Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Photographing Birds in Flight

I have been asked several times by contacts in the #BirdPoker game to write an article on photographing Birds in Flight (BIF) and to share camera settings and any tricks I have learned. There are lots of BIF photogs with lots more experience, so this will not be for you, but instead be more for beginners, and what works for me.

"Any camera can take great pictures" this is a quote I read often and if your shooting landscapes at f/11 it's true. If you want to shoot BIF then you are going to need better equipment. Any recent DSLR camera will work, but the prosumer or pro bodies have better focusing systems that will yield better results and more keepers. Far more important is the lens and this is where you should spend your money if you want to shoot BIF. There is no way around it... It's not cheap! The minimum focal length needed is 300mm, with 400 and up being the norm. $1500 will get you into a new 300mm f/4 professional lens and when coupled with a 1.4 teleconvertor will produce very good results at 420mm. I use this exact setup so I know it works, but there are other lenses such as the Canon 400mm f/5.6 that work just as good. Both lenses I have mentioned are primes because zooms are not as fast at focusing and your keeper ratio will be lower. The Canon 100-400mm f/5.6 will work, but don't go past 350 or you will lose sharpness. Nikon makes similar lenses as well as other manufactures, but not as much variety as Canon. Moving up from these lenses is the 300mm f/2.8 lens which in my opinion is the best handheld birding lens made. Also moving up is the price tag which for the latest Canon version is over $7000 cdn. Don't be afraid to buy used with pro lenses. I have had very good luck buying used. YMMV

So now you have the equipment and settings are next. Here is my starting setup for every time I go birding... ISO 400, f/8, 1/1600 these settings are referred to as "sunny 16" and are suitable for shooting BIF on a bright day with most birds. I shoot in manual so ISO400, f/8 if you want to shoot in aperture priority. If you want to get good results when shooting white birds in flight, learn how to shoot in manual. Aperture priority and exposure compensation don't work under bright skies with white birds and after trying for two years I switched to manual and rarely use anything else. As light conditions vary you might have to drop your f stop if there isn't enough light, or up the ISO as a last resort. The minimum shutter speed should be over 1/500 to have any hope of keeping the bird sharp, or preferably over 1/1000. Don't be afraid of using very high ISO settings as getting the shot is more important then anything else. Noise will probably be in the background and not the bird and can be fixed later on your computer. Seriously... Don't be afraid of ISO 3200 even. If you have the bird exposed correctly it will have little noise. 

Other settings which are very important are... Change you focus to AI-servo or continuous focus mode. This is a must for moving objects in order to keep the bird in focus during flight. Use center point focus only and If you have a newer high end camera try the center point expansion settings to see what works best for you. I use expansion on for BIF if there is only sky behind the bird, and turn it off when shooting birds in trees. Change the drive to high speed motor drive. You want as many photos as you can get in order to have choice of wing position. I don't care how good you are, you can't time the wing position to get it perfect every time. 

These following settings are optional, but are very helpful... Shoot in RAW is the cheapest way to improve your photos without spending a cent. I haven't used jpg in years and once you learn the power of RAW you won't either. Shooting a BIF against a clear sky is a guessing game for exposure so you need the ability to fine tune everything on the computer later. The other in camera setting I use is "rear button focus" Normally as you push the shutter button down halfway the camera locks focus on the object in the center of your viewfinder. It's simple enough, but has problems with BIF. As an example... A Bird is flying across in front of you and it passes behind an object such as a branch. The focus will adjust to the branch and stay there until you release the shutter. With rear button focus you can release the focus as soon as you see the branch and reapply it after the bird is in the clear again. It is a pain at first to use, but if you stick to using this feature you will learn to love it. Read your manual to find out how to set your camera up for this feature. (Canon is custom function #4 and set it to 3)

Now on to the "how to" section...
The best place to learn is at your local park with a pond or creek that has Gulls and Ducks. They make easy targets and are not afraid of people. DSLR cameras focus by contrast so grey skies are not your friend. (Cameras actually use phase detection for focusing and not contrast, but a grey bird against grey skies still won't focus properly) Pick a nice day and do nothing but practice shooting BIF. Learn the birds habits so you can predict the direction they will take off or land from. Perched birds will deficate before taking flight so use that as a clue for your timing. It won't come easy but if you keep at it you can get some amazing flight shots.

I am sorry for this getting so technical, but there was no way around it. If your still reading this far I hope you got something out of it and try shooting BIF. I would appreciate your comments or questions, so I know if I should continue writing about Bird Photography. Anyone wishing to debate anything I have said in this article please respond as well.

Feel free to share this if you find it of any value.


  1. Some good tips in this article Phil, thanks for taking the time to post it;further thanks for all the time spent on #birdpoker I enjoy looking through my pictures to find ones suitable for the day's theme: my wife thinks I am obsessing over it :o)

  2. This is exactly the type of info I need to help me improve my bird photography skills, and learn how to shoot in manual better. I will be following your blog Phil. Thank you.

    - Sherrie (Bird Lady)