Patricia Ware | Camera Settings for Birds in Flight

Camera Settings for Birds in Flight

February 15, 2015  •  3 Comments

Peregrine FalconPeregrine FalconPeregrine Falcon flies overhead.



Everyone wants sharp, in-focus shots, and with the right camera settings it's easier to reach that goal.  I use a great camera for shooting wildlife, a Canon 1D mark iv, and I'd like to share some of the camera settings which I have found useful for photographing birds in flight.  Even though you may use a different camera make or model,  you may find that many of the features on your camera are the same even if the terms are different.


Autofocus:  Use AI Servo Autofocus.  

The AI stands for Artificial Intelligence.  This algorithm determines the speed and the direction of fast moving subjects when their focusing distance keeps changing. Flying birds meet these criteria, so AI Servo Autofocus allows me to better track flying birds.


Drive Mode: Set it to High-speed continuous shooting.

On my Canon 1D mark iv, I am able to get 10 shots per second.  When the action is at its greatest, clicking 10 shots per second gives me more opportunities to capture the action at its peak. 

Autofocus Point:  Use the center autofocus for birds in flight.  

If I am shooting against a varied background such as trees or bushes, I will use the center autofocus point and aim for the center of the bird.  If I know I will be shooting against a plain background such as a blue sky, I will use the center autofocus point plus surrounding AF point expansion.  


AI Servo Tracking Sensitivity: Set to SLOW.  

Setting the tracking sensitivity to slow allows me to refocus on the bird in flight more quickly when the camera locks its focus on the background rather than on the bird.


Back-button Autofocus:  Customize the camera so that focusing is performed by pressing a rear button with the right thumb.

By doing this, my index finger on the shutter button doesn’t control the focus activation, but rather a button controlled by my thumb initiates focusing. 


  • If the bird is perched, it's easier for me to lock focus on the bird’s eye, and then recompose the shot to move the subject off-center.

  • It’s easier for me to time my shots because my index finger is free to shoot whenever the action is at its height.  Putting my right thumb on the back button to keep focus active allows me to use my index finger at just the right moment to shoot and still have focus.

  • It’s easier for me to focus on moving subjects.  I can pull my thumb off the rear button when the bird is not in focus and then pop it on again when it is. 


Which button for Back-button AF: Switch the AF-ON button with the AE Lock button (with the asterisk icon).  

I exchanged these two buttons because the AE Lock button is closer to the shutter button and making it much easier to reach.


Register Settings: Register these settings in the camera.

I can change any particular setting as I shoot and my camera will return to my settings when I turn it off.  But there have been occasions when I've really messed up my settings and I have found myself needing to reset back to my original birds-in-flight settings.  I can easily return to these settings because I have registered them in my camera as one of the custom functions.


You can find directions for changing your settings by looking in your manual or by reading tutorials by Canon or your camera manufacturer. My Canon camera settings have helped me to take sharp photos of birds in flight!


All the best ~ Patricia







Doug Robertson(non-registered)
Hi Patricia

Thanks for the tips, in particular the Back-button focus. I have just purchased a 5d Mk3 and I am working on the settings, hence it is good to see how other photographers work.
Dennis Zaebst(non-registered)
Hi Patricia,

Great information which should help many photographers. One additional item you might consider adding: when to use manual metering or AE. I use manual metering when the background is changing rapidly, and automatic metering (with appropriate compensation) when the background is constant (e.g. clear blue sky).

Thanks for posting this great info!

Best regards,
Susan Markovic(non-registered)
Once again...great information! I've tried using AI Servo, but didn't have much luck. With your help, I understand what I might have been doing wrong. Now I can't wait to change up my camera settings and get out there to shoot!

Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Patricia :)
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