Birds in flight (BIF)
If you restrict yourself to taking pictures of static birds,
you are really missing out. Even a rather plain bird can be transformed
into a thing of beauty and wonder when it flies. The trouble is,
birds in flight (BIF) are just about the toughest thing to photograph
other than perhaps insects in flight!
Lots of people try but give up as they just can't get any success.
I must confess that this article was a long time coming, because
I certainly struggled myself to become competent enough to feel
reasonably qualified to write this article. I consider that shooting
BIF with a camera is equivalent to clay pigeon shooting - it is
definitely an acquired skill and you have to keep practicing to
get better, although some people are just gifted and make it look
I consider myself to be " average"
but I'm getting better. If I can do it - so can you ! I really
admire those early pioneers who managed top get great results
of flying birds with manual focus film cameras. I expect they
had a very high discard rate.
Pelicans in flight against the African sky, Kenya.
The real breakthrough in photographing BIF came with the introduction
of predictive autofocus systems. (AI servo/continuous focus).
These continually focus and refocus i.e. track the subject as
it moves or flies around. Without it you would have to partially
press the shutter button to acquire focus, then release and depress
it again continually as the subject moves around the frame. AI
is short for "artificial intelligence" and it is able
to predict where the bird will be in the frame from moment to
moment and also addresses shutter lag - that is the time it takes
for the camera to flip its mirror up, open the shutter and close
it again. The AI servo algorithm estimates the subject's speed
and distance traveled and compensates for it - clever stuff. It
would be brilliant if AI servo was perfect but unfortunately it
is not and you have to keep your expectations at a sensible level.
Some systems are better than others and the further you go up
the manufacturers' range, the more accurate it tends to become.
The Pro Canon 1 series and Nikon D3/D700 are currently the best
There are no two ways about, better equipment makes
the task a lot easier. I find that my Canon 1D mk IIII locks on
very fast and tracks focus much better than say a Canon prosumer
xxD model. You do however have to study the manual a bit and get
the custom functions set up sensibly to get the best out of the
focusing system. A Nikon D3 that I hired provided the most accurate
focusing that I have yet encountered in any camera. I know this
because I tested it as I explain below.
Check your autofocus system
It is important that when you evaluate a new camera that you put
the AI servo through its paces. To do this, I like to do two tests.
The first simple check is to ensure that when the camera is put
onto a tripod and a cable release used, that it can focus on a
static subject without continually hunting around or "chattering".
When AI servo has achieved focus it should move backwards and
forwards a few times and then settle. Take a picture and then
view it on your computer at 100%, and it should appear as sharp
as a similar image taken in one shot mode. If it doesn't settle
then the camera is suspect.
For the next test you will need an assistant to either jog towards
you or to drive a car towards you at about 20- 30 mph. You need
to have the camera set to the lens's widest aperture, AI servo
selected, an ISO that will give you a shutterspeed of at least
1/1000 sec so you can handhold, and shoot away with the motordrive
set to its highest speed. A car number plate makes a good target
or if using a runner, it is best if they wear a high contrast
top as the autofocus may struggle on a low-contrast subject. You
can shoot jpegs for this eliminates the need to process RAW images
and you will also get more images in the burst to evaluate. Alternatively
if you shoot RAW and use the slideshow function in Breezebrowser
you can evaluate the images in a full screen slideshow and also
double check that the AF point remained on the subject on any
out-of-focus images.Count the the shots that are out of focus.
Assuming that you kept the AF point on the number plate or the
runner's chest you should be able to achieve 80-90% images in
focus if the camera is working OK.
Lenses vary a lot in their autofocus speed and I find that the
Canon 400mm f5.6 and 500mm f4 lenses to be very fast particularly
if you set their focus-limiter switch to the appropriate range.
This stops them hunting and looking for a subject at an unsuitable
Adding a teleconverter slows autofocus noticeably. Zooms are also
a bit slower usually, but the 70-200 f2.8L is a quick focusing
lens and can be useful for large birds such as gannets. Sadly
the popular Canon 100-400 f4.5-5.6 L IS is rather slow to focus,
it is not at its best when used wide open and is slowest when
paired to a xxD camera. The 1 series pro cameras, have superior
focus lock and tracking ability and the keeper rate will be much
higher with these. For this reason, if you envisage doing a lot
of BIF photography and can't afford a new 1 series camera, I recommend
picking up an older secondhand 1 series such as the 1DmkIIN which
are available pretty cheaply these days. The 7D reputedly has
advanced autofocus so might offer a viable alternative to the
bulky 1 series bodies.
Fast lenses, that is to say, lenses of f2.8 or wider can often
take advantage of the camera's more sensitive cross-type autofocus
points, and so these can give you an advantage.
