Bird Flight Photography

Male American Kestrel Hover Hunting 1/3200 sec, f/6.3 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 320

Bird flight photography is physically challenging – a sport that relies on hand to eye coordination, anticipation, and practice. It is also mentally challenging because it requires knowledge of bird behavior and proper settings for your equipment, and both are based on many possible factors. Those mental calculations often must be made quickly. Executing everything correctly is especially gratifying when an opportunity is brief and there is no second chance.

I recommend that persons who are new to bird photography begin with perched birds, swimming ducks, walking shorebirds, etc. Tackling those situations is easier and more opportunities are available. This article assumes the reader has that type of background, as well as an understanding of basic camera and lens settings, and the relationship between ISO, aperture, and shutter speed – with respect to bird photography. Here is my article which covers that: SONGBIRD PHOTOGRAPHY – PART 2 by Paul Rossi | paulrossibirds

My objective, when photographing a bird in flight, is to capture an image with sharpness throughout the subject, which requires sufficient depth of field and enough shutter speed to stop wing action. If the wing tips are slightly blurry it is acceptable to me in some cases. Obviously correct exposure is very important as well. When approaching each flight photography situation I must prepare my camera settings based on variables such as lighting conditions, wind conditions, background variability, and tone and highlights of the bird. I consider the differences in my effectiveness photographing from a tripod and photographing handheld, or using a swivel plate on top of a beanbag out of my van window or photographing hand held out of the window. I must also consider the effective focal length of the lens, as well as the typical flight of the subject (slow glide, soaring, fast wing beats, swooping, etc). All of those factors help me determine my settings for ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.

I often access probabilities to determine if there is a reasonable chance that a specific spot, during a specific date range and time of day, concentrates flying birds during migration. I do this via birding, scouting with thoughtful observation of patterns of bird movements, even using Google Earth to locate potential spots before visiting them. And I usually must see that I can use low sun behind me at the spot, which can mean using a compass on a cloudy scouting day.

Then, knowing there is good chance, I must make sure conditions are favorable for capturing a good image on a day I go there. If, for example, at a hawk migration spot I have chosen at Whitefish Point, during the optimal date range for a good variety of species migrating and very good numbers of birds, the winds are of the right speed and direction to bring in lots of soaring hawks (which stay well above the tree tops), but the day is very overcast, I will not go. Why? My images will have nothing but very white sky as the background, and the birds have no chance of being well lit from below, even if there is snow on the ground. But when conditions are favorable (maybe a day after), for example, and the sky is clear so sun reflects off ground snow to lighten the underside of the hawks, then I must make sure my mental and physical preparation is optimal. Because the challenge is on. Early on I learned this the hard way. There was a day with tremendous opportunity at Whitefish Point (that I would never see the likes of again) and I was not prepared. I did not even bring enough batteries, and could not use my camera after finally learning what I needed to do for better success.

The best way to share my mental preparation, and inspire other bird photographers to think creatively about their approach to each flight photography situation they find, is to go over many different examples. My best physical preparation is previous practice with subjects which are easy to find and provide many opportunities, such as seagulls at certain locations, but in addition to that, or instead of practicing that, I can become very quick at finding the center of the lens on a subject at home. Honing and re-updating that ability is the most important factor to becoming good at bird flight photography for me, and it gives me more opportunity in many other bird photography situations because I can can react quick enough more often. Here is a video showing how to practice FINDING THE CENTER OF THE LENS Note that this video goes over practice behind a tripod. For flight photography out of a car window finding the center of the lens is a variation on that skill, and it will increase success out of a car window to practice out of a car window. The same is true for standing handheld flight photography. Note that finding the center of the lens quickly is a skill that must be honed before learning to track birds in flight, so just using stationary objects (as shown in the video) is easiest to master first.

Important: Have I failed to capture many excellent bird flight photography opportunities in the past, other than the one day I mentioned further above? Absolutely! The main reasons were… 1) failing to find the center of the lens quick enough with a surprise opportunity (for example, when a hawk bolts out of a thick forest across a clearing), and 2) trying to initially focus on a easily seen subject coming toward me when it was too far away, which commits me to trying to track it in. I often lost focus on the bird before it got big enough in the frame, and could not regain focus before the bird passed through my shadow line at the ideal distance, resulting in a lost opportunity. So I made sure to use a disciplined pre-focusing approach, and forced myself to rely on my proficiency at quickly finding the center of the lens, and continue to do so because my success rate increased dramatically. I really learned to appreciate the value of maintaining sufficient ability to quickly center the lens – with practice, so I could execute within a small period of time. That ability becomes more critical with smaller and faster flying birds – a Kestrel, or Merlin Falcon, or Bufflehead, etc. Do modern high end DSLRs help with this dilemma? Yes. But how much? I know that using them with this disciplined approach would greatly increase success rate.

Note that just about every image in this article is one image picked out of a burst of images – when I held the shutter button down while maintaining focus on the bird. Picking the best image can sometimes be difficult when shooting at 14+ fps. But all of the images here are from 2 different cameras, a Canon 1D Mark 2 (at 600 mm) at 8 fps and a Canon 7D Mark 2 (at 960 mm) at 10 fps. So one image usually stands out among the group.

Female American Kestrel Hover Hunting 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 320

This image and the male Kestrel at the beginning of the article were taken on 2 consecutive very cold early April mornings, when I targeted Kestrels which arrived very early from the southern U.S. to Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula. Many migrated north on early warm south winds which lasted a few days, but then it turned cold, with nights 12-18 degrees F. They are a small falcon so they lost a lot of body heat and energy during those cold nights, and it was critical for them to hunt successfully in the mornings afterward. Some birds hunted over bushy ditches along rarely driven back roads, adjacent to farm fields mostly covered in snow. My chances to line up subjects with my shadow line were slim, but they were so hungry, because of the very cold previous nights, that some birds were oblivious to my slow approach with my van, as they hovered in place and concentrated on a subject below – usually a sparrow in the roadside ditch bushes. There was a south wind on both mornings and that was important: the birds hovered into that wind direction, giving a good head angle to my view along my morning shadow line, projecting from the east. Note that “shadow line” refers to the direction of my shadow with the low sun positioned directly behind me. That’s the area of perfect illumination on the subject. Taking images within 15 degrees to the left or right of that line is my goal, because distracting shadows on the bird from its wings usually occur further than that. The exception is when a bird turns to reveal its back and top side of its wings. Then up to 35 degrees can often be acceptable. I used a Blubb Big Lens Ultimate Beanbag (cradled on the doorframe of my van) and Visual Echoes Panning Plate attached to my lens and resting on the beanbag.

