Tracking a Bird in Flight – Photography Tips, Part 1

Snow Goose taking off from water - high shutter speed, open aperture and panning used by Andy Long.

Putting everything together: A fast shutter speed (1/5000), a little more depth of field (F/5.6), Continuous Motor Drive, panning as the bird moved across the water, Center Focus Square, Servo to maintain focus, and timing all played a role in creating an image as the Snow goose takes off from the water.

Delete. Delete. Delete. Is this the routine after trying to capture that perfect bird in flight photo? Don’t feel bad, as even seasoned bird photographers will hit the delete button when reviewing images of birds in flight.

Here are some tips to increase the ratio of keepers to throw away images, even if it’s the first time trying to make that one great photo. Don’t go out with the mind-set of coming back with a lot of incredible images. Hope for just one or maybe a few and then hone the skills further each time out.


First things first! Get the camera and lens set up properly.

Snow Goose landing on the water - high shutter speed, open aperture and panning used by Andy Long.

The more practice time put in the higher the chances are of getting that desired photo. If you’re working on birds landing, pick a subject and stay with it, make the image and move to the next subject.


Of course a 600mm lens will provide the best images when the birds are far away, but a lens in the 100-400mm or 70-300mm range will work. Try adding a teleconverter to bring those birds in closer.

Depending upon how close the subject is going to be, the focusing distance range selector switch on the lens can be set to its furthest range if equipped with this. This shortens the range the lens goes through to lock a focus.


Manual Mode versus Aperture or Shutter Priority

Depending upon the lighting conditions, I will use either Manual or Aperture Priority Mode. Most of the time my preference is Aperture Priority, but if the setting has a colorful sunrise or sunset, I’ll use Manual Mode to get the exposure set for the scene and let the bird fall in where it is, usually as a silhouette.

When the light is very even and the subject is a bright white bird, I will get a Manual reading off of the bird and set the correct exposure and adjust accordingly if the light or background changes.

If you choose Shutter Priority you of course can stop the action, but you will not be able to control the aperture setting, meaning you will lose control over the depth of field

Setting the Focus

There is an option of either Selective Single Point Focus or Dynamic Focus.

Selective Single Point Focus uses a single square in the viewfinder for focusing on the subject. If your camera has this function, then you are able to select just one point from multiple focus points within the image frame as reference and quickly and easily change the point’s location once it becomes second nature to you.

If using single point, select the center square when possible, as it’s the strongest of all the squares for sharp focus.

Sandhill Crane taking off from water - stop action with high shutter speed, open aperture and panning used by Andy Long.

Depending on the preferred option, leaving room for the bird to move into the frame, plus a bit of space behind it, put the focus square on the right as this Sandhill Crane runs across the water.

Dynamic Focus uses all of the focus points and focuses on whatever subject is closest. Dynamic is good if the subject is in the sky and there are no elements to interfere with maintaining a clear focus. Where Dynamic Focus can be tough is when a bird is landing and there are other birds nearby. The focus could then switch to another bird in the foreground.

My preference is to use Selective Single Point Focus where I am constantly changing where the focus point is in the viewfinder. This allows me choose the subject’s place within the image frame quickly based on which direction the subject is facing and what the surroundings are.

AF Mode and Drive Mode

Two other things to set are AF Mode (One Shot, Continuous, or Servo) and Drive Mode (Single Shot, Continuous Low or Continuous High). The best option here is Servo for AF Mode as this allows the camera to use predictive auto-focus as the focus button is depressed and Drive at Continuous High so quick bursts can be made while the shutter button is pressed.


More often than not when creating photos of birds in flight, my preference is to use 1/3 to 1/2 stop down from the widest aperture. Thus, for an f/4 lens, use around f/5.6 to allow for a little more depth of field. This helps provide better sharpness to the tips of the wings, especially for a larger bird such as a heron, egret or crane.

Snow Goose in mid-air flight with blue sky background - high shutter speed, open aperture and panning used by Andy Long.

Using a wider depth of field, here f/5.6 on an f/4 lens, allowed some sharpness on the wings as well as the head of this Snow Goose. By positioning the goose in the lower left corner, one gets a sense of it rising and flying into the sky.

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is critical for getting a sharp subject, especially if the panning motion is not constant with the movement of the bird. Several years ago I stressed not using a shutter speed of less than 1/1000th of a second. Now, with cameras able to work extremely well at higher ISOs, my preference is closer to 1/2000th of a second to freeze the movement.

Reddish Egret catching food - high shutter speed and continuous shoot used by Andy Long.

Even if your goal is to practice making images of birds in flight, don’t forget to look for other photo opportunities. Using Continuous High and a fast shutter speed of 1/2500 second allowed for a quick burst of shots to be taken as this Reddish Egret was feeding.

Hand-held or Tripod

Each photographer has their own preferable method. Some people felt more comfortable hand-holding the camera while others prefer using a tripod. The larger the lens, the more important it is to use a tripod. If hand holding, it’s critical to have the fastest shutter speed possible to guarantee a sharp image. If using a tripod, a gimbal-type head such as a Wimberley works great for moving subjects. If using a ball head or pan and tilt head, loosen them just slightly so there is free range of movement, but not too loose – don’t allow the camera to fall to the side when hands-free.

In Part 2 I’ll give some tips and techniques on how to get focused on the bird and how to stay with it so you’ll be able to make some stunning images of your own.

The info above is just a small portion of the information that will appear in Andy’s next eBook – Bird Photography Tips and Techniques.

by Andy Long
First Light Photo Workshops
All text & photos: © 2013 Andy Long. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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