Gulls in Flight, A Photography Learning Experience

Everybody has seen seagulls, I guess unless you live in a desert. Them and terns must be some of the most widely distributed species of bird living along coastal areas. The house sparrow takes the crown for worldwide distribution in conjunction with numbers of birds, I think, but the barn owl is on every continent except Antarctica. Sparrows don’t surprise me, but the owl does. I would have guessed pigeons too. And why am I looking for the most abundant birds?

Abundant birds mean more photo subjects. Are you curious why I chose these boring, common birds to take photos? Read on. You just might be picking up the camera for seagulls too. I am updating this post with Winging It – Gulls in Flight Part 2 giving some camera tips since learned. It has pretty photos of gulls flying the snowy skies, November 3o, 2013. Hope you enjoy, I did learn something along the way!

This post was inspired by my difficulty in capturing birds in flight and I thought I would use some tips that another blogger provided which should improve my photography. Galen Leeds Photography is a very informative blog and this is the link to which I am referring in the post. I read his post and here are the results!

Galen discussed three preferred angles, front, side and from below. This is much harder to do than it may seem. Tail views lose their power according to his post. And tail is what I seem to mostly get.

You can get some wonderful straight on images in composition and proximity, but it is more difficult focusing when they are coming straight at you. Mostly because, like he mentioned, you have to anticipate their movement. And when they come at you, it is likely they just made a sharp turn in that direction or are about to make another turn, like the next image.

From below it is a challenge to get a good exposure.  Compositionally, I really don’t mind this image bleeding out of the frame, although it could be improved. The bird was turning out of the frame when I snapped the shutter.

Compensating for the bright background is one thing I have known from my own experience for a while, as I always have to fix them in Photoshop. My efforts in these images was not to do that, and to see what I could get straight from the camera.

There were three different days of shooting with the images above and below on the last day. The above image has the daylight coming through the wings and tail. Below there is action in dropping from the sky.

I found that the farther away the birds were, the easier it was to get a decent image.

He mentioned trying to suggest action in the image and I did manage a few with motion, some with blurred wing tips and this one below, by panning.

They really do fly fast, so it takes practice to anticipate when they will appear correctly for your desired composition. Remember the Green Apples 5 Minute Tutorial below? Now that is a fast-moving bird with nothing but blur.

When you expose for the bird, the definition in the sky drops. Finding the correct balance of bird to sky is another thing that will take practice.

The point of this exercise is that there is a Golden Eagle at the farm and many hawks and falcons at the gorge. You see them only for seconds and must set the camera quickly.

The hawks nest in the high trees of the gorge cliffs and they fly right overhead at mere meters away in search of rodents sometimes, so you can see why my skills need to improve for these subjects.  I have jumped out of my skin a few times as they seem to come out of nowhere.

There is some similarity for choosing seagulls with which to practice. They are large birds; they fly both high and low; they are fast; they glide nicely; and they make sudden change of direction. Plus, there are so darn many of them. That is the biggest difference that makes them good for practice.

I found the images of seagulls better with a darker background.  The darker background provides more contrast and puts the gulls into context.

There was a tip about watching what is in the background when shooting flying birds, and making sure it does not compete. I do know this one too, but….that is a tough one when shooting moving birds because the time to focus and snap an image is far too short. Sometimes you end up with a person, lamp-post or pesky building in the shot.

Here are two examples with background, one less distracting than the other.

A good composition, I found, was of others photographing or feeding the seagulls. They have story to them.

Staying with the preferred shooting angles initially really helped in studying their behavior too. It became easier to anticipate movement and then gain confidence to try various other angles.

Shooting from below, especially when you get the sun through or reflecting off the wings is really a wonderful angle. There was a tip on this one too.

You would be surprised how many images I have with bird droppings streaming in them.  Luckily I was not directly under any of these birds. Galen did not mention that hazard, so I will.

Galen also noted how taking images of more birds is a whole different ball game. How true. Creating a nice composition is a bit out of your control. You have cannot decide where they choose to go.

The photo below does not look like a gull but ‘the eagle has landed’. And of course, another great tail shot.

Like most of us, I am just a better photographer when they sit still, but it is more boring. You get plenty of decision-making time when they sit there. But really, I am kinda proud for what I learned. Galen may not realize how good a teacher he actually is, but I have a lot more confidence now. Click on any image to enlarge. Some of them did turn out really well, for seagulls that is.

