Photo Tips from the Field: Birds in Flight

Posted Aug. 30th, 2020 by Daniel J. Cox

Capturing exquisite photos of birds in flight is a popular discussion across the internet. Many photographers wanting to improve their wildlife photography skills often turn to our avian friends for practice and inspiration. Getting that crystal-clear, fast-moving bird, with details in every feather, is like a gift from the photo gods. And in fact, I believe, the difficulty of capturing that one glorious image is part of the attraction. Why? Because photography has become way too easy for just about everything else.

Even with today’s best autofocus cameras, birds in flight can still be a challenge. Keeping a few specific things in mind can make all the difference in your struggles to master birds on the wing.

Autofocus Continuous is essential

Setting your camera to Autofocus Continuous (AF-C) is absolutely essential for capturing fast-moving subjects. Autofocus continuous is the only way your camera’s autofocus can move with the subject and predict where the subject WILL BE when the shutter is fired. You cannot photograph birds in flight in autofocus single. Well…. you can, but you’ll be lucky to get one frame, and if you do, it’ll be by accident.

AF-C is shown here on the Sony A9. All cameras will have this setting, some in the same spot and others somewhere else.

Autofocus single (AF-S) is made to focus on a specific spot and then lock focus on that spot. If you use this with a bird in flight, it will lock on a spot where the bird WAS, not where it’s going to be. When the bird flies forward, it will now be out of focus because the focus spot was locked on a spot BEHIND it.

Manual exposure

Almost always, the background your subjects fly in front of can affect your exposure. Those backgrounds can vary from white sky to dark shaded outcroppings.

Manual meter setting on the Olympus Om-D EM-1X.

Setting your exposure for the subject, no matter where it flies, is the first step in getting great photos of birds in flight.

Ready for action and just enjoying the birds.

In my video “Photo Tips From The Field – Birds in Flight,” I was working with puffins in Alaska. The beach I was on provided a perfect medium tone gray, or what we call neutral gray, to meter off of. I set my camera’s meter manually as I pointed it at the rocks on the beach.

Gray rocks are a perfect subject for getter a medium tone gray meter reading. No need for a gray card here.

Doing so eliminated any effect the white sky or a nearby dark shaded cliff had on the exposure for the bird. As long as I kept the exposure setting based on the gray beach, no matter where the puffins would fly, my camera would expose the image correctly based on the manual setting from the beach.

Fast shutter speed

To stop action of any kind, you need a shutter speed equal to or greater than the lens you’re shooting. In other words, if you have a 400mm lens you want at least 1/400th of a second to stop any kind of motion. But for fast-moving birds, that’s not enough. For birds in flight, you want at least double the focal length of the lens you’re shooting. So 400mm would require at least one 1/1600th of a second. Even faster is better.

Many photographers feel that shooting a smaller aperture such as F8 is beneficial for giving better depth of field to improve autofocus. I don’t disagree unless you’re sacrificing shutter speed for depth of field. My main goal is to get as fast of a shutter speed as possible and let the camera handle the autofocus.

Horned puffin comes in from the sea with a bill full of sand lance to feed its chick, Alaska. Shot with Sony A9 and 100-400mm lens

Group Autofocus Pattern

Using a large size AF pattern is essential for keeping a bird in focus. All cameras have the ability to select different sized AF patterns, and most have at least one group setting. The key here is to get a fairly large pattern that makes it easier to keep the AF sensors on the bird. It’s virtually impossible to use a single, small AF sensor on a bird that can fly up to 55mph.

The green box highlights the group of AF sensors that I selected on the Olympus EM-1X.

High-speed burst

Make sure you’re shooting a high frame rate. Not necessarily the highest but anything between 5-15 frames per second. Some of the newer mirrorless cameras, like the Sony A9 and the Olympus EM-1X, shoot as high as 20fps in Continues/Predictive AF. I scale both back to Continues Medium, which is about 10fps. A bit slower burst rate gives the camera a better chance to refocus between images.

Resetting AF on the horizon

When the birds come flying in things start happening really fast. It’s easy to forget that you need to reset your AF so the camera is ready for the next bird. What do I mean by resetting your AF? You simply point the camera out to the horizon and press the shutter down halfway. The camera will focus on the horizon making it easy for you to see your next bird and allowing the camera ample opportunity to acquire the subject and follow it coming toward you.

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That’s about it. Keep these six things in mind, and you too can shoot birds in flight like a professional. The one caveat that we didn’t discuss, and I may do so in a future post, is which cameras are best. And there is one that rules the birds in flight roost. Stay tuned.

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There are 3 comments on this post…
  1. DanielaOn Sep. 16th, 2020 (1 month ago)

    I await for the next post ! Which camera and lenses are the best for BIF ???? If you would have to choose 5 cameras of different price tags, plus it’s lenses, what would you choose?
    Excellent article Daniel. I would love to see puffins again !!!! What a lovely sweet bird, isn’t it?
    Best for you , and happy photo-hunting!

  2. Robert DaytonOn Sep. 2nd, 2020 (2 months ago)

    Thank you for the tips.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Sep. 2nd, 2020 (2 months ago)

      My pleasure. Glad you enjoyed the suggestions.

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