Bald Eagle in Flight
Bird Photography,  Photo Gear

Top Tips and Settings for Birds in Flight Photography using Olympus OM-D Cameras

Birds in flight is one of the most difficult genres of photography.  Photographing a small object flying really fast and getting sharp and not blurred photographs can be a real challenge.

Fortunately, Olympus OM-D Cameras have some features to help you get good shots of birds in flight.  In this blog, I’ll describe my preferred settings for Birds in Flight, some of the Olympus features that assist with Bird Photography, and some tips and advice for photographing birds in flight in general.

Topaz Labs

Below is a shutter speed guide for birds in flight.  As a general rule, the bigger and slower the bird, the slower shutter speed you can get away with and still have the wings not be blurred.

Birds in Flight Shutter Speed Guide
Birds in Flight Shutter Speed Guide

There are a couple of other considerations for shutter speed.  Birds flying with the wind will be faster while birds flying against the wind will be slower and easier to capture.  Also the closer the bird, the faster the shutter speed that will be required.

Exposure Triangle Trade Offs (Shutter Speed / Aperture / ISO)

To get higher shutter speeds especially in lower light conditions (mornings, evenings, cloudy days), you will likely need to increase your ISO and / or open up your aperture.

ISO

It’s important to understand your noise tolerance and upper limit for ISO.  I normally try to keep the ISO on my OM-D E-M1X at 1000 or below.  However, I have had some good birds in flight images as high as ISO 3200.

The good news is the algorithms for noise reduction software keep getting better and can save some noisier bird photos.  My personal favorite noise reduction software is DeNoise from Topaz Labs.

Some people prefer to use Auto ISO where the camera will automatically adjust the ISO to maintain the shutter speed you have selected.  My preference is to shoot in aperture priority and manually adjust the ISO as the light changes.  With the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensor, I like to keep the ISO as low as possible and still maintain enough shutter speed to get the shot.

Northern Harrier in Flight
Northern Harrier in Flight

Aperture

I generally shoot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1X, 300mm f/4 lens, with a 1.4x Teleconverter so the widest possible aperture is f/5.6.  I normally shoot with an aperture of f/5.6 or f/6.3.  If there are multiple birds in the frame, I’ll shoot at a smaller aperture (f/8 – f/11) to ensure all the birds are in focus.  Of course, this will depend on the lighting conditions and how fast of a shutter speed you can get.

Shooting Modes

There is a lot of debate on what shooting mode to use for bird photography – mainly manual vs. aperture mode.  My take is to use the mode that you are the most comfortable with and can quickly change settings. 

A couple of the more popular shooting mode options are:

  • Shoot in manual mode with auto ISO and have the camera adjust the ISO to maintain the shutter speed with the selected aperture.
  • Shoot in Aperture Priority Mode and manually adjust the ISO to get the required shutter speed. 

Whatever shooting mode that you select, make sure you can quickly adjust the settings without having to look down at your camera.  It is good idea to practice changes your camera settings at home prior to going out in the field.

Focus Areas for Birds in Flight
Focus Areas for Birds in Flight

Autofocus

For birds in flight photography, you will want to use Continuous Autofocus (C-AF) mode where the camera repeats focusing while the shutter button is half pressed.

You can also select the number of focus points / AF Area that will limit focus within this AF Area.  A good rule of thumb is to use the smallest AF Area where you can still track the bird.  I typically use the 5 point or 9 point AF areas shown below.

For smaller birds with erratic flight paths, you may want to choose a larger AF area for a better chance of obtaining focus.

Continuous AF Sensitivity
Continuous AF Sensitivity

Continuous AF Sensitivity

You can also adjust the Continuous AF Sensitivity on the higher end Olympus OM-D cameras. The C-AF Sensitivity scale goes from +2 to -2 and can be set in the Gear A1 menu.  The lower the number on the scale, the stickier autofocus will be on your subject and the less likely AF will lose your subject if another object comes into the focus area.

