Photographing Birds in Flight

Shooting bird photos is fun but not the easiest challenge to master. The first challenge is to simply get the flying bird within the viewfinder. And though we are die hard tripod users and preachers, you simply can not shoot and move fast enough with a tripod to catch the movement of birds in flight.  But catching a Great Blue Heron as it flies overhead carrying a stick for its nest or food for its young with your camera on a tripod is tough.  Even the Gimbal-Type head design doesn’t help much. What is tough is actually hand holding a camera while shooting in an automatic mode, Auto ISO.  99.9% of the time we shoot on the manual mode only which is what we teach in our workshops.  So this was a big change for us.  But it works beautifully and just takes practice. There are a number of settings both on your camera and lens that need to be adjusted for this type of photography.

Here are some of the settings you need to adjust: 


1.  Set your metering system to Matrix/Evaluative (electronic metering)

2.  Continuous focus

3.  Continuous High Speed Shutter – high or low setting

4.  Exposure Compensation – Start out at about a +.7ish since you will be pointing up at the light sky with preferably no background interference.  We shoot early in the a.m. so getting enough light is also a challenge.   (Don’t forget to put this back to 0 when you finish shooting birds.)

5.  Dynamic Auto Focus or AI Servo.  This is your focus tracking without Lock On.  Lock On is a menu selection.  See Below.

6.  Set Shutter Speed at 1000.  May have to start lower in low light depending on your Auto ISO capabilities but you really need about 1000 to stop the action and get really sharp images.

7.  Set your f/stop at about 8


1.  Set Auto ISO – most camera will allow you to select a range say from 200 to 800 or 1600 to insure good quality-less noise. 

2.  Select active Focus Points.  We prefer mid range as in the 21 points

3.  Tracking without Lock On is smoother and as long as you have no interference around your subject, a bird in this case, it is recommended that you not use Lock On.  BUT if you know the subject will be passing in front of or behind other objects or other birds, use Lock On.  Ex:  Bird flying in front of or between trees.

4.  Program your Auto Focus Activation Button to the back of your camera (for thumb use) so that it is not activated when you press your shutter button.  You’ll love it. 


1.  Set the Auto Focus

2.   Set on Limited Focus.  This will focus in a more limited area which makes it faster to search and find your subject,  the bird.

3.  Turn your VR or IS off.  Why you ask?  Because you are hand holding, the bird is moving and you are panning your subject.  With VR/IS you are asking your camera to hold still while you are moving it.  If you leave it on VR/IS, it will only be working against itself because you are moving it while you are asking it to hold still and you won’t have as many sharp pictures.

© Bill and Linda Lane, Nature’s Image

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