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How-to's

Photographing Birds-in-Flight and other quick moving subjects

David Summers (dm1dave) on February 17, 2014


Keywords: wildlife, photography, photographic, disciplines, guides, tips, tricks

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BIF

Shooting birds-in-flight is a difficult photographic challenge but when you nail a few shots, it is a most rewarding experience. Starting off, many people try to shoot Birds-in-Flight as a bit of a fun challenge.  Once they have a little success, they find themselves drawn into this addictive photographic genre.

 

sandhill crane

Image 1. Sandhill Crane
Nikon D300s | 400mm f/2.8G AF-S VR + TC14E II teleconverter @ f/4.5 | 1/1600s | ISO 800
Gitzo Series 3 tripod with Markins Q20 ball head and Wimberley Sidekick
Click on image for larger view

 

CAMERAS

All of Nikon’s current cameras are capable of producing good results when shooting birds-in-flight.  Advanced cameras offer more settings and easy to access controls, but you can get started with any camera.  

 

LENSES

One thing that is necessary is the relatively modest investment on a decent telephoto lens.  The Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-S VR, Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S and the Sigma XX-500mm zoom lenses are popular lenses with very good image quality at reasonable prices.  The new Tamron 150-600mm looks like it will be a contender in that market segment also.

The next step up is usually a 300mm f/2.8 Nikkor with Nikon teleconverters, or the Nikon 200-400mm f/4 VR. The Nikon 300mm f/2.8G AF-S VR is a superb lens and works well with all 3 Nikon teleconverters. Another good option of similar quality is the Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 OS with the Sigma 1.4 teleconverter giving you a 170-420mm f/4 lens that holds up well against the Nikon 200-400 f/4G AF-S VR.  

Beyond those we move up to the big guns, the worthy 400mm, 500mm, 600mm and 800mm Nikkor lenses that cost as much as a used car. 

 

great egret

Image 2. Great Egret
Nikon D300s | 400mm f/2.8G AF-S VR + TC17E II teleconverter @ f/5 | 1/800s | ISO 200
Home-made car window mount with Markins Q20 and Wimberley Sidekick
Click on image for larger view


(67 Votes)
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David Summers David Summers (dm1dave)

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community

Lowden, USA
Admin, 11752 posts

76 comments

Malcolm Berry (mexberry) on August 12, 2014

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community

Dave, Thanks for the informative blog. How much time do you spend scouting out shooting locations to decide where to set up your tripod? Do you use a bird calling app to attract birds closer to you?

Michael D. Miller (MichaelDMiller) on July 16, 2014

Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014

I am confused about the best number of AF points and AF modes (Dynamic, 3D, normal, etc.). Also, we probably pan the birds so we don't really use the focus tracking and hold the frame steady, right? Thanks.

Paul Lebras (Paul4707) on June 15, 2014

Dave, This was an excellent article; thank you for the very practical advice.

Steve Webster (Webbo51) on May 1, 2014

Thankyou David, most helpful. Steve

Dave Ashenden (daveash) on April 7, 2014

Dave. Many thanks for the tips, a great addition to my shooting skills. I´ve been attempting to capture birds in flight images with some minor success but your additional information has made this task much more successful. I´ll post the first result in the gallery. Thanks again Daveash

Malcolm Berry (mexberry) on April 5, 2014

Gracias Dave for your insight. I have just acquired the Sigma 150-500 a heavy beast and I will try to hold the AF on button down as well as supporting the lens with my left hand! I don't have a tripod with me, so it will be a challenge! BIF are a great challenge - until I tried to photograph hummingbirds I did not appreciate how fast those things move!

David Summers (dm1dave) on April 3, 2014

Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014

To Greg: No, I don’t use spot metering for moving subjects. The problem with using spot metering is that the AF point (the metered area) must be over a neutral image are to get correct exposure. If the spot meter hits an area of white the camera will underexpose and if it hits a dark area the camera will over expose. Spot metering is best used in more controlled photography when you have time to choose a neutral (middle gray) area in the scene to meter off of.