I typically keep C-AF Sensitivity at -2 and adjust it to 0 or positive numbers for birds with erratic flight patterns.

Frames per Second

I shoot in Sequential Low Mode for Birds in flight with my Olympus OM-D E-M1X and E-M1 Mark III.  This gives me 10 fps with the manual shutter and 18 fps with the electronic shutter.  You can get a higher frame rate with Sequential High Mode but it does not focus between frames.

I find that I get a good hit rate with Sequential Low Mode with mechanical shutter and have less images to cull thru at the end of the day.

Short-eared Owl in Flight
Short-eared Owl using Bird Detection AF

AF Tracking

I don’t normally use the tracking mode on my Olympus OM-D cameras.  I like to manually move the AF Area over the bird and bird’s head using the joystick.  This method takes some practice but I get a good keeper rate using this technique.

Bird Tracking has been greatly improved with the introduction of Bird Detection AF in the OM-D E-M1X.  I’ve had mixed results using Bird Detection AF.  I’ve gotten some really great images using Bird Detection AF like the above photograph of a Short-eared Owl but on other occasions Bird Detection AF has completely missed focus on shots that I’ve could have gotten with manual tracking.

Hopefully, Olympus will continue to improve their bird tracking algorithm.  Check out my blog for more information on Olympus Bird Detection AF.

Focus Limiter

Make sure you set the distance range for autofocus using the Focus Limiter on the Side of your Olympus lens.  This will set the range for the camera to look for focus.  I typically keep the focus limiter on my E-M1X at 4m – infinity for birds in flight as birds in flight shots are typically further away than 4 meters.

The Olympus 300mm f/4 and 100-400mm lens have a focus limiter switch located on the side of the lens barrel.  The Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 does not.

Image Stabilization

For Birds in Flight photography, I set the In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) to IS-2 Vertical Shake IS.  This will stabilize vertical camera movement but won’t correct for horizontal panning.

Bald Eagle Takeoff using Pro Capture
Bald Eagle Takeoff using Pro Capture

Use Pro Capture for Bird Take Offs

One of the best ways to get birds in flight photographs for small, fast birds is to capture them during takeoff.  Olympus Pro Capture mode can greatly improve your success rate photographing birds during takeoff.  Read my blog post for more information on how to use Pro Capture to photograph bird takeoffs.

More Birds In Flight Photography Tips

Custom Mode Dial
Custom Mode Dial

Save Your Settings

Save your Birds in Flight Settings using your camera’s Custom Mode Settings.  This will allow you to quickly rotate the dial and be ready if a Birds in Flight Opportunity occurs.  Make sure you adjust and resave your settings as the lighting conditions change throughout the day.

SD Card with a Fast Write Speed
SD Card with a Fast Write Speed

Use Memory Cards with a Fast Write Speed

Make sure to use SD Cards with a fast write speed.  This will help to prevent your buffer from filling up while photographing birds in flight.  Look for SD Cards with a UHS Speed Class rating of 3.

Also try to shoot in short bursts instead of holding down the shutter to also help with not filling up the buffer.  This is an especially good practice when the birds are farther away and flying toward you.  It will help to keep the buffer free on closer shots that will more likely be keepers.

Canada Geese are Excellent Practice Subjects
Canada Geese are Excellent Practice Subjects

Practice, Practice, Practice

One of the best tips for birds in flight photography is simple, get out and practice.  Start on larger, slower birds at your local park.  Canada Geese make great subjects for starting out with Birds in Flight Photography.

Here are some things to practice for Birds in Flight Photography:

  • Finding the Bird in the Frame
    • If you have a zoom lens, zoom out to find the bird in the frame and then zoom back in.
    • Start tracking the bird when it is in the distance
  • Tracking the Bird in Flight and using the joystick to position the AF Area over the bird’s head.
  • Practice changing the commonly used settings on your camera (Focus Points, Focus Area, ISO, Aperture, Exposure Compensation, etc.) without looking down at the LCD.

Written by Martin Belan

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