Top Birds-In-Flight Tips From a Former Top Gun

Hal "Bull" Schmitt, the Director of Light Photographic Workshops, excellent  photographer, all around fun guy, and former Top Gun (yes, that kind of Top Gun) instructor, put together this awesome post.

All of these amazing photographs were taken by Bull.

Take it away, Bull. . .
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Photographing birds in flight (BIF) is one of the most exhilarating and exciting photographic experiences available.  Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most frustrating. The dynamic environment of photographing BIF with constantly changing distance, angle, light, etc. presents us with a challenging task. With that said, most photographers can enjoy success and the satisfaction of a great shot if they keep in mind a few simple tips.

As a fighter pilot I feel a natural kinship with birds of all species and enjoy capturing the wonder of flight. Here are a few of the techniques, tips, and procedures that help me photograph birds around the world.

1. Set up your camera for action

For me it all starts with camera setup.Regardless of make and model I try and set up the following.

- AI Servo or continuous focus.You will be tracking a moving subject and one shot or single will not give you good results. 

- High speed drive mode. Allow the camera to fire off as many frames per second as is possible. 

- Back button focus. Ensure only back button focus is enabled. This will allow you to easily use your thumb to engage the autofocus (AF) system. 

- Select the center AF point. Although the center of the photograph is normally deadly, the center AF sensor on most cameras is more accurate and more intuitive to use. As you become more experienced you may change this.

- I will also set up my lens making sure to engage either the image stabilzer or vibration reduction. For most bird shots you will want to use mode two. 

- Also on the lens make sure your focus range is set to the expected subject distance possibilities. For example, if you have the option of 1 meter to infinity or 10 meters to infinity set based upon the expected subject distance. This will help keep your lens from "searching" at ranges where the subject will not be.

 2. Learn the basics of flight

As amazing as they are birds are still subject to the four primary forces affecting flight: thrust, drag, lift, and gravity. Spend a small amount of time learning the basics of flight and you will begin to learn and anticipate different flight maneuvers. One of the most important basics to always keep in mind, is birds will almost always take off and land into the wind (just as our airplanes do.) 

3.  Put the sun and the wind at your back

With the sun behind us as the primary light source, any subject in front of our lens will be illuminated and not in shadow. This will provide us simple, natural light and we may not need to use our flash. If the wind is at our back and we know birds will land into the wind, we set ourselves up for photographing the best angle for our subject.  In most cases, we want to be able to see the bird's eye or eyes and do not want the dreaded bird "butt" shot. Pay attention to the wind and position yourself accordingly. 

In an ideal world, we would have both the sun and wind at our back giving the correct angle and good light.  If this is not possible, I normally prioritize the wind at my back and photograph with a flash fill using good flash procedures and either a Project a Flash or a Better Beamer. These devices "extend" the flash and allow for illumination at incredible range.

There are times I will prioritize the sun at my back. I just know that I may not get the desired flight angle or even illumination. If I have thought about this ahead of time I can prepare a specific shot or flash.

4.  Use a good tripod and gimbal head

Adding the element of strong camera stability and support may helpy you track BIF more effectively. A strong, stable tripod combined with a gimbal head will make a difference. A gimbal head allows balanced, all axis tracking while supporting the weight of bigger lenses.  My current favorite is the Really Right Stuff PG-02. Awesome piece of gear. 

5.  Track and shoot

Select your subject at range and attempt to follow as the bird nears. Keeping the autofocus sensor on the "target" (I often use fighter pilot terminology when photographing birds!) engage the autofocus system and track.  As the bird fills approximately 75% of the frame, start shooting. I prefer small controlled bursts of 3-4 shots at a time. 

6.  Practice and have fun

Photographing BIF is not easy and you will need to spend a little time practicing. Practice on any bird you can. If you do not have many birds around find anything in motion. For example, I prefer eagles but there are not many around Los Osos, CA.  Instead, I use gulls as my most common subject.  They are everywhere and provide a perfect opportunity for me to practice the essential skill set. When practicing remember it is not easy.  So keep your spirits up and have fun. You will be creating dramatic birds in flight shots in no time at all.

Here's another quick tip: For access to the world's best eagles, join Rick Sammon and me next spring as we photograph thousands of bald eagles in South East Alaska. For more information check out

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Thank you Bull for a great post! Alaska will be a blast!

Explore the light,