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I have a Canon EOS RP + 100-400L (first version) setup for photographing wildlife. I have found that taking pictures of stationary or slow-moving animals is easy, but taking pictures of birds in flight is hard.

What are the best settings for photographing birds in flight? What techniques can be used to make it easier?

I have noticed at least the following problems in my settings which I will revise:

  • Shutter speed was automatically set by the camera, and the auto-setting wasn't optimal (it selected usually 1/500 or so, probably because the lens was 400mm). I should have used something like 1/1000 or 1/2000 instead.

  • Image stabilizer wasn't set for panning mode.

  • Focus range limiter was at 1.8 m, not at 6.5 m. The nearest I have ever photographed a bird was between 7.7 m and 9.1 m according to the EXIF data. (It was a good picture, by the way, even though it was taken with a crop camera and the Canon 55-250 mm lens, so clearly, getting closer is the key).

I have noticed these difficulties:

  • If the bird is far away, getting it to the focus point is hard. If it's not at the focus point, all the camera does is to scan the focus range. With 1.8 m limiter, it takes a long amount of time! With 6.5 m limiter, it still takes some amount of time.

  • Birds are usually far away, so the bird won't fill the frame, even though every single shot is at 400mm.

  • 400mm is about the maximum that can be aimed easily enough. I could purchase a 1.4X teleconverter to get more reach, but then aiming the camera would be hard.

  • Exposure will be often poorly set by the camera. As this EOS RP sensor doesn't have good dynamic range, if cranking up the exposure in post-processing, the results will be noisy.

  • The 100-400L lens is heavy! I am aware that there are faster prime lenses that are good for wildlife, but their price is not the only obstacle: the faster the lens, the heavier it is. A monopod could support the weight, but it in practice needs to be detached when walking around and carrying the camera using its strap, so monopod is realistic only if shooting from the same location all the time.

  • Because a bird won't fill the frame, cropping is necessary. When cropping, lens sharpness becomes a limitation. It seems one can never be truly satisfied with the lens sharpness. However, I assume it would make more sense to improve shooting technique than to purchase a new version of the same lens, as the new version even if bought second-hand costs 2.65 times what I paid for the old version, and the new version will anyway become obsolete due to the inevitable appearance of RF 100-400L.

  • Small birds fly so fast and often in a non-straight line, so I've given up trying to photograph a small bird in flight. I only photograph stationary birds or large birds in flight.

On the other hand, these have been easy:

  • Once the camera nails focus, the automatic tracking works even if the bird isn't always at the same point within the frame. It is able to track the bird in burst mode across the frame. I assume this isn't as easy with DSLRs than it is with mirrorless.

  • The burst rate of 4 fps is good enough. I originally was worried that tracking the bird during panning would be hard if you see only four images per second on the EVF, but this proved not to be the case. A mirrorless here is the exact opposite of DSLR: you see the pictures, but you don't see what happens between the pictures.

  • With a fast card, the bursts can be very long even if shooting JPG+RAW. I have never found the buffer size or card speed to be limiting with this camera.

  • The camera allows shooting even in AI SERVO mode only if there's focus, so you won't get out-of-focus shots (unless the camera starts to track something else than the bird!). In many other cameras, AI SERVO mode allows you to shoot even before focus has been confirmed.

  • ISO sensitivity will be low (and full frame is not as noisy as crop at a given ISO sensitivity level) with a f/5.6 lens thanks to the sun providing us with an ample level of light. I'd say there is plenty of room for using a faster shutter speed. Of course, this wouldn't be the case when shooting in sunset or sunrise conditions.

  • The C1/C2/C3 modes allow you to store camera settings and retrieve them later using the mode dial.

What I should research more:

  • I'm using the face detect + tracking AF mode with initial AF point, all settings stored to the C3 position in the mode dial. I could test the tracking AF mode without initial AF point (perhaps storing it to the C2 position in the mode dial). Does it then detect the bird if it's not at the AF point?
  • Is there an auto-exposure mode that gives more weight to the subject at the AF point, instead of properly exposing the sky and leaving the bird black?

closed as too broad by mattdm, xiota, scottbb, Hueco, Michael C Jul 19 at 23:20

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If the bird is far away, getting it to the focus point is hard. If it's not at the focus point, all the camera does is to scan the focus range. With 1.8 m limiter, it takes a long amount of time! With 6.5 m limiter, it still takes some amount of time.

If the bird is so far away, it is not worth shooting at.

400mm is about the maximum that can be aimed easily enough. I could purchase a 1.4X teleconverter to get more reach, but then aiming the camera would be hard.

