How to capture fast-moving birds (and animals)

July 8, 2021

Photographing wildlife in action can be challenging, but with some patience and perseverance the results can be both dramatic and mesmerising. Make sure you enter the Movement round of APOY here

Your guide: Ben Hall
Ben is one of the UK’s leading wildlife photographers with many international awards to his name. His images are widely published throughout the world, he has co-authored two books and runs photography workshops in the UK and overseas.

A fast shutter speed was used to freeze the motion of this osprey as it dived for its prey. Timing was critical in order to see the eye through the moving wings. Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, 300mm, 1/1000sec at f/4, ISO 2500

You don’t have to travel to far-flung, exotic places, as opportunities for action photography are all around us – from birds in our back garden and your local park, to the sea cliffs up and down the coastline. As with any type of wildlife photography, researching and observing your subjects is paramount, and will ultimately help to get you into the right place at the right time.

There are other important techniques, however, which will help you on your way to capturing spectacular action images of wildlife.

Bright but soft light worked wonders here. It provided enough speed to freeze the moving bullfinch and chaffinch but kept shadows at a minimum, which has helped to reveal plenty of detail. Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, 100-400mm, 1/1750sec at f/8, ISO 1600

Birds in flight
Mastering the capture of birds in flight is difficult. Success demands plenty of perseverance, not to mention the tolerance of many failures, but practice some simple techniques and you will soon find yourself taking successful action shots of flying birds. Ideally, you will need to shoot in relatively bright light, since this will allow you to use a fast shutter speed – which is paramount if you hope to freeze the movement of a fast-flying bird.

However, you should avoid harsh, midday sunlight, as the resulting images will be spoilt by harsh shadows and bleached highlights. Shooting during the first and last hours of sunlight will give the best results, as the low sun will light up the underside of the bird, revealing important detail that would otherwise be lost in deep shadow.

Aim for a shutter speed of at least 1/1000sec and select the predictive auto focus setting. Expanding your focus points to a group is a handy way of increasing your margin for error when it comes to tracking your subject. You will lose some accuracy, however, so you may need to stop down to a smaller aperture to increase depth of field in case the focus point picks out the wing instead of the head.

A good panning technique will result in a greater number of sharp images, and obtaining critical sharpness is perhaps the trickiest aspect of flight photography. The key to successful panning lies in smoothness and anticipation. To adopt the correct posture, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and tuck your elbows in to your side to increase stability.

As your subject passes, swivel your upper body smoothly, matching the speed of the bird. Wing position can make or break a shot, so fire a burst of frames using the high-speed drive mode to give you a sequence to choose from.

I photographed this heron bringing in nesting material during the first hour of sunlight. The low angle of the sun has created some subtle backlighting and wonderful background colours. Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, 500mm, 1/60sec at f/4, ISO 320

Courtship action/behaviour
Images that depict wildlife behaviour, such as a breeding pair of birds performing a courtship display, bonding, or passing food to each other connect with the viewer on an emotional level. They tell a story and offer a glimpse into the subject’s life cycle. When tackling a project like this, you will need to be prepared to put some time in.

Researching and observing your subject’s behaviour will be the key to success. Pick somewhere local, ideally offering easy access, such as a city or country park. This will allow you to make numerous visits over a period of time.

Start by simply observing potential subjects, noting down any patterns that you see. Search out possible backgrounds and pay attention to how the light changes throughout the day. You should soon be able to visualise the type of images that might be possible. Being armed with as much information as possible will pay dividends in the long run.

When photographing birds on water, such as displaying grebes or swans, shooting from a low angle will immediately create a more intimate feel. With the help of a large aperture, a low viewpoint will also make it easier to blow the background out of focus, separating your subject from any potential distractions.

For ground- or water-level subjects, a beanbag is a great choice of support, and should allow you to get down low enough to include a foreground which will immediately create a sense of depth.

A very fast shutter speed was needed to freeze this kingfisher as it dived for its prey. Small, fast-flying birds such as this will require at least 1/2500sec to ensure sharp focus. Canon EOS-1D X, 70-200mm, 1/4000sec at f/7.1, ISO 2000

Action in motion
Pin-sharp images of wildlife in action undoubtably hold arresting impact but revealing the movement of your subject using a slow shutter speed can be a great way of capturing a sense of motion and energy. Pick an overcast day and select shutter priority to give you control over the shutter speed.

You will need to experiment to find the best results for your chosen subject, but between 1/15 and 1/60sec is a good place to start. Birds in flight or shaking water from their wings can work well for this technique, their wing beats resembling brush strokes on canvas.

Dropping your shutter speed to over 1 second and intentionally moving the camera during the exposure can result in some interesting and abstract effects. There are no rules here, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different shutter speeds and camera movement.

Abstract images connect with the imagination, so your subject doesn’t even have to be recognisable for the image to work. A mammal in full sprint can look equally impressive, so why not visit your local deer park to experiment with panning? By using a similar technique to flight photography, but using a slower shutter speed, you should find it possible to create a motion blur effect in the background, whilst keeping the subject relatively sharp and distinct.

Garden birds
With a bit of preparation work, even your own back garden can become a haven for wild birds, providing endless opportunities for action photography all year round. By placing a simple feeding pole in your garden, you should find it easy to attract a variety of subjects within range.

For natural-looking shots, search for some attractive perches and use a spring clamp to attach these to the pole. You should find that, after some time, the birds will land on the perches momentarily before hopping down to the feeder. Action can be fast-paced at a feeding station, so look out for moments when the birds squabble over the food and be ready to fire at a moment’s notice.

