Birds in flight photography with the Nikon D800 and D600 cameras

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Hi [NR], I am Jiayi Chong (Flickr). Outside of work, I do wildlife (mostly birds) photography as my weekend hobby/passion.

There has been much discussion about the new D600 and D800 cameras with regard to capturing birds in flight. Since I use both of these camera bodies regularly, I thought I could provide some useful insight into how these cameras perform when faced with unpredictable, moving subjects.

Before I continue on with the photos and discussion, here is the gear I shoot with:

Bodies: Nikon D600 or Nikon D800
Lens: Nikon Telephoto AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D ED-IF Autofocus
Teleconverters: Nikon TC-17E II 1.7x and Nikon TC-14E II 1.4x

All shots are handheld, no tripod or monopod.

I use the 300mm F4 prime since it is extremely lightweight, very portable, and easily works with the handheld style of shooting. It also works great with both the 1.7x(my typical choice) and 1.4x teleconverters.

I always have one of the TCs attached to the 300mm F4 prime, since my subjects require at least 400mm reach for a reasonable shot. With the new D600 and D800 bodies that can autofocus up to F8, I typically use the 1.7x TC to get a 510mm effective reach on the full frame bodies. The 1.4x TC is used occasionally when I need a bit more light, but most of the time I shoot with the 1.7x TC. I also stop down to F7.1 or F8 if I can to get just a bit more sharpness when lighting conditions allow for the 1.7x TC. I shoot wide open at F5.6 for the 1.4x TC.

The D600 was the first full frame body I tried for birds in flight. It has 39 AF points, employing the Multi-CAM 4800 system for FX bodies. It also has a 5.5 fps burst rate. There are heated arguments on whether the AF points for the D600 are spread out well enough for various shooting conditions. For my shots it is a lot simpler: I always only use the center AF cross type point, no other points are used so the spread of the points does not really impact my shots. Burst rate is set to the maximum 5.5 fps which is sufficient for many shots.

The D600 is good enough to capture quite a few fast moving birds, including Peregrine Falcons and Merlins. All my shots are done in the wild, the tags on some of the birds are done by raptor biologists every season at Peregrine nests. Overall, I will say the D600 is a fantastic and lightweight wildlife camera with great image quality. The D600’s autofocus system is fast but could be a bit faster. It works decently for horizontally moving subjects but when you have a head on shot of a bird in flight, it often gets confused and misses quite frequently. I have tried changing the spread of my AF points and toggling the different modes with worse results so I stuck with the center point as my default. The interesting thing about the AF system on the D600 for an incoming subject is that in good light, the system manages to lock on to the subject decently before the first shot is taken. I typically find the first shot from a continuous burst of 6 shots to be the sharpest. After the first shot is fired, the AF system might start hunting when faced with the erratically moving subject so it mis-focuses quite a bit.

Here are some shots taken with the D600 setup:


Peregrine Falcon


Golden Eagle about to strike a ground squirrel


Newly fledged juvenile Peregrine Falcon takes off


Incoming Oystercatcher


Male Taiga Merlin launches for a morning hunt

I recently acquired a D800 body hoping for a better AF tracking system and higher image resolution. In theory, the 4 FPS burst rate might be too slow for wildlife, but in practice it has not been an issue for me so far. The D800 employs the Multi-CAM 3500FX system which should deliver better results than that of the D600. Just like in my D600 setup, I use the center point for targeting my subjects, but I found that I could also use the additional 9 points surrounding the center point on the D800 with decent results.

The D800 has much less of an issue tracking head-on subjects as opposed to the D600. You really feel the difference in initial target acquisition when using the D800 vs the D600. Also, the AF system has a much better hit rate from a continuous set of 4 frames for one burst compared to the D600.

Here are some shots taken with my D800 setup:


Red-Tail Hawk takes off


Common Merganser hunting fish


Incoming White-Bellied Sea Eagle


Grey-Headed Fish Eagle hunt


Grey-Headed Fish Eagle with prey


Grey-Headed Fish Eagle moments before impact


White-Bellied Sea Eagle strike


White-Bellied Sea Eagle striking fish


Stork-Billed Kingfisher rising from waters of a mangrove forest

Overall, I am pretty happy with both cameras. I use the D600 if I want something a bit lighter, but the D800 is now my body of choice for more demanding situations. For both cameras, I use the auto ISO mode with a minimum shutter speed of 1/1600s. The maximum ISO is clamped at 6400. I shoot in aperture priority mode. Feel free to contact me on Flickr if you have any further questions regarding the shots and thank you for reading the post.

If you have an interesting idea for a guest postyou can contact me here.

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