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Capturing Motion in Birds

by Nikhil Bahl | January 22, 2016

Copyright Nikhil BahlUsing a longer exposure to capture motion is very common when photographing waterfalls, although, this technique is not used as often when photographing birds. After repeatedly photographing a species, using this technique allows me to create different images from the ones I have already captured. It is also an opportunity to render a subject in a fashion that people are not accustomed to seeing. If you want to go beyond capturing a sharp photo with implied motion, this technique provides a great way to convey the bird in motion without any post-processing wizardry.

Birds in motion - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

700mm, 1/40th sec, f/8, iso 3200

Digital photography has definitely made it a lot easier to try and succeed with this technique. Take a shot and take look! Then make adjustments based on the effect you are going for.

Finding the right shutter speed for a particular bird is the main challenge. Different birds move at different speeds. The best shutter speed can change based on how fast the bird is moving and how much motion you want to capture. There aren’t any precise formulas when using this technique. It does involve some amount of experimentation in each situation. Shutter speeds between 1/10th and 1/30th of a second are a good place to start. Use shutter priority mode to keep things simple, since the focus is on finding the right shutter speed. Manual mode could be used as well.

Spoonbill in motion - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

400mm, 1/20th sec, f/7.1, iso 200

With a bird in motion, panning with it is extremely critical. Try keeping the bird in the same part of the frame and pan with it for a second or two to get a sense of the speed, then click the shutter. It will help increase your success rate. I do like images where the head of the bird is relatively sharper than the wings. It is not critical for the head to be tack sharp though. To increase the possibility of capturing more sharpness, use a slightly faster shutter speed (around 1/60th sec.). Just remember, with faster shutter speeds you may capture more sharpness in the head of the bird but the blur in the wings gets reduced as well. This is where the experimentation with different shutter speeds comes in. With experience/practice you will get some images where the head is sharp even at slower shutter speeds.

Small bird in motion - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

300mm, 1/8th sec, f/29, iso 100

Crane in motion - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

850mm, 1/30th sec, f/8, iso 250

It is important to shoot in burst mode (continuous shooting) to increase your chance of success. Since it is near impossible to take a single photo timed perfectly for the blur it is better to take a burst of photos as the birds flies across. You will delete more photos than you will keep but that is OK, as long as you get some images you are happy with. The technique is challenging and it can keep you engaged for long periods as you start to enjoy the challenge.

I often try and capture motion in birds when the background may be very complicated. The benefit of panning with the birds at slower shutter speeds is that the background blurs out considerably. The lack of definition in the background adds to the soft feel of the images captured.

Group of birds in motion - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

300mm, 1/13th sec, f/36, iso 100

In low light situations it is easy to get the shutter speeds to capture motion. As it gets brighter you can lower your ISO and stop down the aperture to get slower shutter speeds. In the image above the aperture was stopped down to f/36 to get the shutter speed to 1/13th of a sec. In brighter light another alternative is to use a polarizer or a neutral density filter. Most polarizers will reduce the light by about 1 stop to 1 1/2 stops. I usually carry a variable ND filter that can reduce light between 2-8 stops. With longer lenses that don’t take filters on the front element, stick to changing the aperture and ISO to get the shutter speed you need. Although, at some point the light will be too bright to allow slower shutter speeds.

Birds in motion on pastel sky - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

500mm, 1/13th sec, f/8, iso 800

I do find that softer light and pastel colors are more complimentary to this technique. It gives the images captured a more lyrical quality compared to an image that has harsh contrast. Like the two images above, the feel of the image is very different based on the light and colors. It is a matter of personal taste when it comes to picking the one you like.

Birds in motion on blue sky - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

400mm, 1/5th sec, f/8, iso 800

At slower shutter speeds panning with the birds gets harder but more motion can be captured. In this case (photo above), I was looking to convey the chaos when the flock of black skimmers took off. Getting one at least one recognizable black skimmer was the key to the success of this image. I would recommend trying shutter speeds slower than 1/5th sec. only after you have become comfortable with the technique had some success between 1/10th to 1/30th of sec.

