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General tips and DSLR camera settings for taking good photographs of flying birds.

So how do you photography a flying bird? There are generally two ways to photograph birds in motion. Firstly, you can capture them as though they are instantly frozen, with every part of the bird focused. Or you can show motion in the flapping wing by slightly blurring any movement. Which ever method a photographer uses is simply a matter of personal preference.

Digital SLR camera settings for capturing a well focused bird in flight compared to one that shows movement in the wings.

  • Set your DSLR camera to shutter priority. Why shutter priority? A flying bird is obviously moving, so the speed in which you take the photograph needs to be top priority.

  • To photograph a well focused bird, set one at a fast enough speed to capture it instantly, as if it's frozen in time. To do this you'll need a shutter speed faster than the bird or its wings (if you want them clearly focused) are moving. Unfortunately this can change from one shot to another, so there is no specific setting for this. If you photograph the same type of bird often, you will soon work out a sufficient speed. I recommend starting at 1/500th of a second and moving up or down from there.

    example of bird flying

    Flying Seagull, photographed with a Canon digital SLR camera

    Digital SLR Camera: Canon EOS 400D / Rebel XTi
    DSLR Lens: Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens
    Exposure: 0.002 sec (1/500)
    Aperture: f/9
    Focal Length: 85 mm
    ISO Speed: 100
    Exposure Program: Shutter Priority

    Why this photograph of a flying bird worked

    The camera was set on shutter priority at a fast enough speed (1/500th of a second) to capture the image instantly. This speed also allowed me to hand hold the digital camera so I could more easily follow the birds flight path.

    Now to give an example at the other end of the scale, taken with a slower shutter speed.

    photograph bird with slower shutter speed

    Showing motion in flying bird photographs

    Digital SLR Camera: Canon EOS 400D / Rebel XTi
    DSLR Lens: Canon EF 90-300mm f/4.5-5.6
    Exposure: 0.025 sec (1/40)
    Aperture: f/25
    Focal Length: 300 mm
    ISO Speed: 200
    Exposure Program: Shutter Priority

    Why this photograph looks different to the one above it

    The digital SLR camera in this case was set on shutter priority at a slower speed of 1/40th of a second, than the first photograph which was 1/500 second. A speed slower than the animal is moving will display motion within the image. Therefore, with this in mind, if your bird photographs aren't as frozen looking as you'd like them to be, then increase the shutter speed on your DSLR camera.

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