Photographing Birds in Flight

When it comes to bird photography, there is nothing I love more than capturing an intimate portrait of a bird in its natural environment. Successfully creating an artistic photograph of a challenging bird on an appropriate perch is what I live for! That being said, there is also something thrilling and deeply satisfying about capturing an image of a bird in flight. For many bird photographers, this is the ultimate goal. After all, when you think of the defining characteristic of a bird, flight generally does come to mind. In this installment of The Joy of Bird Photography, I will share my top 10 strategies for successfully photographing birds in flight.

Equipment Matters

I am a big proponent of the fact that you do not need top-of-the-line-cameras to create fantastic images. However, more sophisticated camera bodies often have a second computer processor dedicated to auto-focus. This translates into real-world advantages when trying to photograph birds in flight. Similarly, professional-grade lenses with large maximum apertures will focus faster than consumer-grade lenses. Sometimes equipment DOES matter.

Fast Shutter Speeds

Capturing images of birds in flight requires fast shutter speeds. It is impossible to say exactly what shutter speed will be required. The faster the bird is flapping its wings, the faster the shutter speed will need to be. Make sure to adjust ISO and aperture settings so that you keep your shutter speeds up.


If you are anticipating photographing a bird at a certain distance, pre-focus your lens (manually or by auto focusing in the area where you expect them to be). This will make it easier for you to initially find the bird in your viewfinder and allow your auto-focus to lock faster.

Continuous AF

Whatever brand you shoot with, make sure you are using the predictive AF tracking mode (Canon calls this AI Servo). In this mode, you can lock focus on the flying bird from far away and then, by holding the shutter button down halfway, the camera will constantly keep the bird in focus as it gets closer to you.

AF Sensor Selection

Depending on the brand and model of camera that you use, you will have varying options for what auto-focus points are actively being used. I recommend using the center auto-focus point with some form of peripheral auto-assist focus points.

Limit the Lens

Many telephoto lenses allow the user to limit the range in which the auto-focus will search. For example, my 500mm lens has a setting for 10m to infinity. If I know that the flying bird is not going to come closer than 10m from me, I always use this setting. Doing so means that the auto-focus doesn’t have to hunt all the way back to 4m and drastically speeds up the rate at which focus is acquired.

Ditch the Tripod

For perched birds, I use a tripod 99.9% of the time. But when it comes to photographing birds in flight, I highly recommend hand-holding your gear. The freedom to move freely in all directions and pan comfortably will undoubtedly result in more keepers.

Study your Subject

Some birds fly in a straight line; others have undulating flight patterns. Perhaps the bird is flying in a predictable direction or towards a known location. As is the case in all types of bird photography, the more you know about your subject, the better you will fare.

“Pump” the Focus

If the camera does not lock on the subject quickly, rather than simply holding down the shutter button and hoping that it finds the subject, it is much better to “pump” the shutter button until the camera locks focus. Otherwise the auto-focus will simply go back and forth between infinity and the minimum focus distance of the lens.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Ultimately, being a proficient flight photographer requires good eye-to-lens coordination. This skill can only be developed from practice. Start with easy and readily available targets such as gulls and herons and then move on to more challenging subjects.

If you’re looking for more tips on photographing birds, learn more here:

Photographing Puffins Along Maine’s Coastline Fort Desoto: Photographing Birds Tips for Photographing Flying Birds How to Photograph Hummingbirds Native Bird Photography Tips in Natural Environments Photographing Birds: Capturing Spoonbills and Pelicans Photographing Birds: Tips and Techniques Photographing Birds Along a Rookery
glenn-bartley Glenn Bartley is a world-renowned professional nature photographer with a particular interest in photographing exotic birds. Along with being an OPG contributor, he leads photography workshops all around the world. Learn more about Glenn here.
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9 Responses to “Photographing Birds in Flight”

  1. George

    I would love to see him hand hold that 500 or 600mm L Prime lens panning. “Ditch the Tripod” Not a very practical suggestion if you are using the large Prime Lenses unless you are 21 and pump iron!

  2. David

    Just purchased a 500 mm pf Nikon lens to partner my d850. Really fast focus which is good . Will follow your lead and put some focus assist points in to help capture birds in flight.

  3. Peter

    I find birds flying towards me the most challenging. Do you have any suggestions for straight on shooting rather than profile flight shots?

    • Customer Service


      Yes, holding focus on objects heading towards the lens is the most challenging. How successful you are will depend on the optics and the design of the auto focus electronics.

      Actions you can take to improve your odds are:
      · Always shoot with the fastest shutter speed your camera and your tolerance for a higher ISO settings allow.
      · Make sure you are using the most recent camera firmware
      · Search on-line for the camera settings that will optimize your camera and lens for best tracking results
      · If you have questions contact the manufactures customer support to get their recommendations
      · You may find that your camera provides the best tracking using the center focus points, if so stick with those, this may mean you zoom out a bit, but a little cropping is worth a sharp focus.
      · If your camera system has the capability for micro-focus lens calibration run the protocol with your camera and lens.
      micro focus adjustment

      Happy Shooting!

      Outdoor Photography Guide

    • Colin Flatters

      I use a Nikon D850 an invariably use manual exposure and auto ISO and continuous AF servo (with back button focus). My Fn1 button switches to 9 point AF mode which is ideal if a bird suddenly takes flight, you can switch focus mode with your camera raised to your eye.