By now you probably have seen more seagulls than you ever wanted to, but this post was really about using them to improve skills in photographing birds in flight, which was a weakness of mine. If you want to learn or improve, do what I did, stop in on Galen’s post with his helpful tips on Birds in Flight. I followed his techniques and you can see that I improved. So you can too. He added Birds in Flight: Part II on October 24, 2012. Make sure to see both posts.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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33 Responses to Gulls in Flight, A Photography Learning Experience

  1. andrea says:

    Hey Donna, they don’t look like amateur shots to me! I have been trying to read also some bird photography articles because we have birds in our property in the province. However, i just stopped because my lens is limited, as i only have 150mm at the maximum and can’t put converter anymore as I have small openings. Siggggh and envious! A birding telefoto is costly for me. I bet you practice first with the falling leaves as a prelude to birds in flight, hahaha!

    • Andrea, most of the images were taken with my 18 to 135mm lens, so at 150mm you should be able to get pretty decent birds. The ones I take at the Falls are in trees and then I use the 3oomm…and I just ordered a 1.4 teleconverter for it, so I will be able to get even farther when I learn to use it. Getting a 400mm was too expensive, but that would have been great.

      • andrea says:

        hey Donna, I came back to read not only your reply to mine but also that of Victor Ho’s. He is so kind in teaching. Mine is Olympus E620 and with my 42-150mm, my f stops are just what he said, very slow. Besides, our birds are much farther than yours, and not so plenty, so have to wait long before they come again. I still can’t focus well on a flying bird despite reading articles and using S to get a faster speed. Anyway, thanks for everything here, as well as Victor Ho’s. I am still trying! Of course, i wont stop trying.

  2. One says:

    Donna, These are wonderful! Really enjoyed your shots and the tips as well. I don’t see any sea gulls around. Maybe I shall post my duck photos taken yesterday. Now I really must check Galen out. Thanks for the link.

  3. Victor Ho says:

    Your post on birds and flight is outstanding. It is as good as any magazine article I have read on the subject. You are hilarious in commenting on bird droppings. In NYC, the statuary is covered and makes your warning an obvious precaution. I might add that no one walks with their nose up or they’ll step into something. Your photos are great examples to go along with your experience. I especially like your panned shots. Gulls get in close so a 135mm lens will get you some close in shots. Your zoom I would guess is variable f stop say 4.5 to 5.6. When you are at 135mm your lens is f stop 5.6. A teleconverter will make the lens slower by about an 1-2 f stops. Check to be sure it will work on your particular lens. Nikon says their teleconverters is incompatible with lenses slower than f4. I will preface that some of what I learned is from sports shooting and from my Sports Illustrated guru, Manny. He has told me use a shutter speed of 1/500 sec. It will stop the action. If you want motion blur then you can go slower. Increasing ISO may be a compromise to get a fast shutter speed. With the excellent auto-focus cameras it can still be a challenge to get critical focus. I have a Nikon D200 and use the ‘closest subject’ focus setting. That would be where the camera hunts for and then focuses on the closest subject. All the focus points on the view screen are in use and it is fairly efficient. It works especially when your camera hunts for the bird while you’re moving your camera – just too many things to keep track of. There is also a button to the side of the viewfinder on the Nikon. Canon has it too. It’s AF-L AF-E. You want to use AF-L, auto-focus lock. You set a focus point in your screen. Focus your bird on it and then you can swing and keep focus lock. It lets you follow the action and capture the image at the critical moment. Motor drive will not save you. You miss often enough that the professional sports photographers use AF-L and swear by it. Long lenses 400mm and up are a luxury. They are indeed expensive. I have the 80-400mm lens but it has variable f stop 4.5-5.6 and can be slow. I have used it for birds and sports. Still, for a close up there is a reason why the professionals have access to a super duper tele lens. If you have an opportunity, you could consider a lens rental. It can be a bit expensive but much less so than purchasing a lens you will not use often. I have done this for trips and other events. I am still keeping a picture of the American bald eagle on my list. So it’s also about opportunity. I had no luck in Maine. But I hear that there is a place in Alaska where the eagles gather and there are photo ops galore. If I’ve gone on too long, feel free to edit me. Once again, your photos were really great examples.

