Capturing Birds in Flight: Exposure Control

Capturing birds in flight is a difficult task for any DSLR camera. Capturing a “stop action” shot of a bird in flight with enough detail and sharpness to distinguish between individual feathers is exceptional. Accomplishing all this with an exposure that doesn’t blow out the highlights and leave the subject silhouetted dark against a bright background is almost too much to wish for, but the Canon EOS 7D delivers all this and more.

When looking for a wildlife camera I tend to focus on the auto-focus system (no pun intended) more than anything else. However, it takes more than just sharpness to create a great wildlife shot. It also requires precise exposure control especially when shooting birds in flight. The Canon EOS 7D comes with a brand new 63-zone “iFCL” (Intelligent Focus, Color, Luminance) metering system that takes focus, color and illumination into account when determining the correct exposure. This new AE system takes the 7D’s capabilities to an entirely new level of sophistication and precision as you can see in the shot below.


Stop Action – Brazos Bend State Park, Texas
Copyright © 2011 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 7D set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM + EF 1.4x Extender mono-pod mounted. The exposure was taken at 560mm, f/5.6 for 1/1000th of a second at ISO 100. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

For a shot like this I would normally use the “Spot Metering” mode and hope for the best. Shooting a white subject backlit against a very bright background is a recipe for AE failure in most situations but to my surprise and delight, the EOS 7D handled this scenario almost perfectly in “Evaluative Metering” mode. In this situation, my EOS 5D Mark II would have blown out the highlight almost completely in it’s quest to reveal a little detail in the Heron’s neck. The new 63 zone iFCL metering system on the 7D compensated for the bright background to show feather detail but didn’t blow out the highlights at all.

Quite a feat for a non-1D series camera and one more reason why the Canon EOS 7D is a truly great DSLR value.

12 thoughts on “Capturing Birds in Flight: Exposure Control

  1. i want to start bird photography but don’t have a large budget to spend on a fancy DSLR. I was wondering if the Pentax K-r would be worth it with 6 frames per second continuous shooting

    • Dave,

      Bird photography is an expensive hobby. The real cost is in a long lens and not really the camera. I’ve never used anything other than Canon for the past 35 years (although I did try a Nikon D300 for a few months) so I can’t really comment on the Pentax DSLR.


      • thanks for the advice

        i want to start bird photography so i will see if i can get enough money to purchase a better lens though i doubt it will come close to the ones you have talked about

  2. Excellent catch for Landing @ water.

    it seems that canon did a good enhancement in adding this mode, you may use it more and show us the result, which lens you used? and did you use a tripod in this shot?

    I am a Nikon fan, D90 user.

    have a nice day..

    • Ali,

      I shot this using a Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM lens with an EF 1.4x extender attached. I used a mono-pod to steady the lens & camera.


  3. I am fairly new to amateur photography, but your posts, or perhaps more accurately your images really do set a mark for what might be possible.

    I have to agree with previous comments about gear envy, thankfully the empty pockets keep all of that under control!!

    I continue to browse flickr for your images.


    • Anna,

      I sincerely apologize if my posts create “gear envy” and I did cover the financial pitfalls of gear lust in a post last year. Please red it carefully before making any major purchase, especially a new camera.

      I will say this. The 5D Mark II killed the sales of Canon’s flagship camera the 1Ds Mark III since it was a much better value for those wanting a full-frame camera. I suspect the 7D will do exactly the same thing to the new 1D Mark IV within 12 months. My only other comment is to check the “Canon Refurbished” inventory at Adorama if you decide to buy any new Canon DSLR. I never buy new cameras or lenses but wait till they show up on the refurbished list for a 15% – 30% discount.


      • No need to appologize. The husband agreed I could get one anyway, it really does make sense due to all the fast animal shooting I like to do. the only thing I really wanted and will miss out on is a full frame. But I can live with that for a while.

        I did not know about the refurbished section on Adorama. I frequently check out KEH for used items and trust them. But I found a 7D at for same price as KEH used stuff and new. But I will check out Adorama refurbished before I purchase anything.I have a sneaking suspision there won’t be many 7D on there.

        Thanks for all your insight on this camera.

    • Sheldon,


      Sorry for shouting but the 40D has the best sensor in a crop body camera I’ve ever shot with and I regret trading mine in when I bought the 5D2. The images I captured with the 40D are sharper and show more contrast than those taken with my old 50D and even my new 7D. The 10MP sensor in the 40D hit the “sweet spot” for APS-C size sensors and provides incredible images. I bought the 7D for the new AF system and AE system but I still like the image quality from the 40D better. It’s very close to what I currently get from my 5D2 for landscape images.


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