The Best Mirrorless Cameras for Birds in Flight Ranked

A few years ago, our reader Alfredo suggested an idea for an article. Since we test the autofocus performance of many cameras at the same red kite feeding stations, why not publish a list of all the cameras we use with their keeper rate for birds in flight?

I liked his idea a lot and when the holiday break came, it gave me the opportunity to look at my notes (which luckily I kept for most of the cameras we reviewed) and build the article you’re reading right now.

Since then, I’ve continued to test new mirrorless cameras and update this post with new data and feedback. I also want to thank all of our readers who have visited, commented and made suggestions to improve the content.

If you’re curious to know which is the best mirrorless camera for bird photography, this article should give you a pretty good idea!

cover image with title of the article

Ethics statement: All opinions expressed in this article are based on our real-world experience with each camera and lens. We were not asked to write anything about these products, nor were we provided any compensation of any kind. Within the article, there are affiliate links. If you decide to buy something after clicking the link, we will receive a small commission. To know more about our ethics, you can visit our full disclosure page. Thank you!


TABLE OF CONTENTS

1. Article Updates
2. Where I Perform The Test
3. How I Calculate The Score
4. AF Score and Drive Score
5. The Best Mirrorless Camera for BIF Ranked
6. Other Cameras
7. Summary and Rankings
8. Additional Resources


Article Updates

  • October 2022: Fujifilm X-H2S added
  • August 2022: Canon R3 added
  • June 2022: A7R IV and A7R III score updated
  • April 2022: various changes to make the information more complete and easier to navigate
  • March 2022: OM System OM-1 added
  • February 2022: Sony A7 IV added
  • January 2022: Fujifilm X-S10 added, X-T4 score updated
  • November 2021: Sony A1 added, Sony A7 III score updated
  • August 2021: Canon R5 added
  • June 2021: updated the Panasonic G9 score after testing firmware 2.4
  • November 2020: Canon EOS R6 score added
  • October 2020: Nikon Z7 score updated
  • September 2020: Nikon Z50 and E-M1 III added to the list, Nikon Z6 score updated, new ranking based on AF rate and burst speed added
  • August 2020: Fujifilm X-T4 added to the list

Where I Perform The Test

The two locations I go to every time are the Red Kite feeding stations at Bwlch Nant Yr Arian and Gigrin Farm in Mid-Wales.

A view of Bwlch Nant yr Arian with trees and a lake surrounded by hills.
Bwlch Nant Yr Arian
landscape with double rainbow
Partial view of the field at Gigrin

The action is pretty much always the same: close to 3pm (2pm in winter), the kites gather in the sky in large numbers (up to 150, more in the cold season). Once the meal is served, they dive in turns to grab the food. The feast can last for several hours depending on the day, the number of birds and the season.

The birds can fly quite close (Gigrin), or dive into the water to grab a piece of meat that another kite dropped (Bwlch Nant Yr Arian), giving us photographers an extra opportunity for a dramatic picture. There are also fights among the kites themselves, or with other birds.

Red kite diving into the water
A9, 1/2500, f/8, ISO 3200 – FE 100-400mm GM with TC 1.4x
two red kites fighting in mid air
X-T4, 1/2500, f/5.6, ISO 400 – XF 100-400mm

The scenario is ideal because, in a couple of hours, I can take lots of images, try different settings and capture the birds when they are in the sky (plain background) or against the trees (busy background). Kites are fast, which gives the camera (and myself!) a nice challenge.


How I Calculate The Score

I transfer all the images to my computer and divide them into folders, according to the different settings used. Then, I start to analyse each photo and assign one of three labels:

  • in focus: sharpness is excellent, details are crisp
  • slightly soft focus: the image looks ok at first, but zooming in reveals it is not perfect (you can still perceive most of the details, but they are not as sharp as they could be)
  • out of focus: the details of the bird are too soft and can be noticed without enlarging the image, or focus is completely off
Out of focus vs slightly soft vs in focus examples featuring a kite

When my analysis is complete, I calculate two percentages for each folder. This allows me to find out not only how the camera performed, but also which setting combinations gave me the highest score. I may also separate the percentages according to the position of the bird (plain or busy background) if there is a substantial difference in performance.

Green

In-focus images only. It’s the most severe score out of the two.

Blue

In-focus + slightly soft images. It is a more forgiving evaluation.

You may wonder why I bother with the blue score at all, and that is a legitimate question. When I started testing mirrorless cameras, I noticed that slightly soft results were more common than completely out of focus images, as opposed to DSLRs. Making this differentiation allows me to better understand how the camera performs and what the potential improvements could be.

We can also argue that an image may look good even if focus is only 90% accurate, and might still be usable in limited form if the action or the light captured is really beautiful.


AF Score and Drive Score

The AF Score represents the best keeper rate I got with a precise list of settings and a specific drive speed. It prioritises the autofocus performance rather than the fastest burst rate the camera can produce. For example, if a model can work at 20fps, but the keeper rate is better at 10fps, the AF Score will reflect the performance at 10fps.

The Drive Score shows the hit rate I got with the fastest continuous shooting speed available on the camera, as well as the number of ‘keepers’ (images in focus) in a 1 second burst. To keep things simple, the Drive Score only takes into account the green percentage.

Why make such a distinction?

The Drive Score was added later, following the suggestion of our reader Speeding in the comments. He rightfully argued that, even if a camera had an inferior AF score, it might still give you a higher number of good images per second because the drive speed is faster.

Which score should you give more importance to?

It depends on how much of a difference there is between the cameras. Let’s take an example:

  • A7 IV: 94% (green) at 10fps – 9 / 10 images in focus
  • X-T3: 72% (green) at 20fps – 14 / 20 images in focus

Despite the lower score, the X-T3 gives you more images in focus per second. Considering that wildlife is often about capturing difficult moments that may not happen again, many photographers will prefer to have more images on the SD card and that is a fair assessment.

