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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials

Birds in Flight: Camera Settings to Increase Your Successful Shots

When photographing a bird in action, getting the bird in focus is easier said than done. The new EOS iTR AF X system on the EOS R5 and EOS R6 easily detects the body, head, and even the eyes of birds, but for some tricky scenes, some tweaks in the menu could help it to perform even better. Professional photographer Neo Ng, whose love for photographing action takes him where the diving and hunting birds are on his days off from shooting sports, shares some tips. (Reported by: Neo Ng)

 

Before the shoot: Basic settings for optimum response

Different genres of photography have different optimum settings, and the beauty of advanced cameras like the EOS R5 and EOS R6 is how much you can customise them to suit your scene and preferences.

When shooting very fast but unpredictable subjects such as flying and diving birds, every single fraction of a second counts. Camera models like the EOS R5, EOS R6, and EOS-1D X Mark III are already built for speed and have excellent AF performance, but there are things that you can do to reduce the chances of camera lag, too! Here are some:

- Shoot in Manual or Shutter-priority AE (Tv) mode with a fixed ISO speed

When you use an auto-exposure mode, the camera has to constantly meter and calculate the best exposure, which slows its response by a precious split second. On a mirrorless camera, it could also contribute to EVF lag as the camera updates the display in real time. The best way to reduce the processing needed is to use full Manual mode.

However, there are scenes where an auto-exposure mode might be useful, such as when the bird flies from a bright area into a dark one. In such situations, use Tv mode to maintain a fast shutter speed, but set ISO speed manually instead of using ISO Auto. The camera will still have to update the EVF display, but at least it won't have to keep recalculating the best ISO speed. 


- Turn off High ISO speed noise reduction

You will need very fast shutter speeds, so be prepared to use a high ISO speed too. However, turning on high ISO speed noise reduction could slow down continuous shooting speed and result in missed shots. This is why it helps to have a camera with excellent high ISO speed capabilities!


- Turn off Continuous AF

In Continuous AF (different from Servo AF mode), the camera carries out focus detection even before you press the button to start AF. Reduce power consumption by turning it off in the camera's AF menu.


- On a mirrorless camera: Turn off ‘Image Review’; set the EVF display performance to ‘Smooth’

This allows you to keep up with the action better through the EVF.

 

Remember to check these too!

The following settings are basics for photographing birds and other wildlife, but it’s easy to forget them:


- Subject to Detect: Animals

When photographing birds, cats, or dogs, remember to switch to ‘Animals’ for better subject recognition.


- Eye Detection: Enable

This is disabled by default, so check that it’s enabled!


- AF operation: Servo AF

In this mode, the camera will keep focusing on a moving subject as long as you half-press the shutter or hold down the AF ON button. The AF point will be blue, instead of green.


- Lens IS – Off (for sharper shots when using a tripod.)

Now that you are all set, the other settings will depend on the scene. In the following, I share my recommended settings for three birds-in-flight scenarios.

 

Scene 1: Waterbirds taking off from the water

EOS R5 + EF600mm f/4L IS III USM @ f/4, 1/4000 sec, ISO 1000
Little Grebe

If you are new to photographing flying birds, swimming birds are probably among the easiest to start with. They are easy to spot, and the predictable movement direction makes it easier to keep them in focus. The tricky part is the sudden acceleration when they start to fly.


Key AF settings

- AF method: Face Detection + Subject Tracking Priority
- Servo AF Characteristic: “Accel./Decel. Tracking” to +1 or +2


Technique

Use the initial Servo AF point to pick up the bird while it is swimming, and follow it until it flies.


Useful setting 1: Initial Servo AF point

Under the default (‘Auto’) settings, the camera searches for the best AF point over the entire AF area. Setting an initial Servo AF point “tells” the camera where to start searching, which speeds up the process.


Step 1: In your AF menu, look for this item:


Step 2: Select the second item on the menu.

This option also lets you keep the same AF point even when you switch from Face Detection + Subject Tracking Priority mode to another AF mode.


Step 3: Place the AF point over the subject.

The small box in the middle is the initial Servo AF point. Place it over the bird, and half-press the shutter/press the AF ON button. The camera should find the subject quite easily, and once in focus, the box will turn blue. It might also change size depending on the subject. All you need to do next is to keep the bird in frame.

