7. Flight Photography

The ability to fly is a defining quality of birds as a group and their mastery of the air is an inspiration for bird photographers. However, it is also a challenge due to the speed at which most birds move and the often unpredictable three-dimensional nature of flight. But many modern camera and lens combinations are up to the challenge - if the photographer makes the best of their equipment.

   Unless you intentionally want to depict movement, a shutter speed in excess of 1/2,500th second is needed to ‘freeze’ a bird in flight. Back in the days of film, high speed flash was often used to photograph birds in flight, and is still used today with specialist subjects such as hummingbirds. However, because modern cameras operate successfully at high ISO ratings, fast shutter speeds and a good depth of field can be achieved with natural light. So, experiment with your ISO settings – using 1,000 you should achieve a fast enough shutter speed and an aperture of f11 or thereabouts on a bright day. But a bird ‘frozen’ in mid air can look a bit static. So try to capture a sense of action and drama – a bird veering off course will look much more dramatic than one in level flight. Alternatively, intentionally using a slow shutter speed can introduce a sense of movement, which can look interesting.

At Red Kite feeding stations there are usually plenty of opportunities to take flight shots. After you have had your fill of standard images, trying something that demonstrates action. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

At Red Kite feeding stations there are usually plenty of opportunities to take flight shots. After you have had your fill of standard images, trying something that demonstrates action. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

a.       Practice makes perfect

Understandably, the success rate with flight photography improves with practice. Since it does not cost the digital photographer anything to learn from their mistakes, hone your skills at a location where relatively large birds are flying in a fairly predictable manner. Feeding Black-headed Gulls provide great opportunities especially if the photographer has an assistant willing to dispense food and maintain the action.

As well as taking isolated flying gulls at a feeding location, don’t neglect images of the melee. And you never know what might turn up amongst the common species – something like this Mediterranean Gull that was unexpectedly mixing with its Black-headed relatives. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

As well as taking isolated flying gulls at a feeding location, don’t neglect images of the melee. And you never know what might turn up amongst the common species – something like this Mediterranean Gull that was unexpectedly mixing with its Black-headed relatives. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

b.       Feeders

Garden feeders can provide opportunities for flight photography. Take a feeder stocked with sunflower hearts as an example – one with multiple ports and removable perches. Locate it in a well-lit spot with a neutral uncluttered background and no distracting shadows, and let the birds become accustomed to its location for a few days. When you want do some flight photography, remove all other sources of food from the garden, temporarily tape over all but one of the ports on the chosen feeder, and remove all the feeder’s perches. Birds will hover in front of the one remaining open port, allowing flight shots to be taken using natural light. As long as the photography session is brief the impact on the birds will be minimal.

Garden feeders can be a great source of inspiration when it comes to flight shots, with species such as this Marsh Tit putting in a regular appearance. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Garden feeders can be a great source of inspiration when it comes to flight shots, with species such as this Marsh Tit putting in a regular appearance. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

c.       Predictive

Any sensible flight photographer makes full use of their camera’s autofocus system, which will invariably out-perform the results of hand-eye coordinated efforts. But there are limits to even state-of-the-art autofocus technology, with birds that are manoeuvrable and fast-moving on the wing. Sometimes it pays to be predictive – anticipate where a bird might come in to land for example, or watch for a regularly used flight path. In the case of the former, an option is to focus manually on where you think the bird’s path might be, and turn off the autofocus thereby avoiding problems of it failing to latch onto the bird in time.

Because this Cuckoo used a predictable flight path to land on this perch, a ‘best guess’ approach to focussing was employed, and the autofocus turned off. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Because this Cuckoo used a predictable flight path to land on this perch, a ‘best guess’ approach to focussing was employed, and the autofocus turned off. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

This White-crowned Black Wheatear routinely hovered above a small drinking pool before coming into land. There was sufficient time for the autofocus to ‘latch on’ to its moving target. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

This White-crowned Black Wheatear routinely hovered above a small drinking pool before coming into land. There was sufficient time for the autofocus to ‘latch on’ to its moving target. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

d.       Seabird colonies

At the height of the breeding season, seabird colonies provide fantastic opportunities for flight photography as birds come and go with food for their young, and interact with one another. You will be spoilt for choice and easily distracted by the whirring wings around you. So, identify the direction that provides the best light and background, then track an individual as it approaches the colony on a suitable flightline. Early mornings and late afternoons provide the best light for photography and also tend to coincide with peaks in bird activity.

At seabird colonies such as the RSPB’s Bempton Cliffs photographers are spoilt for choice. Try tracking an individual such as this Kittiwake until you judge the background does justice to the bird itself. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

At seabird colonies such as the RSPB’s Bempton Cliffs photographers are spoilt for choice. Try tracking an individual such as this Kittiwake until you judge the background does justice to the bird itself. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

e.       Flocks

Photographing individual birds in flight is satisfying when it works. But by focussing on individuals you may miss the bigger picture, when it comes to species that congregate and fly in groups. So, where flocks are the stars of the show (Starling murmurations or wader flocks for example), consider using a smaller lens than usual, or photographing more distantly, to capture the spectacle of numbers.

Photographed over The Wash, the massed ranks of waders provide a spectacle of numbers that is far more impressive than a shot of an individual bird in flight. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Photographed over The Wash, the massed ranks of waders provide a spectacle of numbers that is far more impressive than a shot of an individual bird in flight. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

f.       Seabirds at sea

Photographing seabirds at sea is the ultimate challenge in flight photography. Everything is moving, not just the birds but the boat and the photographer as well, rolling on a heaving sea. But when it works, the results can be amazing, with the reflective water providing subtle under-lighting and breaking waves a backdrop for superbly adapted species in their element.

Pterodroma  petrels such as this Bermuda Petrel are awesome seabirds. Their astonishing speed and aeronautic mastery of the winds make them masters of their environment, and the most challenging of their kind to photograph. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Pterodroma petrels such as this Bermuda Petrel are awesome seabirds. Their astonishing speed and aeronautic mastery of the winds make them masters of their environment, and the most challenging of their kind to photograph. ©Paul Sterry/BPOTY

Rob Read