Birds In-Flight Photography

by Rob Mckay
December 24, 2010



 Hawk by Rob Mckay ©

I like all aspects of photography, but I guess I am best known for my birds in-flight work. Capturing BIF is thrilling and takes a lot of practice but the rewards are well worth it!


95% of the time I shoot in manual exposure mode, as I feel the "auto" metering in either aperture or shutter priority mode just can't handle birds in-flight and I don't want any surprises in my exposures. The reasons I shoot in manuel exposure mode and not in any of the "auto settings" are many, too many to get into here. I probably only use about 10% of the functions in my camera, all I need is a good size buffer, 5 or more frames per seconds, a good auto-focusing and tracking camera body and a sharp fast focusing lens. Things like metering don't come into play in manual exposure mode as well as a whole bunch of other stuff I don't use...

Snowy Owl by Rob Mckay ©

Some Tips:

I handhold all my shots as I feel I can quickly swing into position/action much faster than being attached to a tripod. Actually finding the bird in your viewfinder quickly and efficiently can be very difficult, and takes a lot of practice (and patience) to master. If you can lift the camera up to your eye and be on target or very close to it, you will get the shots you're after, but if you're searching for the bird in the viewfinder it's too late, the bird has flown the coop...On fast moving beasts and birds I keep both eyes open, one tracking in the viewfinder and the other seeing/tracking the animal in case it makes any sudden changes in direction that I can't see through the lens. This allows me to compensate quickly and track the bird regardless of it's flight path.

Rough-legged Hawk Dark Morph by Rob Mckay ©

Regarding ISO:
All cameras are different in the noise department, so use the setting that works best for your camera, but try to keep your shutter speed as high as possible. (1/1000th or more).

Wood Duck male in flight by Rob McKay ©

Shutter Speeds
: The faster the better, but I have photographed birds in flight while panning (left to right) at very slow speeds, set as low as 1/ 250th. Head-on incoming shots are different, you need a higher shutter speed for those types of shots. It also depends on the bird; shooting a huge eagle in flight is easy compared to an erratically flying swallow.


Prairie Falcon by  Rob McKay ©Focus points: I use one focus point, I don't use 3D tracking or multiple focus points as they slow down the overall focus speed of my camera. It's not noticeable on things like sports where large objects are in the viewfinder, but small fast moving beasts are much harder to keep track of. I also like to be in control of what is in focus or not, those auto settings sometimes pick out parts of the bird (tail feathers) on their own.

Lenses: I use a 300mm f/2.8 VR Nikon, but for years used a 300mm f/4 and loved it. I also have used the 500mm F/4. The key here is using a lens that is fast-focusing, but if you are shooting large birds, like eagles, geese etc., focus speed is not as important.

Tele-converters: They slow focus speed down so I don't use them much, but they can be used on slower birds.

You will miss lots of shots and have a lot of blurry files and empty frames of the sky to dump, especially in the beginning but when you start to really get those crisp in-flight shots (and you will), it will all be worth it.

Have fun and happy birding!





Rob McKay Calgary Photographer


Rob McKay: Photography is a passion of mine and I hope you enjoy these images as much as I do taking them. I specialize in Nature, wildlife, landscapes, weddings and event photography in and around the Calgary Alberta area.

Phone: 403 700-1264
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