Creative photography of birds in flight - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

700mm, 1/3th sec, f/8, iso 200

As you start to use shutter speeds of less than 1/5th of a sec. the results start to become a rather abstract. At times, the motion captured may be so much that the birds are barely recognizable (like the image above). It becomes a lot harder to predict what result you will get and I love the surprise.

It is not necessary to always pan with the birds. You can try also try keeping your camera static and letting the birds move through the picture. Compare the two examples below. In the first image the camera was panned with the birds. While the second image the camera was kept static, which allowed the background and the resting birds to render sharper. Although, there is a lot more motion in the birds in flight.

Birds flying in front of mountain - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

160mm, 0.6 sec, f/5.6, iso 1600

Birds in motion at Bosque del Apache, New Mexico - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

160mm, 0.6 sec, f/5.6, iso 1600

I am not a big flash user but really enjoy experimenting with freezing part of the bird while capturing some motion in the wings. Another benefit of using flash is being able to capture a catch light in the eye of the bird when the ambient light is low. The use of flash with slower shutter speeds definitely gives the image a very different look.

Bird in flight photography with blurred wings - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

500mm, 1/13th sec, f/9, iso 1100

This technique may or may not be something everyone can appreciate. However, it is a great exercise in pushing yourself to photograph birds more creatively. Keep your options open and try different ways to interpret your subject.

About the Author

Nikhil Bahl is a full time professional photographer, author, educator, workshop instructor and environmentalist residing in the Washington D.C. area. Drawing inspiration from nature, Nikhil adopts novel approaches and seeks meaningful interpretations: to create photographs that transcend the commonplace, reflect deeper insights, and convey an enchantment of the subject's beauty.

An offshoot of Nikhil's fine art photography and love of nature is his documentation of wildlife behaviors and habitats. As a volunteer with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, his goal is to portray environmental stories with an artistic appeal, so his photographs educate and motivate about the imperative of conservation.

Each year Nikhil leads several photography tours and instructional workshops in the United States and abroad. His teaching encourages participants to advance beyond ordinary photos and develop their own style and vision. Nikhil is a regular speaker at photography clubs, expos and industry events. He authored the acclaimed eBook, Creative Interpretations and writes articles on the creative and technical aspects of photography.

Nikhil's work has been published in a number of print and electronic media and his fine art prints have been widely exhibited in the Washington metropolitan area, and are part of many private collections.

See more of Nikhil's work at www.nikhilbahl.com.

6 thoughts on “Capturing Motion in Birds

  1. Great article that provides another avenue for creative photography. These types of photos are not enjoyed by all but are a fresh approach to nature and wildlife photography. Thanks for the tips. Love the Spoonbill and pastel photos. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great article. I have tried motion blur on a variety of subjects with mixed results. The tips in this article might improve my percentage of hits.

    From looking at the pictures, it seems that the shutter speed depends on the size of the subject in the image and on the amount of blur desired. Could you comment on that?

    • Thanks Clay!

      The distance of the subject is a factor. For example; when a bird 100 feet away moves 5 feet across the frame the relative movement in the picture frame is a lot less than if the same bird was 20 feet away and moved the same distance in the frame. That is something to be aware of but if you are panning with the bird and making adjustments to the shutter speed for the desired effect, it is not as important. That is simply because you are making adjustments based on the look you are going for. As mentioned, there is no formula so it is hard to tell how much of an adjustment needs to be made. However, with multiple birds (like a flock of snow geese) the distance of the subject/s can becomes very important. This is because you will see the difference in the motion blur between the birds in the foreground and those that are further away. At that point, you would need to make a decision as to which birds you are panning with. My preference is usually to pan with the birds closer to the camera as they render larger in the frame.

      Hope that helps!
      Nikhil

  3. Excellent article enjoyed reading it. Its a style of photography I find I am drawn to but does not seem to be everyones cup of tea. I have posted a couple of examples of mine in the birds gallery to mixed comments. Thanks again for an excellent article.

    • Glad you enjoyed the article! Not surprised about the mixed reactions. That is always the case when you do something different. Just do what makes you happy as there will always be varied opinions.
      Cheers!
      Nikhil

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