David Summers (dm1dave) on April 3, 2014

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community

To Peter: AF still works with the TC. If the lens + TC results in a maximum aperture smaller than f/5.6 AF may get spotty on older cameras. The newest cameras can AF with an aperture as small as f/8. There is a bit of an AF penalty even with fast lenses. You lose a bit of AF speed with each more powerful TC.

Gregory A Hoyle (Greg Hoyle) on April 2, 2014

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community

Very good article. One question: you talked about stopping down the exposure; do you ever use spot metering?

Peter Sabolch (dmdpeterdmd) on March 31, 2014

one loses autofocus with the tele extenders, correct?

David Benyukhis (dovid701) on March 25, 2014

A very helpful article and very beautiful photos

Leo Sylvester (LeeSyl) on March 20, 2014

Excellent write-up Dave. But how on earth do you manage a 400mm lens AND a Gitzo in a kayak (no need for a reply, BTW.)

Rosemary Smith (MimiSmith) on March 16, 2014

I am new to this site and came across this incredibly helpful and well-written article. Just what I was looking for. Thanks for sharing this information, I appreciate it and am now so excited to go out and try my hand at this. Thanks again, Rosemary

Amit Kher (Amit Kher) on March 13, 2014

Great article Dave

Gary Worrall (glxman) on March 11, 2014

Hi Dave, Always admired your images! Thank you for your detailed advice, I'm sure your efforts are greatly appreciated by all who visit I think I dream every night about shooting wildlife with a 500 f4 but wake up and find I am still using a 300 f4 Maybe the new Tamron will help, hope its sharp and fast enough Regards, Gary

Ray Milbrandt (iiKaptain) on March 11, 2014

Great Article Thank you

Yew Bang Toh (TYBTYBTYB) on March 6, 2014

Great article and really help me a lot.

Reg Wotherspoon (rjwview) on March 4, 2014

No need to comment re meter mode settings. After going thru the posts a second time....I found your answer Dated 2014-02-20. Thanks again Dave!

Finn Goldbach (fgoldbach) on March 4, 2014

Great article, thanks Dave.

Reg Wotherspoon (rjwview) on March 3, 2014

Thanks Dave for this great article/photos! I've had limited success with eagles in flight, either to dark or to bright. What meter setting would you normally use and do you pre meter on an object that would have similar darkness/brightness attributes as the subject?

Gianni Perla (oldgnn) on March 2, 2014

Really interesting, I always tried free-hand shooting as I use to do with racing- bikes. I'm going to try with a good ball-head on my tripod.

Ioan Horvat (nhorvat2) on March 2, 2014

Dave, thank you for sharing. I am sure you saved me days and days of trial and error.

Preston Moochnek (massulo) on March 1, 2014

Thanks for your hard work here

Fred Laberge (labtrout) on February 26, 2014

Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014

Superb tutorial, Dave. Thanks for all the great advice, especially explaining your reasoning on settings.

Adam Barrett (fruitbat) on February 24, 2014

Thanks Dave great article although I haven't tried taking images of birds in flight its something I would like to try. Again many thanks.

Robert S Baldassano (robsb) on February 24, 2014

Dave thanks for the effort. I think it touches all the bases. One of the first things I learned after joining Nikonians was use of the AF ON button. I could never go back. I am not lucky enough to have anything longer than my 300mm f/4, and I don't have a Wimberley so I am doubly handicapped. Yet I still have been able to capture BIF by getting as close as I can and using TC's. I hand hold a lot or use a monopod as except for static birds, I find it hard to track a BIF with my Gitzo tripod and Markins 20 ballhead.

Christian Fritschi (ChristianF) on February 24, 2014

Fellow Ribbon awarded for his expertise in CNX2 and his always amicable and continuous efforts to help members Laureate Ribbon awarded for winning in the Best of Nikonians 2013 images Photo Contest Donor Ribbon awarded for his enthusiastic and repeated support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014

Dave's generosity in sharing his experience and this valuable information deserves all our votes but I only see 19. What's up ?