 

Tip: Resetting the AF point to centre

Depending on your previous image, the initial Servo AF point might not be in the centre when you restart shooting. On the EOS R5 and EOS R6, by default, pressing the Multi-controller will reset the AF point to the centre. You can also assign other buttons to be the shortcut.


Useful setting 2: Servo AF characteristic – ‘Accel./decel. Tracking’ to +1 or +2

The sudden take-off movement requires tracking to accelerate. I used Servo AF Case 3, but you might want to decrease the default tracking sensitivity if there are distractions nearby. Alternatively, use Case 4.

EOS R5 + EF600mm f/4L IS III USM @ f/4, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1000

 

2.  Small, very fast-moving birds right before they land

EOS R5 + EF600mm f/4L IS III USM @ f/4, 1/3200 sec, ISO 1600, EV -1
Common Kingfisher 

The fast movement of small birds such as kingfishers makes it challenging to anticipate their movements. But by observing the bird closely over time, you will be about to predict where it will land. The moments before it lands can also result in rather unique shots!


Key AF settings

- AF method: Face Detection + Subject Tracking Priority OR Zone AF
- Servo AF Characteristic: Case 3


Technique

Use the Initial Servo AF point to pre-focus on the area where you expect the bird to land.


Useful setting 1: AF Case 3

A good setting to pair with pre-focusing with the initial Servo AF point is Servo AF Case 3. With this, the AF finds and locks onto the bird more easily once it enters the AF point.


Useful setting 2: Zone AF/Large Zone AF

If there are distractions in the background and you want to reduce the chances of focus hunting, try switching to the Zone AF method, which limits the AF area. Note that Animal Eye Detection is not available in this mode.

In Zone AF mode, the camera conducts AF detection only within the area in the white frame. The active AF point(s) appear as blue boxes. The Large Zone AF modes have a bigger AF frame.


EOS R5 + EF600mm f/4L IS III USM @ f/4, 1/3200 sec, ISO 1600, EV -1

Why not use the settings above to capture your own improved version of this masterpiece?

 

Scene 3: When another bird gets in the way

EOS R5 + EF300mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ f/3.5, 1/5000 sec, ISO 400
Black-naped tern 

Terns usually fish in flocks, and when hunting for food, their flight path is quite unpredictable, so there is a high chance of other birds flying in the way even when you want a solo shot of just one bird.


Key AF settings

- Face Detection + Subject Tracking Priority AF
- Switching tracked subjects: Enable (slow)


Technique

Use the initial Servo AF point to pick up the bird that you want as your subject, and keep it within the frame.


Useful setting: “Switching tracked subjects”

This menu feature lets you set how easily the camera switches AF points once it cannot detect the original subject. I set it to ‘Enable (slow)’, which was still “sticky” enough to stay locked onto my subject even when another bird flew in front of it.


EOS R5 + EF300mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ f/5, 1/4000 sec, ISO 640

 

Tip: Getting the best exposure and detail when photographing white birds

EOS R5 + EF300mm f/2.8L IS II USM @ f/2.8, 1/6400 sec, ISO 640

If you use evaluative metering, the feather details of white birds could become overexposed, especially if it is a high contrast scene and you are using an auto-exposure mode. Use spot metering and AE lock to avoid this. You might want to underexpose the shot slightly so that more details can be recovered in post-processing.

 

Useful setting: Highlight tone priority

Enable 'Highlight tone priority' to capture the highlight details in the white feathers even better. I usually use the ‘Enhanced’ (D+2) setting.

 

Need even more challenge? Try this:
Panning Tips for Capturing Dynamic Images of Wild Birds in Flight

Revise your bird photography basics in:
Beginner’s Guide to Bird Photography
Bird Portraits: 4 Simple Tips for Finding a Better Angle


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Neo Ng

Neo Ng

Based in Hong Kong, former basketball coach Neo Ng is a freelance sports, pet and wildlife photographer who seeks to freeze and capture moments in action. The official photographer for various Hong Kong sports teams, he has collaborated with Nike Hong Kong Sports Marketing. In his free time, he can usually be found feeding his passion for wild bird photography. A frequent contributor to DC Fever, Hong Kong’s largest photography portal, Neo also conducts photography workshops and bird photography tours.

https://500px.com/neong
https://www.facebook.com/neongphotography/