For both images I used a Canon 1D Mark2 attached to a Canon F4 600mm IS lens. At the time high ISO cameras with good noise performance were not available; nor was noise reduction software. So I set ISO at 320. In the same circumstances now I would set the ISO at 800 (or more) and be able to achieve correct exposure with more depth of field (f/8.0 instead of f/6.3) and a higher shutter speed: 1/4000 sec instead of 1/3200 sec. But 1/3200 sec is often fast enough to stop the fluttering wings of a hovering Kestrel.

Note: For all images in this article I used a Canon F4 600 mm IS lens and always set image stabilization to IS2, the best setting for moving subjects.

There was snow on the ground in many areas so I used the snow to make my manual settings for aperture and shutter speed. For example, for the female above, I set shutter speed to 1/3200 sec and aperture at f/5.0 and took an image of the ground snow on my shadow line, just before approaching her. I looked at the image for flashing highlights (which I had previously set-up in the camera menu) and they flashed, so I took another image at a 1/3 stop darker exposure (f/5.6) and looked at it and there were no flashing highlights, so I was ready to shoot. Note that if she were a darker bird species (with no white on her face, for example, I would not have needed to darken the exposure. I did not want to overexpose the white on her face. I had previously set up my camera up so it was continuously auto-focusing and shooting at the maximum frame rate: 8 fps (frames per second) in this case. I previously set focus on the center focusing point and expanded the focus out to 8 squares surrounding the center point, so if any 1 of them was on the subject focus could be acquired and maintained. I had a lot of experience testing this camera and lens combination with bird flight photography at different focusing point expansions, and the best performance and results (very sharp images) were at 8 squares surrounding the center point.

Before approaching her as she was hovering stationary, (with my engine running) I estimated what the distance would be between my lens and her at the point I would stop my van to shoot her on my shadow line, and focused the lens on a bush at approximately that distance away by pushing the shutter button halfway and acquiring focus, and then I removed my finger from the shutter button. That way when I arrived at the point where I shut the engine off on my van I could point the lens at her and she would be somewhat in focus so I could easily find her in the center of the lens and acquire sharp focus quickly by pushing the shutter button 1/2 way down, and then fire away. This estimation and pre-focus is very important. If focus is off by too much when I attempt to acquire initial focus on a bird in flight I may never gain focus before, in this case, the bird flies out of its hover and is gone, or a normal flying bird flies out of the ideal zone near my shadow line. I focused on the neck area of each bird and fired as many shots as possible, hoping one or more of them would catch a head position with a highlight in the eye and a nice wing position, and be very sharp. Not all of the images of the sequences were sharp because of the fluttering of the wings affecting focus. This can be mitigated somewhat by more modern cameras with better ISO performance, which allows more depth of field to be set – for example f/11 instead of f/5.6.

Male American Kestrel 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

This image (above) was taken the year after and there was no snow on the ground. I went through the same approach as described above, but before my approach I took an image of a neutral background at 1/3200 sec, f/5.6, and viewed the image, and saw that it came out slightly darker than neutral, which is good for not over exposing the whites on the this bird. If I had seen that the image came out with the same neutral tone I would have darkened the image by -1/3 stop by moving to F/6.3. This bird came out of its hover while I was firing, so I caught it looking at me before it veered away. Note that background is not entirely sky. That is because the bird hovered lower than the other 2 kestrels. This why using manual exposure is a must. If I do not use manual exposure, and the background changes behind the bird, the correct exposure changes. Almost always there is not enough time to make the required adjustment or, at minimum, valuable time is lost when split seconds count. I focused right on the head of this bird, and the original image was slightly cropped for composition.

NOTE: I often slightly crop images for display.

White Phase Rough-legged Hawk Flare Before Diving 1/3200 sec, f/4 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

I took the image above in the winter, and this hawk was hovering into a slight wind that was coming from behind me to my right, so its head was facing right of and slightly toward the position at which I would photograph it from a back road. It focused on something on the ground within some bushes. There was a very hazy sunlight which reflected off the ground snow to illuminate the underside of the hawk well. I used images of the snow to make manual settings for aperture and shutter speed, as described for the first 2 kestrels further above, making sure to not pop the whites of the ground snow. I approached with my van, lining the bird up with my faint shadow line, in the same manner, but pre-focused further away because this is a much larger bird. I did not have my panning plate attached to my lens and I did not take the time to attach it, so I could quickly approach and hand hold my camera and lens out of my van window at 600 mm (using my Canon 1D Mark2). The bird came out of its hover at the moment of this image and flattened out before its attack, so the very thin depth of field (wide open at f/4) caught almost all of the bird very sharp. I was very lucky. If I had a more modern camera producing relatively noise-free images at higher ISOs I surely would have used much more depth of field (f/7.1 at minimum). I knew that while handholding my equipment out of my van window I needed a minimum of 1/3200 sec, based on previous experience. I later found out that at 960 mm that minimum must be 1/4000 sec for me with the Canon 7D Mark2.

Dark Phase Rough-legged Hawk Pulling out of Hover 1/3200 sec, f/4.5 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

I approached this hawk on a back road in the spring (with no snow on the ground) with my van, in the same manner as the last example, but there was less haze over the sun. I pre-focused, approached and photographed it in the same way, but it was hover-hunting into a wind from behind me and to my left. I took images of some neutral grass and adjusted exposure +2/3 stop because it is a dark bird and its white highlights are not too white. It came out of its hover at the moment of this image.

