Bird Photography Guide – In-Flight Shots


For us bird photography, and in particular in-flight bird photography, is one of the trickiest. The subject is unpredictable and the contrast can cause big problems.

We’ve put this post together to share some advice with you as well as the settings we use to take our in-flight bird pictures.

Bird Photography - Steppe Buzzard

Steppe Buzzard – 1/3200 sec, F5.6, ISO 2500




The very first thing to be aware of is patience. There is no way around this, you have to be patient. Unless you are grabbing your camera to take a picture of something already in flight, you can expect to sit there, camera ready, for some time.

A good example is the Lilac-Breasted Roller. It is as if these birds can sense a camera pointed at them and will sit and pose for you, but not take flight. Not until your arm gets tired and you drop the camera anyway.

A tripod is very handy for these situations but it is not always possible, so be patient.

Focal Length

We advise you to not zoom in too close on birds until you have a lot of practice. If the bird you are photographing is perch and you are waiting for it to fly, especially for small quick birds, zoom out a little.

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Roller – 1/2000 sec, F5.6, ISO 500, 330mm

Our reaction time has a delay so the moment you press the shutter the bird will have moved in your frame.

If you are zoomed in too tight, you have the potential to have only half, or none, of the bird in your frame.

You can crop your image in post if you need to.

Bird Photography Camera Settings

Here are the settings we generally use when conducting in-flight bird photography:

  • Shutter Priority (Tv on Canon, S on Nikon) – You want to control the shutter speed of your camera.
  • Shutter Speed – We use one of two shutter speeds. 1/2000 for larger birds and less than ideal lighting. We’ll use 1/4000 for smaller birds and when there is very bright sunlight. Bird Photography, especially in-flight, uses these high shutter speeds to stop any blur in the wings but the trade-off is less light making it onto your sensor.
  • Exposure – Because of the high shutter speeds you are using, it is best to increase your exposure by one, or two stops. We usually use +1/3
  • ISO – It is best to have your ISO setting to auto. Let the camera decide how high this needs to be for the given shot.
  • Metering – We use spot meter for all our bird photography. More often than not we have a dark bird against the sky and in many of the other metering modes this can, and will, lead to your subject being under exposed.
  • Auto-Focus – Most of our wildlife photography is done with single-point (centre) auto-focus. DSLRs these days can evaluate your intended subject and focus accordingly, however, we prefer to have full control over this.
  • Auto-Focus Mode – We tend to use AI-Serco (AF-C on Nikon) for all our in-flight bird photography. You can use AI-Focus, however, we’ve never really been too comfortable with this and stick to servo.
  • Burst – When photographing birds in flight we always use burst shot. Very often we will fire off three, or four, shots to be sure we have the subject in focus. It tends to be the first shot is the best, yet for small birds it’s a good idea to have an extra shot or two in there to be sure.

These are not hard and fast rules. These are the settings we use and they have worked for us in the past. Leave a comment below if you feel there is something we can do better and we’re more than happy to try it out. There is always something to learn.

Practice, Practice and Practice Some More

White-Fronted Bee-Eater

White-Fronted Bee-Eater – 1/2000 sec, F5.0, ISO 3200, 300mm

As with everything, it’s difficult to become good at anything if you don’t practice.

Practice panning across the sky and keeping the subject in the middle of your frame.

Practice reaction times to birds taking off.

Play around with focal length. Once you are better at the above two pointsyou can tighten your zoom.

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