You will need very fast shutter speeds to freeze the movement of small birds, at least 1/2000sec, so keep your aperture wide and use a suitable ISO. To capture flight shots, try pre-focusing on the perch using manual focus, and fire a burst of shots as the bird takes off, or comes in to land. You may need to stop your aperture down to increase depth of field but be careful with your shutter speed and raise the ISO if necessary.

Capturing the behaviour of your subject will give a real insight into its life cycle. For this image, I sought out a shadowy background for these mute swans, to create drama. Canon EOS-1D X, 500mm, 1/3200sec at f/5, ISO 250

Ben’s Kit List

Telephoto lens
For most wildlife subjects, a tele or tele-zoom lens will be needed, especially for wary subjects. For any fast-moving action, a lens with a large maximum aperture such as f/2.8 or f/4 will be useful, but it is by no means essential.
For low-level subjects, a beanbag is an excellent choice of support. It will offer a rock-solid platform for your lens whilst still allowing a good freedom of movement.
Tripod and gimbal head
When using a tripod, a gimbal head is a great way of supporting long telephoto lenses. A gimbal will take all of the weight out of the lens, whilst also allowing a smooth panning movement – which is perfect when you’re photographing birds
in flight.
Portable hide
When photographing garden birds, unless you can shoot from an open window, a portable hide will be useful. You can alter the position of the hide easily to take advantage of different backgrounds and the changing light.

Why it works

I used a fast 300mm f/2.8 lens to capture this osprey as it dived for its prey. I selected an aperture of f/4 and shot from a very low angle to the water which has created a diffused foreground and background, helping the bird to ‘pop’ and eliminate any distracting elements from the frame.

The light at the time was bright but overcast, so there is plenty of detail underneath the wings and no harsh shadows on the water. Compositionally, I broke the usual rule and placed the bird to the left-hand side of the frame, so it is exiting the picture. This would usually create an unbalanced feel to an image, especially with a moving subject, but my aim here was to show the impact on the water and include as much of the water droplets as I could, so in this instance it works.

Ben’s top tips for capturing birds in flight

  • When panning, be sure to switch your image stabiliser to setting 2; this only corrects vertical movement and should help to speed up the autofocus.
  • Switch to predictive focus mode, because this will allow you to track your subject, keeping it in focus at all times.
  • When panning, expanding your focusing area will give you a greater margin for error when it comes to keeping your focus point on a moving target.
  • If the light is bright enough, try stopping your aperture down to f/8. This will increase depth of field, making focusing accuracy a little bit less critical.
  • Shooting in high-speed drive mode will allow you to fire a sequence of frames, giving you the best chance of capturing the optimum wing position.
  • When shooting birds against the sky, you will need to increase the exposure to prevent your subject from becoming a silhouette – unless that is your intention, of course. Up to two stops of positive exposure compensation should result in a
    nicely balanced exposure.
  • To compose in-camera, move your focusing points to one side of the frame: right if your subject is travelling left, and vice versa. This will leave space in front of the bird, creating an effective composition.
  • The histogram is a powerful tool. Make a habit of checking it regularly to prevent under- or over-exposure, especially when shooting in changing lighting conditions.
  • Using back button focus means that you can leave your focus set to predictive mode at all times. To lock focus, press and release the back button, to track a moving subject, simply hold your thumb down.
  • When attempting silhouetted flight shots, use spot meter and take your meter reading from a bright area of the sky. This will prevent any highlights from overexposing.

Before and after

These two images are from a similar sequence. My aim was to use a slow shutter speed and pan to capture the motion of this fallow deer as it sprinted across the bracken.

This can be a very hit-and-miss technique, the success relying on both the choice of shutter speed and a smooth panning technique.

The first image (above) was taken with a shutter speed that was too slow and has resulted in poor definition of the deer. In the second image (below), a better choice of shutter speed combined with the panning movement has created a motion blur effect in the background whilst still rendering detail in the subject.

The position of the deer is also more effective, conveying a real sense of speed and energy.

Set up a garden bird feeding station

A feeding station for garden birds can be as simple as you wish and should be a relatively inexpensive project. The beauty of a set-up like this is you will have ultimate control over the positioning, the background and its orientation to the light. You could take advantage of both front lighting and backlighting opportunities by simply moving your shooting position. This easy step-by-step guide will help you to set up an effective feeding station in no time and therefore provide you with a steady influx of garden visitors that you can photograph all year round.

Set up a feeding station
A feeding pole will need to be fixed into the ground. On this you can then hang one or more feeders. Make sure the background is distant enough to blow out of focus with a wide aperture.

Offer a variety of bait
Try a variety of bait in your feeders such as sunflower hearts, peanuts and fat balls. This should attract a variety of species to your garden, creating more opportunities for capturing action shots.

Clamp a natural perch
Clamp a natural perch to the feeding pole to give the birds a place to sit before dropping down to feed. Look for attractive perches covered in moss or lichen to add interest. For authenticity, make sure the perches are in keeping with the birds’ natural habitat.

Invest in a hide
If you are not able to photograph from an open window you will need a hide from which to shoot. The advantage of using a hide is its flexibility. You will be able to move position at will, allowing you to experiment with a variety of backgrounds and lighting conditions.

Create your own backdrop
If you are struggling to find a natural background, a large canvas can be attached to a garden wall or shed to create a faux background. Choose muted colours such as greens and browns to keep your shots looking as natural as possible.

Further reading
Wildlife photography tips and techniques