Light Phase Rough-legged Hawk 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 320

I approached and set-up for this image as I did for the image above but adjusted exposure -2/3 stop from neutral grasses taken as test images. This hawk was hover-hunting into a wind that was coming directly at the position from which I would photograph it on my shadow line, so it was facing away from me. I was hoping it would pull out of its hover and return to a favored perch behind me. To do this it had to reveal its back and eye. I was very lucky it performed as anticipated and even luckier to catch the full flare, especially since I was using a camera (Canon 1D Mark 2) with only 8 fps. Modern cameras with 14+ fps have a much better success rate, if the photographer is on the bird and settings are correct.

Dark Phase Rough-legged Hawk 1/3200 sec, f/5 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

This was a very similar situation to the one above. Same approach and preparation, but exposure +2/3 from neutral because it is a dark bird. The hawk was hovering into a wind that was coming at my position for photographing it along my shadow line, but it briefly flew away into the wind and quickly turned back to return to a favored perch. I made sure to maintain focus as it flew away slowly into the wind, anticipating (hoping) it would make the turn as the previous hawk did. This was a very surprising result from a difficult challenge.

Adult Sharp-shinned Hawk 1/2500 sec, f/5 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

I took the image above at Whitefish point during spring Hawk migration – as I did for some of the following examples. I positioned myself behind my tripod with my lens balanced and cradled in my Whimberley head and pointing in the direction of my shadow line, at eye level with my knees slightly bent. This gives me the best chance to react to birds that can fly through my shadow line – from near ground level to about 30 feet above the tree line. During strong south winds (the best conditions for max hawk numbers) this is the typical zone where a variety of hawks fly. The strength of the sun was weakened by some haze so I took an image of neutral trees to view the result, and adjusted shutter speed and aperture to -1/3 darker than neutral, so the image would not pop the typically not too bright white on this species. I would do this often as the strength of the sun varied with thicker or thinner haze. This bird appeared out of nowhere and approached my shadow line. I quickly focused at a tree that was the correct distance away, and let up on the shutter button, so that when I attempted to acquire focus the bird would be big enough in the frame and I was close enough to reasonable focus so focus could be acquired quickly. This is a decision that (I learned with experience) must be made to maximize my success rate, and it requires that the bird fly at a distance away that is not too far or too close. So be it. Many Sharp-shinned Hawks would often fly around me on a good day, so I would only choose the ones that flew close enough and through my shadow line, ignoring the others. That discipline is necessary for success, and it requires the ability to acquire focus very quickly. That’s where the practice centering the lens pays off. Keep in mind that a smaller flying bird that is close, which is required to have it big enough in the frame, is harder to focus upon and track than a larger bird that is further away, which it must be to not be too big in the frame. Focus must be acquired quicker and a gust of wind knocks the little bird out of the frame more quickly, and smaller birds often change direction quicker. Once the bird leaves the frame the opportunity is almost always over. So success ratio is less with smaller birds. Here (above) I timed the Sharp-shinned Hawk’s glide between bouts of wing beats, and luckily the glide went directly through my shadow line. Knowing the typical flight of this species (flap for a bit, then glide, and then repeat) was helpful.

Adult Sharp-shinned Hawk 1/2500 sec, f/5 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

This Sharp-shinned Hawk (above) was flying low over the Whitefish Point beach and the darker blue of the bottom 60% of the frame is Lake Superior. I prepared my settings and myself for this image in the same way as the the previous example (except for pre-focusing on rocks on the beach instead of a tree) but this bird continued to pump its wings as it flew through my shadow line. It was flapping through my shadow line instead of gliding. I kept firing while smoothly tracking the bird and hoped it would not veer out of the frame or the camera would lock on the water background instead of the bird if I did not keep it centered perfectly. Some modern cameras do a much better job during this situation – seeing the subject and not focusing on the background if the subject doesn’t stay perfectly centered. I was lucky to catch a down wing position at 8 fps. Modern cameras at 14+ fps have a much better success rate, and because they take relatively noise-free images at much higher ISOs, a higher shutter speed can be used, as well as more depth of field, and most produce images with more than twice the megapixels – all resulting in a better chance of achieving a higher quality image, or many good images during a burst. But the process of deciding the proper settings to achieve correct exposure would be the same, and the skill to acquire focus at the right time and keep the bird sufficiently centered in the frame would be similar.

Adult Sharp-shinned Hawk 1/4000 sec, f/7.1 960 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 500

I took the image above at Whitefish Point, using the same preparation as the 2 previous images, but I was using a Canon 7D Mark 2 with the 600IS lens, so my effective focal length was 960mm instead of 600mm. At 960mm it is more difficult to acquire focus and track a small quick hawk such as a Sharp-shinned because when they are big enough in the frame, and they veer or are hit by a gust of wind, they leave the frame much quicker, and I usually lose the opportunity completely at that point. Timing the glide to acquire focus and fire is my best chance to get a good image at 960 mm. I do that by pre-focusing on something at the correct distance so the hawk will be big enough in the frame, and tracking the hawk, keeping it centered as much as possible and only acquiring and maintaining focus (by pressing the shutter button 1/2 way down), when the hawk is close enough and close to being in focus. Then I can fire. Also, at 960 mm I make sure I have a shutter speed of 1/4000 sec at minimum because the wind is usually blowing at Whitefish Point, and effecting my lens on tripod somewhat, so at 1/3200 sec I produce many more blurry and slightly unsharp images. Note: I learned that the 7D Mark 2 ISO performance, when combined with good noise reduction software (such as DxO PhotoLab Elite) is excellent up to ISO 800, and very good up to ISO 1250, which often allows higher shutter speeds and more depth of field, as compared to the Canon 1D Mark2.

