Birds in flight basics – shutter speed

Getting a good shot of a bird in flight – any bird – is one of the trickiest skills to pull off, writes Andrew James. The smaller and faster the bird, the harder it gets! In this series of articles I want to break down the key components of getting a successful shot so you can adapt these for any situation you come across.

My simple view is don’t start with small garden birds because this is a recipe for getting frustrated and giving up. Instead, practice and hone your skills on larger birds. You are still going to need some patience so be prepared to delete a lot of images before you start seeing your hit rate rise.

Success is getting a shot of a bird in flight that’s sharp where you want it to be and the overall composition works really well. It sounds simple doesn’t it? Actually it is, this is totally achievable if you follow some basic guidelines.

Before you can think about anything else you need to remember that for birds in flight you need a fast shutter speed if you want the image to be critically sharp. What that exact shutter speed is depends on a whole range of factors, such as the speed of the bird, the direction the bird is moving in relation to you, how good your panning skills are and so on. It’s impossible to write an article that will deal with every single scenario you are going to face, so I am going to deal with the general rules and you’ll need to adapt some of them as you go.

It is rare that I will be shooting a bird in flight at anything below 1/1000sec and the shutter speed is likely to be higher than that on most occasions. The only exception to this would be if you were shooting with a flash setup, but I’m not going to cover that here.If you want a sharp, frozen-motion shot, then no shutter speed is really going to be too fast. The limitations to choosing a fast shutter speed will of course be light, aperture and so on.

A passing puffin, shot at 1/2000sec at ISO 800.
This is how I work for birds in flight shots when it comes to getting a fast shutter speed


  1. I select Aperture-priority – not Shutter-priority or Manual
  2. I Choose the aperture I reckon will give me the right depth-of-field (through image sharpness) taking into account the type of bird, the direction I expect it to be flying and what is or isn’t in the background. Often this is f/5.6 or f/8.
  3. I start with ISO at 400 (not 100) – even when it’s bright – and check the shutter speed I get! If it’s anything below 1/1000sec then I will increase ISO and I’ll keep increasing it until I reach an acceptable shutter speed or I start pushing ISO higher than I think gives me an acceptable level of noise. For me, this is around ISO 6400, although to be honest I rarely push it over 3200. This ‘ceiling’ point will be different for all of you because we all use different cameras and of course noise reduction software can help considerably at the processing stage. If I reach my ISO ceiling point and I still don’t have a shutter speed I think is fast enough I have several more choices. One is try my luck at the best speed I can get. I don’t like this choice because it is a compromise that may well affect the sharpness of my image. Another is to push that ISO higher still and hope that software will be able to improve the quality. I’ll take this choice if forced to. The third option is to open up the aperture. This is my preferred option, though of course you are now compromising depth-of-field and depending on the lens you are using, f/5.6 may be your maximum aperture anyway. But if you can open up the aperture to allow another stop or two of light, then you are going to increase your shutter speed accordingly. If my shot is pin-sharp because my shutter speed is high enough but I’ve lost a little bit through the image sharpness, this is a compromise I am willing to take. The flip side is, your focusing had better be accurate, because you have less leeway. But we haven’t got to focusing yet!
Practicing your technique on a Foto-Buzz workshop can help hone your technique as at least you have an idea of where the bird is going to fly!
Why is shutter speed so critical?

Well the obvious answer is because the bird you are photographing is moving at speed, so it stands to reason that a fast shutter speed will be required to freeze the action. But the other reason is you!

To get a successful bird-in-flight shot you are going to have to use a telephoto lens of some kind. That’s a given, right? Quite often you will need to be shooting at a minimum of 300, 400 or even 600mm to be able to frame the bird successfully. Long lenses and cameras aren’t the most stable of combinations. For us DSLR ‘dinosaurs’ they are heavy and cumbersome. For those of you who are now committed mirrorless users, your long lens and camera weight may have dropped considerably, but even so, they’re still not the most stable of tools to use.

Whenever we do the birds in flight part of the Foto-Buzz birds of prey workshop, as soon as a bird takes to the air, all manner of zooms are waved about in an attempt to capture the owl or eagle hurtling towards or across the gathered photographers. If your shutter speed is too slow you are going to introduce unwanted camera movement to add to the subject’s movement.

