How to photograph birds in flight

Birds in flight (aka BIF) is one of the most difficult styles of photography in the world. People often compare other styles to this, but often don’t understand the complexities and nuances of the genre.

There are thousands of differently-sized bird species with different styles of flight, requiring different approaches and methods. In this post, I will share a few tips to get you started, by discussing how we go about photographing our feathered friends in flight. In each caption, I will mention the gear and settings used, with reference to AF mode, AF points etc., that resulted in that particular image.

Olympus OM-1, M.Zuiko 300mm f/4 Pro with MC-14 (420mm, or 840mm field of view in full frame sensor equivalent), ISO1250, f/7.1, 1/16,000th second. While the shutter speed is way faster than I’d normally used, I was shooting a perched bird in deep shade moments before this shot, so had to quickly adjust one of three things to compensate. That is, either aperture, shutter speed or ISO. Shutter speed adjustment was quickest, as the control dial for adjusting it is right under my right index finger. I used all AF points with bird subject detection and C-AF-TR mode. The camera finds the bird’s eye and locks onto it, irrespective of its position within the frame.

Generally, cameras with crop sensors are great for bird photography, as the smaller sensors result in lenses having narrower fields of view. That means the image area will be cropped when compared to using a lens of any focal length with a full frame sensor equipped camera. The below table shows how crop factors will affect your field of view. You can refer to this as focal length equivalence. Let’s say you use a 300mm lens with an Olympus camera body (M43 size sensor, 1/2 the size of a full frame sensor), which have smaller sensors than a full frame camera, so you multiply the focal length by the crop factor to get the equivalent focal length for a 300mm lens. It, in fact, will be the same as a 600mm lens used with a full frame camera. That is: 300mm x 2.0 = 600mm.

Using a Canon EOS 90D with an APS-C sensor means you would use the same formula to calculate equivalent focal length, but use x 1.6 rather than x 2.0 to calculate full frame equivalence. The correct calculation is: 300mm x 1.6 = 480mm.

Common sensor sizes in DSLR and mirrorless cameras.
This table explains the different field of view (or focal length) equivalents for a number of common focal length lenses used with cameras of different sized sensors. Note, that you don’t have 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4 or 600mm f/4 lenses with the Olympus brand. You could probably buy a third-party adaptor to use a different branded lens of those focal lengths, but combining brands with adapters is never an ideal solution. We find shooting at the equivalent of 1200mm is more than enough in most scenarios.

What focus mode should I use to photograph birds in flight?

We always use high-speed continuous drive that gives us a fast shutter frame rate wherever possible, which ensures that any sequence of flight shots will have the most ideal wing position for achieveing a pleasing image. With the modern cameras speeds of up to 50 frames per second (fps) are possible while using continuous autofocus, but by pressing the button for four seconds, you’ll have 200 images to review, cull and store! That’s crazy. While our Olympus OM-1 bodies can shoot at 50 fps in high-speed shutter mode, we choose a rate of 20-25 fps to reduce our time culling or post processing images.

We always use continuous focus rather than single shot. This allows the AF system to continue to micro-adjust focus on the subject as it moves across the frame while you are depressing the shutter button. Once you have acquired focus and keep half depressing the shutter button, you will generally not lose focus. If, however, you use single shot mode, then once focus is acquired, and the subject moves away from the plane of focus, you would need to release the shutter button and half depress it again. It’s not a good way to shoot moving subjects in single shot mode.

Not a bird, but it is still flying. Canon EOS 1DxMkII, Sigma 500mm f/4 Sport lens, ISO3200, f/5.6, 1/2500th, C-AF, single center AF point used.

The AF system of most advanced cameras is very sophisticated now and you can customise it to allow for specific situations. One of those features is focus tracking, which is capable of faster or slower tracking when focus is acquired. I generally set mine to either zero on the scale (normally the scale goes from -2 to +2) or +2. Setting to -2 would mean that when the camera is locked onto a subject and something else enters the frame, the camera will take a long time to reacquire focus. This is great, as the bird will generally quickly pass an object that may enter the frame. If you set the tracking speed to its fastest setting, then the camera may reacquire focus in a situation such as this, which is not ideal. I would use the +2 setting when trying to photograph fast flying birds that change direction erratically, and often, such as swallows, or smaller seabirds from a boat.

