It can be hard enough to photograph a single bird, so what do you do when faced with a whole flock? Rather than taking aim, firing away with your camera, and hoping for the best, think about what you want to accomplish with your photograph. Do you want to show the sheer size of the flock? Do you want to emphasize pattern or symmetry? Do you want to capture behavior? Instead of clicking at random, consider what you want and what techniques you can use to approach the photo to get the desired effect. Here are five strategies that will help you turn frustration into clarity, and chaos into art.
One of the easiest ways to cut down the chaos of a flock of birds is to take away the bulk of the detail and leave only the outlines. Silhouettes can make a striking photograph, especially when you're able to capture distinctive shapes. This works best with flocks where there's some space between the birds, so that viewers can easily distinguish the dark shapes as birds. Capturing birds in silhouette works particularly well when one or a few stand out from the rest of the crowd, which forms a unique pattern or adds movement to the image, such as in the photo above.
You can pull off something similar if you're able to capture birds in low light so that they are rim-lit, creating an outline of light around their features which helps set each individual bird apart from the rest. Thus, a flock turns into a piece of carefully lit art. This is a beautiful technique to use at sunsets as flocks take off into the sky, since the feathers of their spread wings filter golden light and create a flurry of shapes. Capturing silhouettes and rim light is covered in this article on using backlighting for creative nature photography.
Shallow depth of field to single out individuals
Singling someone out of the crowd is a great way to lend focus to what can easily become a photo with information overload. Select one individual in a flock of birds and bring the viewer's attention to that bird by using a wide aperture, which creates a shallow depth of field. As the flock is put into soft focus, the individual is presented in sharp relief.
An added benefit of this approach is that you aren't overwhelmed by what's going on in the flock so, rather than shooting in a haphazard manner, you can potentially capture interesting behaviors by a single bird with the rest of the flock as a beautiful backdrop that adds interest to the overall scene.
Patterns, lines and layers
If you want to capture the flock as a whole, you can still create a visually compelling and intuitive image by focusing on the patterns created by a flock in motion, or a flock within a setting. This works for everything from a flock of shorebirds resting on a beach to a flock of red-winged blackbirds in the air. All you have to do is consider the shape of the flock and the shape of the other elements in the scene, and then capture an image that captures both in an interesting image.
As you think about your composition, give careful thought to lines and patterns that provide interest. This is particularly important when a flock is on the wing. Having a flock of birds in the sky without rhyme or reason isn't as artistic a shot as a flock of birds that create an interesting shape or design in the sky.
Also consider keeping layers of foreground and background in your composition to provide some context for the flock's size, shape, environment and movement.
Take-offs and landings
Sometimes the most interesting aspect about a flock of birds is the sheer size of the group and the way they move as a single mass. This is one of the reasons why winter migration is such a fun time for photographers — it's a wonderful challenge to capture the size of the flocks in a single frame.
The most interesting time to do this is during morning fly-outs and evening fly-ins of birds at their roost sites. Photographers often gather in the locations where birds are known to roost, such as particular trees where starlings gather, or particular wetlands where geese and cranes gather, so that they are ready to photograph the take-offs and landings. The sight of so many birds taking off at once is quite a spectacle, and one that can make an interesting photo.
Motion blur and panning
The movement of a flock of birds is mesmerizing, and sometimes the best way to capture that is by slowing down your shutter speed and letting the movement take over the image. The blur of wings creates an artistic, painterly image and can help to capture mood and weather in addition to their birds' activities.
To take this approach, you can adjust the speed of your shutter to get different effects, from a minimally slow shutter that creates just a slight blur of the wings to a very slow shutter that creates a blur of the entire flock and thus an impressionist-like image. Additionally, you can use panning to keep the moving birds sharp while blurring the background. This technique can provide a wide range of different results depending on how you creatively adjust your shutter speed. Have fun playing around with settings and seeing what happens. After all, there are no "wrong" settings when playing with motion blur and the final image is up to your artistic interpretation.