Birds in flight, or BIF’s for short. Birds can fly, or most of them anyway, which is very likely the main reason that we all initially took notice of them in the first place. For me, photographically, getting a decent shot of a bird in flight gives me immense pleasure. With modern DSLR or Bridge cameras it’s actually easier than you may think. I’m not saying that every time you try for a BIF you’ll get the perfect shot, but there a few basic settings you can use which should help to make it a bit easier.
Most of which I’m going to discuss here I’ve learned from the many excellent photographers here in the Community, so I thought I might try to condense some of it down here in the hope that it may help anyone looking to get better BIF shots. Shooting in RAW format can also be of help in this (see Whistling Joe’s explanation here) but I’m only going to discuss camera settings here.
As always, different people will go about this in different ways, so I can only tell you how I go about it. I use a Canon camera but the principle is the same regardless of which camera system you use.
Focussing, shutter speed, and getting familiar with exposure compensation is the order of the day here.
‘Back button focussing’ can make all the difference for BIF’s. This involves setting your camera up so that focussing is done from using one of the buttons on the rear of the camera instead of the shutter release button. How to set this up will likely be in your camera manual or very probably on YouTube somewhere. Combine this with setting the camera’s Auto-focus mode to ‘continuous’, AI servo AF (Canon) or AF-C (Nikon) and you’ll have a much better chance of getting sharp results with flying birds.
Applying these settings allows you to focus on the bird using one of the buttons on the rear of your camera, and once focus is achieved, if you continue to hold the focus button down the camera will continue to hold focus on the bird, regardless of whether it moves nearer or further away from you. The shutter release button is then used to take the shot (or a series of shots).
A word of warning though, please remember that you’ve set up ‘Back Button Focussing’. I had a few moments of panic the first morning I used the camera set up this way. I'd forgotten that I’d changed the setting the night before and I thought there was something wrong with my camera or lens when it wouldn’t focus using the shutter release button. :-)
I can assure you that once you get used to back button focussing, you’ll find it just as easy and as natural as using the shutter release for focussing.
Use as many of your cameras focus points as you can, especially with a bird against a blank background (the sky for example). The more focus points you use the easier the camera will find it to lock onto the bird. We pay a lot of our hard earned money for modern ‘hi tech’ cameras, it would be a bit silly not to use their very advanced focussing systems as much as we can. Against more cluttered backgrounds (Plants, choppy water etc.) it may be easier to use less of your cameras focus points to help prevent the camera locking onto the background instead of the bird. Choosing one or more of the points near the centre can be of help in these situations.
This is the most important part of BIF’s. Too slow a shutter speed will always give blurred images of a moving subject. I always set the camera to shutter priority Tv (Canon) S (Nikon). This allows me to determine the shutter speed while the camera decides the aperture setting.
Set the ISO to Auto then all you have to do is dial in a shutter speed. On brighter days you can set the ISO to your own settings to help reduce 'noise', but for the time being, Auto will do just fine.
For larger birds, Herons, Gulls etc. a shutter speed of 1000th sec will be fine. They Flap their wings more slowly than the smaller birds so 1000th sec will freeze the motion in most cases. For smaller, faster birds, you should be aiming for 1250th sec and above. If you can get to 1600th sec this will be sufficient for most things.
So, we’ve set up for back button focussing and we’ve entered a shutter speed of 1250th sec. The camera is going to sort out the aperture and ISO speed. The next thing we’re going to do is to have a quick look at exposure compensation.
This will help us to make the image brighter or duller, depending on the situation.
Knowing when to use this is of a great help with BIF’s. By far the easiest way to know when to use it is by setting up your camera to make sure that your ‘highlight alerts’ are active, (Blinkies). This lets you see when you have parts of your image which are too bright and can be enabled or disabled via one of your camera’s menu functions.
Take a shot and then have a look at it on your camera’s screen. If you have overexposed the image, the parts of the image will flash on the camera's viewing screen. If this is the case, dial in some negative exposure compensation so that you have less flashing parts on your photo.
You don’t always have to get rid of all the Blinkies, but with bright birds like Gulls it can be very easy to over expose them, particularly if it’s a bright day. Quite often parts of the sky may be overexposed, but that’s ok if the bird looks fine in the shot.
On the other hand, if your image looks too dull, dial in some positive exposure compensation to help brighten the image up a bit.
There are no solid rules about this, it’s just a case of keep practicing and you’ll soon get the hang of it.
Finally, it’s always best to have your camera set up for continuous shooting. Due to the birds flapping their wings when flying it’s always easier to get ‘the’ shot if you take a series of them all at once.
