how many focus points for birds in flight

Recently, you learned on Photography Life what the best camera settings are when photographing birds. Today’s article takes a more detailed look at bird behavior, biology, and environment. The goal is to teach you how anticipate what birds will do, and ultimately reach the holy grail: to take very sharp, high-quality photos of birds in flight.

Birds have always stimulated the human imagination. In some historic cultures, birds have been so privileged that they have even entered the exclusive company of human gods and goddesses. Whether it was the Greek Harpies, the Egyptian Hor, or the Phoenix, birds have always been part of peoples’ mythologies across the world.

What is is that fascinates humans about these feathered creatures, which inhabit our planet in approximately eleven thousand species? The answer must be sought in the ability of birds, which we humans can only clumsily imitate: the ability to fly.

Whatever you do as a photographer, it is always useful to learn as much as you can about the subject you are photographing. This is all the more important when we are dealing with the most agile creatures on our planet, which can easily outmaneuver an unprepared photographer. I highly recommend learning as much as possible about birds if you are interested in photographing them, especially in birds in flight…

Get Familiar with Your Gear

Even with low-cost lenses and other inexpensive equipment, you can still take quality bird photos. But you must at the very least understand how to use it. So allow me to walk you through how to set up your camera so that you can capture the best possible images of birds in flight.

Few photographic genres require as much focus speed as taking pictures of birds in flight. In what way should your camera be configured to follow them?

First, keep continuous focus (AF-C) active at all times. As a result, the camera will be able to respond to changes in your proximity to the flying bird continuously.

I advise you to set your focus activation to back-button focus, also known as the AF-On button, if you haven’t already. You now have complete control over when your camera begins to focus automatically. When a bird is perched on a branch, all you have to do is press the AF-On button briefly to capture the perfect shot without having to focus again. When a bird flies and spreads its wings, press and hold to have the camera follow focus the entire way.

Because back button focus is so easy to use and understand, Photography Life frequently discusses it in great detail. But it takes some getting used to. Consequently, I advise practicing AF-On on city pigeons, seagulls, or other common and easy-to-photograph birds if you’re new to it.

Additionally, you can experiment with changing how quickly the camera responds when a bird flies past the focus points and back into view. On Nikon, this feature is called focus tracking with lock-on. The longer the value (1 to 5) is, the longer the camera will pause before shifting its focus. This is useful if the head is momentarily obscured by something (like a wing, branch, or other passing bird) or if you are unable to maintain the focus point precisely on the head. In general, I recommend values between 3 and 5. Similarly, lean toward the higher values on non-Nikon cameras.

The next question involves focusing modes. Depending on the type of camera you have, this is where things get a little tricky: which one is best suited for taking pictures of birds in flight?

For example, I have been shooting with Nikon models for a long time, so I have the most experience with them. You can use a different number of autofocus points depending on the model of camera. Nikon’s most sophisticated DSLRs feature 153 (Nikon D500/D850/D5) or 105 (Nikon D6) Mirrorless cameras aren’t necessarily faster, even though they typically have more total points.

You can adjust the focus area’s size and whether it can move to follow the motion of the subject with any of these cameras.

Forget about the single point option (where you select one autofocus point that doesn’t track movement across the frame) unless you are a champion skeet shooter. Maintaining a single focus point on the head of a swiftly flying bird through manual means is not only impractical but also superfluous.

Instead, use the autofocus points to help each other. One of the surrounding points may take over the primary focusing point’s function if you don’t align the bird’s eye precisely with it. It is up to you how many of these “helpers” you designate for the main point. These are the Dynamic Area mode options on Nikon DSLRs. You can select D-9, D-25, D-72, or D-153 to determine the number of assist points you want for the primary autofocus point. Although there are fewer options for Dynamic Area on Nikon’s mirrorless cameras, they typically provide at least D-9

Usually, I choose a value that is closer to the lower end of this range, D-25. Since autofocus points behave similarly to your coworkers in your organization, why not select D-153 to use all focus points at once and improve your chances of getting the perfect shot? The longer it takes for them to reach a decision, the more factors you include in the process.

