Shooting Birds in flight with Manual Focus.

Shooting birds in flight with manual focus.

Everyone loves a great shot of a bird in flight. Getting one is another matter. The recent improvement on auto focus and bust speeds of many of the high end cameras has made this a lot easier. Many of the new models have dual contrast and phase detection with hundreds of cross points for fast and accurate focus.


Aerodamas Swiftlet

Flying swiftlets are a challenge because of their small size and their erratic flight. I had to preset my focus and shoot when they come into focus, which is a touch and go affair.  Shots like this are one in a hundred or more. 300 mm, 1/2000s at F 5.6.

But like me if you have cameras whose AF does not lock on to a small flying bird, what is the best solution? Well start practicing on larger birds like the low flying raptors, herons and the more common species. Because of their sizes, most cameras with a decent AF will be able to detect and lock on to it. Just made sure you used a high shutter speed ( 1/3000 and above) and compensate for the strong back light ( +2 and above). Sunny days and blue skies will give better images.



Surphur=crested Cockatoo @ Sentosa.

No harm starting with bigger common species like this Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. They are not fast flyers and are more predictable in their flight path. I like this shot because of the eye contact.

But for the smaller birds like swifts and swallows, the only way of getting a decent photo of them flying is to use manual focus or rather preset focus. It is more of a  hit and miss game with more misses ( like 95%) than hits. But if you have a camera that shoots at 10 frames per second, your hit rates will improve.


Sometimes your subject helps you to get the shot. I had my lens focus on the parent Little Tern at the end of the breakwater when this juvenile flew in to try to snatch the fish from the parent. Shot it as it got into the frame. 1/2000s, f 6.7 at 280 mm.

Before shooting study the pattern and flight of the birds. Determine a comfortable distance for your shot and then lock your focus to that distance by focusing on a tree or object. Set your camera to “Speed Priority” and the speed at 1/3000s or more.  You can use the largest aperture or set it at F 8 for extra sharpness. Adjust your compensation ( +2 to +3) depending on the brightness of the backlight. You may have to turn your ISO to auto with a set limit depending on your camera’s sensitivity. 

Great Crested Tern

The preset focus will be on this Swift Tern that was perched on a Kelong pole. If you are lucky it will take off to the left of right without changing the distance too much. Cropped shot at 1/4000s at f 5.6 with 300 mm and +1. 

To be able to track the flying bird you may need to shoot at 300-400mm especially if they are close. This will give you a bigger field of view. You can crop the shot for posting later. Start with birds that were flying across as their distance will not vary much. I tracked it from the left and start shooting just before it crossed in front of you. For birds that are flying towards you, you may have to start shooting just before it comes into focus. With luck one of the frames will be in focus. Make sure the sun is behind you to get the best light.


This Pacific Swallow was looping around the open lawn at Singapore Botanic Gardens.  It flight path was almost the same which makes it easier to track. Cropped shot at 1/2,500s, f 6.7, +1 with 400 mm at about 25 meters. 

This can be a frustrating and tiresome method of shooting but with practice and the optimum settings, the chance of getting the shot is much higher than trying to shoot with a on off auto focus. Hope these simple pointers will help you getting these action shots.

Cameras used: Olympus OMD EM 1 and EM5 with 75-300 mm f 4.8-6.7 II zoom lens.

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