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Camera Settings for Bird in Flight Photography

camera settings bird in flight photography

Before you begin photographing birds in flight, it's important to use the correct camera settings. Once you have applied them, they won't need to be changed, so you can do this before you begin your shoot.


The first camera setting to select is the autofocus mode. I always use the ‘AI Servo’ autofocus mode ('Continuous', on a Nikon camera) when I am photographing birds in flight. In this mode, as the bird flies, the camera will continually adjust the focus, attempting to track the bird's movement for as long as autofocus is activated. This feature isn’t foolproof and doesn't perform flawlessly in all situations but it's easily the best choice for photographing a flying bird.

Controlling the Point of Focus

I usually deactivate all but one of the focus points, leaving only the centre focus point active. Next, I enable all surrounding ‘assist’ focus points. Assist focus points help to retain focus for longer if you're unable to keep the active focus point continually trained on the bird. With previous cameras, I always used the centre focus point for photographing birds in flight. But with the Canon EOS 1D Mark IV, I can usually track birds accurately using any focus point. This allows me to be more creative with my compositions and to focus very precisely when my subject fills the viewfinder. Some nature photographers advocate the use of multi-point focus modes when photographing birds in flight against a plain, high contrast background. Activating all focus points will help if you are trying to grab a flight shot of a small bird from a hide, as it passes by in front of you (e.g. to land on a feeder). In this situation, you will not be able to track the bird, so you need all the focusing help you can get.

Drive Mode

Many cameras offer a range of motor drive settings, such as single shot, silent, timed, low speed and high speed. Select high speed (or its nearest equivalent) when photographing birds in flight.

Burst Rate

Some cameras also offer a choice of fixed or user-customisable burst speeds during continuous shooting. For photographing birds in flight, set your camera's burst rate to the fastest supported speed.

Metering Mode

I always use the Evaluative metering mode when photographing birds in flight. This is similar to the Matrix metering mode on a Nikon camera. Long ago, I decided to learn how to use a single metering mode well in all situations, to allow me to eliminate another variable from my thinking in the field. Now that I understand my camera's metering foibles, I really don't need to use any other metering mode.

Exposure Mode

Another setting I never change when photographing birds in flight is the exposure mode. I always use Manual (M). On most shoots, the ambient light levels vary far too much to allow me to entrust any of the fully- or semi-automatic exposure modes with the responsibility for managing the exposure. 'Never change'? Every once in a while, I get lazy and try aperture priority (Av) again but I always end up regretting it. Manual exposure mode puts all the control - and the responsibility - on my shoulders. It requires me to check and recheck everything, for every sequence of shots. It's that drilled-in discipline which most boosts my keeper rate. Whenever I use aperture priority, I almost always forget to keep a close eye on my shutter speed and then I pay the price by messing up a shot.

Intro - Photographing Birds in Flight

Part 2 - Setting the Exposure for Bird in Flight Photography

Part 3 - Photographic Technique for Bird in Flight Photography

Part 4 - Photographic Equipment for Bird in Flight Photography
  • Maggie Campbell likes this


I like to control the Aperture and let the shutter speed fall where it may.  But as you noted in Aperture priority the shutter speed can oftentimes drift below the speed you need to get sharp images.


What I have done to overcome this is to use Auto ISO and set the minimum shutter speed to 1/1600.  If the SS tried to drift below this setting then AUTO ISO kicks in to maintain this minimum speed, allowing to always shoot at your desired Aperture without losing the speed needed.


With todays cameras I find you can get very acceptable images at 1600 or more ISO.  As long as the exposure is correct.   

    • John likes this

That's great advice! Auto ISO is hit and miss on the various camera models, some offering much more control over it than others. A new exposure setting mode consisting of manually selected aperture, shutter speed and exposure compensation and automatically selected ISO would be great.

I think that does exist these days. Exactly what my Pentax K3 does in TAV mode.

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