Photographing Flying Birds

Canon EOS 1D, 300mm f/4 1/3200 @ f/5.6
Recently I've been experimenting with shooting flying birds, and I was asked to share some of the things I've learned.


The key to success when you photograph birds in flight is fast auto-focus (AF), which depends on both the camera and the lens you use. The Canon 1D is superb for this type of shot, but other cameras can be used successfully, also. In fact I had some success with the Canon D30 too.

Prime tele-lenses are especially good for this type of shooting. I like to use the 300mm f/4. Before I owned that lens I used the 70-200 f/4. With both lenses I prefer not using a teleconverter, because it slows AF down. Another way of speeding up AF is to use the switch on the lenses to set the focusing distance from 3m-infinity!

Needless to say, if you are the lucky owner of the f/2.8 equivalents of the lenses above they are more than excellent for the job. The f/4 lenses are lighter in weight and more comfortable for hand-shooting, though. Among professional bird photographers the Canon 400 f/5.6 is a long-time favorite, especially because it's so lightweight for its focal length.

Here is an example of a photo I shot with the Canon D30 and the 70-200 f/4.
1/2000 @ f/4

Camera Settings


The type of metering you need will depend on the situation. In low-contrast lighting conditions evaluative metering will do the job. If the birds are much brighter than the background or there are other sources of high contrast (reflections of the sun on water is something to watch for), you may need to use spot metering on the bird and perhaps some negative exposure compensation to avoid blowing out the highlights. On the other hand if you try to photograph a bird against a bright sky you will need positive exposure compensation of at least 1 stop. So there is no rule of thumb here. With a digital camera we are lucky to have a histogram to guide us. I always take a couple of test-shots to get the metering approximately right before I start with the real shooting. During the shoot I only adjust the exposure compensation a bit if necessary because of small changes in the lighting conditions. The histogram and the exposure compensation dial are my best friends during the shoot.

Shutter Speed and Aperture

As you might expect, you will need a fairly fast shutter speed to capture flying birds. The speed you need depends on the speed a particular bird moves his wings during the flight. Shutter speeds above 1000 freeze most motion in the wings. For smaller, fast moving birds I recommend at least 1/1000 of a second and 1/2000 if possible. For larger, gliding birds such as herons and raptors, 1/500 or 1/750 should be sufficient, but if you want to play safe choose 1/1000 for them also.

To get these shutter speeds you most times need to shoot high ISO and/or low aperture. This is a trade-off you have to make depending on the noise you want to accept or your camera can handle and the amount of background you want in focus.

I prefer apertures around f/6 so I set this first and adjust ISO until I get the shutter speed I need. Only if ISO goes to an unacceptable level do I lower the aperture.


If you do not own a Canon 1D, predictive focusing (AI Servo) is your best bet to get a successful flight picture. Fix the AF point to one of the available AF points ( I prefer the middle) and try to track the bird keeping this AF point on the bird. Needless to say this is almost impossible to achieve with small fast-moving birds. If you want to give it a serious try, raptors, herons and Canada Geese are very good birds to practice. You also need a shooting spot where you see the birds coming towards you so you have enough time to actually track them. A small pond in the city-park, where birds fly short irregular distances, in general is NOT a good spot for it!

If you own a 1D life gets a lot easier shooting flying birds. AI servo works about the same as on the D30, but you do not loose track as easy and the shutter acts a lot faster. Besides I had amazingly good results using normal AF with all 45 focusing points activated. Just fire away, pointing the camera at the birds like you would with a rifle!

Image Stabilization (IS)

Because of the fast shutter speeds, IS isn't necessary on the lens you use for flight shots. In fact, some forms of IS can actually make it more difficult to track a moving target. If you use AI Servo to track a passing bird, set IS to "panning mode" if available on your lens. Otherwise it's better to set IS off.


Preparation is the key to good bird photographs. With all bird pictures (flying or not) I first look for a good shooting position to avoid distracting backgrounds. I usually take a few test shots to look for contrast (range between dark and light) in the scene and get the metering about right. In these test shots I also check the colors I get in the background and the way the background blurs.

With flight pictures I also try to find an area with no trees or similar obstacles because the AF can go for the tree if you use normal AF or you can loose tracking using AI Servo if a tree gets in the way.

Keep in mind that with flight shots selection of the shooting position is the only tool you have to influence the final composition. The background you select by choosing your position has a big influence on the final look of the picture, as the pictures below might illustrate. A lot of my earlier flight shots, although with the bird sharp and in focus, ended in the trashcan because of a distracting background. You do not have to worry about this if you want to practice technique but it's crucial for producing a long term keeper!

Additional Information

One very good resource for bird photography is "The Art of Bird Photography," by Arthur Morris.

More Bird Photos Using these Methods

Canon EOS 1D, 300mm f/4 1/5000 @ f/6.3
Canon EOS 1D, 300mm f/4 1/4000 @ f/6.3
Canon EOS 1D, 300mm f/4 1/6400 @ f/6.3