Insure Your Flight Shots by Following a Plan

It's easy to get excited about great, close-up flight images. But not as easy to duplicate them. One mistake many photographers make is to zoom in as far as they can right away and desparately try to focus on the bird--often against a mottled background. They would probably be better off just taking a deep breath and making a plan to work their way into the shooting opportunity.


I was excited to find a colony of African Skimmers on the Lafupa River, but it was getting dark and they were wheeling so close overhead that I couldn't track them reliably at 400mm from the boat with my hand held 200-400mm lens. So I simply zoomed out to 300mm and was able to make several very pleasing images like this one (which I then cropped slightly to feature the bird framed as I wanted it).

Planning your Flight Shot Opportunity

Of course each opportunity is different, but a basic template is almost always helpful. First, think about your ultimate goal. Are you hoping to capture the birds wheeling a particular way, or fighting, or feeding mid-air? Or "just" to get them sharp? Do you know which way the wind is blowing? It's easier to photograph birds flying into the wind as they tend to be moving more slowly and be held up somewhat and easier to see. And of course you want the sun coming from your direction--so ideally you want the wind coming out of the sun.

Once you've thought about the orientation you need to get the best opportunity, look at your backgrounds. It is much, much easier to focus on a flying bird when you have a clean blue background (either blue water or blue sky) than if the bird is in front of rocks or trees. And of course blue is almost always better than white aesthetically. Dark gray can also make a great and ominous background as long as the subject is lit.


This Carmine Bee Eater was part of a nesting colony being attacked by a Monitor Lizard. The lizard was moving from nest to nest (holes in the ground) looking for eggs and chicks he could eat. After working hard to try to get the perfect shot of a bird dive-bombing right on the lizard and having a devilishly hard time focusing (both the birds and lizard were moving and I was hand holding a long lens from a vehicle) I relaxed and aimed a little higher to get the beautiful blue sky as a background. My camera locked on instantly and it was like shooting fish in a barrel to get some great action shots of the circling birds feasting on flying termites.

Start Focusing Early

Of course even with a solid background you're always better off pre-focusing on something a similar distance as your subject and if your lens has a focus range setting you might want to lock it down so it only searches the longer distances where you're looking for your birds.

The next tip is to start focusing when the bird is still relatively far away. If you wait until a bird (or a race car or other moving object) is too close it's too late to focus. See if you can discover a pattern to how the birds are flying and pick them up in the distance and follow them in. You'll be wrong a lot and the bird will move off in another direction before it gets to you, but that's okay. Just pick it up again or find another bird that is coming closer.


This Yellow-billed Kite was dive-bombing a pack of African Wild Dogs (also known as Painted Wolves) stealing bits of meat while the dogs growled at it. If I waited for the bird was diving and tried to focus there was no way I could lock on. But by watching for the Kite to circle I was able to pick it up on the way in and then follow it through its dive and get images like this one as it came back up with a juicy morsel in its talons.

Pick your Birds

If you haven't done a lot of flight photography it'll be frustrating and probably fruitless to rush out and try to capture images of fast moving and fast turning birds like swallows or most perching birds. So start slow. Gulls, Geese, Ducks and gliding raptors or shorebirds make a great place to start. You can practice simple focus acquisition and pan with them as they fly in. Start shooting while they are still aways off, keep shooting carefully and steadily as they come in, and keep panning smoothly for a little bit after you think you're done shooting for best effect.


After working on flight shots of Hornbills and Bee-eaters capturing images of this flock of Spur-Winged Geese was easy. I simply locked on as they flew in, framed the image a little loosely to allow for the effect of VR (IS) and my hand-held motion and plucked away.


By following the flock in as it circled to land I was able to track the birds closely enough that I could capture portraits of individual birds like this one.

Putting it All Together


Once you've gotten some practice and rhythm you can start to put it together and capture images of close flying birds--even if they surprise you taking off--against mixed backgrounds. This Coppery-tailed Coucal suddenly flew up next to our truck but my Nikon D300 and 200-400mm lens were completely up to it. Using Single point AF with Dynamic tracking I was able to get a well lit shot as it flew by.

Good luck with your flight photography. If you're not sure if you have the right gear, our exclusive Holiday and can help you get what you need. Regards & Happy Holidays--David and the team at and