Snow Owls of Canada, Part 2 (or: how to shoot birds in flight)

If you want to capture birds-in-flight (“BIF”) you need some pretty good equipment to help you do so. Basically, you camera will need the very best autofocus system to acquire initial focus, the very best autofocus system to continue acquiring focus on a fast moving target, a ridiculous frame rate to capture as many shots as possible while your little birdie is quickly moving out of sight, an even better autofocus system to somehow calculate where it should re-acquire focus after the next shot on the moving target, and so on and so forth.

The good news is that today’s top pro (and ridiculously expensive) DSLRs are able to do all this, the bad news is that you’ll unfortunately have to figure out for yourself which combination of half a dozen settings will help you to achieve the best result. As I’m a Nikon shooter I’ll outline my preferred settings on the D4S, which took me at least 2 full days to figure out (while shooting snow owls, and getting a lot of misses…).

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Nikon 600mm f/4 E FL on Nikon D4S, f/4, 1/3200 s., ISO 640, +2.0 exp. corr.

Nikon DSLRs have a setting called 3D-tracking. Without going into all the details, the camera basically acquires initial focus and then tries to maintain focus on your subject, regardless of the movement of our subject, or your movement for that matter. Of all the other autofocus options (e.g. 9/21/51-point dynamic-area AF) this one does part of the trick. But that’s not all…

Second, the “AF-C Priority Selection” menu setting controls how quickly the camera is allowed to take an image depending on acquiring focus or not. I had always set this to either ‘Focus’ or ‘Release + Focus’ where the camera gives priority to focus rather than advancing frames. However, for shooting BIF I noticed I got the best results when this was set to ‘Release’: the camera will capture images even when it hasn’t acquired focus… strangely enough.

Third, the “Focus Tracking with Lock-On” menu setting controls how much the camera should ‘stick’ to the focus while other things change; for example something else jumps into the scene, or the distance between the subject and camera suddenly changes. I had always set this to #3 (Normal), but in the case of shooting snow owls coming at you at about 20 km/h or more, setting this to ‘Off’ works miracles!

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Nikon 600mm f/4 E FL on Nikon D4S, f/5.6, 1/2500 s., ISO 800, +2.0 exp. corr.

In the various photography forums much has already been written on Nikon’s 200-500mm f/5.6 E super zoom. There seems to be some variance in the quality/sharpness of the different samples. I must be lucky as my copy is really tack sharp (and I’m definitely not always lucky, based on my experience with the Nikon D8xx series…). The other experience or perhaps opinion mentioned is that it’s not well-suited for BIF due to it’s slow autofocus.

The only experience I have is that my copy is able to obtain and maintain focus with BIF very, very close to my 600mm f/4 E FL prime. On the final day of shooting, I tried my 200-500mm on a few occasions and all my shots were tack sharp (with my newly discovered combo of camera focus settings…). Example? Here’s one:

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Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 E @ 340mm on Nikon D4S, f/5.6, 1/2500 s., ISO 3200, +1.0 exp. corr.

Snow owls are amazing creatures. They will track their prey pretty much like a (Nikon) DSLR: never loosing sight, regardless of movement, distance and speed! All you need to know is the right settings and off you go …! :)

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Nikon 600mm f/4 E FL on Nikon D4S, f/8, 1/2500 s., ISO 1250, +1.0 exp. corr.

Please note that these images are protected by copyright and are not allowed to be used in any commercial way. If you’re interested in personal use only (like using as personal desktop background) then that’s fine; however any other use is prohibited by law.

And as usual, for any questions, comments or feedback, simple add comments below (preferred) or otherwise drop me a note at:


4 Comments on “Snow Owls of Canada, Part 2 (or: how to shoot birds in flight)

  1. Hi Henk. I recently came across your site and just want to say these photos are very nice. I have yet to see a snowy owl but one day…
    Keep the posts coming.

    • Thanks Dave. They are remarkable creatures indeed.
      I’m working on one more post with a couple of nice shots …stay tuned!

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