Photographing Approaching Birds

When photographing approaching birds a variety of methods can be used depending on the objectives of the photographer. Some species may be uncommon and sometimes getting any kind of image is a thrill. I always enjoy photographing approaching birds when they are coming in to land as these represent great opportunities to create bird photographs that feature interesting wing and body positions.

Last week I had a chance to spend about an hour at Grimsby harbour photographing gulls and cormorants as they approached a cement pier. Obviously these are very common birds and  the location was not very photogenic. My brief visit did provide an opportunity to get in a bit of bird-in-flight photography practice time. It also served as a reminder that we can create some interesting images even when photographing very common subjects.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/1600, ISO-250, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 3936 pixels on the width, subject distance 38.1 metres

When photographing approaching birds I like to capture images as the birds are banking as they approach my shooting position. This can reveal the backside of a bird’s wings which, depending on the species, can be quite visually striking. Banking shots of this nature are often captured when birds are flying relatively high, then dip and bank to reduce their altitude.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-800, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4110 pixels on the width, subject distance 53.7 metres

Low flying birds that bank as they approach often reveal the underside of their wings. The colouring on the underside of wings is typically not as dramatic as the backside, These body positions can reveal interesting patterns of flight feathers. Often they can be nicely highlighted by reflections off water, or by the angle of the sun.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 3979 pixels on the width, subject distance 27.1 metres

Photographing approaching birds as they are banking requires good shutter release timing. This is especially important if your camera has a relatively small buffer.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 420 mm, efov 840 mm, f/8.8, 1/1600, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4135 pixels on the width, subject distance 26.2 metres

One of the reasons that I love using Pro Capture L when photographing approaching birds is that I can wait until after a specific wing/body position has been demonstrated before I fully depress my shutter release. As a result, Pro Capture L can make a short duration photo session very efficient and productive.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-500, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4015 pixels on the width, subject distance 35.4 metres

Unless I am trying to demonstrate auto-focus performance for an article, I rarely take long, uninterrupted image runs of birds-in-flight. I find long continuous auto-focus image runs to be  counter productive, as I end up with far too much work in post. I hate having to cull through reams of similar looking photographs. Often I will delete hundreds of these types of images without wasting time even looking at individual frames. I would much rather take a series of short Pro Capture L bursts of 10 frames each… with each burst initiated because of a demonstrated behaviour.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 420 mm, efov 840 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-800, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4443 pixels on the width, subject distance 44.8 metres

As birds approach their landing spot, they slow down their flight speed by spreading out their wing and tail feathers in a dramatic fashion. Their legs are no longer tucked in tight to their bodies which can also add some interesting context to a photograph. Birds often glide in with fixed wings as they approach, then back peddle to slow their air speed. This can result in some wonderfully contorted wing and body positions.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-1250, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4830 pixels on the width, subject distance 38.8 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4363 pixels on the width, subject distance 40.3 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4176 pixels on the width, subject distance 38.8 metres

When birds are flying in and approaching a landing area that is already full of other birds, they will often vocalize to warn other birds of their approach. This can create some additional emotion and drama in your photographs.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 3888 pixels on the width, subject distance 26.5 metres

It is always prudent to continually scan your surroundings from side to side, and also at different elevations, to spot incoming birds as early as possible. This technique can help a photographer prepare for water and hard surface landings.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-800, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4632 pixels on the width, subject distance 38.6 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-800, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4434 pixels on the width, subject distance 38.2 metres

When I’m out photographing approaching birds I always use a combination of Pro Capture L with Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking. I find this gives me very good continuous auto-focus performance, along with the efficiency of Pro Capture L. Using a frame rate of 18 frames per second helps me capture a broad assortment of different wing and body positions.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 420 mm, efov 840 mm, f/8.8, 1/1600, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4842 pixels on the width, subject distance 45.1 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 370 mm, efov 740 mm, f/8.7, 1/1600, ISO-500, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4355 pixels on the width, subject distance 28.2 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4602 pixels on the width, subject distance 52.9 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 359 mm, efov 718 mm, f/8.7, 1/1600, ISO-500, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4077 pixels on the width, subject distance 22.5 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 545 mm, efov 1090 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4123 pixels on the width, subject distance 39 metres
OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-640, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4159 pixels on the width, subject distance 40.9 metres

Taking some time to find a good shooting angle, and watching how the birds are approaching, will pay dividends. Taking note of wind direction, the angle of the sun, and the behaviour of the birds will allow a photographer to find the most advantageous shooting position.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 210 mm, efov 420 mm, f/8.1, 1/1600, ISO-1250, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, full frame capture, subject distance 5.7 metres

Regardless of how well prepared we may be when photographing approaching birds, it is important to react to the unexpected… like this image of a gull juggling some bread in its beak. I never noticed the structure of a gull’s tongue before and found this image fascinating.

Technical Note:

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. Crops are indicated. This is the 1,080th article published on this website since its original inception.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-500, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, Pro Capture L, cropped to 4219 pixels on the width, subject distance 34.9 metres

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