In regards to finding the birds to photograph, if you’re able to get to the coast or to a harbour, Gulls are fantastic birds to practice on. If you have a local pond or boating lake they’ll be there as well. As you know, they’ll come quite willingly for a bit of brown bread or the likes, they’re big, slow, and bright, and they’ll come in really close to you. You also don’t need to have a super high magnification lens for these types of photos. I’ve taken some nice Gulls in flight shots with an 18-55mm kit lens.
I hope this has been of interest and helped to show that BIF’s aren’t always as difficult as they might seem. So go on, get out there and give it a bash, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.
Links to lots of interesting and helpful photography stuff can be found here.
Fulmar, very close and on a bright day.
200mm, 1,3200sec, ISO 200, -0.7 exposure comp, f/4
My bird photos HERE
Very nice reading Paul, I only use back button focusing and it does take a little time to get used to it but once you have its the only way to go, that Fulmar is a nice capture I have one very similar to it.
In reply to James:
Never used back focus never will, a half press of the shutter release is perfect (speaking as a sports photo journalist), also what about focus points, I only ever use one
In reply to Jeremy R:
Jeremy R said:Never used back focus never will, a half press of the shutter release is perfect
As you are a professional photographer, Jeremy, I find this statement to be somewhat blinkered in its content. If you’ve never used back button focussing, how on earth can you claim that it isn’t more effective on flying birds, or any other moving subjects for that matter? I’ve put up this post in an attempt to help people have the confidence to get out there and give it a try. Not everyone is confident enough, or even interested enough to use full manual control in their photography. It’s my hope that the information in this post will help some folks to get better in flight shots, and that’s basing the information on my real world experiences. Using back button focussing is perhaps ‘the’ best thing I ever done in terms of getting more in focus birds in flight. Perhaps if you gave it a try you might re-consider your views.
Jeremy R said:also what about focus points, I only ever use one
Have you ever tried following a flying Little Ringed Plover, Snipe, Teal, (or similar) using only one focus point at 300 - 400mm? The advice I've given regarding multiple focus points will severely increase the chances of getting a decent shot of a moving bird, again, this comes from my personal experience and many, many hours of going out there and trying different approaches to this.
In reply to Paul A:
Really interesting article paul & will get my camera out later & see if I can give it a try. Your in-flight shots are a million times better than mine, so thanks for sharing your secrets.
Hazel in the Gironde estuary, France
In reply to Noisette:
Thanks, Hazel, you are very kind. All of my 'secrets' have come from the good advice from the many others here in the Community. :-)
Hi Paul, I've only just returned home from a local birding trip so only had a quick scan through this so far but it looks another great addition to camera tutorial highlighting the effectiveness of BBF which is very much appreciated Paul so thanks for your efforts on this and previous threads (along with WJ's) and another useful bookmark for me to file and study in further depth - once I've had a cup of tea lol; personally, I always use BBF as it is so much easier to track birds in flight, focus quickly and give myself more chance of keeping the moving subject in focus using all 61 points ! As a relative beginner to photography I found the BBF of real benefit and couldn't agree more with you as it allows me to track and focus at same time so much more easily. I need to work some more on my exposure settings, especially when working against grey sky ! Once again, I'll take a look properly at this in detail once I warm up from standing out in the cold for four and half hours and coming back with a smile but no pics of any quality lol
"Each kindness shown to birds or men is sure to flutter back again"
In reply to HAZY:
Great advice Paul, the only thing I've never used is auto iso, so may give it a go next time I'm 'biffing'
my photo's here
An excellent post Paul, lots of great info in there
Paul A said:Against more cluttered backgrounds (Plants, choppy water etc.) it may be easier to use less of your cameras focus points to help prevent the camera locking onto the background instead of the bird. Choosing one or more of the points near the centre can be of help in these situations.
Picking up on this theme, and noting later comments, you're spot on here (sorry, no pun intended!). More points will maximize your success rate with in-flight shots and the tracking capabilities of (especially) the more expensive bodies is very good at keeping things lined up. I tend to use all points against sky, the centre batch when there's a noisy (ie plantlife) backdrop and single point for stationary birds . For people, whether playing sports or not, single point is generally fine - they don't move very fast!
Funnily enough, I've never really got on with back button focusing, despite its popularity. I do use the back button, just not all the time with a separation of the shutter release function.
Shutter speed can be fun to play with. Once you're used to tracking subjects (and I agree, go for the gulls, plenty about, easy to practice on!), try dropping the shutter speed a little, you'll get a little bit of blur to the wings that way, which can look nicer than a completely frozen image. I've used this one before, but like this (1/640)
Jeremy R said:
HAZY said:it looks another great addition to camera tutorial
Absolutely - I'll add a link to it on the GoA Index thread :-)
Find me on Flickr / All about your camera - The Getting off Auto Index
In reply to Whistling Joe:
I have the Nikon D7100 which has the auto iso function, but never used it yet
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654