Immature Goshawk 1/2000 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 320

I took this image (above) at Whitefish Point in mid-April, when snow covered the ground in front of me (on my shadow line). I used the Canon 1D Mark 2 and 600mm IS lens. The sun was quite high so it reflected off the snow to illuminate the underside of the passing hawks. It was a partially hazy day so I took images of the snow often to see where the snow would pop (with flashing highlights), and I set exposure at 1/3 stop darker until there was no pop, and then went even 1/3 stop darker – to arrive at the correct exposure. Because this is a much larger bird than a Sharp-shinned Hawk I had to focus on a tree further away, before acquiring focus. This is a much easier bird to acquire focus upon and track, as are most larger birds, for 2 reasons. 1) A larger bird, which is further way than a smaller the same size in the frame, moves slower relative the photographer, and 2) A larger bird cannot change direction as quick as a smaller bird and jump out of the frame as easily while I attempt to center it and gain focus. If this bird (which is somewhat white, but not as white as a typical seagull) turned to reveal is underside to direct sun (and me), instead of the slightly weaker sun reflected off the snow below, the tendency to pop the whites would be strong, and I did not want to overexpose the whites. That is the reason for going 1/3 stop darker.

Male Northern Harrier 1/2500 sec, f/4.5 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

I took this image (above) at Whitefish Point when is was very hazy. A Northern Harrier is similar in size to a Goshawk so I had to pre-focus as in the example above. There was no snow on the ground so I set exposure by taking images of a neutral tree, and adjusting until an image came out slightly dark, and then adjusting to 1/3 stop darker. The reason? The white of a male Northern Harrier is very white and could pop otherwise, especially if he veered and revealed his very white rump. If it was only slightly hazy (and therefore the sun was stronger) I would have adjusted exposure another 1/3 stop darker. Northern Harriers are a large bird but they are difficult to track because they tend to change direction often and quickly, so concentration is paramount with them. It was so hazy that I barely even had a shadow line, so the general rule of shooting within 15 degrees to the left or right of my shadow line no longer applied. I could shoot at 45+ degrees to the left or right, which means I had to be more mobile – quickly stepping around my tripod. This image was near 40 degrees to the right.

1st year Golden Eagle 1/2500 sec, f/4.5 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

I took this image at Whitefish point at a time when there was a partial haze over the sun, aligning my equipment with my shadow line, as described near the beginning of this article, but I was targeting soaring birds overhead so I raised the level of my tripod so I could point at the sky more comfortably (without crouching down too much). A Golden Eagle is a tricky bird to expose correctly because it is dark, but its bright golden neck must be considered – I do not want to over expose the neck too much. So I took images of a neutral tree, adjusting exposure until it was slightly lighter than neutral, and used that exposure. The neck could pop a little, but recovery of a slight pop during image processing is easy. I had to pre-focus on a tree quite a bit further away than I would for a Harrier or Goshawk, because of the larger size of the eagle. The flight of an eagle is very easy to track because it is further away than most other birds, and even when it turns to catch the wind (as pictured) the turn is relatively slow.

Northern Flicker 1/2500 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 320

Some days at Whitefish Point many Northern Flickers pass by my shadow line, usually early in the morning. They are an extreme challenge because they are smaller than a Sharp-shinned Hawk, they veer often and sharply, and have a looping flight, holding their wings to their body and then briefly flapping. The flap reveals the yellow underside of the wings – that’s the goal image for me. I needed to pre-focus even closer than I would for a Sharp-shinned Hawk and I needed to acquire focus very late and very near good focus. So I needed a very lucky subject that did what was needed and the discipline to not try to focus and fire too soon. This cannot be done at 960 mm. I was at 600 mm. I set exposure the same as I did for the Sharp-shinned hawks.

Red-tail Hawk 1/4000 sec, f/7.1 960 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 640

The Canon 7D Mark 2 (at 960 mm) allowed me to begin handheld shooting of large hawks and eagles migrating over Whitefish Point. They would soar on thermals from the trees after 10 am, sometimes circling right above me. I learned that going handheld was the way to go because my lens could not point straight up while on its tripod. It was difficult at first, but with practice, it got easier. I took the image above in early April, when snow reflection off the ground at my location lit the underside of the hawk’s wings. I set exposure by taking images of the snow and making sure I was at 1/3 stop darker than flashing highlights. I pre-focused on a tree at the appropriate distance.

Sharp-shinned Hawk Riding Thermals 1/4000 sec, f/7.1 960 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 40o

This example is very similar to the one above, but the sun was slightly stronger, thus I used ISO 400. And it was taken near the same spot, on a day with snow reflection from the ground and thermals from the trees. I prepared my camera settings in the same way. Unexpectedly this Sharp-shinned Hawk started to thermal at the top of a nearby tree line, much lower than the Red-tailed Hawks. I ran to get closer to it while it was facing away, hoping it would circle back my way and in line with my shadow line. At 960 mm I pre-focused on a tree at a closer distance (as compared to the distance for a Red-tailed Hawk) and the bird cooperated perfectly. This behavior is rare at Whitefish Point for a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Notice the widened tail and wings – to maximize surface area in order to catch the thermal updraft.

Broad-winged Hawk 1/3200 sec, f/6.3 960 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

With no snow on the ground this day a group of Broad-winged Hawks soared low over the trees at Whitefish Point approaching the sandy beach ahead of my position. They circled closer and some eventually flew through my shadow line. This time I had some weaker sun reflection off the light beach sand (as compared to snow) to help illuminate the wings from below. I was initially set-up with my camera and lens combo on my tripod, but I quickly loosened the quick release plate knob and slid the combo off my tripod to photograph handheld before the hawks passed almost directly overhead. I adjusted exposure to -1/3 stop darker than neutral trees and pre-focused on trees at the appropriate distance.

