My Learning Curve - Part 2

4. Photographing Birds in Flight


When photographing birds in flight your first consideration will be to consider whether you are able to adopt the tracking/panning technique (making full use of your autofocus capabilities) or whether you will be forced to employ a manual focus track and ‘intercept’ type technique.

If have had relatively consistent success with the tracking/panning technique and some limited success with the manual focus track/intercept technique.

In summary the tracking technique involves deciding on an expected arc of travel for the subject and a ‘firing’ area in which you will be reasonably confident of a pleasing background, good lighting of the subject, will have anticipated exposure and speed setting for subject and a pleasing view of the subject. You make maximum use of your autofocus capabilities by locking onto the subject and tracking it into your preferred firing area then letting rip with multiple exposure throughout this arc, panning the camera as you take images. It is usually very difficult to adopt this technique and consider the niceties of a perfect composition. I therefore aim to get a well focused and exposed image in the centre of my photograph and then crop at home on the PC to get a pleasing composition.

There may be reasons why the above tracking technique may not work, the two most common will be:

• The subject may be close to you and you may need to move the camera faster than the autofocus can cope with.

• Your tracking area may encompass objects with which your autofocus system gets confused and so looses focus on your subject.

In these cases I have had some success with what may be termed manual focus, track and intercept firing. I have been forced to use this technique for dragonflies and small birds. By this I mean pre-setting your focus, aperture and shutter speed for a narrow firing area. Tracking as much as possible your subject into this area and then firing.

With this technique, even more so than the full tracking technique above, I will use a shorter than ideal focal length in order to give me a bigger field of view and slightly higher depth of field. The resulting images will probably require more cropping on the PC at home in order to ‘magnify’ and compose the final image.

For the photography of fast moving birds, close subjects or in poor light, flash photography techniques and automatic shutter tripping will need to be employed. However this is beyond my current experience.


Your ideal equipment option should aim to maximise your camera autofocus capability and your ability for tracking and manoeuvrability, while being of an appropriate focal length to appropriately fill the frame for compositional and magnifying cropping of the subject latter on the PC.

I have not tried taking flight shots with a point and shoot camera but would guess in the main they probably won’t autofocus fast enough and so you will really need to use an SLR type camera.

In order to maximise your camera autofocus capabilities ideally you will be looking to use your ‘speediest’ focusing lenses. These are probably your longest focal length prime lenses and lowest f stop lenses, and ideally with no extenders/converters.

It is also easier to track birds at further rather than near distance.

For me this usually means relying on my Canon 70-200mm L F2.8, Canon 300mm L F2.8 or Canon 500mm L F4 and Wimberley system (with or without 1.4 extenders), coupled with a Canon 7D body.

The 70-200mm and 300mm lenses have the significant advantage of manoeuvrability, and use in comparatively spur of the moment incidents. However, the 500mm with Wimberley system is extremely easy to use for more deliberate scenarios and particularly when the birds are at some distance.

Autofocus, Tracking/Panning Technique and Picking Your Firing Spot

Expanding on the summary above this technique is the most reliable and so my preferred option.

It involves a fair degree of preparation to be successful. Though with some quick thinking you can take advantage of opportunities as the may arise. This spontaneity is hard to achieve with manual focus approach dealt with below.

In an ideal world you will wish to follow the following steps though obviously in the real world you will have to think on the fly and adapt this as appropriate.

Having identified a location with a good chance of your subject in flight you need to survey the area to find the right firing spot where:

• Ideally the subject should be light directly by sunlight and not a silhouette

• The background is pleasing and unlikely to confuse your cameras autofocus capability. In other words against a clear sky or a consistent background far behind your subject

• The subject is in a pleasing position, not flying directly flying away from you or at an angle away from you

• It will give you ample chances of tracking your subject into your firing area

Your best chances of good, side lighting, with easily accommodated exposure ranges yet acceptable shutter speeds will therefore be early morning and late afternoon.

If your lens allows it you will want to pre-select the appropriate autofocus range, this reduces wasted time for the lens searching ranges it will not find your subject in.

I usually have the Image Stabilization (IS) setting “off” or if level tracking is possible I use the panning IS setting, Mode 2.

I usually select the centre focusing point (though others have achieved good success by selecting all points), choosing AI Servo automatic focus and the cameras highest frames per second option. Though some recommend not using the highest frames per second option because this can hamper the camera autofocus capability and there is probably a lot of truth in this.

