My first foray in to bird photography began a few years ago. I found it extremely difficult to find information all layed out in front of me that would help me with my birds in flight camera settings. I found people in certain forums who would ask for money in exchange to simple camera settings. The good news is that I was able to gather all the necessary basic information in bits and pieces. I took that info and made a reference that I used.
I wrote this post in order to help others have all the basic camera settings that are useful for birds in flight photography.
I am admittedly quite a novice when it comes to bird photography. If you look around the internet you’ll find far more talented photographers with most likely far better advice. Although I am not claiming to be an expert on the subject, I do understand cameras and know how they work. So I believe sharing the settings I use might help others get their camera settings ready for birds in flight.
If you set up your camera properly, you can then take more time to focus on (no pun intended 🙂 ) what really makes a great bird photos. Those things would be positioning, light, knowing bird behavior, panning technique, etc.
Here are my basic camera settings when photographing birds.
Please note that this post refers to certain settings as Nikon calls them (DX for crop mode, Dynamic Area AF, etc.). However all of these settings are universal no matter what camera you have. So all these settings that I have laid out here will be applicable to you no matter what you shoot with.
Nikon D850, Tamron 150-600 G2 lens, Tamron 1.4x Teleconverter, @ 550 mm, 1/2500 sec, f/8.5, ISO 1800
Birds in flight Camera Settings Summary
I’m going to begin with just the settings. If you would like to see a more detailed description of the settings check below.
- RAW, compressed (lossless if possible, 12-bit
- Crop Mode on if you want smaller files
- Continuous autofocus mode (AF-C)
- AF-C autofocus priority set to “release”
- 9 (d9) or 25 (d25) point dymanic AF area
- “Continuous High” burst mode
- Matrix Metering Mode
- Wide aperture (f/4-f/5.6 is a good starting point)
- Fast shutter speed – minimum 1/1600 sec; but I prefer 1/2500 sec or faster
Nikon D850, Tamron 150-600 G2 lens, Tamron 1.4x Teleconverter, @ 550 mm, 1/2500 sec, f/8.5, ISO 640
Detailed Birds in Flight Camera Settings
Here are more details on all the birds in flight camera settings listed above including why I chose what I did.
RAW Bit Depth and Compression
I always shoot in RAW for more freedom in post processing. This is true for any type of photography that I do. For birds, I would suggest using 12-bit RAW and turning on compression (lossless compression if possible). This will give you smaller files so your camera can clear it’s buffer quicker.
My D850 can shoot Large RAW, Medium RAW, and Small RAW if I choose to. Large RAW files are the full 46MP of the sensor, Medium RAW files are 26MP, and Small RAW files are 11MP. This would be a good option if you want smaller files.
Personally, I shoot at the full 46MP of Large RAW. This will let me crop in more if I need to later.
If you wan’t to make your files even smaller, you could turn on crop mode (or DX-mode in the Nikon world) if your camera allows it.
You want to be on continuous autofocus mode (AF-C). When shooting any moving objects, especially birds in flight, you will want the autofocus to be continually working for you.
This setting will be deep in your camera’s menu. Refer to your camera’s manual to find it. In the Nikon world its A1 in the custom settings. With this setting you can tell your camera when to take a picture when autofocusing. You have two options. The first is to take a picture only when focus is achieved. This means that you can press the shutter button but your camera will not begin the exposure until focus is locked. You don’t want this. You’ll want to set your priority to the second option, Release, which is to take a photo whenever the shutter is pressed.
You camera is most likely defaulted to the Release option so you might not have to worry about this.
You will want to set your camera to Dynamic Area AF (at least that’s what Nikon calls it). This setting allows you to choose how many focus points your camera will use. If your subject leaves the main focus point, common when panning, then one of the neighboring focus points will take over.
I seemed to have really good luck using 9-point dynamic-area AF (d9). This will use the selected focus point and all the points immediately around it.
For really fast moving birds, or small birds, you could try 25 points or more and see if you get better luck.
This setting, also called continuous shooting mode, is where you set your frames per second. You’ll want this as high as your camera will go. My Nikon cameras have a mode dial on top of the camera with CL and CH options. I set mine to CH to ensure I’ll take photos as fast as the camera can handle.
Focus Tracking with Lock On
This is a setting deep in your camera’s menu that will tell your camera what to do if something gets in between you and your subject. For example, your panning with a bird and a fellow photographer’s head gets in the way. Your camera will then change to focus on the photographer and you’ll have to regain focus on the bird. This setting will allow you to choose whether or not your camera will switch to focus on the head or stay with the bird.
Changing this setting to short time or OFF will tell the camera to focus on whatever is in frame the head or the bird. Setting to a longer time will tell the camera to hold off on changing focus and stay with the bird.
I keep my setting at my camera’s default. Check out this link for more info on how this setting works: http://darrellyoung.blogspot.com/2011/09/using-focus-tracking-with-lock-on.html
I set my camera on matrix metering mode. This works best for me because it’s more predictable when using any auto exposure modes such as shutter priority or auto-ISO. When using center weighted or spot metering, the instant your subject leaved the center or focus point, your metering will go wild and you’ll get either overexposed or underexposed images.
I like to set my camera to Auto-ISO. Then I can set my aperture at the widest the lens will allow, which is important when using slower super-telephoto zooms. I can also set my shutter speed wherever I want. Having auto-ISO enabled means I will get good exposure for every shot.
If you need to adjust make adjustments to your exposure your can use exposure compensation to fine tune auto-ISO.
You’ll want a fairly wide aperture because you want to allow as much light in to your exposure as possible in order to reduce ISO. With the consumer focused superzoom lenses such as the popular 150-600 lenses from Tamron and Sigma, you can probably just set your aperture to the widest point (f/6.3) and forget about it.
Fast Shutter Speed
With birds in flight you’ll want a fast shutter speed to freeze their motion and eliminate camera shake if hand holding. I would suggest a minimum of 1/1600 sec to get good shots. Though I would prefer 1/2000 or faster.
Nikon D850, Tamron 150-600 G2 lens, Tamron 1.4x Teleconverter, @ 600 mm, 1/2000 sec, f/8.5, ISO 500
I Hope This Helps!
With so many types of photography, including landscapes, knowing camera settings from a photo won’t really help you with your own photos. In bird photography, knowing how to prepare your camera for bird photography is super important. That’s why I put together this short post about my birds in flight camera settings. I hope you can find it useful.
If you would like to check out some of my recent bird photos, check out my wildlife gallery.
Nikon D850, Tamron 150-600 G2 lens, Tamron 1.4x Teleconverter, @ 550 mm, 1/2500 sec, f/8.5, ISO 2500