Group AF is another well-liked mode for taking pictures of birds in flight. This mode works best, in my opinion, when taking pictures of birds that fly straight at you. This is due to Group AF’s propensity to favor nearby subjects over Dynamic Area. Usually, the head of the bird that is flying toward you is the one closest to your camera. Group AF is found on Nikon’s newest DSLRs. You can accomplish something similar with a Nikon mirrorless camera by choosing between medium and large area AF boxes.

For photographing birds in flight, Group AF (or medium/large area AF) is frequently quite helpful. The only exception is if the bird flies in a direction other than directly toward you, in which case Group AF might lock onto its wingtip rather than its eye because it prefers closer subjects.

The remaining mode is called 3D Tracking. This is the time when you let your subject move across the frame automatically with your focus point. It sounds really alluring, but I’d rather not do it if I want to take pictures of birds in flight. Despite the fact that 3D tracking is becoming more and more rapid with most cameras on the market, it is still unable to keep up with the swiftest flying birds. Most of the time, I would prefer to use Group AF or Dynamic Area.

However, when I mentioned that the camera determines focus, that is particularly true for mirrorless cameras. Depending on the mirrorless camera you use, focus performance and tracking capabilities can vary greatly, from appalling to superior to any DSLR.

For instance, the 3D Tracking focusing mechanism on the Nikon Z9, Sony A9/A9 II/A1, and Canon R6/R5 may be quick enough to track a bird in flight without any problems. It might even be able to choose your subject for you automatically, sometimes even choosing each individual eye. As I previously mentioned in my piece on the Nikon Z9, this feature functions flawlessly in real life. While experts can still achieve better retention rates with consistent practice in other modes, this tracking method is currently the most “set it and forget it” option available for taking pictures of birds in flight.

The foundation of the technical aspect of photography is still the holy trinity of exposure, even in the age of the newest digital cameras. That is, the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO three major settings.

A fast-moving bird’s ability to remain sharp or exhibit motion blur is greatly influenced by the shutter speed. Your depth of field is determined by your aperture, which also lets you capture more light in low light. Finally, if your shutter speed and aperture weren’t able to capture enough light, ISO will reveal ugly noise and brighten the image even more as needed.

Generally, you need a shutter speed between 1/1250 and 1/8000 of a second in order to freeze movement. This is mostly dictated by the kind of bird and how it flies. Smaller birds—songbirds, for example—move more quickly and erratically. We would therefore be wise to set a fast shutter speed. A glider pelican, a condor, or a slow-moving heron, on the other hand, will permit a comparatively longer shutter speed without raising the possibility of motion blur.

It also depends on when you take the picture. A hummingbird, for instance, can flap its wings at a rate of about 80 strokes per second. This happens so quickly that, even at 1/4000 of a second, the wings may become noticeably blurry. If you’d like to capture this moment in time, you could snap a picture at precisely the moment when the hummingbird’s wings are facing either forward or backward. Of course, no photographer can time this with skill, but you can time it with a lot of luck and a lot of frames per second on your camera!

In terms of aperture, I believe that the sweet spot is between f/5 6 and f/8. This range of aperture settings will yield a sufficient depth of field to make up for any focus errors and bring the majority of the bird into crisp focus. On the other hand, wider apertures like f/2. 8 to f/4 are well-liked by some bird photographers because they provide exceptionally creamy out-of-focus backgrounds and let in more light. If having the sharpest subject possible is my top priority, I usually avoid those apertures.

Then it simply comes down to ISO. After achieving a desired shutter speed and aperture, I would like my camera to automatically adjust the ISO to a setting that will result in a correctly exposed picture. I therefore use manual mode along with Auto ISO. I monitor my ISO to make sure it stays below 4000, which is about as high as I feel comfortable with; if it does, I try to open up my aperture a little. If not, I’ll try to avoid motion blur by extending my shutter speed.

The only minor issue with this method is that it might want to use Auto ISO at a lower value than base ISO when shooting in extremely bright conditions. Because of this, some bright-light bird photographers would rather use Auto ISO in conjunction with Aperture Priority mode than manual Although the aperture priority Auto ISO method is more complex, it solves the base ISO issue and performs otherwise in a manner akin to manual mode Auto ISO.

