Patricia Ware | Tips for Photographing Birds in Flight

Tips for Photographing Birds in Flight

April 05, 2015  •  1 Comment

Sandhill CraneSandhill Crane



My passion is shooting birds in flight, and it’s a skill that takes practice.  However, a few tips may make it easier to get a sharp in-focus shot.


My Lenses for Birds in Flight: 

First, I find by hand holding my camera rather than using a tripod, it is easier to track the bird.  So I when I was first starting out, I wanted lens that was lightweight enough for me to handhold, was sharp, and was affordable.  My first lens for birds in flight that met these criteria was Canon 300mm 4.0 lens.  It was relatively lightweight and easy to manipulate.  As I took more photographs of birds in flight, I found that I wanted more reach so I often coupled it with 1.4 teleconverter and was able to get good shots even though the autofocus was slower with the teleconverter. 


Now, I primarily use either the 400 5.6 lens, which is relatively lightweight and very sharp.  It is my lens of choice when taking shots of hummingbirds.  Or, if I want more reach for birds farther away such as raptors, I will use 500mm 4.0 lens, which is heavy but I am still able to handhold it.  


Memory Cards:

I prefer cards that let me capture multiple frames per second, for fast-action or continuous burst mode photography.   I have found that SanDisk Extreme Pro memory cards are both fast and reliable cards.


Camera Settings:

A previous blog post discusses my camera settings.  My shutter speed is usually set at 1/1000 or higher.  When I shoot really fast birds like hummingbirds and want to freeze the wings, I prefer 1/3200 or higher.   I try to keep the shutter speed as high as I think I can get away with to eliminate as much wing motion as I can.  I use auto focus and make sure the focus search is on and I set the tracking sensitivity to slow. 


Another earlier blog post describes how I meter for birds in flight.  To test if my exposure is correct, I expose on something that doesn't move that has the same coloring and in the same sun position as the bird. I always expose for the subject, not the background

How I Hand-hold My Lenses:

Since I am not using a tripod, it’s important that I use my body as a tripod.  I stand with my feet about shoulder width apart; my right foot may be slightly in front of the left.  My eye is firmly pressed against the viewfinder eyepiece so my body now acts as a tripod. 


For all of my lenses, I turn the tripod mount to the side and use it for a handle for carrying and so it will be out of my way when I hand hold the lens.  When I shoot, my left hand is cupped underneath and near the end of the lens and my elbow is pointed toward the ground, not out to the side, which gives me more stability.  My right hand is relaxed holding the camera, and I am able to quickly move my body as I track the bird.



I switch the focusing distance range on the lens to the most suitable distance so the actual autofocusing time will be shorter.  If I am shooting hummingbirds, for example, I will set it to the closest range; whereas if I am shooting birds at a greater distance such as raptors, I will use the longest range.


I pre-focus on something that is about the same distance away as I expect the bird will be.  This speeds up the autofocus.  I can then focus on the bird more quickly when it does arrive.  I use the center focus point for birds in flight. I aim for the center of the body as the bird is so small and it's really tough to get the head. 

Bump Focus Technique:

Bump focus is simply letting off the focus and then refocusing quickly.  I learned this technique from a workshop presented by Jim Niger.  It is useful when you are tracking a bird in flight and you accidently focus on the background rather than the bird, and you want to return the focus to the bird as quickly as possible. 


First, make sure you have your camera set to acquire focus more quickly by setting the tracking sensitivity custom function on your camera to slow which gives the longest delay possible. 


Next, when you see a flying bird in the distance, look through your viewfinder and get it in focus. Then, let off the focus and just track it in the viewfinder.  As the distance changes and the bird gets out of focus, quickly obtain focus again by pointing at the center of the bird and focusing. 


Finally, when the bird is at the spot where you want to take photos, focus, and shoot in burst mode.  


All the best ~ Patricia



Susan Markovic(non-registered)
Thank you, thank you, thank you, for posting this! I'm simply amazed at your ability to catch perfect focus on birds in flight and try as I might, I miss shots most of the time when attempting BIF's. I will definitely try these techniques on my next outing.

Glad I found your website, Patrica!

Susie M
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