I know that photograppy is about the user and not the camera but when I have been taking pictures of birds in flight my camera can't hold a focus point. I have it set up for back button focusing in Aperture Priority set to AF-C. I have tried the Dynamic, 3D and Auto focus modes to no avail. The focus light indicates a focus lock so I fire the shutter but when I look back in Capture NXD there is no focus point. Should I stop using back button focusing? My reason for saying this is that when I hold down the back button it will try to adjust the focus constantly. Is this why the shots aren't so good?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Just wanna know, can spot metering help in this scenario? I too once faced a similar issue of focusing. \$\endgroup\$
    – samjay
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 6:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Could ypu explain how this would help? I am willing to give this a go. @samjay \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 13:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ even I am trying to figure it out. I had read somewhere that spot metering helps in focusing when you want to capture birds, but how do I do it is still a question to me. I am not even sure if this really works, hence the comment. \$\endgroup\$
    – samjay
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 3:31

2 Answers 2


It's always tricky taking pictures of birds in flight - especially when your lens takes a few seconds to cycle through the focus range.

Here's what I do - Firstly, I use single autofocus rather than continual. If you're running continuous AF, then as soon as the bird isn't on an active focus point, then your AF is going to start hunting and is probably going to be way off when you get the bird back onto a focus point. At least with single AF, if you've managed to focus, then hopefully the range isn't going to change much.

Secondly, pre focus on a bit of the background at around the right distance. with single AF, that's just partially pressing the shutter while pointing in the right direction. What this does is get you almost in focus when you aim at the bird - so the AF can home in quickly instead of cycling through the full range (which usually blurs things enough that you can't see the bird part of the time).

And I usually use a single active AF point - that way, I don't have to worry about the camera deciding to focus on the wrong thing.

Continual AF works best for things that are moving towards or away from you that you can manage to keep on the focus points; if you can't manage that - especially with a lens that takes a long time to cycle through the full focus range - then you will have problems when the subject wanders off the focus points.

  • \$\begingroup\$ If I put the camera in AF-A mode would this be a good compromise or should I steer clear of that mode? @JerryTheC \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 13:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ My D300 has a choice of manual, single, or continuous AF (next to the lens mount) and another option for selecting which focus points are active). I usually keep it set to single AF and to use a single (but changeable) focus point - I prefer to keep control of where it's trying to focus on. With multiple points active, there's a chance it's either going to focus on something in the foreground or something in the background rather than what I want it to (the bird)... \$\endgroup\$
    – JerryTheC
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 0:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ ... I suggest checking the manual - if how it decides to choose what to focus on with multiple points active fits what you want to do, fine. But for most of what I do, a single steerable point works fine for me (You may decide differently...) \$\endgroup\$
    – JerryTheC
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 0:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ I will be having another go at shooting birds this week so I will definitely give the single point af a try. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 15:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Don't forget to pre-focus at about the right distance; that's one of the important factors in cutting the focus time down if your lens takes a while to cycle through the focus range. The less time it takes to reach focus, the more likely it is the bird is still going to be on the focus point and let you take the photo. \$\endgroup\$
    – JerryTheC
    Commented Aug 28, 2017 at 17:47

I am not a bird photographer but every year early in January we go out to shoot (figuratively) the American Bald Eagle return to The Columbia River Gorge.

I shoot using several very old but very high quality manual focus prime lenses in the 50-120 mm range. This is about the longest realistic focal length for this type of hand held shooting.

With most lenses out there, correct focus for birds in flight will be with the lens set at (a distance of) infinity. That's how I set my camera. When tracking an eagle in flight I press the shutter button when I get the focus confirmation light. Of course it's highly likely that the eagle will be in focus at this setting with or without the confirmation.

For any type of action shooting you have to expect to miss focus now and then. But this technique has given me a high rate of success over the years. Most of my off-focus images were the result of a too slow shutter speed and not the lens setting.

Of course with these lenses I am doing a lot of cropping so a high MP camera like my D810 is very helpful. Not familiar with how a D3300 performs since that's a fairly entry level DSLR. Without having actually used a D3300 I'm guessing that it's (the camera or your lens) focusing speed may be too slow for your application. Bear in mind that cameras are mindless machines. It will try to focus on any contrasting target you aim it at, not necessarily the subject you are trying to focus on.

  • \$\begingroup\$ For what it is worth, practice with longer focal length lenses may improve the zoom at which a person can catch moving objects. Skeet shooting suggests the degree of hand eye coordination that is possible and photo sessions that offer similar opportunities for rapid acquisition of moving subjects at distance might be the equivalent. \$\endgroup\$
    – user50888
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 20:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ Duly noted. However, I rarely shoot moving objects and since I am not interested in lugging around tons of gear there are just some shots that I accept that I will not be able to get. Also, the longer the focal length the slower the lens unless you have megabucks to spend. My Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 nifty fifty has been a faithful walking around lens for many years. I also have an 85mm Rokinon f/1.4 m/f prime that I'll slap om my D7000 if I need more reach. Otherwise it has a Nikkor f/1.4 35mm m/f lens on it. These lenses are EXCEPTIONAL glass for my needs. \$\endgroup\$
    – jones0610
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 21:44

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