Get Familiar with Your Gear
You can get good photos of birds even with inexpensive lenses and other bargain equipment. But at minimum, you need to know how to use it. So, let me go through how to set up your camera to get the most out of its capabilities when photographing birds in flight.
1. Autofocus Settings
Few genres of photography place such demands on focusing speed as photographing birds in flight. How should you set your camera to keep up with them?
First, keep continuous focus (AF-C) active at all times. This will allow the camera to constantly react to the changing distance between you and the flying bird.
If you haven’t done so already, I recommend setting your focus activation to back-button focus, AKA the AF-On button. This gives you full control over when your camera stops and starts autofocusing. Bird sitting on a branch? Short press of the AF-On button, then take your photo instantly – no need to focus again – whenever the bird’s pose is ideal. Bird spreads its wings and flies? Press and hold, and the camera will track focus the whole way.
Back button focus is simple and intuitive, and that’s why we always talk about it so highly on Photography Life. But it takes some getting used to. Therefore, if you’re not used to AF-On yet, I recommend practicing it on city pigeons, seagulls, or other birds that are plentiful and easy to photograph.
You can also experiment with adjusting the speed at which the camera will react to a situation where a flying bird is temporarily out of range of the focus points. On Nikon, this feature is called focus tracking with lock-on. The higher the value (1 to 5), the more the camera will hesitate before refocusing elsewhere. This comes in handy when you can’t keep the focus point exactly on the head, or the head is briefly obscured by something (such as a wing, branch, or other passing bird). In general, I recommend values between 3 and 5. Similarly, lean toward the higher values on non-Nikon cameras.
The next question involves focusing modes. Which one is the most suitable for photographing birds in flight? This is where things get a little complicated, and it depends on what camera you have.
Let me use as an example the Nikon models that I have been shooting with for a long time and therefore have the most experience with. Depending on the camera model, you have a different number of autofocus points that you can use. The most advanced DSLRs from Nikon have 153 (Nikon D500/D850/D5) or 105 (Nikon D6). Mirrorless cameras generally have more total points, but that doesn’t make them faster.
These cameras all give you control over two things: the size of the focus area, and whether the focus area is allowed to move to track subject motion.
Unless you are a skeet-shooting champion, forget about the single point option (where you select one autofocus point that doesn’t track movement across the frame). Manually keeping a single focus point on the head of a fast-flying bird is not only unrealistic, but also unnecessary.
Instead, use the autofocus points to help each other. If you don’t follow the bird’s eye perfectly with the main focusing point, one of the neighboring points can take over its task. How many of these “helpers” you assign to the main point is up to you. On Nikon DSLRs, these are the Dynamic Area mode options, and you can choose something like D-9, D-25, D-72, or D-153 to figure out how many helpers you want for the main autofocus point. Nikon’s mirrorless cameras are a bit more limited in their Dynamic Area choices but usually offer at least D-9.
I tend to select a value on the smaller side of this range, usually D-25. Why not choose D-153 to use all focus points at once and increase your chances of getting the right shot? Because autofocus points act similarly to your colleagues in your company. The more you include in the decision-making process, the longer it takes them to reach a result.
Another popular mode for photographing birds in flight is Group AF. In my experience, this mode is most useful when photographing birds that fly directly towards you. This is because Group AF, unlike Dynamic Area, tends to favour close subjects. If a bird is flying in your direction, it is usually the head that is closest to your camera. Group AF is found on Nikon’s newest DSLRs. On Nikon mirrorless, something similar can be achieved by selecting medium or large area AF boxes.
Often, Group AF (or medium/large area AF) is very useful for bird in flight photography. The exception is if a bird flies laterally rather than straight toward you, at which point Group AF may lock onto the bird’s wingtip instead of the eye (again, because it prioritizes nearer subjects).
