Using Nikon D800 for flying birds

Over the last three weeks, I’ve been using the Nikon D800 to shoot birds on my vacation in Florida. Here are my unscientific and personal findings for shooting birds in flight from tripod and hand-held with some example photos below:

  • Auto ISO sensitivity control is bliss if you don’t use manual exposure mode. For birds in flight or any other wildlife in fast action, I normally have it set to: ISO sensitivity 100 (= minimum), Maximum sensitivity 1600, Minimum shutter speed 1/1600-1/2000. For slower moving or more static animals, 1/640 seconds seems to give good and sharp results. Of course if you have enough light go as fast as possible.
  • When using CF a general AF problem is that the focus point is often not on the eye. This is not specific to the D4/D800’s new AF system (Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX). So just shoot and hope for the best.
  • The new AF system seems to be very fast and hunt less than the previous one, especially when the background is the sky.
  • With the new AF system I don’t need to overexpose +1 or +2 when shooting flying birds against the blue sky as with the old AF (Multi-CAM 3500DX).
  • You don’t need more than 4fps to capture wildlife in action (I already knew this before and couldn’t understand all the fuss about it being slow).
  • Having so many pixels at hand is really helpful, since it is easier to catch a bird in flight when it is further away, then just crop to get the right detail. This is a huge advantage over the D4 and I think far more relevant than the 4fps versus 10fps.
  • If you only want photos that are sharp down to pixel level, be prepared to have to throw away many of your shots (Be aware that this makes sense only if you plan to crop or print in gigantic dimensions).

Photos of flying birds using a tripod

All photos below were taken with the Nikkor 600mm/f4 VR mounted on a Gitzo Tripod GT5541LS with a head by Dietmar Nill.

Flying Great Egret (Ardea alba) with fish in beak
Flying Great Egret (Ardea alba) with a little fish in its beak. Taken at f5.6, 1/1600, ISO 640

Photo of egret with fish in beak
100% crop of above egret photo revealing a little fish in its beak.
Photo showing Egret feet with water dropplets
100% crop of photo above showing details of claws and water drops. Using a higher speed than 1600s might have made it sharper.
Photo of a Great Egret in flight
Photo of a Great Egret (Ardea alba) in flight taken at f5.0, 1/600, ISO 640. Even though it is not 100% sharp at pixel level (see photo below) this doesn’t show up when downsampled. This is a huge advantage of the 36MP.
100% crop showing that the above photo is not sharp at pixel level.
Photo of a skimmer in flight (Rynchops niger)
Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) in flight taken at f6.3, 1/2000, ISO 220. The photo is already cropped to 4338 x 2895 pixels, showing the advantage of having 7360 x 4912 pixels to choose from.
Photo showing a 100% crop of skimmer in flight (Rynchops niger)
100% crop of the original photo showing only the eye and a part of the beak.

Handheld photos of flying birds

All photos below were taken handheld from a canoe with the Nikkor 300mm/f2.8 VR.

Photo of flying Royal Tern
Flying Royal Tern (Sterna maxima) handheld from canoe at ISO 360, f8.0, 1/1600
100% crop of photo above. Notice ring on foot.
Royal Terns (Sterna maxima) taking off from a mussel bank. Photo was taken handheld at ISO 500, f8.0, 1/1600
Photo of Royal Terns (Sterna maxima) taking off
100% crop of above photo
Handheld photo of a Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) in flight taken at ISO 360, 1/1600, f8.0
Handheld photo of Brown Pelican in flight
100% crop of photo above

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  1. I have always been a Canon user till I recently aquired A Nikon D800 with a Sigma 150-600 Sport lens and this week added a Sigma
    TC 1.4X which seems to work Well in AF mode-Since only the Sigma TC’s only work on Sigma Lens.I have taken note of your Settings for Flying Birds and will try them out.I was using a 2000 Shutter speed with an 800 ISO setting which was good for sky flights.A lot seems to depend on the DayLight as I am using auto WB.The Canon 7DMK 2 I set at ISO 200 with a 2000 shutter speed and works in most Daylight weathers.Do you have any more tips-Thanks

    1. Cool, that my post is still useful after 7 years ! Shooting flying birds against the bright sky, often leads to underexposing of the birds. Nowadays, I often use manual exposure mode and preset my exposure by taking test photos off some greenery on the ground before shooting birds in flight. I also try to have the highest possible shutter speed (sometimes 2000s doesn’t seem to be enough, depends on the subject speed and irregularity of flight of course) while keeping noise levels below my acceptance level, which is around ISO 1600.
      Here are some examples of birds in flight shot with Nikon D800, D810 and D850.

  2. Hi Simon,

    I would like to purchase either the 400 2.8 or the 600 f4 and would like to know your opinion on which lens you think would be better.
    I rented the 400 f2.8 vrii and used a 1.4x on this lens and the result was amazing I shot with both d4 and d800.
    The focus speed of 400 is amazingly fast, faster than any lens I have ever seen. The lens is super sharp. Almost as sharp as 200 f2.
    I am new to bird photography and I soon realized I needed a longer lens. 560 just didn’t cut it for me. Even though I can crop the hell out of the image with the d800, I want to be able to fill up my sensor with my subject. I don’t have the 1.7x or the 2x III but I wonder how they pars up with the 400. Can you please comment on that?

    Also I can’t rent the 600mm and I would to know sow sharp it will be and how well it retains sharpness with 1.4, 1.7 or the 2x
    Can you provide some sample image with 2x III how fast focusing is this lense compered with the 400?