You can choose to use a single AF point or a small cluster of AF points, or the entire viewfinder’s worth of AF points. The success rate of your results will be limited and dictated by the capability of your camera body in this instance. Some lower level bodies will not have anywhere near as many AF points as the prosumer or pro bodies, but you can usually make things work.

How should I set metering and exposure for birds in flight?

Netra and I recommend using evaluative aka matrix metering and full manual mode. This method of exposure looks at the tonal values of the entire frame and averages exposure based on a background calculation. At the end of the day, shooting in full manual mode will increase your understanding of the principles of exposure and make you a far better photographer in the long run. While some find shooting in manual mode an obstacle, it is worth persevering. The main reason for using manual mode is to accommodate your moving subject as it is likely going to pass through varied tonalities in the backgrounds, e.g. in front of green trees, or blue sky, a white snowy mountain peak. My method for choosing my exposure for birds in flight is detailed below.

Step 1

When I arrive at my chosen site, I set the exposure manually against a known constant tone, for example a tree lined river bank, or other mid-toned subject. I set exposure at 0 and adjust it according to tonality of the background. Noting, that the average tree would be enough to be equivalent of a mid-toned exposure so I would just leave setting at 0 then if it was a snowy mountain backdrop, I would adjust accordingly to render the snow white. Another thing to consider is that when using high ISO values, it’s best to overexpose to the point of almost blowing out whites, then pull the exposure back during post processing to manage digital noise. This, while complicates your initial exposure metering, is a vital technique to use to manage digital noise and minimise its impact on your images. More about how using histograms to manage noise in a future blog post.

Step 2

I then adjust exposure for my subject. Though I may not know if my subject is white, black or middle toned, I’ll still guess at what the most common species that may be around and adjust accordingly. If a different toned bird flies past, I can easily adjust settings on the fly (pun intended). This is exactly the reason why you should be so familiar with your equipment that you can adjust settings from memory.

Pied Cormorant arriving at nest site. Canon EOS 1DMkIV, EF 500mm f/4L IS USM + EF 1.4x (700mm), ISO1000, f/7.1, 1/2000th. C-AF, Center AF point. What is important to note, that while the whites on the bird look blown out white, the exposure warning triangle on the top right of the histogram is black, which shows that there are no blown highlights. If there were, that triangle would be bright red.
Pied Cormorant arriving at nest site. Canon EOS 1DMkIV, EF 500mm f/4L IS USM + EF 1.4x (700mm), ISO1000, f/7.1, 1/2000th. C-AF, Center AF point. Same bird feeding its chick, 17 seconds later. There are about 20 other flight shots between the two frames I posted. You can see the histogram indicator showing some slightly blocked dark tones (blue triangle) and I also circled in red the area that has some blocked dark tones. In the end it is more important to not have blown highlights, which is still fine here. There are none! The tiny amount of blocked dark tones really don’t matter in this instance.

If you use any mode other than manual, the camera simply will not get a consistent exposure across all frames but will give you varied results. If you use spot or center-weighted average metering, you will not be able to always keep those measuring circles in your viewfinder over your subject consistently. This is the main reason I always use evaluative, also called matrix, metering. Once you set manual exposure for the given light in front of you, you can then shoot with the same settings as long as the light does not change, and you can get CONSISTENT results irrespective of what tonality your background is.

My rule is: always expose for the white tones, don’t ever blow them out, or you will never recover them. There is a difference between overexposing (deliberately) and blowing out highlights. You can pull back overexposure during post processing and have detail. However, if you blow the highlights, you have no chance of recovery.

Canon EOS 1DxMkII, Sigma 150-600mm f/4-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary set to 347mm, ISO1000, f/8, 1/3200th, manual mode, C-AF, Center AF point.

What lens is best for flight photography?

Any lens of 300mm or longer focal length will be great for birds in flight, depending on the situation. We use focal length up to 1,200mm, especially with slow flying birds, such as pelicans, eagles, egrets. Generally, I would recommend focal lengths around 700mm as a minimum for a typical shooting situation, but I adjust as needed.