Merlin Flight 1/2500 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 320

I took this image in the early fall at Pt. LaBarbe near St. Ignace, Michigan. This migrant bird struggled into a 25 mph wind coming from behind the position where I drove to photograph it along my shadow line, adjacent to a road along the beach. It was harassing a migrant Kestrel that dared to hunt near its area. I pre-focused on neutral trees and adjusted to -1/3 darker to make sure not to pop the white and eye ring of this bird. It would have been virtually impossible to photograph such a small quick bird, hand held out of my van window, unless the wind was so strong and the bird flew into that wind very slow. It also gave me 2 nice chances to take a sequence of images. I completely missed it on the first chance because it is still very hard to center a small slow flying hawk hand held out of a van window. This opportunity was offered only because of the rare combination of conditions – strong wind from the right direction, behavior, lighting direction, and relatively low sun.

Male Northern Harrier 1/3200 sec, f/4.5 960 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 2000

Some Northern Harriers remain in Michigan’s Upper peninsula in mid-October and need to fuel up before migrating south. This opportunity was possible because a big rain forced voles (a favored prey item) out of their tunnel networks in the fields, after a long dry period, and a strong wind was coming from the same direction as the very hazy sun, which did not produce defined shadows. The bird continuously hunted a field along a back road adjacent to the field. I drove into position when the bird was slowly moving and sometimes hovering into that wind, way at the back of the field, but it continued to come right at me with its head down. I took images of neutral trees and adjusted to -2/3 stop darker because of the lightness of this bird. I needed it to fly close enough to be big enough in the frame. I estimated that point and pre-focused on the grass at that distance. I tracked it a little closer and luckily it looked up, and I fired a burst at the moment it looked up and veered away. This was a challenge handheld at 960 mm with the Canon 7D Mark 2, especially since I would have preferred to use 1/4000 sec (instead of 1/3200 sec). Many images were slightly blurred but this one was not. The image had more noise than I would have liked (at ISO 2000) but DxO PhotoLab Elite’s noise reduction did a good job. This is another example where a modern camera with good high ISO performance and more fps (frames per second) would greatly increase quality and success rate because a higher shutter speed and more depth of field could be used, along with more fps.

American Bittern Marsh Flight 1/4000 sec, f/8 960 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 640

Sometimes I find a territorial American Bittern calling in the early morning in a marsh. It might respond to a call with a safe low flight over the marsh. With camera and lens on tripod I took this image in the morning with relatively low clear sun directly behind me. I used images of a neutral area of the marsh to adjust exposure and made sure I was -2/3 stop darker than neutral so I would not pop the white on the neck of this bird. The bird was far away and I knew I could expect it to fly low, straight, and relatively slow, if it flew by my area and crossed my shadow line. So I adjusted my tripod and leveled it with the bubble level so my viewfinder was a little lower than eye level so I could comfortable point 2-5 feet above the top of the marsh grass while tracking the bird with knees slightly bent. I had time to pre-focus on marsh grasses at the distance I estimated it could arrive upon crossing my shadow line. I made sure I did not acquire focus until it was very near that point, to make sure I stayed centered on the subject when is was large enough in the frame, and the camera would not lock onto the marsh grasses. I used my Canon 7D Mark 2 with my 600 F4 IS lens so my effective focal length was 960 mm. I adjusted shutter speed to 1/4000 sec, a speed I knew would stop the action of this bird’s wings, and generally yielded very sharp images with my set-up, as long as I was at f/8, which is plenty of depth of field on the subject. Fortunately I had strong enough light to be able to use an ISO low enough to produce hardly any noise with that camera (ISO 640), when prioritizing shutter speed and depth of field. I needed the bird to perform as expected and I was lucky it did.

Note: This method – using manual mode, making sure to have enough shutter speed and depth of field on the subject, and then adjusting ISO to arrive at the correct exposure – is , in my opinion, one of the best ways to prepare settings for bird flight photography with the modern high end DSLRs which have excellent high ISO noise performance. This takes advantage of their capacity to use relatively low light for bird flight photography. Take images of a neutral tone area. Increase ISO to lighten exposure; decrease ISO to darken exposure. I made sure that in my camera’s menu I had the ISO adjustment increment set to 1/3 stop, this is always the case for all bird photography.

I had a chance to instruct a client and friend to use this method at my spring “Northern Warblers and More” Workshop. I directed him to adjust his Canon 1Dx Mark 3 accordingly during much lower lighting conditions, so he used a much higher ISO, but his results were great because of the camera’s good noise performance. He was able to capture many different wing angles while shooting at 16 fps, and because the lower light did not produce shadows, no harsh shadows were on the body of the bird in any of the images. So this method, for relatively low light bird flight photography, with the high end equipment, is especially effective.

Male Goldeneye Flight 1/2500 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

Many times in the past I have attempted to photograph flying ducks during their migration; usually as they pass a peninsula tip, or end of a break wall or long dock. I make sure the morning or evening sun is behind me, and as close to perpendicular to the direction of the shoreline as possible while I face the open water. I target ducks that migrate along the shoreline because that is typical for many species. I photographed the duck above in the early morning clear light from the end of the west pointing ferry dock on Drummond Island, facing the channel between Drummond Island and DeTour Village in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I adjusted exposure by photographing a white building across the channel and making sure I would not pop the whites (as described further above with ground snow). The ducks can fly by close to the water, and I set up the height of my tripod a little lower than eye level with my knees slightly bent so I can comfortably cover passage close to the water or a landing in front of me (which can happen rarely). I prefer the images with water in the background as opposed to sky. I pre-focus on the water at the distance appropriate so that when a duck passes by that is big enough in the frame I can center it and gain focus without locking onto the water. That distance varies based on the size of the duck. For example, it is significantly greater for a Common Merganser, as compared to a Bufflehead. So I must identify the duck species well before it approaches my shadow line to have time to pre-focus at the correct distance. I must stay disciplined in my approach, not attempting to photograph other ducks too far away, especially when broken up groups are passing, as I could lose the opportunity of a duck at the right distance. Ducks fly by pretty fast and very straight almost always, so learning to pan fast enough is a key to success. The duck above passed by at my shadow line at the perfect distance as I fired.