    For me the price diffrence between 600 and 400 is 1k and I can get the 400 for 9.1k including tax.


    1. I wouldn’t get the 400mm for bird photography. You just don’t get enough reach for (small) birds. I personally only own the 600mm and the TC 1.4, so I can’t share my personal experience with the 400mm and the teleconverters (I’ve borrowed the 400mm though and I agree it is an amazingly sharp lens). With all TCs in general, you always have a loss of image quality, and don’t forget that you lose light. Especially in the forest you are often short on light, even with the D800.

      The 600mm/f4 is a very sharp lens and I can really recommend it, see some more examples in the article First Bird Photos with Nikon D800 and 600mm/f4 or in my photo database. Most bird pictures there are taken with the 600mm and to a lesser extent with the 300mm/2.8.

      I’ve only used the 600mm with the TC 1.4 a few times and wasn’t very happy with the results. This was probably not so much because they wouldn’t perfectly work together, but rather because it’s really hard to focus when you are at 900mm (very shallow depth of field and the subject moves fast or erratically).

      About speed. I never thought the 600mm/f4 was not focusing fast enough, but as I already mentioned I don’t own the 400mm so I can’t give a direct speed comparison.

      If money is not so much an issue, I would also consider the 800mm/5.6

      Hope this helps

  3. Since your purchase of the D800, have you tried using D800E?
    If so, could you comment?

  4. hi sir i am about to buy a camera
    but there is one confusion about frame per second and lenses

    the camera is nikon d800 (4fps)
    i would like to buy 300mm f4 lense
    but the confusion is about aperture
    suppose i am catching photograph of flying bird
    is it possible that birds wing will blur due to lower frame per second

    configuration 300mmf4 lens and d800 is ok?

    or pls suggest other lenses for bird photography upto 80,000INR

    most of the questions answer is given by you in this article
    but now the main confusion is about lens & teleconverter used for
    flying bird

    sir plz explain me from basic as iam new in dslr photography

    1. Your configuration of the 300mm/f4 with the D800 is fine. The number of frames per second only says how many photos the camera can take per second. It does not say how long it takes to take each photo. That is measured with the shutter speed, where the D800 lets you go up to 1/8000s.

      If the birds wing will blur depends on shutter speed and not on frames per second. As I mention in the article a speed of 1/1600-1/2000s or higher will give you sharp results. And thats where the f-number comes into play. The f-number indicates how much light your lens allows to fall on the sensor. So depending on the amount of light on the day your taking your photo, you will not be able to use a shutter speed that is high enough (say at least 1/1000s) to avoid blur. So if you have enough money it is better to go for the 300mm/f2.8 because you have more light.

      Speaking of using the 300mm with a teleconverter, I only can say that the TC 1.4x works amazingly well with the 300/f2.8. I will publish some examples when I have time. I don’t know about the 300mm/f4, but you can read a review about it with sample pictures on photographylife’s article Nikon 300mm f/4.0 IF-ED AF-S Review

      If you are new to DSLR photography the D800 might be a little too much for you, because of the high resolution.

      Hope this makes sense

  5. Thanks for this helpful article. Did you consider the D800E before you settled for the D800? I’ve seen some static tests where the sharpness of the 800E stands out compared to the 800, but I’ve also seen many posts stating that there is little difference.


    1. Yes I did consider the D800E. I went for the D800 because I was worried to get moiré on the bird feathers with close ups. Also the release date of the D800E was to late, I went on a birding trip in spring and had to preorder.

  6. Hello Simon, Cheers & thanks for your reply re D800 for birds.
    I have ordered mine just yesterday so cant wait to try it out. Its a bit nervy going to FF from a crop sensor but still I guess its time to mature. LOL. Regards Neil Foster (NZ )

  7. Hello Simon, Saw your article on birds with the D800.
    I have been agonizing waiting for a D300 replacement. I shoot mainly birds and often in poor light(subject specific ) so wonder about buying D800.
    Im more interested in ISO performance than mega pixels but appreciate your comments on cropping.
    I found my D300 just could not give me acceptable images (generally ) in low light levels.
    I use 400/2.8VR+1.7TC so its disappointing coming home and getting RSI in my delete finger.
    Anyway, I would appreciate your opinion on D800 for my situation, Regards Neil Foster (New Zealand )

    1. My D800 was also a replacement for the D300, where I found anything higher than 640 – 800 ISO to be unusable. This is completely different from the D800, where you can easily go up to 1600 or even 3200 ISO and still crop. Of course you’ll lose some dynamic range and gain grain with increasing ISO. I posted some examples in my new post on Nikon D800 examples of bird photos with high ISO settings that I think easily prove the point. If you don’t have to crop you can even go higher than that. In your case I would rather worry about the TC 1.7 adding blur, although I don’t have any experience with it.

      BTW: I traveled through New Zealand in 2000 for three months, what a wonderful country with great photo opportunities (New Zealand Pigeon)

  8. Thnaks for the info; I have D3, and have just purchased a D800 with the MB D12. Doi you think with the new AF system, and shooting with the D800 at 6fps with the 1.2 size, that my keepers will be better than the 4 fps full frame size, if I only had to do mininimal cropping?

    1. I guess it depends how close you are to what you are shooting. For fast moving objects which might be cut off I’d rather use the full frame than have 6fps. For object that are easy to keep within the frame go with the 1.2 size.