Remember that the resulting exposure settings are always a matter of compromise in the real world. In many situations, an ISO of 100, an aperture of f/8, and a shutter speed of 1/8000 second would produce technically flawless results. However, since I don’t live on the sun, I don’t even need to check the exposure statistics of the images in my archive to tell you that I’ve never taken a picture using those settings. So, everything is a compromise.

Lastly, there are instances in which using the recommended camera settings will not result in crisp images. Not only should you shoot at night, but you should also shoot during the day if there is atmospheric distortion. In fact, it may be nearly impossible to get sharp photos due to the billowing mass of warm air that stands between you and the flying bird. There are moments when even the skies conspire against us, leaving us with little choice but to relax in a hammock and sip some alcohol.

The meter on your camera tells it how much light is entering the lens. Most cameras have at least three metering modes to choose from: spot, center-weighted, and evaluative (also known as matrix) metering.

I suggest using center-weighted and evaluative metering for photos of birds in flight. However, in these circumstances, unusual subjects like a dark raven flying against sand or snow, or a white egret against a dark background, can be exposed incorrectly.

Spot metering is the best option on most cameras in situations like this because it will prioritize the exposure of your focus point. (Note that spot metering is practically useless for birds in flight on some older cameras since it measures a point in the exact center of the frame rather than your focus point. Spot metering is sometimes the best way to meter a complex scene because it is more sensitive than the other metering modes. However, you’ll probably need to use exposure correction to fine-tune it.

I suggest always keeping your camera settings as “generalist” as possible, including the metering mode and everything else, if you don’t have a specific subject in mind like that. For instance, put Auto ISO on, change to manual mode, set metering to matrix, shutter speed to 1/2000, and aperture to f/5. 6. Although those settings won’t work best for every shot of a bird in flight, they’re generally sharp enough that you can respond quickly to any situation that presents itself (and quickly change to something like 1/4000 or f/4 if the situation calls for it)

In bird photography, the question of whether to use a handheld camera or a tripod is always present.

If your supertelephoto lens is an older generation (400 to 600mm), it will take a few seconds to respond to your trembling biceps, aching back, and inability to compose a fast-moving bird with accuracy. However, this is not always the case with lighter, more recent telephoto lenses, particularly those with shorter focal lengths or narrower maximum apertures.

When you’re waiting for a shot, the tripod will come in most handy. This is usually near a bird nest, or alternatively in a hide. You can aim your lens permanently at an object that you know will move, like a flower, river, or nest, by using a tripod. As soon as a bird appears, you can take the initial shot in a split second. This isn’t possible handheld.

With a tripod, you can occasionally even arrange the precise shot in advance and wait for the right moment to take the picture. That’s what I did with the photo below. I used my shutter speed and aperture settings (1/1250 second and f/5) to get a sharp picture. 6). I even disabled autofocus, preferring to focus beforehand on the location where I knew the bird would be. All I had to do was press the shutter and pray when the common starling landed. A high-FPS burst was helpful, but the majority of the work went into taking this long photo before I actually did. Shooting in this way is unthinkable without a tripod.

Moments like these remind me of hunting almost as much as they do of photography. The fact that “to shoot” is a synonym for “to photograph” is not accidental. A tripod is essential to the process of getting great shots while you wait for your subject to arrive. Again, practice makes perfect.

In the event that you intend to remain stationary and utilize a gimbal head for composition, a tripod may also be helpful. This is frequently the best course of action if you’re in an area like Bosque del Apache where a lot of birds are congregated. Much of the compositional flexibility of handheld shooting is retained when using a gimbal head, but it is lighter on your shoulders. But a gimbal is bulky and heavy, so carrying your tripod on long hikes is more difficult.

Therefore, when you need to reduce weight, shooting handheld (or with a monopod) is always a backup option. Even for several hours at a time, shooting handheld with lighter telephoto lenses won’t tire out your arms, and hiking long distances with your setup is much simpler when the tripod stays at home. Handheld photography is certainly feasible for taking pictures of birds in remote locations or while rushing and unable to set up a tripod.