The ducks migrate past this shoreline in the morning ONLY if there is an east component wind at that time, because that wind is mostly blocked by the forests behind me. They prefer to fly along the calmer shoreline. Ducks can be photographed on the other side of the channel in the late afternoon/evening with a west component wind, for the same reason. When I am at the end of the ferry dock I note the exact direction of the wind. If it is from the southeast (which can be great for large numbers of ducks entering the channel from Lake Huron) they will be passing by very fast from left to right, because they are being pushed a little. I must be mentally prepared to pan faster for the increased speed. With so many ducks in the area some of them will pass by from my right to my left, at a slower speed, so I must remember that and constantly turn my head to scan both ways, and hopefully see a potentially photographable duck before it gets too close for me to react. I must do all of this at most duck migration spots.

For the image above, at 600 mm, I would have preferred to use a higher ISO, to have more shutter speed and depth of field on the duck, but I took the image at a time when good performing high ISO cameras and noise reduction software did not exist.

Male Hooded Merganser Flight 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

I took this image at the end of the ferry dock, but this duck came in from open water and veered across my shadow line from the right. It was a more difficult challenge to track and acquire focus. My preparation was the same as above. Scanning for this possibility while turning to look left and right paid off.

Common Goldeneye Pair Flight 1/2500 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

I took this image at the same location, in hazy conditions, preparing in the same way. This is the only time I aim to the sky for passing ducks – if 2 or more pass by, they are separated, and at or close to the plane of focus. Because the level of my tripod was adjusted for ducks near the water I had to crouch down a lot while tracking.

Male Goldeneye Landing 1/2500 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

I took this image at the same location, preparing the same way, in the very early morning clear light. The bird landed before my shadow line, but I stayed focused on it as it sharply decelerated, slowing my rate of panning upon seeing the duck begin to lean back toward a more vertical position.

Male Long-tailed Duck Moment of Impact 1/3200 sec, f/6.3 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 320

I took this image on the other side of the channel in late afternoon strong clear light. I took images of the blue water and adjusted exposure -2/3 stop to make sure to not pop the bright whites of this bird. I saw the duck coming at me from the middle of the channel and pre-focused on the water at the correct distance (as described above). This duck decelerates before landing, like the Goldeneye above, but then it suddenly leans forward with wings back and bounces on the water. I saw this unique landing style way out in the channel, where most of the Long-tailed ducks stay, so I was prepared for it.

Long-tailed Duck Pair Flight 1/5000 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

The ferry ride back from the Drummond Island dock to DeTour Village in the late morning often passes by flocks of Long-tailed Ducks on the water (at the same time when other diving ducks are migrating through the area). The ferry prompts the closer flocks to take flight – sometimes over 100 individuals at a time cross in front of the path of the ferry. Some of the late stragglers can pass close by as they try to stay with all the rest that pass by well in front of the ferry. I prepared settings by metering the same white building as in examples further above. I kept shutter speed at 1/5000 sec to help compensate for the combo of movements – those of the ducks and me on the the ferry. I was able to keep it that high, with some depth of field, because of the strength of the higher sun. I was using the older camera and was at 600 mm. I would shoot at higher ISO and use more depth of field today. Keeping track of my shadow line on the moving ferry was a priority, so I knew where the ducks would cross it if they crossed at close enough range, because the ferry did not take a straight path across the channel. Setting up my tripod as level as possible while the ferry was moving was also necessary, because the deck level changes when the ferry moves. The image above is slightly cropped. Center of focus was near the rump of the male (right side bird). A few unlikely things happened during this opportunity: the ducks passed in front of the ferry instead of behind it, they veered to loop across the front of the ferry while revealing their backs at the same time, and both remained in the plane of focus. I could have just stayed in my van during the short ferry ride, but I never got lucky by not trying.

Male Pileated Woodpecker Flight 1/2500 sec, f/6.3 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

Male Pileated Woodpeckers can respond to an imitation of their loud trill-like knocking with a flight. This territorial male was knocking loudly on a clear April morning in a forest next to a clearing. Behind my tripod, I positioned myself in the clearing so that if he flew out of the forest he would fly through my shadow line in response to my knocking. I took images of neutral grass and adjusted exposure -1/3 darker to not overexpose his white. Upon my knocking he flew with typical looping flight, intermittently flapping, and sometimes gliding very briefly. After seeing the bird take flight in the forest I pre-focused on the ground at the appropriate distance I estimated he would arrive upon crossing my shadow line. I began acquiring him in the center of the frame about 20 feet before my shadow line, without pressing the shutter button 1/2 way to gain focus. I began gaining focus about 10 feet before and fired a burst as soon as I gained focus. Experience has taught me that this is the only way to photograph a Pileated Woodpecker in flight in such circumstances. I caught a glide through my shadow line with 1 image in the burst. Executing and capturing this image is very difficult at 600 mm (virtually impossible at 960 mm) and requires that the bird fly exactly as anticipated. But if I don’t anticipate like this there is no way I can capture the image, as I do when, for example, a large hawk suddenly veers, and I can react. The flight action of the Pileated Woodpecker is too quick.

Male Pileated Woodpecker Braking to Land 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 320

Knowing the flight pattern of this species while it lands was helpful to track it for the image above. During the final approach it glides, looping sharply upward, while flapping to slow its flight. I caught a down flap here, which is held for and instant before the feet come up and wings go back – right before touchdown.

Osprey with Perch 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

The opportunity above came as a surprise while I was photographing the same Pileated Woodpecker, perched as it climbed and stopped on a tree – in and out of shade and partial shade. I used aperture priority mode, and the methods for songbird photography referenced in the beginning of this article, because that is the effective method under those circumstances. But, I saw the Osprey approaching from about 150 yards away, in a straight line that would cross my shadow line with the bird good sized in the frame. I quickly rotated the mode dial to M – to go to manual settings. I previously set my shutter speed and aperture in Manual mode for a subject with highlights in flight for a clear day in the morning. I did this via taking test images previously, just in case an unexpected flight opportunity arrived. Previously I made sure my ISO was the same for aperture priority mode and manual mode. I also had my menu button set so when I pushed it the option for expanding the focusing point would pop up. I expanded the focusing point out to 8 points surrounding the center point. By that time the bird was about 50 yards from my shadow line, plenty of time to pre-focus at the right distance, acquire focus on the subject, track and fire a burst at the right exposure as it crossed my shadow line. This was done using my Canon 1D Mark2. Now, with the Canon 7D Mark 2, there are 3 custom setting positions on the mode dial. I set up one for lower light conditions, one for good light conditions, and one for darker conditions, all for flight. For each I set ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and always expand the center focusing point out to 8 points. With one move on the dial, I am quickly ready for a fly by opportunity, assuming I judge the lighting conditions appropriately.

