Capturing Birds in Flight (S.E.#1)

Earlier this month on Wednesday the 3rd, my Biology of Birds course had a guest speaker. Glenn Thompson, an Alumni and Westminster Board of Trustee member, gave us an inspirational presentation on bird photography that I will never forget. While I have been interested in photography for multiple years now, I learned so much within the span of his 45 minute presentation.

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Along with the awe of seeing such a diverse spectrum of bird species, my interest was piqued when I heard Glenn Thompson talk about how difficult it was to capture birds in flight. Birds are difficult enough trying to capture them as they hop around from branch to branch. They just never seem to be still long enough for you to get a good picture.

Fortunately, Glenn Thompson taught us three key principles to use when capturing such elusive birds: Patience, Light, and Perspective.


Rufous Hummingbird

I’ve found that one of the hardest birds to capture in flight is the Hummingbird. With 52–62 wingbeats per second, this can be very daunting. Trying not to make too much movement and to not be too close as to scare them away is challenging. It takes patience to situate yourself and wait for the right moment when they are hovering over a feeder or flower. At the same time, you have to make sure you’re ready for it to show up at any moment’s notice. While it may be easier to capture the slower wingbeats of other birds, patience is still required if you’re going to get good quality pictures.


Silhouette of Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Taking the example of the Hummingbird again, light can be tricky when considering how
fast your camera’s shutter speed has to be. Using a higher shutter speed will allow you to capture the wings; however, this means that you are letting less light into the camera lens. On top of that, you definitely don’t want to have the background to be too bright. This can cause the bird in the picture to be more silhouetted. It is very important that you make sure you keep your back to the sun for the best lighting.


Choosing the right angle to take your photograph can be a challenge as well, especially if you’re not sure what direction the bird will be taking off in. Professional photographer, Arthur Morris, points out that “birds like to face the wind when they fly because they don’t like having their feathers ruffled.” Using this advice, you can place yourself so that you are not facing into the wind. Instead, you can have the wind blowing parallel to you. As far as positioning yourself goes, another professional photographer, Tony Northrup, suggests “finding a place on a hill so that you are more at level with the bird instead of having to point up at the birds.’

In this youtube video, provided by Canon USA, the key features of lighting and positioning are emphasized. However, without patience, your chances of capturing a good quality image of a bird in flight are slim.

Check out Glenn Thompson’s amazing bird photography here.


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