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What are the best camera settings for birds in flight?


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I posted a photo I took sometime  in the 1970s of a seagull in flight under the "Birds in Flight" Topic. Following this topic has inspired me. You are all doing such great work. This spring I want to to photograph birds in flight again. I cannot remember the camera settings I used 50+ years ago. Off the top of my head I'm thinking of using a shutter speed of 1/1000 sec and maybe f/6.3 and maybe auto ISO.

Please list some settings you have had good results with.


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Dr. John, yes, BIF really is an inspiring and challenging topic for many.

As a general rule of thumb, I would not try to replicate a set of parameters which gave fine results some fifty years ago. After all, technology and your equipment have evolved a lot since then.

Things to consider today, in my humble opinion, and in the order of priority, are:

First of all, you probably want to avoid motion blur, which may be caused

  1. by your hands not being as rock-steady as they used to be some fifty years ago. In this case, IBIS / OSS is for you. Let the equipment assist you in image stabilization.Turn IBIS and/or OSS "On". In case your lens supports this: set OSS to "mode 2", which will not try to compensate for a horizontal panning movement while you're following a bird in flight with your camera/lens.
  2. Those birds have a tendency to move fast. Small birds in flight are harder to capture than large birds in flight. To avoid the movement of the bird itself to introduce motion blur of its own, you'll need a fast shutter speed. The rule of thumb is, to use at least 4 times the reciprocal of the focal distance of your lens. Example: If you have a 400mm lens, you should use a shutter speed of 1/1600 or faster.

As far as depth of field (DOF) is concerned, which is controlled by the aperture you set: values around 8 usually promise the best compromise between sharpness/resolution and reasonable depth of field. I'm aware, this is a bit vague, but avoid extreme values for the aperture setting like "1.4" or "32", unless you know what you're doing and when this can be reasonable. (In which case you wouldn't be asking for advice in the first place).

Once you've set the shutter speed to a value (or range) according to the focal length of your lens, and the aperture according to the recommendation as above, you will have to let the ISO float, i.e. let the camera body set it to whatever fits the first two parameters. I typically choose the "M" setting, which allows me to select shutter speed and aperture value individually.

Good luck, and please do keep us posted on your results and progress.





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As an engineer, I tend to focus on the technicalities of the task, like I did above.

But, there's a lot of non-technical things involved, too.

If you want to shoot game, it helps to develop the mindset of a hunter. The behaviour of wild animals may seem erratic and unpredictable, which it is, but only to an extent. Those animals have habits and a typical behavior, too!

Study your target species. Learn, where they gather, whether they are solitary or prefer flocks of their kind, what makes them sit down and what makes them take off. Observe any influence of meteorological and/or other conditions. After all, flying does take effort, and birds are lazy, too. They prefer effortless gliding/soaring over flapping their wings, for example. So it helps, to understand where thermals typically develop, etc.

If you develop these kinds of knowledge, it makes animal behavior much more predictable. You can take advantage of that knowledge by being prepared before the chance for a shot arrives. Or, by waiting at a time and location, which is more likely to produce such chances than elsewhere or at different times.

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Thanks Chrissie for your information.

I've been doing wildlife for a long time, but not birds in flight. I have spent many many hours waiting for a shot that never happened.

I currently have the A7RIV and the Sony 100-400 mm with 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters. I'm also considering the new Sony 200-600 mm. Both lenses and camera have OSS.

I live near the water. So. Seagulls are easy to find. They even fly over my house. And, for some reason I really like seagulls.


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2 hours ago, DrJohn said:

I have spent many many hours waiting for a shot that never happened.

Which does not discredit the waiting approach per se.

Consider my case:

I happen to live in Switzerland. If I had made up my mind to shoot polar bears, for instance, I would probably have to wait until the end of my lifetime, without ever getting to meet a polar bear where I live.

Instead, I would have to go, where polar bears usually hang around, in order to get a chance to shoot one.

Disclaimer: I'm aware, that polar bears are a protected species. By "shooting" I'm only referring to the activity of taking pictures of them.

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Don't skimp on depth-of-field. Beginning birds on the wing shooters often use rock bottom aperture they need available to urge a high shutter speed. While a high shutter speed is certainly important, skimping on aperture isn't the solution . Many birds have an outsized wingspan, and a coffee aperture will often put the wing tips out of focus. If you would like more light to extend your shutter speed, use a better ISO.

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6 hours ago, jamescooper said:

Don't skimp on depth-of-field

In the context of BIF I would consider the optimization of depth-of-field an advanced topic, and wouldn't put that additional burden on a motivated beginner.

BTW: cranking up the ISO to make up for a lack of light has downsides of its own, a.k.a. "noise".

Edited by Chrissie
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  • 1 year later...
  • 3 weeks later...

This is the best time of year for many birds, and this should be a particularly good since since the pandemic has freed most wildlife from human intrusion.

Shooting birds IN FLIGHT means they are not very close to you.  That means a long lens -- which means a fast shutter speed or a tripod or both. 

It's best to meter the scene first, figure out what the fastest speed you can use, and then set the camera to shutter priority exposure.  Even at a high shutter speed, a tripod can make a LOT of difference.

It takes a lot of practice to "track" birds in flight with a long lens.  If you have a pair of binoculars, you can practice much more easily.

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