Smaller birds are much harder to photograph, so if you are starting out, work with large and slow birds, rather than swallows, which present a very big challenge even for seasoned professional photographers.

Canon EOS 1DxMkII, Sigma 500mm f/4 Sport with TC14, 700mm, ISO800, f/7.1, 1/2500th, C-AF, central AF point cluster. Here, being close to the ground (i.e. sitting) gave me the opportunity to track the bird against the water in the background, which made autofocus acquisition somewhat easier, but not that easy really. I shot well over 1000 frames to get a few useable ones.

Zoom lenses can be great, but not all are created equal, and some don’t take converters well and as a rule, prime lenses are faster (larger apertures with smaller f/numbers) that enable the AF sensor to gather more light, even if only marginally more and that will always make a difference.

I certainly would not discourage using zooms, we do at times, but our every-day bird lenses are fixed focal length, so we can use them with teleconverters that increase focal length for even more magnification for smaller birds, or to capture more detail up close. Sure, they are fixed focal lengths, but are far more useful for us in most situations and it’s not a common thing to need a short lens for birds at all, unless we are photographing ridiculously tame specimens.

When you are first starting out, the zooms may be an advantage for bird acquisition in the frame. More on that a bit later in the post.

Canon EOS 1DMkIV, EF500mm f/4L IS USM lens, ISO400, f/5.6, 1/2000th, C-AF and central cluster of AF points. Photographing fast flyers using super telephoto lenses from a rocking boat out at sea has challenges of its own. Practice lots on land, perfect your technique and you can take these types of images too.
Canon EOS 1DMkIV, EF500mm f/4L IS USM plus EF2.0x teleconverter (1000mm), ISO800, f/11, 1/2000th, manual mode, C-AF, central point only. Slower birds can be photographed using such long focal lengths, with care and practice. Though older equipment made it far more difficult. Many modern pro-level cameras allow the use of every available AF point. In the older Canon series pro bodies, the 1D series, only the center point was available when using a lens with a maximum aperture of f/8. This changed with the 1DxMkII bodies later.

Do I need bird detection mode to photograph birds?

Subject detection modes work and they also don’t. I cannot comment on most brands, except for the Olympus brand, which we have used exclusively for the last 3 years (since mid-2020) and have grown to love for a number of features, including its small size when compared to other brands we have used, which is great when hand holding all day, or when travelling by plane.

The bird detection feature was introduced in the professional OM-D E-M1X camera a couple of years ago. We have tested this with mixed results. The gist of it is, that the camera is equipped with a lot of programmed information that can help it detect birds (for example) and follow them very quickly to get you great results. While it is good, it wasn’t something we chose to use much. However, when we upgraded our camera bodies to the newly developed OM-1 bodies, the AI subject detection and subject tracking features blew us away! We tested it excessively during our first trip away to O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat in the Gold Coast hinterland and found the cameras scored us so many images we would have not been able to capture previously with other camera bodies.

You should read the camera manual of your own brand/model and see what features are available for your advantage. Most major brands have by now developed equally great and sophisticated tracking features.

Olympus OM-1, 300mm f/4 Pro lens with MC-20 (2x) teleconverter. 600mm or 1200mm in full frame lens focal length equivalence. Pro capture used. ISO 1600, f/8, 1/6400th, Bird subject detection, C-AF-TR and all AF points used to capture this image. One of about 50 in a couple of seconds and the best of the sequence. The outfit could track the bird exceptionally well against that mixed background.

How do you acquire focus?

Finding a moving subject in the viewfinder, especially using super telephoto lenses of 400mm or more, is rather difficult and it takes a lot of practice to get consistent results. Therefore, practicing always makes for better photography skills. This is about the only time a zoom will be useful, as you can zoom out, then zoom into the bird as focus is acquired once you’ve found the bird in the frame.