The remaining mode is called 3D Tracking. This is when you allow your focus point to move across the frame automatically to track your subject. It sounds very tempting, but for photographing birds in flight I’d rather avoid it. Although 3D tracking is getting faster and faster these days, with most cameras on the market, it still can’t keep up with the fastest-moving birds in flight. I would rather use Dynamic Area or Group AF most of the time.
When I said that choosing focus depends on the camera, though, that’s especially true with mirrorless. There’s a huge range of focus performance and tracking capabilities depending on which mirrorless camera you use, ranging from terrible to better than any DSLR.
For example, on the Nikon Z9, Sony A9/A9 II/A1, and Canon R6/R5, the 3D Tracking focusing mechanism may be fast enough to track a bird in flight without issue. It may even be able to automatically select your subject, sometimes down to the level of your subject’s individual eye. In my article on the Nikon Z9, I already wrote that this feature works great in practice. Admittedly, pros may still get a higher keeper rate with dedicated practice in the other modes, but this is the closest to “set it and forget it” tracking that is possible for photographing birds in flight today.
2. Exposure Settings
Even in the era of the latest digital cameras, the holy trinity of exposure remains the pillar upon which the technical aspect of photography is built. That is, the three big settings of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
Shutter speed plays a major role in whether a fast-moving bird will be sharp or have motion blur. Aperture determines your depth of field and also allows you to capture more light in dim conditions. And finally, ISO brightens the photo further as needed, but will reveal unsightly noise if your shutter speed and aperture didn’t capture enough light.
To freeze movement, you will usually need a shutter speed in the range of 1/1250 to 1/8000 of a second. This is largely determined by the type of bird and the nature of its flight. Smaller birds, typically songbirds, tend to have faster and less predictable movements. For that reason, we would do well to set a fast shutter speed. In contrast, a gliding pelican, a condor or a slow-flying heron will allow a relatively longer shutter speed without increasing the risk of motion blur.
It also depends upon the exact moment you take the photo. For example, a hummingbird can flap its wings at about 80 strokes per second. This is so fast that even at 1/4000 of a second, you can end up with a very obvious blur in the wings. If you want to freeze this completely, you could take a photo perfectly timed when the hummingbird’s wings are pointed straight ahead or backwards. Of course, this isn’t something any photographer can time through skill, but it’s possible to time with luck and a high number of frames per second on your camera!
As for aperture, I personally consider the sweet spot to be somewhere between f/5.6 and f/8. This range of aperture values will provide an acceptable depth of field to compensate for any focusing inaccuracies as well as get most of the bird in sharp focus. On the other hand, wider apertures like f/2.8 to f/4 are popular among some bird photographers because they let in more light and give very creamy out-of-focus backgrounds. I usually steer away from those apertures if a maximally sharp subject is my priority.
Then it simply comes down to ISO. Once I’ve set my shutter speed and aperture to a value that I’m happy with, I want my camera to float ISO to the level that gives me a properly-exposed photo. As a result, I use manual mode in combination with Auto ISO. I keep an eye on my ISO and make sure it doesn’t get too high for my comfort (roughly about ISO 4000); if it does get that high, I will usually open up my aperture a bit if possible. If not, I’ll extend my shutter speed and hope not to get motion blur.
The only slight concern with this approach is shooting in very bright conditions, where Auto ISO may want to use a value lower than base ISO. For this reason, some bird photographers who work in bright light prefer to use aperture priority mode in combination with Auto ISO, instead of manual. The aperture priority + Auto ISO approach is a more difficult technique, but it fixes the base ISO problem and otherwise functions similarly to manual mode + Auto ISO.
Keep in mind that in the real world, the resulting exposure settings are always a matter of compromise. Technically perfect results would be achieved in many cases with a shutter speed of 1/8000 second, aperture of f/8, and ISO of 100. But I don’t even need to look at the exposure statistics of the photos in my archive to tell you that I’ve never taken a photo with those settings, because I don’t live on the sun. So, everything is a compromise.