Sandhill Cranes Preparing to Land 1/2000 sec, f/4 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

I ran into a good opportunity in a field adjacent to a back road in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Sand Hill Cranes were flying toward the road to join cranes on the ground closer to the road. But I could only drive up to them, without getting out of my van, otherwise the whole group would have flown away. I used a Blubb Big Lens Ultimate Beanbag (cradled on the doorframe of my van) and Visual Echoes Panning Plate attached to my lens and resting on the beanbag, as I did with hovering Kestrels. There was low light, barely enough for flight photography, wide open (f/4) at ISO 400 (the maximum ISO I was comfortable using at the time with my Canon 1D Mark2). I took images of the neutral grass and adjusted -1/3 stop to not overexpose the light areas on the cranes. I only took images of cranes against non-sky background. I pre-focused at the correct distance and tracking them was relatively easy as they slowly glided to land. I concentrated on being as smooth as possible while shooting.

Sand Hill Crane Flight Calling 1/1250 sec, f/4 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

While spending time with the cranes the strength of the light varied, and I took test images often to make sure exposure would be correct. Above the light was significantly weaker than the image of the pair of cranes, but I easily tracked the relative slow veer of this crane.

Light Phase Rough Legged Hawk Flight 1/6400 sec, f/8 960 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 1250

The hawk above was perched on top of a high spruce tree about 25 yards from a back road in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I saw that I could pull into position and attempt to photograph it on my shadow line if and when it flew into a wind direction perfect for catching a veer into that wind – a south east wind in the morning. Birds always take off into the wind, dropping down and often veering. Using my Canon 7D Mark 2 at 960 mm I took perched images of this hawk to adjust exposure, increasing ISO until I popped the whites and then decreasing ISO to darken the exposure -1/3 stop. I used a high ISO so I could use a high shutter speed and plenty of depth of field at f/8. I had to lean out of the window and aim high hand held, which makes it difficult to pan smoothly. Thus the need for high shutter speed: 1/6400 sec. Fortunately the hawk flew within 3-4 minutes. I rested my left elbow on my bean bag while supporting the lens with my left hand, so my shoulders did not wear out. I lifted the camera and lens up upon seeing the hawks’ preparation to fly – leaning and lifting its tail to defecate. Many raptors do this right before taking flight, after perching for a long time. The wind speed (12-15 mph) also helped me here; fast enough so the bird’s initial take-off was relatively slow; slow enough so that if it veered it would not be abruptly jolted out of the frame.

Great Blue Heron Marsh Flight 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

This heron was standing in a marsh to my west on a clear early morning, so I could use the east low sunlight. A kayak in open water to its left slowly approached it (without seeing it). I knew the heron would fly right pretty soon, but I did not have my camera and lens on tripod, so I quickly walked into position along a causeway shoulder and attempted to photograph it in flight hand held, going to a position where my shadow line was perpendicular to its expected flight path. I adjusted exposure by taking images of neutral trees and adjusting -2/3 stop darker, not wanting to pop the white on its face. I pre-focused on the appropriate distance – the expected flight path to the right. Like many successful flight images the bird performed as anticipated. This large species flies relatively slow and almost always flies just above the marsh grasses in such a situation, so, knowing that helped me track the anticipated flight path, especially when using a 600 mm lens handheld.

Black Tern Landing 1/2500 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

One season a Black Tern colony nested near a road on the western side with a pull-off on the same side, so the low early morning light could be used for flight photography. Black Terns fly as a group in the early morning and females return to their nests. I had a south wind so the birds would hover and descend into it while revealing a good head and wing angle. In such a public location the birds had no fear of me behind my tripod, and returned normally. I adjusted exposure by taking images of neutral trees and adjusting -2/3 stop darker, to not pop the white of the underside of the wings of this species. I pre-focused at the appropriate distance. I was using my old camera at ISO 400. I would use ISO 800 now in order to have a higher shutter speed and more depth of field on the subject.

Snowy Owl Camouflage Flight 1/2500 sec, f/5 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

This bird flew low across a snow covered farm field during bright cloudy conditions, excellent conditions for this type of image because I could point in any direction without consideration for a shadow line, and there would be no harsh shadows, regardless of the wing position. Behind my tripod I took images of the snow and adjusted exposure 1/3 stop darker than the exposure popping the snow, and pre-focused on the grasses pictured. The owl elevated to go over some grasses and abruptly descended with its wings up (as pictured). I gained focus right at the grasses, and fired a burst immediately. Keeping up with that maneuver was pure reaction, and luck, because during the decent I slightly overreacted, moving down too quickly, and barely kept its wings in the frame. It is critical to center the face of this white subject (against white snow), and have it big enough in the frame when gaining focus, otherwise focus can easily be lost.

Snowy Owl Back View 1/2500 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

I took this image with very low sunlight in the early morning with the same preparation as the previous image, but the owl had to fly across my shadow line at the appropriate distance. A gust of wind hit the owl at that moment and it very briefly waffled to reveal its back while I was locked on and firing.

