Photographing birds is a real challenge, especially when they are in flight. However, you can take even more captivating images of birds perched, feeding, in courtship displays, or tending young. A beautiful photo of a bird is a challenge worth overcoming, because you will be very proud of the result.
Before trying to photograph a flying bird, it is important to practice your focusing so that you can get sharp images of a moving object, and which is also composed effectively. Set the focus mode to continuous focusing (AI Servo AF Canon/AF-C Nikon) so that the lens can constantly maintain its focus on the flying bird. Choose a fast shutter speed of 1/1000s or higher to freeze the action. Use a good zoom or telephoto lens (at least 200 mm) to get close to the bird. Be aware that smaller subjects are harder to focus.
Get up Close
When visiting a bird sanctuary or zoo, you may get the chance for some stunning photographs of birds at close range. With patience and practice, you can really do this nearly anywhere. You need a good telephoto lens to get close enough to make the image interesting. Zoom in and focus on the animal’s head, which might not be possible, but try. Otherwise, you can focus on the whole body. You may need to follow the bird around for a while before it remains still. Use soft flash to add radiance to the animal’s feathers and the widest possible aperture to blur the background (and foreground if need be) so nothing else distracts from the bird.
From a Distance
When you’re out in the wild, and happen across a bird that is captivating, you need to be ready to capture that image – even if it’s at a distance. So pull out your telephoto lens (zoom or prime) to fill the frame with the bird. Nothing shouts louder “boring photo” more than a tiny subject in the frame, so move in as close as you can physically and use your zoom (you’ll likely need a tripod depending on the length of your lens). For some subjects, it’s worth setting up before hand and waiting for the birds to arrive. Use a shallow depth of field (f/2.8-f/5.6) to keep everything but the bird and branch in focus.
Birds on the move create a stunning image. You need to use a fast shutter speed (anything over 1/200s) to capture the moment but at the same time, you want the majority of the animal to be sharp so there is a contrast between blur and sharp. With something like a hummingbird, we might choose 1/400s which is slow considering how fast the wings are moving. You might want to increase the ISO to (800-1600), so you can employ a smaller aperture to ensure that whole bird is sharp except for the flapping wings.
Showing an object in motion is always an arresting image, and to do it most effectively when photographing a bird requires a slower shutter speed (around 1/60s). The trick is to track the bird during its flight. Follow the bird’s flight path and then at the decisive moment snap the photo. It’s nearly impossible to use a flash in this situation, so you have to position yourself so the sun provides the right amount of illumination. Side light is best, so early morning or late afternoon time frames work best to provide visual contrast, shadow-detail and appropriate highlights.