How to Photograph Birds in Flight

By Ossian Lindholm

The swallow-tailed gull is a nocturnal gull, resulting in the size of its eyes. This gull is endemic (*) to Galapagos Islands although it can be seen on the mainland coast of Ecuador and Peru. Their main food is squid when they rise up to the ocean surface at night.

(*)Endemic species: Is one whose distribution is restricted to a certain geographical area, whether it is a province, region, country or continent.


Photographing birds in flight. Part 1

It is perhaps the most frustrating thing for those who start with wildlife photography. All photographers have gone through that stage at some point, that’s why some tips may be helpful to help you cope with this kind of photography with good chances to succeed. We will start with one of the most important points to keep in mind: Choose the shutter speed correctly.


Shutter speed or exposure time

If you are entering the exciting world of bird photography, it is important that when you look at a good bird in flight photo, find out with what exposure values it was taken. Some photographers use this data in the description of the image. It is understood that exposure value is a combination of 3 variables: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO sensitivity. In flying bird photography as well as in action/movement photography, the most important variable to consider for a good result is to choose the correct shutter speed. Then we have aperture and ISO, which play an important role in photography, but in my opinion, these play a secondary role in this type of photography. The aperture will help us define the depth of field (DOF) we want to achieve. And the ISO will be in any case, a consequence of the amount of available light and the shutter speed to which we choose to use. The shutter speed refers to the time that the shutter is open, in other words, it is the time we left the camera sensor exposed to the light. That’s why you use the terms shutter speed or exposure time interchangeably, both are correct.

If the shutter is open for a very short duration of time we will be able to “freeze” the action if, on the other hand, the shutter is open for a longer time, and during that period of time the bird moved, then we may have a blurry subject.

Galapagos Brown Pelican

f/11  1/1000  ISO560 NikonD4 + Sigma 150-600mm

Let’s take a closer look at this photo of the pelican landing taken at a speed of 1/1000. By the way, the Galapagos is my one of my favorite places to practice pictures of birds in flight because they fly very close to one. This means an exposure of 1 second divided into 1000 parts (1/1000th of a second). This sounds like a small enough instant to freeze any kind of movement. However, you can see the tips of the wings are a little shaky. Not that the effect is bad, perhaps the contrary, we may like that slight movement from the tip of the wings to express action. But we can see that the picture it is not frozen and that if instead of the tips of the wings, what had moved was the head of the animal, then surely it would be a photo to rule out. Perhaps we may say that a speed of 1/1000 is one of the lowest speeds we should choose when shooting birds in flight. Maybe if we select 1/500, we could also get an interesting photo, but we can have better results at speeds of 1/1000 or higher.

Galapagos Brown Pelican

f/11  1/1000  ISO450 NikonD4 + Sigma 150-600mm


Black Skimmer in Pantanal, Brazil

f/5.6  1/2500 ISO 560 Nikon D4 + Sigma 150-600mm

This is one of the most interesting birds to photograph when flying. With a high shutter speed, we achieved the freezing effect.


We can explore the other side if we want to have creative effects and we can select low shutter speeds. The next gull photo was achieved by making a controlled panning at 1/80 shutter speed, so we are able to get a very different effect from the frozen silhouette of the animal. But keep in mind that this technique requires a lot of patience and practice for the panning. Then we must know, that in order to achieve a satisfactory result we will surely have to take many photos so that in the end, one is good. There are some photographers who have developed this technique making extraordinary photos, I recommend looking the work of Aaron Baggestos, Dario Podesta, Moira Norrie. You are going to find some photos with this technique.

Kelp Gulls in Madryn Port

f/18  1/80 ISO200  Nikon D4S + Sigma 150-600


The “safe” shutter speed and its relation to the focal length of the lens that we are using

Among those who just started, regardless of the type of photography we are dealing with, it is possible to ensure that most of the failed photos are the product of the use of low shutter speeds. The result is a not a sharp photo. With the advent of digital photography and intelligent automatic systems, these errors fell to a minimum due to the fact that the camera is choosing an appropriate speed to prevent the photo from being blurry. But for those who want to perform photography in a more serious way, we do not like the total auto controls and we want to keep the control of the images we capture as much as possible. That is why there are some rules you should know.

