Went to Alaska and was shooting bald eagles. There so many flying around that my camera kept trying to focus and I missed a lot of shots. What should my settings be on a situation like this? Using a Nikon D7000 with 18-200 mm lens.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The title was intentional, right? :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – loneboat
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 22:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just like clubbing baby seals. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 5:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ The search term is "bird in flight photography" if you want to find more on this topic on the internet. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rene
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 9:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ pressthebuttons.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/duckhunt.png \$\endgroup\$
    – o0'.
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 15:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ edit summary: "better title" — [citation needed] \$\endgroup\$
    – wchargin
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 1:46

8 Answers 8


The best setting to employ in this situation is back-button autofocus. It will put you in control of when the camera can search for focus and when to stop, and will separate the AF start/lock function from your shutter button, so that pressing the shutter button itself does not start up the AF hunt again when you least want it to.

You can set up the AE-L/AF-L button on the back of the camera to become the AF-start button by going to custom setting menu, and set F5 (Assign AE-L/AF-L button) to AF-On. Then, in the Autofocus menu, set A1 (AF-C priority selection) to release--this tells the camera to take a picture even if AF has not achieved lock.

Now, the AF hunting function is removed from the shutter. To start the AF search, press the AE-L/AF-L back button. To lock AF, simply release the button.

When shooting the eagles, press the back button until you see the focus is on the eagle you want and take the shot. Pressing the shutter button will NOT affect the autofocus (i.e., halfpress doesn't lock or start up the hunting again. With stationary subjects, you can use this to acquire focus, and then lock the focus (stop pressing the button) so you don't have to hold a half-press re-acquire AF lock repetitively.

You may also want to select only a single AF point, rather than using the entire array, if you think you can draw a bead on the specific bird you want.

In my experience when shooting raptors, 200mm isn't nearly long enough. I use a 400mm lens on a crop body and it's not long enough. Given that you're using a superzoom lens, you may also want to stop down for sharpness and added DoF, and increase your ISO setting (say above 400) to ensure your shutter speed is fast enough to eliminate camera shake blur from handholding as well as subject motion blur. Expect to crop and sharpen in post. Also, if you aren't already, consider shooting with both eyes open--it's easier with a telephoto or supertelephoto to narrow in on your subject this way.

Burst mode is a given, however, no burst speed in the world can make up for bad timing. It's best to go with short, controlled bursts, not spray'n'pray. And in burst mode, it may be more difficult for the camera to keep tracking in autofocus, so you may want to use CL instead of CH at times.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Wait a sec, raptors? \$\endgroup\$
    – binaryfunt
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 15:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Did you think they invented the word for Jurassic Park? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bird_of_prey \$\endgroup\$
    – Jasmine
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 23:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jasmine Clever girl. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 7:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ I need to stop watching that movie... \$\endgroup\$
    – binaryfunt
    Commented Feb 9, 2015 at 23:32

Use a large depth-of-field (DOF) or use the fact that object farther than the half of the hyperfocal distance are "acceptably focused".

You can use a DOF calculator like this one to calculate what aperture to use for a certain DOF or to calculate the hyperfocal distance.

The drawback of large DOF is that you need a small aperture, which limits the amount of incoming light.

Assuming you used Manual mode with shutter=1/250 to avoid camera shake blur and eagle motion blur, and you used the calculated aperture, you would have only one more freedom, ISO, to adjust the level of exposure (that is, if you don't have abundant light, otherwise you would increase the shutter speed, obviously.)

Note that you will need to acquire an inital focus either by using Auto and then switching to Manual focusing mode, or using Manual, the viewfinder and the built-in rangefinder. And you will have to re-focus from time to time (don't forget this otherwise you end up with out-of-focus images after awhile.)

Note also that close to the far end of your lens, using hyperfocal may require you to stop down your lens too much, resulting in hitting the diffraction limit of your lens (= getting more blur).

If you'd like to learn more, please check this link out.


