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Capturing the Best Photos of Birds in Flight: Composition Tips

written by: A. Jitesh•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 6/25/2010

Birds make for wonderful photographic subjects, and capturing one in flight makes for a truly remarkable photograph. This article gives the lowdown on how to compose your photos of birds in flight for maximal visual impact.

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    Learning How to Capture Photos of Birds in Flight

    As with all forms of animal photography, it makes sense to first reach the venue of the shoot, which may be your backyard, a nearby park or pond, or even a National Park. Spend some time observing the habits of the birds around you. This article gives you general tips to capture good wildlife photographs, and each and every one of those tips would also apply for getting the best photos of birds in flight. If it's your first shoot, concentrate on the medium sized birds. Gulls and parakeets make wonderful subjects, as they’re not too afraid of humans and would give lots of opportunity for good shots. You can feed them seeds to entice them to come near you, thereby creating opportunities. Position yourself near the bird’s roost and such that the flight path of the bird would be across your camera frame. It's not advisable to have the bird fly right at you or away from you. It's far easier to lock focus and pan when the bird is flying across your frame.
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    Composition Tips

    This might well be the trickiest aspect to accomplish. The correct composition can lend magic to an otherwise normal photo, and may well make or break all your efforts. Getting the flying bird in the right part of your frame is not an easy task either. The only solution to this is to practice and practice some more. Check out well composed images and try to replicate the scene with the birds near you. Keep in mind that the rules for composition remain the same irrespective of whether it’s a bird or a human as the main subject. I’ll outline some key pointers on getting great photos of birds in flight here:

    1. Try to get the bird flying into the frame, rather than exiting it. Leave some space in front of the bird, around half your frame would be great. It's also easier to pan while shooting this way.

    (Image Credit: Johan Wessels)

    Flying into the frame 

    2. Birds landing or taking off make for very appealing photos. Again, make sure to leave space in front of the bird in both cases. Birds usually take off and land into the wind, hence the bird turning its body towards the wind could be a pointer to its impending take-off. Other signs to look out for are defecation, a general examination of its surroundings and alarm calls.

    (Image Credit: Glenn Seplak)

    A bird landing 

    3. People usually shoot birds from a low angle, as they usually fly above us. But by changing the angle (for example, trying to capture it at eye-level or from a top angle) adds a whole new perspective to the photo. Including sufficient background to get the bird in context with its surroundings is also recommended to add drama to the photo. It's not always necessary to get the bird sharply in focus.

    (Image Credit: Luc Viatour)

    A different perspective 

    4. For some great photos of birds in flight, try silhouettes. These types of photos of birds in flight make for excellent compositions, especially when against the backdrop of a sunset.

    (Image Credit: Tommy Hansen)

    A Silhouette 

    5. One of my personal favorites is the backlit shot. Position yourself facing the sun, and try to capture the entire opened wingspan of the bird.

    (Image Credit: Forest & Kim Starr)


    6. Wing Position: Now this is another very tricky aspect and comes with either tremendous practice or a very good burst mode in your camera! But remember that:

    • If the bird is shot parallel to the plane of your lens, try to capture it with its wings fully up or fully down. I prefer the fully down position more as it lends a kind of ‘gliding’ smooth feel to the image.

    (Image Credit: Keith)Wings Down 

    • If the bird is flying directly towards you, almost any position is good enough, but the wings parallel to the bird’s body and the ground accentuates its size and gives a majestic feel.

    (Image Credit: Duncan Wright)

    Wings Level 

    Following these photography tips on capturing photos of birds in flight will surely put you on the path to getting those spectacular photos! Good luck and do share your results with us.

Tips on Capturing Photos of Birds in Flight

This series will provide tips on capturing photos of birds in flight. Part 1 offers tips on the equipment needed for getting the best photos and how to correctly set them up. Part 2 provides important tips on composition techniques to help you create the most memorable photos of birds in flight.
  1. Tips on Capturing Photos of Birds in Flight: Preparation and Equipment
  2. Capturing the Best Photos of Birds in Flight: Composition Tips