I always try to find the bird in the viewfinder while it’s rather small. This does not mean that I want to start shooting, as usually, small sized subjects don’t make anywhere nearly as appealing images. I start to autofocus and keep tracking. Sometimes, when there is a mixed background, it’s not unusual for the focus to grab a background object, especially with less developed and accurate AF systems, so in that case I bump focus. This simply means I remove my index finger from the shutter button, make sure I find the bird and place the AF points over it and quickly reacquire focus. Occasionally, I may need to do this a few times for the focus to lock on again. Once the bird is sharp and I am tracking it, I’ll start firing off frames when it reaches a sufficient size within the viewfinder and I stop shooting once it has flown past a perfectly parallel pose with the sensor, as mentioned. I don’t like to shoot birds from behind.

It is also a good idea to enable any focus limiter switch that you may have on your super telephoto lens. Most of these long lenses give the user and option of different focus ranges. For example; the minimum focus distance of our Olympus 300mm f/4 lens is 1.4 meters, the focus limiter provides these options:

1.4m – 4m meaning the lens will only focus between 1.4 and 4 meters.

1.4m – infinity meaning the lens will focus throughout its entire focal range, this is the worst option to use, as once you lose focus on a subject, it will slow down the focus acquisition again, because the AF will seek between 1.4 meters and infinity.

4m – infinity is the range I would use if shooting birds in flight. Why? Because no sane bird will fly closer than 4 meters from me, so the lens will reacquire focus starting at the 4 meter mark, not at 1.4 meters, if I lose focus.

I suggest always select the furthest minimum focus distance to infinity on your lens for birds in flight.

What makes a good image of a bird in flight?

For many years I spent a lot of time practicing and learning from some of the most accomplished bird photographers in the world. Participating in perhaps the best online bird photography forum where I have lifetime membership has been instrumental in developing my skills as a passionate bird photographer. The site is called Bird Photographers Net(work) or BPN. It’s not the typical forum where nobody is afraid to provide constructive criticism, but rather the opposite, they give feedback; gently.

Below, I’ll list my aesthetic preferences in no particular order:

1 – Bird flying towards camera at an angle or perfectly parallel with the sensor. Not away from the camera! I don’t like to look at birds’ butts!

Point 1, bird is flying at an angle towards camera. Canon EOS 1DMkIII, EF500mm f/4L IS USM lens, ISO800, f/5.6, 1/1600th, manual mode, C-AF, single center AF point used.

2 – Wings in full up or down position, as anywhere in between tends to be generally not pretty to look at. At times, straight out wings are fine, especially if I can photograph a bird in a position when I can see a topside view, then I can see the bird shape and stretched out wings perfectly. The same can be said from shots where a bird is banking towards me with its belly showing.

Point 2, wings in perfect “up” position, far wing slightly ahead of near wing gives a perfect body position in frame. Olympus OM-1, 300mm f/4 Pro with TC-20 (2x teleconverter), 600mm or 1200mm in full frame focal length equivalence. ISO1600, f/8, 1/4000th, AI bird detection, C-AF-TR, all AF points, manual mode.

3 – Head angle should be in such a way, that the viewer of the image can make eye contact with the subject.

Point 3, perfect position with perfect head angle and eye contact. Canon EOS 1DMkIII, EF500mm f/4L IS USM lens with EF1.4x, 700mm, ISO800, f/5.6, 1/1600th, C-AF, single center AF point, manual mode.

4 – The light should come from over my shoulder at the subject to illuminate all its spectacular plumage. Backlit images are, of course fine, too, but light over the shoulder is always my preferred light.

Point 4 – perfect morning ligth over my shoulder as I photographed this Black-browed Albatross at sea. Canon EOS 1DxMkII, Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM lens set to 468mm, ISO640, f/7.1, 1/3200th, manual mode, evaluative metering, C-AF, single center AF point used.

5 – Composition is critical – there should be more space in front of the bird, than behind it. This gives a sense of the bird flying into the frame.

Point 5, more room in front to allow for space. Olympus OM-1, 300mm f/4 lens with TC-14 (1.4x teleconverter), ISO1600, f/7.1, 1/8000th, AI bird detection, C-AF-TR used in manual mode.

There you are, hopefully you have enough information in this blog post to get you started with flying birds. By no means is it an easy feat, but with practice, perseverance and dedication you too will make amazing images.

Happy shooting!

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