    • Thank you immensely for this information and your very kind words, Victor. I so much respect your photographic abilities with your diversity of photo subjects. I find that especially fascinating because it is hard enough to specialize on one subject, let alone many, and you do it so expertly. Photographing was always a hobby of mine, but only recently, have I tried to actually improve from the technical side. And you cannot have ‘art’ without knowing your materials. So I have been looking around the blogs lately and am so glad I came upon your blog. I added a link to your Puffin post in my post. Being predominately a garden blogger, I was not sure of the interest of other garden bloggers to blog hop the photo blogs, but I am starting to see them do it, so I hope my readers stop in on PHOTOBACKSTORY.

      I will have to make sure on the teleconverter that I ordered will work seamlessly with my lens. I took the lens with me to the camera store to have the salesman pick out the Nikon teleconverter for my lens, so I am hoping he did it correctly. I do envy your 400mm. There was such a difference in price between the 400mm and the teleconverter that I chose
      the latter. I was more worried on my own abilities to control a lens that big without a tripod. I know the teleconverter will also present some difficulties at first.

      I will have to see if my Nikons have the ‘closest focus’ settings, that seems like an excellent tip. I have the mid-range D7000 and a D80. I am so glad you included camera settings in the comment because others can read this and get some place to start when they go out and practice on birds in flight. I had them in the post, but not being anywhere near competent enough in my work, took them out. I did not want others following my lead, I wanted them to visit Galen’s site and now yours. Thank you again for your helpful reply.

  4. One says:

    Donna, I have posted my Duck Photos with a link to your post here as well as Galen’s so that readers know where to find great photography tips. Mine are just some fun shots.

  5. Victor Ho says:

    Consider me a photo opportunist. I shoot whatever happens to be at hand. City, country, events, people, sports, aerial – whatever subject is available is a learning opportunity. For as many years as I have been at photography, I am still learning to control my equipment and improve technique. Now that I know you are using Nikon, I can expand a little.—d80—guide-to-digital-photography
    If you don’t have the manual electronically, here’s where to download it. I like it on my desktop for reference. You can get manuals for your other body as well. The D80 does have AF-L. Read the guide and experiment. You will find that subject such as birds in flight will be amenable to this technique. And try to vary the auto-focus points. There were two different techniques described. You finally get to use some of those darn buttons that you have avoided for so long. And don’t worry, so did I. But boy it was fun for someone to finally show me why I need the settings. And it’s even better that Nikon put them into their product. Obviously, there were some pros who wanted this and Nikon listened. Consider using a monopod if you don’t want the burden of a tripod. Check on that teleconverter. Nikon USA’s website will tell you if your lens is compatible. When I looked into it, most lenses that had f stops slower than f4 would not work. Yours at the max 135mm is f5.6, too slow. In responding to your comment I clicked on ‘One’ by accident. Thank you. There are some stunning photos there.

    • You are being too modest. You are far more than an opportunist. Thanks for the additional info. I have seen the AF-L lever and did try but really need to investigate more. Your explanation will be a great help. Having the manuals on the desktop is a great idea too. I do always vary the focus points and find that a great help in getting more interesting compositions. I learned that fairly recently, wondering why my off center images were often blurry. Learn from mistakes, I always say. Glad you checked on One. She is like me, making great improvement in her photos and always willing to experiment and learn.

  6. For several years, we had a family of Cooper’s hawks living in our neighborhood. People in the neighborhood still refer to them as “our hawks.” We could sit on the porch or in the backyard and watch them as they swooped to hunt or taught their young to fly or ate their dinner on top of the telephone pole. This was before I was into photography, so I never even tried to take a photo. One spring, as one bird returned to open its summer home again, the crows ganged up on it and harassed it so much that it moved on. We were all so disappointed. It comes back every spring, but so far hasn’t built a nest nearby. I hope one of these years it stays. If it does, I’ll know how to capture a photo.

  7. Jonathan Living Seagull eat your heart out.

  8. HolleyGarden says:

    I have a hard time getting a good shot when they’re sitting! To have all these images while they’re in flight is amazing to me. Perhaps I would get better with practice. Maybe I’ll give it a shot or two! 😉

  9. joey says:

    Interesting tutorial and tucking much info in head … studying their behavior, anticipating movement a great tip. Our lake cottage in northern MI has an abundance of seagulls and awesome birds (grouse, herons, wild turkeys, ducks, hawks, geese, osprey …) but my thrill is to capture my beloved loons (especially with babies on back) and bald eagles that soar overhead and light in the tops of my huge trees. Both have been a challenge … so this posting was perfect. Thank you, Donna.