Finally, there are times when no matter what camera settings you use, you still won’t be able to get sharp photos. I’m not just talking about shooting at night, but even on a bright, sunny day – if there is atmospheric distortion. In fact, the billowing mass of warm air between you and the flying bird can make sharp photography virtually impossible. Sometimes even the heavens themselves conspire against us, and there’s nothing to do but stretch out in a hammock and have a drink.
3. Metering Modes
Your camera’s meter informs it about the amount of light passing through the lens. Metering mode can be set to at least three modes on most cameras: spot, center-weighted, and evaluative (AKA matrix) metering.
For photographs of birds in flight, center-weighted and evaluative metering are my recommendations. However, unusual subjects like a white egret against a dark background – or a dark raven flying against sand or snow – can be improperly exposed in these situations.
On most cameras, spot metering is the way to go in cases like this, since it will prioritize the exposure of your focus point itself. (Note that on some older cameras, spot metering only measures a point at the very center of the frame rather than your focus point, making it effectively useless for birds in flight.) Spot metering is more sensitive than the other metering modes, and it’s likely that you’ll need to use exposure correction to fine-tune it, but it’s sometimes the best way to meter a complex scene.
If you don’t have a specific subject in mind like that, I recommend always keeping your camera settings – metering mode and everything else – as “generalist” as possible. For example, set metering to matrix, switch to manual mode, turn on Auto ISO, set your shutter speed to 1/2000, and set your aperture to f/5.6. Those settings won’t be optimal for every photo of a bird in flight, but they’re universal enough that you’ll usually get something sharp and can react immediately to any situation in front of you (and quickly change to something like 1/4000 or f/4 if the situation calls for it).
Tripod vs Handheld
It’s an eternal question in bird photography: Should you shoot from a tripod or handheld?
In the case of older generations of supertelephoto lenses (400 to 600mm), your quivering biceps, aching back, and inability to accurately compose a fast-moving bird will answer it after a few seconds. But with lighter, modern versions of telephoto lenses – especially lenses with shorter focal lengths or narrower maximum apertures – the answer is not so straightforward.
The tripod will be most useful when you’re waiting for a shot. Typically, this is somewhere close to a bird nest, or alternative in a hide. With a tripod, you can point your lens permanently where you expect action, such as a flower, river, or nest. The instant a bird appears, within a fraction of a second you can get the first shot. This isn’t possible handheld.
Sometimes, with a tripod, you can even pre-plan the exact shot and wait with the perfect composition for however long it takes. That’s what I did with the photo below. I set my shutter speed and aperture to sufficient values for a sharp photo (in this case, 1/1250 second and f/5.6). I even turned off autofocus, choosing instead to pre-focus on the place where I knew the bird would be. The moment the common starling flew into place, all I needed to do was press the shutter and pray. A high-FPS burst helped, but 99% of the work went into this photo long before I actually took it. Shooting in this way is unthinkable without a tripod.
It is moments like this that are reminiscent of hunting just as much as photography. It’s not for nothing that the verb “to shoot” is used as a synonym for “to photograph.” When you sit and wait for your subject to arrive, you can get some great images, and a tripod is crucial to that process. Again, practice makes perfect.
A tripod can also be useful if you plan to stay in one particular spot and use a gimbal head for composition. If you’re at a location where a large number of birds are gathered, like Bosque del Apache, this is often the ideal approach. A gimbal head gives you much of the compositional flexibility as shooting handheld, but it takes the weight off your back. However, a gimbal is large and heavy, making it harder to hike around with your tripod long distances.
So, shooting handheld (or with a monopod) is always the backup option when you need to cut down on weight. With lighter telephoto lenses, your arms won’t be too tired shooting handheld even for a few hours at a time, and leaving the tripod at home makes it much easier to hike long distances with your setup. For photographing birds in remote areas, or on the go when you don’t have time to set up a tripod, shooting handheld is certainly possible.
Now you’ve set your camera properly and understand the basics of bird behavior. The final steps are to find a good location to photograph birds and then compose an interesting photo. I’ll cover those on the next page of this tutorial.
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