Male purple-crowned woodnymph hummingbird, Costa Rica. This shot required a very fast shutter speed of 1/4000 s as well as flash. It was also manually pre-focussed
Photographing birds in flight is one of the most common things to want to achieve in wildlife photography, but it can be fiendishly difficult. Here I’ll go through some of my tried and trusted techniques to help you avoid some of the pitfalls.
In general, I find it best to try and avoid using a tripod if possible because this gives you freedom of movement in three dimensions. This may not be practical if you’re using a very large lens, but then using a very large lens with a long focal length can multiply the problem of tracking a bird in flight anyway. Consider the difference between the naked eye and a telescope: with the naked eye, it’s easy to watch and follow a bird in flight, even if it’s moving quickly and erratically.
Then imagine trying to keep this same bird in the much smaller field of view of a telescope. In reality, what happens is that the bird moves in and out of view as you struggle to follow its motion. Similarly, having to physically move a long (and probably heavy) lens around to keep up with a fast flying bird is pretty difficult, although it can be made easier by using a gimbal head like the Wimberley.
So, if you must use a tripod, try and make sure the head allows smooth, fast, free-flowing movements.
Ok, let’s have a think about camera settings. What you’re aiming to achieve here is a sharp shot of a fast moving bird and you need to give yourself every chance to capture this in the heat of the moment. Set your camera to continuous release mode (Nikon) / continuous shooting drive mode (Canon). This allows your camera to rapid-fire a sequence of shots in quick succession.
Then set the focus mode to continuous autofocus so that the camera adjusts focus continuously as long as you have your finger on the shutter button. On a Nikon camera, this is AF-C and on a Canon, it’s AI Servo. AI Focus is a Canon intermediate mode which is a bit like Marmite: you either love it or hate it. What this mode does is try to determine when you need single focus and when to switch to continuous focus. When I used to shoot Canon on the 5D I really didn’t like it, but if you’re a Canon aficionado, give it a go.
As for shutter speed and aperture, you’ll need enough speed to freeze the motion without running out of light. Increase the ISO if you haven’t got enough speed. I tend to use middling apertures for birds in flight to get enough depth of field to catch the head and part of the wings. That’s usually about f/8 to f/11.