There are ways you can help yourself. Keep the shutter speed high, as explained. But some good basic handholding techniques or even putting the camera and lens on a tripod can also help.

Now I don’t particularly like working from a tripod but sometimes it’s absolutely essential. As long as you have a tripod head that allows free movement to pan and follow your subject, then sometimes – but certainly not always – a tripod is a huge help. For example, anyone who has come to the osprey workshop with me will know this. We are in a hide, waiting for a bird to hit the water at high speed. Because the area of activity is relatively controlled, then being set up on a tripod makes absolute sense to get shots like this next one.

Photographed with the camera on a tripod with a fluid head to allow movement.

Okay, so technically this bird is ‘landing’ or rather ‘diving’ but it’s still moving at great speed and having the lens and camera on a tripod helped considerably. The shutter speed for this one is 1/2000sec, with ISO at 3200 and aperture at f/5.6. The lens used is a 300mm with a 1.4x converter so effectively 420mm and the image is not cropped at all.

If you are handholding the camera and long lens then making sure you are standing or sitting position is comfortable and that you can pan smoothly if you need to track your subject is just as important. Effectively you want to be as balanced as possible to provide as stable a shooting platform as you can, even if you need to move your body. Also, don’t panic! I see this a lot. You have to be calm. Your camera and lens holding needs to be firm but fluid enough to follow your bird. Don’t chase the bird too much with the lens (we will come back to this) by wildly waving the lens in its general direction. Easy to say I know but sometimes hard to do in practice. My tip here is that by observing the way the bird you are photographing flies, you can start to understand how best to follow it. All birds fly differently and understanding this will help considerably and hopefully make you calmer. Even a relatively erratic bird will show some kind of pattern in the nature of its flight. Remember your Image Stabilisation should be switched on as well, whether you are on a tripod or not.

This next shot was taken by Foto-Buzzer Rosie Jackson and she has followed all these basic rules to the letter to get an excellent shot of a Griffon Vulture. The exposure details for Rosie’s shot are: 1/2000sec, ISO 800 and f/8.

Image taken by Rosie Jackson.
Here we've zoomed in to check sharpness and point of focus.

While the focus point looks like it is on the top of the wing, even zoomed in, the head of the vulture is certainly sharp enough thanks to the fast shutter speed, getting the focus point close to central and using an aperture of f/8 to give a little extra depth-of-field. Getting a single AF point on the vulture’s head would have been one hell of a feat therefore Rosie’s done exactly the right thing here with her settings, knowing the AF system is going to lock onto the area of highest contrast. The result is a great shot that we’d all be very happy to take. The simple composition works well too, and of course it’s the slight tilt of the vulture’s head that adds the finishing touch.

Going slow
Although I’ve touched on focusing here, I am going to look at this in more detail next week as I just want to finish on slower shutter speeds for wing blur and arty bird-in-flight shots. This is the only time when I’ll happily drop the shutter speed down, because it’s not out-and-out sharpness I want. Instead I’m looking for deliberate blur, like panning with a moving car to give a sense of speed. The idea is to give atmosphere and an element of artiness to the image.

This is a technique that won’t always work, so you need accept that you will end up deleting shots. Also, the shutter speed you choose will be dictated by the speed of the birds you are photographing, how much blur you want and how good your panning technique is. The last time I used it was photographing flamingos at dusk. As the light faded leaving a deep blue sky, the pink birds flying across looked great against the blue backdrop so rather than going higher and higher in ISO to deal with the falling light levels, I dropped shutter speed and played about with panning.

Including the treeline adds some additional blur to this shot and the 1/50sec shutter speed creates a sense of the large wings of these two flamingos moving up and down furiously.
This is more or less the same shot but with a bigger flock and a slower shutter speed of 1/30sec. None of birds are critically sharp but they are sharp enough for you to recognise what they are clearly – and again, enjoy a sense of their motion.

Shooting slow shutter, bird-in-flight pics is something you will do a lot less of, but it’s worth tucking the idea into your head for when the opportunity arises.

So that’s our start on birds in flight and hopefully I have outlined clearly the need to use as fast as shutter speed as possible when you are trying to get a pinsharp shot and that really is important. We’ll be back with more tips and techniques next week.

In the next article, we’ll take our fast shutter speed and look in more detail at focusing on birds in flight. 

Published in Camera Skills

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