Tip of the Week – Birds in Flight

By customer contributor Stephen Johnson

The first thing one needs to master when photographing birds in flight is getting the right exposure with a fast enough shutter speed. Focusing and composition techniques are also key, but master the exposure and you’re well on your way to great shots of birds in flight.

My shutter speeds are normally 1/1600th sec. to 1/3200th sec. Hawks and Eagles fly slow enough that 1/1600th is sufficient as long as you’re close to the subject, have good light, and can just about fill the frame. If the subject is further away or the birds are smaller and faster, increase the shutter speed.

To ensure I am able to use these high shutter speeds under various lighting conditions I set the camera to Manual and the ISO to Auto which allows me to set my shutter speed & aperture manually and the automatically selected ISO will give me a proper exposure.

You should customize the high and low ISOs the camera will automatically select from. That is, make sure you are comfortable with the highest ISO you’ll let the camera go to. Take some test shots to see what an acceptable high ISO is for you.


Some cameras do not offer Auto ISO in manual mode, but worry not, there’re other techniques that will work.

You can use Shutter Priority, again with Auto ISO set. Set your desired shutter speed and the camera will select an aperture, and with Auto ISO set, you’ll get proper exposures. Be careful here though, if you see the aperture number blinking that means the camera is at its highest ISO and still needs more light – shoot with the aperture blinking and you’ll have darker than desired shots.

While Aperture Priority is an excellent way to shoot many things, for birds in flight it just leaves too much to chance in my personal opinion. With your aperture set wide open (low number) you will get the fastest shutter speed available for the current light condition. But you really must pay attention to what shutter speed the camera is selecting, if it drops too low your shots will be soft. Ideal conditions for Aperture priority would be a very bright day, with the sun behind you. You can even stop down your aperture for deeper depth of focus when it’s super bright, but ALWAYS keep your eye on the shutter speed the camera selects and adjust accordingly.


While composition is important, my first goal is always a sharply focused image. I find using a single AF point and spot metering to be the best practice. If my subject is too centered or the composition isn’t exactly to my liking I take some creative freedom with software.

One technique I employ frequently – if I know the direction the bird is coming from – is to position my body to be facing where the bird will exit. So when I start shooting my feet are facing in the opposite direction as my eyes. That way I am releasing wound up energy creating a smooth shooting action.

I’ve been shooting wildlife and birds for several years. I have studied hundreds of photographs and read about settings used by professionals for their bird in flight photos.

I started shooting with the Nikon D700 and the Tamron 200-500mm Lens. That lens has no image stabilization and it uses the camera’s motor to focus – so I had my work cut out for me. I made many successful shots with this setup though. The below Peregrine Falcon was shot with this combo at 1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 280  (auto ISO with manual settings).


Peregrine Falcons are the fastest birds on the planet. They have been clocked at 240 mph. When I got this Peregrine Falcon shot, I was with 5 or 6 other photographers. I shot the Peregrine handheld. Others in my group had gimbal heads and not a one of them got a shot off. The key is always higher shutter speeds.

I shot several of these photos with the Nikon D7100 and I am now using the Nikon D7200. I have also upgraded to the Tamron 150-600mm Lens. I prefer the DX Nikon Models over the full frame bodies because of the extra 1.5x reach I can get. I am very anxious to get my hands on the Nikon D500 when it becomes available.

I’ve also customized my camera’s shutter release button. By moving the AF to the back button I can lock focus with my thumb and the only job of the shutter release is to trip the shutter.  By using this technique I have more control of  keeping birds in focus throughout their flight. I recently photographed an eagle that made several passes over a small area of open water. I got 42 clear and detailed shots by using Back Button Focus.




I belong to the Depot Art Gallery in Littleton. I also enter into several juried gallery shows each year. I have belonged to the Englewood Camera Club for about 9 years now. I have served as President and I am currently the VP of Programs. I am also a Colorado native as were my parents and grandparents.

See more of Stephen’s work at his website
Email: stevej46@comcast.net

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