Assuming the above preparation (along with exposure and shutter speed below), your technique will be to identify your subject from as far away as possible locating it through your view finder and locking your central autofocus point onto the bird. Panning/tracking the bird with the central focus point on the bird at all times (ideally its head) and thus autofocus keeping it in sharp focus into your preferred firing area and taking as many images as you possible within this area. When panning/tracking it is imperative you keep the camera moving in synchronization with the subject as it takes images. To help in this try to get into the habit of ‘following through’ i.e. keeping track of the subject after you have taken you images for a short time to reinforce this moving and firing technique.

The task of locating the subject in the view finder and locking on autofocus is an acquired skill, as is tracking/panning. You just have to practice lots. It helps if you keep both eyes open, especially as you lift the camera to your right eye and search for the subject.

Manual Focus Track/Intercept Technique

When the above technique is inappropriate you will be forced to use this approach. I have found it to be very unreliable but if repeated enough your percentage of keepers will improve but will never be as high as the previous autofocus method.

This technique involves pre-focusing your lens within a much narrower firing field using the same firing field identification criteria as above and aperture, shutter speed criteria as below. You may wish to adjust your aperture to a higher F stop giving a greater depth of field and so improved chances of an image that appears to be in focus.

You then simply track you subject into your firing area, as much as practical, and fire as soon as it reaches the area and the bird appears in focus using the tracking/panning and image taking technique above.


You will want to use the lowest aperture possible for the depth of field you require for your subject. For me it means between F2.8 and F8, predominantly F4 to F5.6.

Shutter Speed

Your choice or limitations for shutter speed are key. The precise speed you will require will depend on how much and what type of motion you wish your image to portray, the speed of the bird, its wing beats and your own thoughts on acceptable noise.

This is an area it which you are constantly learning. For me I am most comfortable using up to ISO 400 and only ISO 640 if I really have too.

I almost always shoot planned flight shots in full manual mode. To do this I take meter readings from neutral parts of the landscape where the lighting is likely to be the same as my planned subject target area e.g. the grass in front of me, tree leaves or tree bark. If the subject is likely to have white feathers I will then reduce my exposure by as much as a full stop depending on the strength of the light. My first priority will be speed and I look for a minimum of 1/1600th for average size birds which are reasonably close, my second consideration is ISO, a maximum of 640 (with a Canon 7D), then F stop ideally F4 to F5.6 or F8 for group shots of close subjects, less for distant group shots. With the camera set in manual mode I will then constantly need to consider any changes in lighting and adjust accordingly.

If I’m in AV Mode for whatever reason and not had time to set a manual setting to click over too quickly then I use the exposure compensation dial to slightly over or underexpose the image to refine the subject exposure. Gauging the correct exposure by use of the histogram aiming for peak in the curve just to the left of middle with no blown highlights. If possible I will do test shots before hand to see what under or over exposure adjustments may be needed by taking images of anything that passes by in my firing zone or of similar light conditions in the scenery before me.

With evaluative metering you will commonly need to over expose if the subject is flying against the sky, perhaps by up to 1 stop. If the subject is well light against a dark back background you may need to under expose slightly (say one third to 1 stop) in order to increase shutter speed and enhance exposure. If an image is slightly under exposed but sharper for it that’s a compromise I am willing to make and then hope to correct the exposure error later in Photoshop.

As a very general guide I would say you need at least a shutter speed of 1/500th to get a distant big bird’s body in reasonably good sharpness with some motion in the wing tips, often it will be more than this. You will want to use at least 1/1000th and preferably 1/2000th, perhaps more to perfectly freeze all motion.

If I’m lucky enough to get more chances in similar circumstances I will play with the shutter speed to get different motion effects such as freezing the wing beats by using high shutter speeds or inducing a little motion in the tips of the wings by using slower shutter speeds. At present I have to do this mostly by experimentation on the day as all these speeds change with different lighting conditions, subjects and desired effects.

It’s worth remembering big birds can fly fast, cruising geese move pretty quick and so will need a faster shutter speed than a lumbering Heron in take off. Also birds flying close to you move at a perceived faster speed than those at a distance, close birds will therefore require a higher shutter speed.

Further useful links on this subject can be found below:

Link To - Some inspiring images from Mark Chappell of birds in flight

Link To - Very useful advice site from Han Borger

Link To - Useful advice site

Link To - Useful bird photography advice site by Paul Janosi

Link To - Useful panning photography advice site by Moose Peterson