Robert W. Smith (branthunter) on February 23, 2014

Thank you for sharing such valuable information. I've been shooting BIF for about a year with a D600 and a 70-300f4.5-5.6 and it can indeed be a frustrating exercise, but my keeper rate is gradually increasing, as is my criteria for what constitutes "keeper" . It is really encouraging to get " the berries" from someone who knows of what he speaks.

Peter Curatolo (pcuratolo) on February 22, 2014

Thanks for a superb article. I am going on my first photo trip for birds in March, and appreciate all the useful info.

David Eyestone (txstone12) on February 22, 2014

Thanks for the tutorial and fine looking images, David. I enjoyed seeing your kayak setup as well. It actually looks fairly comfortable.

Bill Steele (stillbill11) on February 21, 2014

Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014

Thanks for the very thorough article, Dave. That Focus Tracking (a3) setting is a brand new revelation for me, formerly I have been on '1'. I cannot WAIT to try out the '4' setting! Bill

Paul Turbitt (larrycurrlymoe) on February 21, 2014

David, I really appreciate you taking the time and effort of putting this article together. This is a super example of what being part of Nikonians is all about. You have provided us with an excellent starting point for getting better images and boosting confidence when in the field. Thank you!

John DiGiacomo (jdigiacomo922) on February 21, 2014

Dave, Thank you once again for sharing the previous link. The close-up pictures of your set-up answered my questions. Best, John

Roberta Davidson (birdied) on February 21, 2014

Excellent article Dave, thank you. Birdie

Wen Wu (wwp512) on February 21, 2014

Laureate Ribbon awarded for winning in the Best of Nikonians 2013 images Photo Contest

Great article. Two months ago I was shooting with a friend who uses a Canon, we couldn't really help each other to camera setting suggestions. Needless to say it was very frustrating when your camera won't "listen" to you. Over the next 8 weeks I came to close to your summation, this will help cut down on the learning curve for the next outing. Thanks for sharing.

reg Aupperle (brobones) on February 20, 2014

Fantastic info. thanks Dave. Your images are superb.

David Summers (dm1dave) on February 20, 2014

John -- We have a great discussion on the subject of shooting from a kayak in the wildlife forum here... ----> http://tinyurl.com/lo8jo93 <---- There are close-up photos of my rig in that thread. ---- BTW the last eagle image was not shot from the kayak ---

John DiGiacomo (jdigiacomo922) on February 20, 2014

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community

David, Thank you for sharing. It appears that many of your flight images were captured from your canoe, could you share with me how you have secured your tripod to the boat? Best, John

Shirley Steen (griphook) on February 20, 2014

Is there any way to get a text only copy of the Flying Bird Shooting Guide? I don't want to print pictures or posts.

David Summers (dm1dave) on February 20, 2014

More often than not I use Center-weighted metering ------ Matrix puts a little too much weight on the area under the focus point and I often find it metering a bit hot, it works great in some light though. ----- If you have consistent light it can be a good idea to take some test shots and dial in the exposure in manual mode and then check you histogram throughout the day and adjust as needed.

Lawrence Carr (Sixmileman) on February 20, 2014

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community

Dave: I echo the other comments...excellent article and most helpful. I was asking these very questions in Nikonians forums only a few months ago and got wide-ranging replies. But, having seen your superb BIFs I'll stick with your settings. One question...what metering mode do you use, matrix, center weighted, or spot? Thanks again for this helpful info.

David Summers (dm1dave) on February 19, 2014

Revising that sentence ----> When you set autofocus to AF-C and release priority, you have continuous focus tracking as long as the AF-ON button is depressed. If the bird that you are tracking lands, you can you can lock focus by simply letting go of the AF-ON button. This eliminates the need to switch between AF-C (for moving subjects) and AF-S (for static subjects.) <----- I will see if I can get the article edited.