  10. Stacy says:

    Donna, your posts are always so useful and informative! I’d just about given up taking bird photos except when there are thousands around and you can take tons of pictures and hope that by total accident one of them will turn out OK. Otherwise, by the time I’ve “found” them in the viewing screen, they’re usually long gone. I’m looking forward to trying your pointers here and checking out the other blogs you mention. Thank you!

    (We have gulls out here, too, we just don’t call them seagulls… Mostly they seem to hang out by garbage dumps.)

  11. Denise says:

    Beautiful photographs Donna!. As I was reading your post and watching your photographs, I thought that I would not dare point my camera up at the sky, because I have had bird droppings on my head and back several times already while gardening. Very useful that you mentioned that. And a very useful post as always.

  12. I’ve spent a lot time photographing birds of prey over the years, including peregrines. I have to say, cutting your teeth on sea gulls (or even pigeons) is much more sensible! It takes a lot of practice tracking a moving object in flight, and having the right aperture and shutter speed settings at the same time. The more gregarious nature of the gulls certainly provides a lot more opportunity for practice, which is something even now I still need more of! Maybe I should hit the beach 😉

  13. Greg says:

    Fun and informative. 4 stars.

  14. I can see I have my work cut out of me practicing..thx again for all this great info…I too have a hard time even getting a good shot when thy are sitting..fab shots…very professional!!

  15. Alistair says:

    Donna, for the time being I will stick to motionless birds. So many seagulls in Aberdeen, people tend to seriously dislike them. Here is one that goes shopping in the city centre. I think you would find it amusing.

  16. Donna, your photographs are fantastic. Its too ambitious a project for me – I’m still stuck on using “Auto” on my wonderful camera. But I get to admire your photos so that keeps me happy for now 🙂

  17. Wonderful photos Donna! I can imagine how hard it must be to capture them in flight like that…thank you for the wonderful information and the beautiful pictures!

  18. Kala says:

    Fantastic photos of the bird in flight. These are not easy shots to execute.

  19. Wonderful work and inspiring me to continue. Am also attempting to capture birds and it is so true that the little guys are too too flitty! You really have a gift for it and your passion is contagious. Learning is good for the brain:~))

  20. Joy says:

    Donna girl this is kind of eerie .. I caught a seagull very early in the morning last week flying through a scene I was trying to catch with a sun rise .. so it is almost black but you can make out the shape quite well.
    BUT !! Your pictures here are amazing !! .. I have to go back and read what you suggested with the tips etc .. but I didn’t want to forget and leave a comment first .. memory is a huge wide hole sieve these day ! eeekkk !
    Thanks for stopping by my blog girl : )

  21. Jennifer says:

    Hi Donna, I learned from my recent post on the local dog park that shooting a moving target is way more difficult than photographing a flower in a garden. The subject is not willing to stand still while you fiddle with the camera. I think you have the right idea here. Practice makes perfect. Taking lots of experimental shots is the way to go.

  22. I admire your enthusiasm for taking on new things and learning all the time. The discussion about photography in the comments was like Greek to me, but your explanation in the post was great. I think seagulls are beautiful. We have a golden eagle in Maine that I would love to capture on film.

  23. OK, I’m sold, many of those those photos are really impressive, so I’ll have to check out the post that taught you so much.

  24. debsgarden says:

    I really admire your skills as a photographer, and I enjoyed your photos! You obviously are a good student and can apply what you have learned. Plants are hard enough but birds are very tough subjects. I consider myself fortunate when I can catch one sitting still. To capture shots like yours of birds in flight is way beyond my patience and capabilities.

  25. Karen says:

    Great information, Donna, something I am going to do my best to work on. Thank goodness for digital cameras, there really is no excuse for not taking scads of pictures anymore trying to perfect the technique. Going back to film, for me, would be horrendous!

    Wonderful shots, even if they were ‘only’ seagulls.

  26. Very well done!

    And thanks for the nice plug, appreciated.

  27. You have to have a reasonably good camera lens for starters Donna but even I will give this a go. Gulls at least are guaranteed here. Enjoyed the whole tour because you instruct so well with illustration for affirmation. Some of it above my head 😉
    p.s. love the poll and look forward to joining one day on w4w
    pps how did you add the like button to the site?

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