Birds in flight

I've recently bought a used d3100 and am loving experimenting with it. I have the Nikkor 18-55mm lens & a Tamron 70-300. I'm trying to get good id shots of birds in flight for survey purposes, including birds flying over sea. Any tips please?


  • Birds in flight are going to be a bit of a challenge, but even the relatively lowly D3100 can do it with some practice. I've gotten some pretty decent shots with a D3200.

    Assuming that the Tamron auto focuses properly with this camera, it's almost always the one you'll want to use.

    The first thing you need to do is to practice panning. Your only real hope for bagging a BIF is to be able to track it as it flies. The camera's focus is not terribly fast, and many lenses are not either, so you're going to have to follow it, and you're going to miss a lot of the time.

    You'll need to set the camera to C (continuous servo) and, if the bird is fairly small in the finder, to Dynamic area focus, probably. That's worked the best for me. If the bird is close, you can try for single area focus, but tracking is harder. Single area will prevent the focus from wandering to the wrong part of the bird. If the bird is close, dynamic area focus will be quite happy to shift from the eye to a wing tip or a tail. The smaller and further away the bird is, the less of an issue this is, and if you cannot track with single area, go to dynamic area anyway.

    If you pan, you can keep your shutter speed a bit lower than you might ordinarily need for moving wildlife, but you will probably still need a shutter speed of 1/250 or faster, to keep parts of the bird from blurring. The faster the better, but if light is poor you may lose definition from high ISO noise, so you'll have to try various combinations. You might try setting auto ISO, and then experiment to see what maximum ISO you should set in the menu to avoid undue noise. At any reasonable distance, aperture will not matter so much, so choose wide open if you need the speed, or close it down a couple of stops to get the sharpest performance from the lens if you can.

    It can take a little practice to home in on a flying bird, so initially you may do better with the Tamron set to a middle focal length. If there's time, then, you can center the bird, then zoom in as you pan.

    All this is partly a matter of practice, and the more you do, the better you'll get. Set the camera to multiple shot mode, and fire off several at a time.

    If birds are fairly small in a bright sky, you may have to exposure compensate a stop or two positive, or spot meter on the bird.

    Finally, though this will likely work most of the time, the camera's insistence on focus priority may bite you from time to time. If the camera cannot lock focus, it will not shoot at all. One way around this is to change to back button focus. Doing this, you will follow focus with the back button, but at the moment you shoot, let go of the button and the camera will revert to release priority and shoot whether it's in focus or not. Often the camera's idea of focus is more demanding than it needs to be. Depth of field can give you a little slack at distance. Back button focus takes some practice to get used to. Don't start trying it when things are critical, because for a while you'll forget and mess up. Most people who are used to it grow to like it, but not everyone does.

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