No matter what level of camera and lens combination you are using, the basic settings and technique for shooting birds-in-flight or fast actions remain the same.
Here are my auto focus and other relevant camera and lens settings.
Note: I will make reference to some custom menu settings. The menu numbering, such as “a1”, used here is from the D800. The numbering may be different with other bodies. Some settings may not be available on every camera.
Release mode: set to CH
I always shoot wildlife in CH mode set to the maximum number frames-per-second the camera is capable of. When shooting wildlife, even perched birds, your subject can move quite a bit even when they seem still. For birds-in-flight, the wing position can make or break the perfect shot.
I always fire off short bursts of three or four shots for relatively static or slow moving subjects. For faster moving birds I shoot longer bursts to capture as many different wing position positions as possible and to avoid “closed eyes.”
As you learn the flight patterns of your subjects you will be able to time your bursts to get the best angles and to make sure that you capture the peak of action.
AF mode: AF-C
If your subject is moving, you must use AF-C mode to maintain focus while you are tracking the subject. In this mode the camera uses predictive focus tracking. The focus is maintained as the mirror flips up while you shoot.
Custom setting a1: AF-C Priority selection – Release.
In conjunction with using AF-C you must choose what is more important: either releasing the shutter or having perfect focus prior to shutter release.
Some cameras will only give two choices between Release and Focus. Others add the options of Focus+Release and Release+Focus.
If you choose “Focus” the shutter will not fire unless the area covered by the active focus point is in focus.
If you choose “Release” the shutter will fire anytime you push the shutter release.
If you choose “Focus + Release” the camera will hesitate until area covered by the active focus point is in focus.
If you choose “Release + Focus” the shutter will fire but the frame rate will slow anytime the area covered by the active focus point is not in focus.
This setting is of course a personal choice.
I choose “Release” because I don’t want the camera to hesitate, waiting for perfect focus, when I push the shutter button. I do get some out of focus shots but the camera can still find focus while the shutter is firing. When the subject is static I can focus and recompose and the shutter will still release.
Make the Active Focus Point the center focus point
I always use the center focus point for birds-in-flight. This takes advantage off all of the most sensitive cross-type AF points.
More often than not birds are spotted at a distance and the images will require some cropping. Precise framing for composition is not nearly as important as keeping the birds in the frame and getting them in focus. Even when the birds get close, you are better off trying to keep the bird near the center of the frame to avoid clipping the wings. Most bird flight is erratic. Birds will gain and loose altitude with every wing flap and they can turn very quickly.
A piece of advice I often see when discussing birds-in-flight is to focus on the eyes. We know that having a sharp clear eye is important but focusing on the eyes is not really practical when shooting birds-in-flight. The problem with this approach is that most bird’s eyes are too small.
Tracking and keeping your focus point on a flying bird is difficult enough without having to try to get the focus point on the eye. In fact in most situations the bird’s eye, or even the whole head, is smaller than a single focus sensor making it impossible to precisely focus on the eye.
Most of the time keeping the focus point on any part of the bird is a challenge. I usually try to get focus on the breast or high on the birds back. Usually the bird is far enough away from the camera that the depth of field, even with a wide aperture, will be large enough to get the eye sharp.
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