One of these rules is the Reciprocity Rule for shutter speed, this says: “The minimum shutter speed should not be less to the effective focal link we use. This rule has many concepts that we need to understand and see step by step for a total understanding, but we will see that is very simple and makes a big difference in the photos when we apply this rule.

We already saw what shutter speed or exposure time means. Let us look at the term Focal Distance: explained in a simplified way, it refers to the length of the lens that we are using. So if we say that we have a 50 mm lens we are referring to focal length and its size is about 5 cm. A lens of 500 mm, depending on its construction will have a length of 50 cm approximately. In general terms, the focal length is going to tell us how close the subject is going to be. A 300 mm lens brings us closer than one of 50 mm. A wide-angle lens, for example, a 24 mm, gives the effect that we moved away from the subject.

So here, what you want to take away from this rule is if I am taking a photo with a focal length of 500 mm, my minimum shutter speed should not be less than 1/500 to prevent the slight movement that I inadvertently give to my camera giving me, as a result, a blurry photo. In the same way, if the lens is 300 mm my minimum shutter speed should not be less than 1/300. But this is not always the case; the rule is about the “effective” focal length. Here it becomes a bit complicated because we have to know that the size of our camera sensor as it directly influences the behavior of our lens.

In the camera market we have basically 3 sizes of sensors, truly there is more, but for this article, we will only talk about three. From the biggest to the smallest we have the Full Frame, the APS-C, and the Micro 4:3. Here comes to play something we call the CROP factor. This factor will be 1.0x in Full Frame, 1.5x (Nikon) or 1.6x (Canon) in the APS-C cameras and 2.0x in the Micro 4:3 cameras like Lumix and Olympus.

Let’s see how the sensor size influences the behavior of our gear. For example, a lens that the manufacturer says has a 300 MM Focal Length, if instead of mounting it on a Nikon full-frame camera; I mount it on an APS-C Nikon. Due to the CROP factor, that lens is going to behave as if it had 450 mm. We get this number by multiplying 300 x 1.5. If I put a 300 mm lens on a camera with a Micro 4:3 sensor (for example Lumix GX8) due to the multiplication factor being 2x this lens is going to behave as if it had 600 mm!

We will see in the next photo in which my 600mm tele-lens mounted on a camera with an APS-C sensor with a CROP factor of 1.5 x, brings me closer to the subject as if the tele-lens were 900 mm.


Crane in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, Africa

f/6.3  1/1000 ISO640

Nikon D500 camera with a 150-600 mm Sigma lens. This camera has an APS-C sensor with a CROP factor of 1.5x. This means that the Sigma lens at 600 mm will behave as if it were a 900 mm lens: 600 x 1.5=900.

So the effective focal length is the result of applying the CROP factor of our camera to the focal length of our lens (the number in mm that is indicated in the body of the lens). For the example in the crane photo, the minimum shutter speed will be 1/900, directly 1/1000.


Important to consider

One mistake that usually happens when we buy our first telephoto lens is not to implement this rule. It happens then that, after a major investment, the photos we take do not have the expected quality. The first thing we do is blame the new lens and assume that something is wrong, but before making a claim to the seller, we need to think if we are applying the rule of reciprocity indicated. If we are taking photos with short focal length lenses, such as typical zoom 18-55 mm zoom lens included in the of DSLR cameras, the use of medium shutter speed such as 1/90, 1/125 or 1/250 will achieve sufficiently clear photos especially for subjects that are not in movement, but If we buy our first telephoto lens, let us assume an effective focal length of 500 mm, and if we continue to use the shutter speeds that we are accustomed to up to that moment, it is likely that our photos will not be great because of the lack of sharpness. Then we must know that, when assembling our new telephoto lens, it is important to raise the shutter speed by applying the reciprocity rule.

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