You now know how to properly adjust your camera and have a basic understanding of bird behavior. Finding a good spot to take bird photos and creating a compelling shot are the last steps. I’ll cover those on the next page of this tutorial.

Making sure you have the appropriate camera gear is the first step if you’re just starting out with bird photography. The right equipment can make bird photography an enjoyable experience. Additionally, it can significantly raise your odds of getting a picture of the birds in flight. Here are some things to take into account when choosing the right camera gear to capture images of birds in flight.

I currently use the digital cameras Canon IDX, 7D Mark II, and 5D Mark III. My camera lens arsenal consists of Canon 70-200 f/2. 8 IS II, Canon 300mm f/2. 8 IS II, and Canon 600mm f/4 IS II. I have access to 1. 4x and 2. 0x tele-converters, Wimberley WH 200 Gimbal head. I also use the crop sensor on the Canon 7D because it extends your focal length without the need for a teleconverter, giving you additional reach.

Photographing birds in flight, in particular, calls for a great deal of patience and experience in bird photography. In addition to having the appropriate equipment and knowing how to use it, photographers also need to know what settings to use in different situations and how to compose stunning shots of birds. I go over the key ideas for taking pictures of birds in flight with you in this post. In addition, I expand on each principle.

The majority of fixed and zoom lenses are not very effective at scouting for birds over great distances. Photographers typically capture birds that are at or flying from various distances. Assume for the moment that you have just finished pre-focusing your lens after photographing a cormorant that was five meters away. Suddenly, a goose that was thirty meters away flies by. In this case, you won’t have enough time to find the goose in the viewfinder. The best course of action in these circumstances is to determine the flight path, manually focus to 30 meters, and then allow the lens to acquire focus. Remember that when your subject is heading straight towards you, the automatic focus system in your camera won’t be able to keep up with their rapid movement if they are moving too quickly. It is preferable in this case to concentrate on a point that the subject will pass through. When the subject approaches that location, begin shooting in continuous or AI Servo mode and continue until the subject passes the focus point.

Once you’ve chosen your gear, be sure you understand how to operate it. Having the appropriate equipment and knowing how to use it well are essential, but so is knowing which settings to use in certain situations. Here are camera setting options for photographing birds in flight.

Get Familiar with Bird Biology

You should first become familiar with a few planning principles in order to be able to predict a bird’s flight path with at least some chance of success.

The first is the principle of the nest. Typically, birds care for their young in a nest, and the parents often go and come back to feed the chicks. As such, if you are near a bird’s nest, you should anticipate increased activity and plenty more photo opportunities.

It’s helpful to watch the bird from a distance over several days in order to get a sense of its daily routine while you wait for it to return to its nest. The time of day and duration that the parents typically leave the nest in search of food, whether there are still eggs in the nest or if the parents have already begun reading their nestlings, are all important questions to ask yourself. This observational period also helps you determine how long of a lens you might need and how to approach the nest to a photographable distance without disturbing its occupants.

When it comes to cavity nesters, such as woodpeckers, toucans, bee-eaters, parrots, and many owl species, we can frequently determine where the parent will be coming from based on the location of the entrance hole. However, if a bird builds its own nest on a tree or something similar, it may be more difficult to predict which way it will fly. Therefore, figuring out the ideal angle for a photo may require some trial and error.

Occasionally, a bird may react strongly to human presence and attempt to flee from us in distress. We are, after all, the world’s top predators and a possible danger to their nests. This is particularly true in areas with a high density of people and dogs.

Other birds react to humans in a different way. You have undoubtedly witnessed pigeons and seagulls swarming to individuals holding bread. However, some bird species will actively attack people! You may understand what I mean if you’ve ever been close to a nesting pair of Great Skuas. There is an imperceptible boundary of acceptance in the verdant environment where they reside. A nesting pair will rise into the air and attack you like a pair of jet fighters if you cross it. You’ll face blows from their beaks and sharp talons. An opportunity for photography? Only if you’re crazy.

Beware, some bird species are particularly sensitive to disturbance. There’s a great chance they’ll abandon their nest, particularly when they’re building it or hatching their eggs. Please remember not to overindulge in your desire to snap pictures. Pack up your belongings and depart if you have any doubts. Ultimately, attempting to capture this image just once could permanently frighten the bird away, which would be detrimental to both the bird and your long-term photography.

