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What Shutter Speed Should I Use For Flying Birds?

Bird photography is an impressive feat, especially when they are captured when taking flight.

And as we all gaze in the splendor of the art, we can’t help but wonder how it is done so perfectly and accurately. Here, we shall talk about the shutter speed used to capture the flying birds. 

The shutter speed to use for flying birds should be fast. And by fast, we are talking about 1/2500, 1/3200, or even higher if the light allows.

If the light is inadequate, or the subjects you are shooting are slower, you can drop the shutter speed down to 1/600 or 1/1250. However, if that is the case, you will be compromising on the image quality as you will have very few sharp images. 

If you’re curious about bird photography or if you’re a photographer who wants to take on bird photography, this post is for you.

It gives you an in-depth explanation of how to photograph birds in flight. Read on. 

Shutter Speed to Use for Flying Birds

bird photography

One of the fundamental skills in bird photography is being able to shoot them in flight. And one of the key factors to consider to achieve that success is the shutter speed. 

Usually, when shooting flight, the camera settings are preselected to manual exposure mode, and the shutter speed and aperture are set before shooting. Typically, this would mean shooting wide open with the lens’s aperture at maximum and using an ISO that allows optimal shutter speed.

The shutter speed should be fast- from 1/2500 to 1/3200 or you can even go higher depending on the light. With inadequate light or for slower subjects, you can go lower to 1/1250 or 1/600. However, this shutter speed does not deliver sharp images. 

Therefore, if you can employ the optimal shutter speed with plenty of light, reduce the aperture from being wide open to f/5.6 or f/8 for enhanced depth of field.

This aperture size also gives a better chance to get all the critical parts of the bird (head, body, and forewing) into focus. Moreover, ensure that your camera is set to the highest frame rate.

When shooting in even lighting, using manual mode would mean that the background in the photos can change, whereas the bird exposure does not. For instance, imagine shooting a Sandhill crane that happens to be flying across farmland, and the background shifts from an open sky to a shaded forest. 

If you are using the automatic exposure modes, your exposure will be thrown off, and the shutter speed may even dip to unacceptable levels. On the other hand, with the exposure set in the manual, the background change will not affect the bird exposure as long as it is in the same light. 

Another thing is, if you are shooting the bird against a very light or white sky, you can try using the sky as your exposure basis and keep it as light as possible without overexposing parts of the bird. You can consider metering the sky and opening up 2 or 2 1/3 stops. 

How to Photograph Birds in Flight

To successfully shoot birds as they take flight or when in flight is exciting and rewarding. Many of us who enjoy bird photography may not understand what it takes to shoot some of the photos enough to appreciate the patience and time it takes for the photographers to achieve it. After all, there is no other way around it since shooting a puffin flying at 50mph in flat light against a dark cliff is no easy feat. 

bird photography

You have to factor in your lens and camera capabilities, quality of light, plumage effects on autofocus performance, the bird’s flight speeds and styles, and the varying backgrounds, making it frustrating and challenging. But you need not despair. Below are some tips and practices you can apply to your photography routine to get better at shooting birds in flight. 

Set Up Your Shot

The first step is to set up your shot. Ensure that the sun and wind are at your back if you are preparing to shoot a flight. Generally, birds tend to fly in the wind. Most of the best and pleasing flight images are taken when the birds fly towards you at an angle. 

This position captures their underwings and with their heads in the lead. Moreover, birds are much slower when flying in the wind, making them easier to track. And finally, with the sun at your back, it illuminates them nicely for proper lighting. 

The next thing is to identify their predictable flight paths. Here, you should utilize your knowledge of bird behavior and identify the places where many birds fly. This will give you practice opportunities, and you can learn how to get the perfect image. Flight photography is more of a numbers game, which means that the more shots you get, the more your chances are of getting an ideal shot. 

Furthermore, ensure that you shoot against a clean background. The performance of your autofocus system will be at its best if you are shooting against clean backgrounds with minimal contrasts such as still water or the sky. However, if you do not have this option, keep in mind that it is always better if the background is further away. 

Sort Out Your Camera Settings

Once you have set up your spot, the next step is to select the camera settings. You can start by ensuring that you focus on the shutter release. Inasmuch as the back-button focusing is recommended for many situations, it does not work well in flight photography. 

Since you will continuously be focusing on shooting the birds, it would be more comfortable if you only had to focus by half-pressing the shutter button and releasing the shutter by fully pressing the button than having to hold both buttons at once. 

Moreover, you are advised to use the focus limiter. Ensure that it is set to ignore close objects. This setting will help the autofocus system to work faster since it can ignore part of the lens’s range. 

Also, remember to turn off the image stabilization when shooting flight. With the shutter speed that you will be using, it negates the need for image stabilization. 

The other tip is to preselect camera settings. The camera settings such as manual mode or shutter speeds should be selected ahead of time. The recommended shutter speeds and modes to use to shoot birds in flight are as discussed above. 

Also, select the autofocus settings. If the birds are larger for the frame, employ a single autofocus point to ensure that it is precisely on the bird as you want it to be. But if that will be challenging, you can opt to switch to the focus point patterns offered by the camera, depending on which camera you are working with. 

If you experience any difficulty staying locked onto the subjects, especially if they are flying against busy backgrounds, you can use one useful parameter: the Tracking Sensitivity. If the background is more active and more problematic, the AF Tracking Sensitivity should be lower (more delayed). 

Keep the Bird in the Frame and Focus As You Shoot.

The final step is to ensure that the bird is kept in the frame and in focus when shooting. If possible, pre-focus the lens to a certain distance within the range of where you expect to capture the flying bird. 

If not, it will be more challenging to see the target via the viewfinder and will leave the autofocus struggling to locate the object on its own. 

Gull, Bird, Flying, Flight, Plumage, Seagull, Seabird

You can pre-focus by pointing the camera to the ground or some vegetation at approximately the distance you expect the bird to fly across and setting the focus. After which, you can raise the camera and wait for the bird to come into range before you can activate autofocus. 

From here, flip up the lens foot in position to cradle the lens with your hand and not the lens foot. Ensure that you shoot the bird in flight at an athletic stance with legs slightly spread and knees bent so you can easily and comfortably follow with your whole body. The camera should be firmly gripped with your right hand, and the left hand extended as far as possible to support the lens. 

Use bump focus to successfully track the focus on an approaching bird, as seen in the viewfinder. With the bump focus on, you do not have to hold the autofocus button while tracking the subject continuously. 

Instead, you only have to press it intermittently as the subject approaches to ensure that the bird is kept almost in focus. When the bird is entirely in range, you can press the button fully while holding the focus button. This will minimize the chance of your focus point falling off the subject and leaving the focus elsewhere.

Try as much as possible to resist the urge to fire the shutter as it is very easy to lose the subject this way. Instead, ignore everything else, and your only focus should be keeping the bird in the frame and follow-through. 


Finally, it only takes patience and lots of practice to become proficient.

Take the opportunities as they come to shoot birds in flight wherever you are and whichever bird. Practice will give you more opportunities to apply your techniques and get more familiar with different camera settings.  


Photographing birds requires a unique skill set. But with the above tips, you are good to go. 

You will want to think about the camera settings for bird photography and especially the shutter speed for birds in flight.

The knowledge acquired above will equip you with what you need to practice more and get better at it.