Photo masterclass part 7: Birds in flight

Now it's time for an even greater challenge - capturing moving targets. If you follow our experts’ advice on fieldcraft, good technique and equipment, you may surprise yourself.

Photo masterclass part 7: Birds in flight article spread

Just as you’re mastering the art of taking well-composed images of wildlife, we’re presenting you with an even greater challenge: capturing moving targets. But if you follow our experts’ advice on fieldcraft, good technique and equipment, you may surprise yourself.

It’s all very well taking technically perfect portraits of birds doing nothing much at all. The real challenge is to take great pictures of birds doing what they do best – flying.
But capturing that brief moment when the wings are in an aesthetically pleasing position is just the beginning. Overcoming camera shake while you track the bird, and making the image pin-sharp by freezing its rapidly flapping wings, merely add to the challenge.
The light, too, needs to be just right to avoid unwanted silhouettes and shadows. So, perhaps not surprisingly, the ‘hit rate’ in photographing birds in flight is low compared with many other forms of wildlife photography.
Work your subject
But the good news is that birds generally use quite predictable roosting, feeding and nesting sites and it’s often possible to get close to them. You can also keep shooting until well after the sun has set: take pin-sharp pictures if the light is good, but as it gets darker and you’re forced to use slower shutter speeds, try more imaginative, artistic shots with blurry wings to give a feeling of movement.
Perhaps most importantly, there are many potential subjects in the UK – everywhere from the Somerset Levels (wheeling and turning starlings coming in to roost) to Bass Rock (breeding gannets), and from seafronts (feeding gulls) to town lakes (landing ducks and swans) up and down the country.
It’s just a matter of getting out there, experimenting and practising. It’ll certainly be worth it – well-executed flight shots make some of the most exciting wildlife photographs.
MEET THE EXPERT: Manuel Presti, Italy
A nature photographer since 1985, Manuel Presti was the winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2005 Competition with his image of starlings pursued by a peregrine.
Manuel Presti is an engineer by profession and juggles a full-time job with award-winning nature photography. This summer, he has been setting his alarm for 3.50am to photograph bee-eaters and hoopoes before work. “It’s not a problem,” he jokes, “because we have espresso in Italy to keep us awake.” Manuel shoots until the light is too harsh for taking pictures and then heads to the office.
“I like to pick a subject and work it well,” he explains. “That’s what I did with the starlings, which I photographed every evening after work in the centre of Rome. I was actually standing on the pavement, watching the swirling flocks expand and contract, looking for interesting patterns in the sky. It was an unusual scenario for wildlife photography, because most evenings I was surrounded by curious people. Many of them were taking pictures, too – with their mobile phones.”
Manuel believes that familiar subjects hold the key to many great pictures. He travels far and wide for his photography – two of his favourite places for birds in flight are Florida and Bosque del Apache in New Mexico – but he adores working close to home.
He often plans his images in advance and has a list of dream shots. “I was lying in a poppyfield the other day, photographing the brilliant red flowers against a dark blue sky, when swifts started flying overhead. I thought it would make a wonderful shot and now have this perfect picture in my mind’s eye. It’ll be a challenge, but not impossible. Besides, it’s good to push the boundaries.”
Manuel Presti’s top bird-in-flight photography tips
  • Think about the wind and sun
    The best conditions for flight photography are when the wind is blowing from roughly the same direction as the sun is shining. An easterly wind early in the morning or a westerly wind late in the afternoon will ensure that most birds take off and land facing into the sun – lighting them perfectly from the front.
  • Set the exposure manually
    Take a few test shots of birds in the sky and then set your exposure manually. When birds are flying, they move across light and dark patches of sky and, unless they are really filling the frame, make it difficult for the auto-exposure to cope. Don’t forget to adjust your exposure as the light changes.
YOUR STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE: Mark Carwardine shows you how to apply the theory to get the perfect picture.
Follow the bird
  • Pick up the bird in your viewfinder as early as possible – don’t wait until you are ready to take the shot. This allows your autofocus to lock on and gives you a moment to think about composition before shooting.
  • Practise finding a flying bird through your lens – it’s an essential skill and the quicker you can do it, the better.
  • Make sure the autofocus is set to ‘continuous’ (and keep pressing the shutter button halfway) to ensure that it maintains sharp focus on the bird as it moves towards or away from the camera.
Shoot first, ask questions later
  • Start shooting if you think a good picture is about to unfold. If you stop to think, even for a second, you could miss the shot. Don’t worry if you do miss – just keep trying.
  • Improve your chances by trying to anticipate the action. By reading wind conditions and behaviour, for example, it is often possible to predict when a bird is likely to take flight and where it is likely to fly. 
  • Keep shooting. The more images you take, the more chance you have of getting a good one.


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