David Summers (dm1dave) on February 19, 2014

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community

@ AutumnInNewYork -- When the subject is in motion you must keep AF-ON depressed to track the subjects movement. When you let go of the AF-ON button the focus is locked – i.e. the lens will not adjust focus as the subject moves. So, to track – hold the AF-ON button – to lock focus (when your subject stops moving) – release the AF-ON button.

Dr. Patrick Buick (profpb) on February 19, 2014

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community

O.K. It's about time for me to get better. I now have an excellent set of notes. Thank you, David. I'm off to the beach for gulls.

Sol Shamilzadeh (AutumnInNewYork) on February 19, 2014

Very informative, but a little confusing. ChristianF brought it up earlier. Can you please address for clarification his issue of whether you press the back focus button once or keep it pressed (without releasing it)to maintain auto focus tracking. 2014-02-19 14:12:49 posted by Christian Fritschi (ChristianF) Great tips Dave ! I was wondering if you could clarify the following statement: "When you set autofocus to AF-C and release priority you can lock focus by simply letting go of the AF-ON button and you have continuous tracking as long as you are pressing the AF-ON button." In the same sentence you say that releasing the AF-ON button keeps the focus locked and also say that you need to keep the button pressed. For clarity's sake: if I frame a BIF and press the AF-ON and want focus tracking to work properly, do I keep the button pressed or release it and the focus keeps tracking automatically as long as the BIF is within the frame ? I am a big fan of the AF-ON button and was stunned when I bought the D600 and realized it was missing. Luckily, there's the option of of assigning AF-ON to the AE-L/AF-L button. Thanks for sharing your technique on BIF's. I have a lot of respect for and admire your work very much.

David Summers (dm1dave) on February 19, 2014

@ trdavis – Yes, I shoot short bursts for the same reason with most subjects. Often one image will be just a bit sharper than the others. @ jonik – When no support is avaible you may want to use faster shutter speeds. It takes time and practice to develope smooth panning technique. @ ChristianF – When the subject is in motion you need to keep AF-ON depressed for tracking. If you subject lands and stops moving you can lock focus by simply letting go of the AF-ON button.

RICHARD MESSNER (5683RAM) on February 19, 2014

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community

Just the post I have spent two years searching for - THANK YOU !! Dick

Robert Louis (RobertD80) on February 19, 2014

Exactly what I was looking for! Superb shots. Thanks.

Mike Banks (unclemikey) on February 19, 2014

I have been very hesitant to try BIF but with your information as a starting point I feel more confident to give this a try. Thanks for a great article.

Gene Kimball (PhotoGene47) on February 19, 2014

By your post, I would guess that you also set your bit depth to 12 vice 14 to eek out the maximum speed from the camera without incurring buffer retardation. I have not really done much in the way of animals or BIF but it sounds like fun. Thank you for a good getting-started guide.

Mick Wood (Triptych) on February 19, 2014

Thanks David - very clear and concise with good examples and made all the better by including your personal recommendations. I can't wait to try this out.

Christian Fritschi (ChristianF) on February 19, 2014

Great tips Dave ! I was wondering if you could clarify the following statement: "When you set autofocus to AF-C and release priority you can lock focus by simply letting go of the AF-ON button and you have continuous tracking as long as you are pressing the AF-ON button." In the same sentence you say that releasing the AF-ON button keeps the focus locked and also say that you need to keep the button pressed. For clarity's sake: if I frame a BIF and press the AF-ON and want focus tracking to work properly, do I keep the button pressed or release it and the focus keeps tracking automatically as long as the BIF is within the frame ? I am a big fan of the AF-ON button and was stunned when I bought the D600 and realized it was missing. Luckily, there's the option of of assigning AF-ON to the AE-L/AF-L button. Thanks for sharing your technique on BIF's. I have a lot of respect for and admire your work very much.

Tom Davis (trdavis) on February 19, 2014

Thanks Dave! There are a bunch of ideas here that I'll try my next time out. A couple of comments: Another reason to take bursts is that while there may be some lens shake due to pressing the shutter release, once it's down, the next shots won't be affected and thanks to digital photography, "film" is very cheap. Also, if you're using the D4 you can safely use higher ISO values if that's what you need for a sufficiently fast shutter speed.