My favourite lens for birds in flight is my Canon 400mm f5.6 as
it is very sharp even when used at maximum aperture, it focuses
very fast and is compact and light in weight. I like to use it
handheld. It does lack image stabilisation (IS) but as you need
to be shooting at high shutterspeeds to freeze subject motion
blur this is not as much of a handicap as it might appear. The
Canon 400mm f4 DO IS may be even better as its maximum aperture
is a stop faster (which can be traded for extra shutterspeed in
dull conditions) and the IS makes it more versatile. It is however
considerably more expensive and probably has no better image quality
than the f5.6 lens. Nikon users have the
wonderful 200-400 f4 VR lens, but again it is expensive and is
A ball head is not very useful for BIF - a gimbal mounted on a
tripod is much better as it provides a wide range of movement
and if balanced correctly floats weightlessly without flopping
over to one side like a ball. If I am using a heavy lens like
the 500mm f4 I use a gimbal head to support the lens and to hold
it when not in use. However, if birds are close and flying erratically
I generally prefer handholding the lens for as long as my arm
muscles can take it as it gives far more freedom of movement.
Ruppell's griffon vulture coming into
land - Kenya,
Canon 1 DmkIII plus 500mm f4 IS handheld
A good place to practice shooting BIF is on larger slower birds.
Seagulls make good targets initially as they are quite large and
will come quite close. Get a friend to throw some bread for you
in a park or at the seaside and practice shooting as the birds
approach. The best conditions are when there is plenty of light
to enable you to achieve a high shutterspeed, You want the sun
at your back so you cast a shadow directly towards the bird and
you also want the birds to be flying into the wind if possible.
If the wind is quite strong, the birds can literally hang in the
air in front of you and are then at their easiest to photograph.
Mediterranean gull in winter
Ducks are far less easy as they fly very fast but
they slow right down to land and can then be worth a try. In fact
there is nothing to be lost by having a try at anything that flies
by - you can always delete it again later if it is no good - it
has not cost you anything. The most important thing with BIF is
to expect a high discard rate and to not get demoralised if things
don't work out at first.
Unless you are trying for an arty/blurry shot you need to use
a high shutterspeed to freeze the motion of a bird in flight.
If you are very skilful at panning smoothly you might be able
to photograph a slowish bird at 1/250th sec. For the rest of us
mortals, you can never have too much shutterspeed, so aim for
1/1000 as a minimum and preferably use something around 1/1600
sec. If you really need to freeze a fast bird, then 1/3200 sec
is not outrageous. This may mean using your lens at its widest
aperture setting and upping your ISO considerably so shooting
in bright light is a real benefit. Aim at the bird's eye/neck/head
when focusing and don't cut off the birds wingtips. Be prepared
to crop a bit in post-process later on the computer to get a nice
composition if necessary.
In the shot below, the pelicans coming in to land made for great
target practice. Before shooting I had to get my 1D mk III camera
set up in readiness. I used evaluative metering as I knew I could
trust its accuracy in the bright conditions. I then set the ISO
to 400 as this was giving me 1/2000 sec at f7.1. This is a nice
high shutterspeed to freeze the movement of the birds and enough
depth of field to get the second bird reasonably in focus too.
I set the focus limiter switch on the 500mm f4 to max distance
and the IS selector switch to position 2 for panning. Keeping
my finger on the half-depressed shutter button, I used the centre
AF point only (selected in custom functions) and placed the red
AF square onto the head of the nearest flying bird while it was
still a long way off. I then tucked my right elbow into my side
for stability and twisted my body slowly and smoothly to pan with
the birds as they glided in. Keeping the red square on the bird's
head I gently squeezed off a few frames when it was looking good
in the viewfinder.
Great white pelicans landing at lake
Nakuru in Kenya
I chose single AF point and set the tracking sensitivity to
medium/slow as the background had a lot of other birds in it
and I didn't want the focus to jump back to them in preference
to my subject. If the background had been less busy I might
have chosen to expand the number of AF points to include those
immediately surrounding the selected point. This is achieved
in the custom functions and this can give make your task of
keeping the AF point on the subject that much easier.
More advanced BIF
Once you have mastered the larger slower birds you can try your
hand at smaller faster ones, but expect the discard rate to
go up again. Birds just about to take off from or land on a
perch can be anticipated with practice. If a bird looks up and
excretes, or suddenly crouches, it is very possible that it
is about to take off. Under these circumstances I would usually
pre-focus and switch the lens to manual and stop the aperture
down a little if there is sufficient shutterspeed to gain a
little depth of field to overcome any focusing errors. Unfortunately
birds often take off in an unexpected direction (usually facing
away from you!) but occasionally they fly off parallel to the
perch and you will grab a good shot or too as it does. Another
thing you can try is to select all the autofocus points (using
AFPS described in tutorial
3 ). Focus on the bird with the centre AF point and hopefully
as it flies off, the AF will keep tracking it. If this happens
reasonably slowly the AF might cope, but more often than not,
it is defeated, but it is worth a try. This is the method I
used on these goldfinches below.
I have covered exposure in detail in tutorial
6 , but just to recap, either set
the camera to evaluative metering or the mode that works best
for you or set the exposure manually using a mid tone in the
scene in the same light as your subject. Take a test shot if
time permits and check the camera histogram at the earliest
opportunity and apply any necessary exposure compensation.
In summary then, photographing birds in flight is a bit hit
and miss but there is nothing to be lost by having a go. You
need to be quick, so if you see a bird take flight and start
flying towards or across your path just take a snipe at it.
Chances are you will miss, but now and again you strike lucky
and get a gem!