In my experience, autofocus rarely works well on flying birds. The worst thing about it is that it's unpredictable — invariably, by Murphy's law, the moment when the eagle you've been tracking for 15 minutes finally spots prey on the ground and decides to do an amazing aerobatic flip-and-dive maneuver is also the exact moment when the autofocus decides that it's lost track and starts scanning randomly back and forth.

The solution, in my experience, is simply to use manual focus. With a long lens, you'll want to keep one hand on the lens anyway, so it's not hard to hold it by the focus ring and turn it slightly back and forth to maintain focus.

With a bit of practice (try it on your local crows or seagulls!), you'll learn to keep the bird in fairly good focus as it flies. One major advantage you'll have over the autofocuser is that you can anticipate the bird's movement — if it turns towards you, you'll know to start moving the focus closer, and vice versa. With some practice, this becomes reflexive. Also, since you're in manual control of the focus, there are no surprises: if you lose track of the bird, just keep calm, find the bird again, and then find the focus.

One nice thing about soaring birds like eagles, falcons or seagulls is that they tend to fly in circles while looking for prey. This means you can take your time getting used to the way the bird moves, without it simply flying away, and often get several chances to take the picture you want. It also lets you be conservative with the focus adjustment — instead of chasing the bird with the focus all the time, you can just wait for the bird to turn around and fly back into focus.

On the technical side, the main trick is to use a fairly small aperture to maximize the depth of field. You'll typically have a fairly flat and neutral background (the sky) anyway, so you can safely set the aperture to your camera's diffraction limit (around f/8 for your D7000) or even a bit larger (trading sharpness at optimal focus for increased depth of field). You can use aperture priority (Av) mode, and let the camera control the exposure, but I'd generally recommend going full manual (M) and just picking a reasonable exposure value that avoids (excessive) motion blur. You can safely leave the ISO value for the camera to choose (but do check the results; you don't want the camera to decide to expose for the sky instead of the bird), or set that manually too; either way, I always recommend aiming for a slight negative EV when shooting digital, and checking the histogram to make sure you don't have any blown highlights. Oh, and of course, shoot RAW, not JPEG.

Also, in my experience, you'll always wish for a longer lens when shooting birds. My own 70-300mm lens is just long enough to almost get me the kind of pictures I want, and I rather suspect I'd still feel the same way with a 400mm lens, too. The real pros, of course, use a telescope.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Seconded on the longer lens. I've got a 1125mm (500mm + 1.5x teleconverter + 1.5x crop factor), and it's never quite long enough. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 21:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ I prefer craft over technology here. Manual focus is the way to go (in my opinion), not fancy AF buttons. It's a pitty your answer doesn't get more votes imho. +1. \$\endgroup\$
    – agtoever
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 6:22
  1. Turn off autofocus (M setting) and set lens to hyperfocal distance, if the birds are distant.

  2. Set the camera for single focus on the initial subject, AF-S. See http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/d7000/af-settings.htm


This is the kind of situation that honestly takes practice to do well; technology can assist you, but it's not going to solve this kind of problem on its own.

In these situations I do try to (a) boost ISO and (b) use a deeper Depth of Field where I can, but often you're in poor light and there's only so much you can do. Where I can I'll shoot at F8 instead of F5.6 because it can help you when the focus is slightly off -- which it will be.

I'll typically be shifting between using spot focus (single point, typically centered) when working with a single bird and field focus (focusing within a region, with the camera choosing the focus point) when dealing with flocks. the latter fails badly in scenes with clutter like a bird in a tree, because it'll invariably focus on the branches and not the bird. Spot focus is your friend in that case.

Beyond that, I shoot lots of shots in burst mode, most of which I throw away editing in post to get the best ones. Lots and lots of shots. I was out in the wildlife refuges over the weekend and came home with about 2500 images to edit. I'm guessing 2400 will never see the light of day, maybe even more.

