photos. It’s not that Ansel Adams was wrong when he said that "The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it!” But camera quality matters.

One tip: Many cameras use different focus modes for moving subjects. E.g., with Canon, I need to use “servo mode” AF mode to track a flying bird. I needed someone to tell me this.

PS: You may also need to adjust the focal distance switch on the lens.

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The advice/technique really tends to be camera-specific. If you have a camera that is potentially capable, searching for it and “birds in flight” (BIF) on some of popular photography forums will usually yield some helpful tips. If you have no such camera, then the sky is the limit depending on your budget and learning curve. A decent compromise for many are the “bridge superzoom” cameras; Steve Ingraham has a helpful website (and has published an ebook or two) on what he calls “point and shoot nature photography” which focuses on some of these cameras…might be worth checking out.

As others have stressed, patience, practice and a high tolerance for poor photos/failure are to be expected. Just be grateful you’re only burning through data (temporarily!) rather than film ;)

One other thing I’ve learned that Ingraham and others recommend. Once you have your camera set up with a few quick/custom settings options, leave it in the “BIF” mode so it’s “ready” for that surprise “fly by,” rather than having to toggle through menu choices to get to your BIF settings. For your non-BIF settings where you have some time to spare, just toggle over to the appropriate setting.

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That article also links to a Sony DSCHV400V version, awesome!

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I set my camera to ‘Sports Action’ setting.
I have to manually follow the bird with the camera, though, making it hard to photograph fast-flying birds.

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60 percent hard manual work
40 percent LUCK

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i do a bad job :(
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/24740034

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Aside from the technical/gear stuff, I think so much of it is patience and knowledge of bird behavior. Being able to understand what conditions might cause a bird to fly is helpful, as is waiting and waiting for one to take off. Which is why I don’t get many BIF photos. ;-)

That is SUCH a mood

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my camera has a sport mode where it takes a burst of photos of targets moving quickly and its seriously a lifesaver with fast-moving birds
heres a recent example i took, you can see the un-zoomed series of snapshots
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/23391812

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If a bird is going to fly passed you stand so that you are facing where it will fly in front of you with your feet apart and don’t move them. Lock your arms from your elbows up to the side of your body, raise your camera and point to the bird twisting your body and following the bird and shoot as you can. This will help eliminate a bit of camera shake as the arms are locked and the twisting will give a smoother motion :smiley:

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