The Nikonians Wildlife Photography forum has a vast number of superb images of Birds in Flight (aka "BIF") and you will surely be tempted to try it out. It is a fun challenge to get an image with the subject completely in focus, frozen in the air, and yet with an excellent background. Learn lens recommendations and field-proven settings in this article.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dynamic Area AF with 9 or 21 points
The difficulty of tracking the erratic flight of birds makes the use of Dynamic Area Auto Focus necessary. Unless the bird is soaring straight and level, it is nearly impossible to keep your focus point on the bird at all times. This is another reason to not worry about focusing on the eye.
Using Dynamic Area AF effectively expands the focus point to include all of the surrounding AF sensors. So, when the Active Focus Point moves off of your subject the surrounding focus points will continue to track the subject. The camera uses its Predictive Auto Focus to hand off focus tracking duties from focus point to focus point.
I always use either 21 points or 9 points. For smaller (or further away) birds or more erratic flight, 21 points gives you more room for error. When the bird is larger the 9-point option works well.
Don’t be afraid to try 51 point. Some photographers find it to be helpful, but I don’t prefer it.
51 point 3D does not work well with small non-human subjects, like birds. Nikon has optimized this setting for shooting human subjects.
AF-ON button (custom setting a4: AF activation: set to AF-ON only)
I always use the AF-ON button for focus; commonly referred to as “back button focus.” This separates the focus operation from the shutter release. Cameras without a dedicated AF-ON button can assign this function to the AE-L/AF-L button.
When you set autofocus to AF-C and release priority (see AF mode section above) 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.
This is a personal preference. Using the shutter button, half press, to control focus works fine for birds-in-flight.
It takes some getting used to but many photographers who made the switch to using the AF-ON button say they would never go back to using the shutter release to control focus.
Note: Nikon camera bodies released prior to the D4 generation will not initiate VR by pressing the AF-ON button; VR is controlled by a half press of the shutter button. The newer bodies however will initiate VR when the AF-ON button is pressed.
Focus Tracking with lock-on: set to 4 (one step longer than normal)
The Focus Tracking with lock-on (custom setting a3) setting determines how long the focus system will take to react (refocus) when the camera detects that the subject has left the selected focus point or the Dynamic Area focus points.
Setting this to a longer setting (a higher number – the default is 3) keeps focus from shifting away from the subject when your focus point drifts off of the subject. This gives you time to get the subject back under the focus point to continue tracking.
If you turn this setting to 1 (short) or turn it off, the focus will immediately shift if your focus point drifts off of the subject.
When shooting birds in flight, the background can change dramatically as you pan with the bird. If the background has good contrast it can grab focus away from your bird. I find that setting Focus Tracking with lock-on to a higher number (4) helps you maintain focus across this type of background.
I recommend that you try different settings to see what works best for you.
Custom setting a8 Built-in AF-assist illuminator.
This should be turned off for any wildlife photography.
This one is easy. You do not want to have a flash of light pointing at your wildlife subjects.
Focus limit switch on the lens (if equipped)
Some lenses have a focus limiter switch.
Use this to speed up initial focus acquisition and avoid hunting.
VR – Vibration Reduction OFF
Shutter speeds for birds in flight are generally over 1/1000s. Most experts say that VR loses its effectiveness at shutter speeds over 1/500s.
Turning VR off saves battery life and eliminates any risk of image degradation caused by the VR.
Use LLT - Long Lens Technique
Shooting at long focal lengths can be very challenging. The key to getting the best out of your super telephoto lens when shooting from a tripod is using proper Long Lens Technique.
- With you right hand firmly hold the camera grip and then firmly press you eye against the viewfinder. This works best with an eyecup, otherwise press your cheek against the back of the camera.
- Rest your hand over the barrel of the lens above the tripod head. Do not press down; just rest you hand on top of the lens. This arm position also helps you to smoothly pan the lens when necessary.
- Roll your finger on the shutter release to avoid any jerky movements as you take the photo. This is very basic camera technique that applies to all shooting situations. It is especially necessary with long lenses.
Shutter speed | Aperture | ISO
Shutter speed - I always try to maintain a shutter speed over 1/1000s for flying birds, the faster the better. You can get good results with slower speeds and good panning technique but it is much more difficult. Slow shutter speeds can also be used to introduce creative blur. You will be surprised to see how much motion blur you can still get very fast shutter speeds; again faster is better.
Aperture – I usually shoot in aperture priority (A) mode and keep the aperture pretty close to wide open. I will stop down 1 or 2 stops if I have good light. I would rarely ever go smaller than f/8. The birds are usually far enough away that the depth of field is adequate at f/5.6 or wider to get their whole body in focus with a nice bokeh in the background.
If I need light to maintain a fast shutter speed I will shoot wide open regardless of the lens used including when using a teleconverter. Don’t worry about keeping the aperture at the lenses “sweet spot.” I would rather have the slight bit of softness caused by shooting wide open than a motion blurred image.
ISO – You should always shoot at the lowest ISO that will get you the required shutter speed. Don’t raise the ISO until the aperture is wide open; there is no substitute for more light. Once you are shooting wide open don’t be afraid to crank up the ISO (especially on the newer cameras) it is better to have sharp image with some noise than a motion blurred image with no noise.
Manage your expectations
There are few photographic challenges as difficult as shooting birds-in-flight. A low keeper rate is common even with experienced bird photographers. Photographers that are new to shooting birds get frustrated and wonder what they are doing wrong.
To give some perspective, I will give you an example of what I expect when shooting fast moving birds.
On one of my recent eagle shoots I had about 750 exposures. I was easily able to cull about a third of the images based on poor focus, clipped wings, harsh shadows, etc.
The second more critical cull narrowed down the number of images from 750 to about 190. Out of those 190 images less than 50 were better than average. That left about 15 -20 (~2% of the total) that I would consider good enough for printing or sharing publicly.
My goal on any given day of wildlife photography is to come home with at least one outstanding shot. Anything more is a bonus.
Practice, practice, practice!
The more you shoot the better you will get at achieving focus while tracking the birds. Gulls are one of the best birds to use for practice and they can be found near almost any large waterway. They make great subjects because: they are fairly large, you can get reasonably close to them, they fly around the same area for an extended period of time and their flight patterns are fast and erratic.