"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Primer on Birds in Flight Photography

A Primer on Birds in Flight Photography
—presented by Tongue-in-Cheek Publishing

You see them everywhere, those sharp, crisp, colorful and perfect photos of birds in flight (BIF).   It is something every photographer tries, but which is accomplished only by the very expert.

Or sometimes by the lucky who accidentally get a good shot of a feathered missile flying past, which would be me.   The lucky, not the missile.  Which was a long time ago, and DISCLAIMER!!!  does not include any of the included photos.

A gorgeous male mallard in its breeding colors.   Look at the cute little curls on its tail.

Having tried my luck and found it wanting, I have a few suggestions and tips for BIF photography:

1.      Birds are under no obligation, either by their own choice or under union contracts, to notify you when they choose to fly.  However, many birds unintentionally clue you in with body language:   they poop.

2.      Therefore, you must constantly be aware of pooping birds, or, lacking that important clue, have expert hand and eye coordination.  I do not.   I think I am so entranced with the miracle of flying birds that by the time I realize what a great photo that would make, it’s too late.

So much wrong with this photo, but I really like that all three mallards had their wings in the same position.

3.     I recently had occasion to be in the right spot to observe BIF, that being water and many mallards in front of me, while behind me was another flock of mallards that wanted to be on the this side of the pond.   The sun was in the right position, being at my nine o’clock, so when the ducks took flight the first thing I saw were their shadows cast on the snow in front of me.   You would think that would be sufficient warning, right?


4.     Sometimes it was; sometimes not.  The shadows did give me time to raise the camera, but zooming in on an individual duck was near impossible.   Instead, a lot of cropping of the photos was necessary to detect what it was that I was trying to photograph.   Oh, and that cropping results in loss of quality and that's why these photos are so poor.  Yes, that's why.

5.     Sparkle.   A bit of light reflecting in the bird’s eye is essential in any photo or birds, animals, or humans, flying or not.   Otherwise, the bird’s eye is a dead dull black.  Ducks know that.   They go to great lengths to avoid eye sparkle when photographers are near.

You can see this female intentionally hid her eye so as not to have that little spark of life in her eye.

6.     You would think that with the sun over my left shoulder and the mallards flying from that angle to my one or two o’clock, all the duck eyes would sparkle.   Not so.

What would otherwise have been a nice photo is ruined by the top bird being in the frame.

7.     Instead, the ducks concentrate more on their shadows rather than their sparkles.  I witnessed this bit of duck behavior and can attest to its veracity:   the duck’s shadow on the snow marks its landing spot.  

8.     Next time you’re out watching birds, watch and see if it isn’t true.   The bird lands where the shadow marks the spot.

9.     Spot on!

10.  Uh, this mallard, perhaps blinded by the sun on snow, used water-landing techniques instead of solid surface techniques, which result in abrupt stops instead of waterskiing across the surface.  You can almost hear it saying, “OOF!”    Can’t you?

11.  It is essential, in this instance, that the mallard act as if it intended this landing, especially when a bunch of its buddies are there to critique the landing.

"Why, yes.   This IS where I intended to land."

12.  For some reason I haven’t discerned, female mallards are more cooperative than the males.

Look at that!   Nice attitude, sparkle in the eye, unobstructed background, all attention drawn to the subject.   Perfect.   Too bad it isn't in focus. 

You will find that when  a male seems to be cooperating, it will make sure the background is exceptionally cluttered, thus ruining the photo.

There's that cluttered background again, but the female's eye is visible.

Or, it hides in a group of other ducks, again ruining the shot.   Faces hidden, no eye sparkle: boo.

What a mess.

Technique, mallards.  Technique.   Our mallard that made the poor landing is just right of center.   Just remember, pal, any landing you walk away from is a successful landing.


  1. I think your pictures are excellent. Anyone who thinks they aren't has never spent much time trying to get good photo's of flying birds.

  2. So much wrong with the photo of the three mallards in flight??? I don't see the wrongs. And the one you called out of focus ... looked like a cool shot to me. If I were one of these birds, I would be on patrol watching for you and your camers so that I could be featured! I, too, feel your pictures are excellent. Hugs from us, now in Yuma. Patti and Cap

  3. It looks like one of the male mallards that is coming in for a landing on his tummy has a band on its leg. Or am I seeing-things. Great Post. Fun Post. I got a few chuckles out of your comments. Keep it up. Cap and Patti in Yuma (oh my 95F today) Aridzona.

  4. Even your outtakes are better than most folks' final cuts!