This is an acquired skill. My camera is an APS-C so I have an 1.6x crop factor, worse than your 1.4x tele-converter. You just need some training. Learning to aim with both eyes, (right one in viewfinder, left one with natural view) helps some. I admit that for sparrows all my good shots are around 250mm (so this is close to your 400mm) , but do these fly fast...

Exposure will be often poorly set by the camera. As this EOS RP sensor doesn't have good dynamic range, if cranking up the exposure in post-processing, the results will be noisy.

Make a few shots, check them in the camera, tweak the exposure compensation. Or go back home, check the pictures on your computer, come back next day with better settings.

The 100-400L lens is heavy! I am aware that there are faster prime lenses that are good for wildlife, but their price is not the only obstacle: the faster the lens, the heavier it is. A monopod could support the weight, but it in practice needs to be detached when walking around and carrying the camera using its strap, so monopod is realistic only if shooting from the same location all the time.

Do you even lift :) I'm ty+, no sports, and go to airshows with a 120-400 on an EOS 70D (2kg total). And you can't rest, you have to shoot every plane. And even then I barely have cramps at the end. Wen I shoot birds, the monopod folds nicely under the lens barrel. But on my lens the tripod collar also makes a very nice carrying handle.

Because a bird won't fill the frame, cropping is necessary. When cropping, lens sharpness becomes a limitation. It seems one can never be truly satisfied with the lens sharpness. However, I assume it would make more sense to improve shooting technique than to purchase a new version of the same lens.

A lens is sharp enough if its separating power is better than the pixel pitch on the sensor. But your 100-400 was used to make nice pictures with sensors that are denser than yours (APS-C cameras). You may need to get closer, a $50 ghillie suit or camo tent may be more cost-effective than a $2000 lens.

Small birds fly so fast and often in a non-straight line, so I've given up trying to photograph a small bird in flight. I only photograph stationary birds or large birds in flight.

Given the physics, there are those that fly fast and straight (sparrows) and those that are slower and random. The toughest of all are the terns, if you want to catch them entering the water. You'll burn terabytes before you get a good shot.

Is there an auto-exposure mode that gives more weight to the subject at the AF point, instead of properly exposing the sky and leaving the bird black?

The closest is "spot metering" but your birds may be too small anyway, or not in the measure area. But this is digital photography, you can use manual mode and check the results on the first few shots and adjust setting accordingly.

  • re: Exposure, I got the habit of leaving in +1 compensation (sometimes even more) for planes/birds exactly to balance the sky out. – Fábio Dias Jul 15 at 2:12
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I have found that taking pictures of stationary or slow-moving animals is easy, but taking pictures of birds in flight is hard.

This is a truth universally acknowledged.


I have noticed at least the following problems in my settings which I will revise:

Shutter speed was automatically set by the camera, and the auto-setting wasn't optimal (it selected usually 1/500 or so, probably because the lens was 400mm). I should have used something like 1/1000 or 1/2000 instead.

... Exposure will be often poorly set by the camera. As this EOS RP sensor doesn't have good dynamic range, if cranking up the exposure in post-processing, the results will be noisy.

Consider using manual mode. Arthur Morris of Birds As Art recommends overexposing the sky by three stops. Your mileage may vary, but it's a reasonable starting point for finding out what works for you.


If the bird is far away, getting it to the focus point is hard. If it's not at the focus point, all the camera does is to scan the focus range. With 1.8 m limiter, it takes a long amount of time! With 6.5 m limiter, it still takes some amount of time.

Manually focussing to a good starting point helps a lot.


Birds are usually far away, so the bird won't fill the frame, even though every single shot is at 400mm.

There are three things you can do about that:

  1. Crop.
  2. Get closer.
  3. Get something else into the frame for context.

400mm is about the maximum that can be aimed easily enough. I could purchase a 1.4X teleconverter to get more reach, but then aiming the camera would be hard.

The 100-400L lens is heavy!

Try shooting with an 1100mm for a couple of days. That really helps to put it in perspective.


A monopod could support the weight, but it in practice needs to be detached when walking around and carrying the camera using its strap, so monopod is realistic only if shooting from the same location all the time.

You can learn different carrying techniques which let you walk around with a monopod or tripod attached.

You can stay in the same location for a bit longer and let the subjects come to you. I would normally spend at least 20 minutes in a promising site with cover before moving on. It's not a binary choice between never moving and never stopping.

You can carry a "bean" bag clipped to a belt loop with a carabiner and use that to cushion your lens on branches or fences. Or you can use a car as a mobile hide and rest the lens on the window frame. A bean bag can be dirt cheap: I made mine from an old pair of black jeans and some packing material I scrounged at work.

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