Joel Gold (bonsaiman) on February 19, 2014

Beautiful pictures. Great info. Thanks

Kodi Barkhuizen (Kodisa) on February 19, 2014

Dave, thanks for sharing your "keeper rate" with all the other valuable info. It will keep me from getting discouraged. Hope to get to your level one day.

Dr Joel Bernstein (jonik) on February 19, 2014

Dear David Thanks for an informative article. Do you have any further tips regarding this as often I am in the bush (African) or on board a small boat without the luxury of a tripod, monopod or anywhere to rest the camera or lens, so hand held it has to be! Regards

Donald Aldridge (General09) on February 19, 2014

Thanks for a very useful review. I enjoyed all of it.

Julie Good (jgirl57) on February 19, 2014

Thanks Dave for this! Love your shots!

David Summers (dm1dave) on February 19, 2014

Thanks everyone for the great comments. Mike, you are correct auto ISO can be your friend especially in an environment with changing light. Pierre, I also find that ISO-400 is a good starting point with a long lens. It takes exceptionally good light keep up the shutter speed with such a narrow angle of view. I have seen some fish make some big jumps but have never captured one.

Pierre Malan (Pierre Malan) on February 18, 2014

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community

I usually use my Sigma 120-400 for flying birds. I prefer a shutter speed of 1/1600 second. I would normally shoot at 400 ISO, but will crank that up as needed. The D 7000 tracks targets very well, helping greatly with focusing. For an added challenge when it comes to shooting things on the wing, try photographing flying fish!

Yervant Parnagian Jr (Bluejs75) on February 18, 2014

Beautiful images. Thank you for the informative post!

Colin Roach-Rooke (colinrr) on February 18, 2014

Thanks Dave for a really good article. Loads of detail which I'll have to try to remember and practise a lot I'm sure before I get Photos like the ones posted. Colin

Chet Budd (cfbuddphotos) on February 18, 2014

Very helpful information. Thanks. Chet

Alan Brunelle (SupraDad) on February 18, 2014

Very helpful and concise - thanks!

Lawrence Coote (L Coote) on February 18, 2014

Excellent article with simple instructions to follow. Thanks for sharing

David Fellmet (David Fellmet) on February 17, 2014

Thanks for putting all of these great tips in one article. It will sure help newbies like me to a least have a slim chance of getting a good image. Your superb images give us a standard to reach for.

Richard Luse (DaddySS) on February 17, 2014

Thanks Dave, really helpful!

Rob Koelling (rwk48) on February 17, 2014

Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014

I appreciate your advice, David. I've admired your shots in the Wildlife forum. It's nice to know where I'm in the ball park, and even nicer to have some different things to try.

Dirk Hoffmann (DirkMHoffmann) on February 17, 2014

Realy a great article, thank you very much.

Colin Green (Seajay) on February 17, 2014

Very interesting and useful article. Thank you.

John D. Roach (jdroach) on February 17, 2014

Excellent post, David!

Al Scherwinski (cockers) on February 17, 2014

Fellow Ribbon awarded. John exhibits true Nikonian spirit by frequently posting images and requesting comments and critique, which he graciously accepts. He is an inspiration to all of us through constant improvement in his own work, keen observations and excellent commentary on images posted by others. Donor Ribbon. Awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014

Great article Dave!

kam leung (professorune) on February 17, 2014

Great article. Sharp shots.Thanks for sharing.

Tony Johnson (TonyJ) on February 17, 2014

Thanks!

Michael Shake (Mike_Shake) on February 17, 2014

Thanks for the tips. I do most of this myself. Only thing I can add is that I like to use Auto ISO. I set my minimum shutter speed to 1/1000 or faster depending on the bird size. (Small birds move a lot faster then big birds). Then I set a maximum ISO of 3200. Now if only I could afford a 400mm lens...

Bob Chadwick (Bob Chadwick) on February 17, 2014

Great article and some nice shots. Thanks for the info. Bob

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