Certain bird species have designated roosts that they occupy on a regular basis and seldom venture from. I can think of several species of parrots, ravens, and cattle egrets. Here are places where you can take your time and take pictures without rushing. For nocturnal species, you can even carry on after dusk, and the bird will frequently stay in the same location.

Another principle of photographing birds is food. Anywhere they find appropriate food in the right habitat, birds can be seen.

Keep an eye out for where waterbirds feed or hide to find food. Look for trees and shrubs in the woodland that draw hungry birds from far and wide. Insect-eating and predatory birds from the Steppe region look for high perches from which to hunt their prey.

Naturally, a lot of birds enjoy the food that we prepare for them. That is demonstrated by the abundance of bird feeders and the elderly women who sit on benches and feed the pigeons. For better or worse, feeders can present chances to take pictures of birds that would be hard to come by in the absence of the feeder. I estimate that 99.99% of all hummingbird photos are taken at a man-made feeder, and the majority of the remaining 1% are taken at flowers that draw the hummingbirds (which is a type of feeder in and of itself).

No matter which specific food source you scout out, you’ll quickly become adept at reading the movements and habits of the birds. Hummingbirds, for instance, frequently visit single flowers and always face the same way. Hummingbirds also frequently spend a brief period of time hovering close to a flower before taking off again to re-dip their long tongues in the delicious nectar. Try to get both of these quick little guys’ relatively still moments on camera.

Though artificial or natural food sources frequently provide still images of the bird eating, they also present an excellent chance to capture flying shots of the bird as it approaches the food. Often, this is the greatest method for taking pictures of tiny songbirds, which are hard to catch in flight.

To be more precise, before approaching the food source, birds frequently like to perch nearby (which may be an excellent opportunity to take a photo of them perched on a branch, but that is not the subject of this article). From this perch, the bird will assess the surroundings for a short while before deciding which path to take to reach the food.

Over time, observing them in this manner will provide you with a clear understanding of the anticipated flight path of the approaching bird. With your composition and autofocus system, tracking the bird will be (relatively) simple. With manual focus, you might even be able to pre-compose and pre-focus before snapping the picture right when the bird crosses at the desired location.

I’ll discuss the camera settings I suggest in this and other similar situations later in the post.

The last behavioral principle I’ll talk about is flight path. A cursory look up at the sky gives us the impression that birds fly in all directions and that attempting to predict their direction of flight is about as accurate as forecasting the weather in April. But this isn’t entirely true.

Actually, the two flight phases that make for the most visually appealing photos are e. take off and landing – are guided by certain rules. Birds enjoy flying against the wind during both of these phases. Therefore, if the wind is in your favor, you can expect to get beautiful frontal views of landing birds in your photos.

Birds utilize a magnetic compass in addition to wind direction for navigation. Waterfowl prefer to land in a north-south direction unless doing so fundamentally contradicts with the wind direction. This makes determining the best position to get the best angles for your shot fairly simple.

Photographers frequently stress the need of understanding their subject, but when it comes to taking pictures of birds in flight, these are some specific things that they mean. If you’re trying to take pictures of a particular species, you can also go deeper by reading up on birds and spending time in the field.

However, as important as it is to understand bird behavior, you should also become familiar with your equipment as a photographer. I will discuss that on the following page of this guide.


How many focus points do you need for bird photography?

For wildlife photography, using a single focus point is usually best; you can then select which of your camera’s focus points (they have between 6 and 75!)

What focus mode should I use for bird photography?

In bird photography, only the One-Shot AF and AI Servo AF modes are used. The AI Servo AF mode is probably the most frequently used mode for capturing birds in motion. Once the focus is set, it will remain fixed even if the camera moves. Suited for non-moving subjects.

What focal length for birds in flight?

The most important consideration when photographing birds is the focal length, referred to in no. 2, above. If possible, it is best to use a lens with a focal length of 300mm or longer; using a lens that is at least 250mm is highly recommended, because it will enlarge birds that are far away.