Sometimes your only hope is manual focus, especially in cluttered situations. This is where practice comes in: learning your gear, learning how to shift between these modes quickly and without confusion or fumbling, and learning how the gear reacts in different situations so you know which mode to use for what situation. Technology is great, but ultimately to get the best shots you need to control it to get the shot you want instead of the shot it wants to give you...

I'm just barely starting to edit this weekend's haul, but you can see the first of the images over on my blog: http://photography.chuqui.com/2015/02/refuge-run-winter-2015-bald-eagles/ (hint: bald eagles chasing each other and sitting in trees and things...)


Automatic focus can still be very useful in this case. If the eagle is so far away that you can set the lens to a fixed focus ahead of time, then it will be a small spot in a large picture. If not, you really need to actually focus the lens for that eagle that time. Auto focus can do this much faster than you can manually.

Look around in your menus or perhaps there is a little lever for that (I don't know all the different Nikon models, just mine), but there is surely a way to adjust what the auto focus will look at to decide focus. What you want is to use a single small spot in the center. That way you point the camera at what you want it to focus on, press the shutter button halfway, then reframe (if necessary), before pushing the button all the way to actually take the picture.

This is the auto focus mode I use most of the time anyway. I've had too much trouble with multi-target focusing getting confused with different objects at different distances. Once you get used to it, pointing the camera at what you want to focus on, freezing the focus by holding the shutter button halfway, then reframing before taking the picture becomes second nature.


I have experience with a D7000 and an 18-200 lens. Some of this may be basic. I'm assuming birds at a distance of 20 to 500 feet.

First, equipment settings.

  • Ensure that VR (vibration reduction) is on when shooting. (Just remember to turn it off on the lens before you turn the camera off.)
  • Auto ISO with minimum=100.
  • Either shutter mode or manual mode on the dial. You don't want the camera to decide to open up for 1/32 second. When time is of the essence I've never managed to improve my results micromanaging aperture and ISO, except when the camera was making terrible choices in auto.
  • Set autofocus mode to AF-C and use the viewfinder. Do not use the preview screen because it is much slower to converge focus and much more prone to failure (focus all the way in or out).
  • In the menus map the AE-L/AF-L button (near the shutter speed dial) to autofocus-on. This way you can push the button with your thumb to quickly focus, then release, compose the shot, and shoot repeatedly without losing focus or refocusing each time.
  • Find the option for autofocus priority and set it to shutter priority. Now you can hold down the AE-L/AF-L button with your thumb to continuously refocus on a bird in flight, taking shots all the while.
  • Use center-area autofocus metering (nine dots). For moving targets this is a good compromise.
  • For sky and water in the background, especially if it's sunny, don't forget your CPL filter.

Now strategy tips:

  • For birds and other wild animals I prefer a shutter speed of at least 1/500 unless they are resting and you can brace on something. The D7000 can handle this even with cloudy skies. In full sun I go to 1/1000 or more.
  • Be shutter happy. Don't wait for a better pose that may not come.
  • Practice breathing techniques just like rifle shooting, so you can minimize shake at 200mm. Open the shutter after you exhale and between heartbeats.
  • Every now and then, take a look at your last few shots in preview with the overexposure cues on (overexposed pixels blink). It can be hard to see the preview screen in the sun, but if there's too much overexposure in your test shot or if you're dark, you may have to go full manual even with the ISO.
  • If you find yourself in an extreme contrast situation, with over- and under-exposure in the same shot in bright sun, have a 4-stop ND filter on hand. Stack it under your CPL.
  • In twilight conditions, believe it or not, take a short 1080p video and get a screen grab later. That can sometimes look better if the target is moving slowly. (Once you start recording, most settings except focus are locked.)

If there's lots of birds then the easier answer is probably to pick an area, set up your focus manually, using a tree or rock outcrop or a calculation, and then wait with your tripod and a cable/remote release ready to fire when a bird comes into view. That's how an awful lot of the best nature pictures are taken.


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