Barred Owl Snow Flight 1/2000 sec, f/4 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

This owl was perched roadside along a back road during snowy low light conditions. After taking images behind my tripod, of the owl in a spruce, I heard and saw a plow in the far distance coming from my left. I positioned myself safely on the opposite shoulder of the road in front of my van, to the right, at a distance that would have the owl big enough in the frame if the owl flew to the right – the direction away from the approaching plow. I took images of the snow and adjusted exposure 1/3 stop darker than the exposure popping the snow, and pre-focused on the ground along the hoped for path of the owl. It performed as expected and gaining focus and tracking was relatively easy because this large owl flies relatively slow and straight once it has flow a few yards after initial take-off. This is an example of another situation that I would now approach using a much higher ISO to ensure better depth of field on the subject and a higher shutter speed to ensure stop action. A few yards after take-off this owl’s flapping motion is not fast, but 1/2000 sec does not always stop the action.

Northern Hawk Owl Straight Ahead 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

I discovered this owl in November in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and it stayed until late March. It habitually used a tree overlooking a snow covered hayfield. There was a large population of voles in the field. It hunted for voles during the day and disregarded my presence behind my tripod. On a calm morning after a few cold days with high winds it was very active. This is the case for all wintering birds and animals. The wind chill affects them and they cannot hear well when it is windy, in case something sneaks upon them. They also build up a hunger in those days. So on the first calm day they will be very active hunting and feeding. That was a good time for me to line my shadow line up with the favored perch and wait for the owl to fly after a vole on top of the snow out in the field directly behind me. The head movement of the owl alerted me to its quick take-off. It did not always take-off right at me but one time it did. I took images of the snow and adjusted exposure 1/3 stop darker than the exposure popping the snow, and pre-focused a few feet from the tree toward me. Acquiring focus directly on the face of the owl was necessary and knowing that its initial movement would be a sudden drop off the perch.

Hawk Owl with Meadow Vole 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 320

I visited the same owl one calm evening. It would often return to the same favored perch (the top of a spruce tree) with a vole, but it did not hunt as often in the evening. So I was fortunate to get an opportunity. I lined up my shadow line with the owl’s flight path to its perch, about 20 yards before the tree. It would fly low and rise to the top of the spruce tree. I prepared settings the same way as the previous image, except I pre-focused on its flight path about 15 feet before the intersection of my shadow line and its predicted flight path. Its flight was moderately fast but it flew straight, so tracking it was not too difficult. Catching the wings up, on my shadow line, was a bonus, because the vole was revealed in its talons.

Sharp-tailed Grouse Flare Landing 1/5000 sec, f/7.1 960 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 800

On a calm sunny early spring morning I was behind my tripod in a partial blind, with my lens poking over the blind material, pointing my shadow line at a Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek. The grouse of the Lek were habituated to my presence as long as I was in my blind a little before sunrise. They would arrive about 5 minutes after sunrise, and stay in front of me for about 2 hours. I could even move the blind slowly to make sure my shadow line was pointing at the center of activity. I targeted both fights and birds flying into the Lek. Here is an article on technical details of capturing the fights between birds: Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek Photography | paulrossibirds

I had my Canon 7D Mark 2 settings adjusted specifically for the fights, so I set up 3 positions on the mode dial with a few settings for flight photography during different clear lighting conditions – bright, less bright and not very bright. I quickly switched to the appropriate bright setting upon seeing the bird fly in from a tree about 100 yards away and was ready to pre-focus, track and fire a burst, assuming it would land somewhere near the center of the Lek. Birds of this species turn and flap very fast to decelerate as they fly in to land. Tracking the action is difficult but anticipating it is necessary in order to slow my rate of tracking and keep the bird in the frame.

Sharp-tailed Grouse Flight 1/5000 sec, f/7.1 960 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 640

This bird flew higher over the lek so I just fired a burst on my shadow line. At that moment it flared and then continued to fly to a tree about 50 yards to my right. The flare was unexpected, but the bird did not slow down too abruptly and leave the frame.

Female Northern Harrier with Garter Snake 1/2500 sec, f/6.3 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

When juvenile Northern Harriers are beginning to learn to fly they will make short flights above their field or marsh nesting habitat in the early morning, and they will stay in the same general area for days. Upon seeing a juvenile fly and crash land into the some low bushes of a marsh I knew I could put a partial blind that covered my head about 25 yards from that general area, on my shadow line, using the morning sun, and the adults would fly to the general area to feed them. There was a west wind on this clear morning. The adult female pictured flew in from behind me and abruptly turned into that wind on my shadow line, at a distance in front of me where she was not too big or too small in the frame. I adjusted exposure by taking images of neutral marsh bushes and adjusting -2/3 stop darker, so I did not pop the white on her rump. I pre-focused on my estimated distance for the right size of the bird in the frame. The turn happens very quick and the back and back of the wings are revealed very briefly, so anticipation is necessary to catch it.

Northern Harrier Prey Drop 1/2500 sec, f/6.3 600 mm
Mode: Manual
ISO: 400

In a few days the juveniles become better at flying and catching prey in mid-air, the only way they are fed by the adults. This drop occurred at a distance where 3 birds could fit in the frame. The whiteish male (top of the frame) flew in over the trees at the back of the frame. The juveniles flew up to receive the dropped prey item (a nestling bird). I try to capture prey drops by tracking and focusing upon the adult and waiting for a juvenile to enter the frame, Then I burst and hope for the best. I prepared settings the same way as the previous image, except I pre-focused further away. Things lined up pretty good and focus was maintained on the male even after he dropped and swooped upward. A faction of a second later the camera locked on the trees of the background.

I arrived at my approach of focusing on the adult and waiting for a juvenile to enter the frame by trial and error. It is almost impossible to track the juvenile and hit the shutter button at the right time. The adult can delay the drop for quite some time, waiting for the juvenile to make good eye contact and show that it is ready.

This is an example of an opportunity that would be captured much better by a modern high-end DSLR. A much higher ISO could be set so an aperture such as f/11 could be used for much more depth of field, as well as a slightly higher shutter speed (1/4000 sec). Then the bird arriving to catch the prey item would be in focus, and the bird behind that would be close to being in focus (if not in focus). These high-end cameras do a better job at not locking on the background, and they have 14+ fps (instead of 8 fps). Those advantages greatly help with success rate.