Photographing Birds In Flight | Chris Bray Photography
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Tutorial by Chris Bray

Photographing Birds in Flight

photographing birds in flight
Quick it's a... oh, it's gone! We've all missed plenty of shots trying to dial in the right camera settings and photographing birds in flight is about as tricky as it gets. Thankfully, not only are there a few key settings which will really improve your chances, but many cameras also have 'Custom Modes' or 'User Modes' into which you can save all these settings, giving you an instantly-selectable 'Bird in Flight Mode'. This discovery is always a game-changer for our photography tour guests around the world, so I'm sure you'll enjoy it as well.

Bird-in-Flight Settings:

custom user modes
  • The key to a good bird in flight shot is a fast shutter speed else it's going to be a blurry mess. So switch to Tv mode (for Canon, S mode for other brands) and dial in 1/2000th sec.
  • Set your ISO to 'Auto' so it'll crank just high enough to enable you to use that shutter speed, no matter how low the light.
  • Birds against the sky usually come out under exposed, so to combat this, dial up your exposure compensation to perhaps +2/3 as a starting point.
  • Set your focus-mode to 'AI Servo' ('AF-C' 'continuous' for some brands) so the camera is always updating/tracking the focus on the bird.
  • For stationary subjects, I often use just one AF point for precision, but it's impossible to accurately train one point on a bird that's flapping around, so to reduce the likelihood of your focus 'slipping off' onto the background, enable several AF points (some cameras let you use the middle five, a middle zone, or for really erratic birds or if you've had too many coffees, perhaps just turn them all on).
  • Lastly, set your camera's 'drive mode' to 'continuous' (or even 'high speed continuous') so when you hold the shutter button down, the camera will just keep taking photos as fast as it can until you let go – giving you a whole set of different wing positions to choose from.
  • Saving to Custom/User Mode:

    custom user modes
    Custom Shooting Mode
    For ease of use next time - if your camera supports it - once you've dialled-in these settings, go into the menu and find 'Custom Shooting Mode', 'User Settings' or similar and select 'Register', 'Store' or 'Save Settings'.
    photographing birds in flight
    From now on, in the same way you'd select 'Av' or 'Tv' mode, you can select your custom/user mode and everything will jump to these 'Bird in flight' settings. You can adjust settings from these saved defaults for a particular shoot if needed, and they'll just return to those normal defaults next time. Easy. If your camera lets you store multiple custom modes (such as 'C1', 'C2 etc), use the last space. Why? Because then you don't even need to watch what you're doing with that mode selection dial when you see a bird in flight - just twist it all the way around until it stops – which'll be on that end setting!

    We have a whole free tutorial dedicated to getting the most out of your camera's Custom User Modes. Take a read!

    Advanced Tip:

    custom user modes
    Getting more Depth of Field
    Requesting fast shutter speeds in 'Tv' mode (or 'S' mode for non-Canons), usually results in your camera selecting the lens's smallest f/# (ie largest aperture hole), to let light in quickly. This gives a small Depth of Field (blurry background and foreground) which is great, but it can be too small sometimes (especially with lenses capable of f/4 or less), resulting in only part of the bird being sharp. Also, with multiple AF-points enabled, you lose control over exactly where on the bird the camera focuses anyway. To give yourself a bigger DoF to ensure the whole bird is sharp, you need to use a larger f/# which you can force in Tv/S mode via your ISO. If you note what ISO the camera is auto-selecting for your situation and instead dial in a higher ISO, then the camera will react by shrinking the aperture (lifting the f/#), giving you that bigger DoF! Bingo!

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