Personally, I think the AF score gives you a more realistic representation of how much the camera can be trusted. The A7 IV may have a slower drive speed, but its autofocus is more realiable in every situation, whereas the X-T3 will struggle at times.

I would also consider the following:

  • There are no settings that let you control where the out of focus images will end up in a sequence. The camera with the better AF has a higher chance of giving you good images where the action is at its most crucial (for example when a bird is grabbing a fish in the water).
  • Some cameras may have more fps but the buffer might be limited. For example, the X-T3 won’t manage 2 seconds at 20fps (with RAW), so if the action lasts 4 seconds, the A7 IV will give you more images in focus.
  • The continuous shooting speed you select in the menu and the actual speed the camera uses are not always exactly the same, and some settings can slow it down too (for example the X-T3 speed decreases when using Focus Priority, but the latter is an important setting to improve the AF rate).
  • At the fastest rate, not every camera gives you live view in the EVF, which means there is a lag to consider and that can throw you off guard (resulting in a poorer score until you get used to it).
red kite flying and eating
OM-1, 1/2500s, f/4, ISO 200 – 300mm Pro

With all that said, there are times when the Drive Score matters most, and that is when the AF performance is very similar between cameras. Another example:

  • A7 IV: 94% (green) at 10fps – 9 / 10 images in focus
  • R6: 93% (green) at 20fps – 18 / 20 images in focus
  • OM-1: 85% (green) at 50fps – 42 / 50 images in focus

The difference in AF score between the R6 and A7 IV is too small to be relevant in real world use, but the R6 has double the continuous shooting speed, so in this case there is no question that the Canon is the better performer (of course there are other differences like sensor resolution but that is not the point I’m making here).

As for the OM-1, it has a lower score but 8% or 9% is not a big difference, and that difference is easily counterbalanced by the impressive burst speed the camera can handle.

I think displaying both scores gives you a more complete overview of how each camera behaves.

And remember, these scores really focus around the autofocus performance and the number of ‘keepers’. There is so much more to make a camera good for wildlife and birds. This is why each score is accompanied by my comments and feedback about how it is to work with the camera in the field.


Variables and Firmware Updates

There are different things that can influence my test: less light (dark clouds instead of a sunny day), the time of the year and kites’ unexpected behaviour.

There are more kites during the winter and they can eat all the food in half an hour, which doesn’t give me a lot of time to try different settings. On other days, the birds may decide to keep their distance until no humans are present on the site, or wait until the sun goes down (between 4pm and 5pm).

Red kite flying
A7R III, 1/3200, f/8, ISO 6400 – FE 100-400mm GM + TC 1.4x
A very dark winter day while testing the A7R III.

If I’m not satisfied with a session, I always try to go back another day and start over, unless there is a reason that stops me from doing so (bad weather or rented gear that needs to be sent back for example). Depending on availability or my budget, I also try to use different lenses, when possible.

These variables rarely stop me from getting satisfying results. However, if I feel I didn’t have enough time with a particular camera, I make sure to mention it in the article.

Last but not least, manufacturers are now able to tweak the autofocus algorithm, introduce new features and improve the overall performance of their cameras with firmware updates. In some cases, it doesn’t make a difference for birds in flight, whereas in others, it can affect the score positively.

When a new firmware looks relevant, I always try to go back to the kites and test the camera again, but please note this is not always possible due to my working schedule, gear availability and other factors. This article is a solo and self-founded project.

For each product, I’ve included the latest firmware version that I was able to test. If a new firmware that looks interesting is out and I haven’t had a chance to test it yet, I will also mention it.


The Best Mirrorless Camera for Bird Photography

Below is a list of all the cameras I’ve tested. They go from the highest to the lowest AF score. I’ve also included extra information that is useful to know for bird photographers.

Sony A1

Sony A1, front view, with nature background

AF score

98%

100%

Lens used: FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS
Number of images taken: 2,991
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.10

Drive score (20fps)

98%

19 / 20

Drive score (30fps)

94%

28 / 30

The A1 gave me a nearly perfect score, and I honestly can’t see how I will ever get something better than this (but obviously, I’m happy to be proven wrong). The Sony flagship doesn’t bring a huge advantage over the A9 II if you only look at the keeper rate, but when you factor in that it has double the sensor resolution and a faster burst rate, you understand what kind of beast this camera is.

The precision of the tracking mode is impressive, the responsiveness of the autofocus is ahead of anything listed below (A9 series excluded) and the performance stays at its highest even when shooting at 30fps. There is also Eye AF for birds, in addition to animals: it’s not essential when they are in flight, but it’s a great tool to use when they are static.

The best Sony A1 settings for birds in flight:

  • AF-Area Mode: Tracking with Expand Flexible Spot (or Zone Area), Eye AF for Birds enabled
  • Priority Setting in AF-C: Focus
  • AF Track Sensitivity: 5 (Responsive)
  • Drive Mode: Medium/10fps, Hi/20fps or Hi+/30fps (electronic shutter)
red kite flying, with trees in the background
A1, 1/2500s, f/6.3, ISO 10000

The A1 has so much more than just autofocus. In addition to the stacked 50MP sensor, it features 5-axis stabilisation, a superb viewfinder with 9.44M dots and no blackouts (when using the e-shutter), and 8K video. It can work with two CFexpress (type A) or two SD cards, or one of each. It features the latest design upgrade (like the A9 II and A7R IV), which means you get a more comfortable grip. The battery life is very good too. Anything bad to mention? Well, it’s expensive. But then, the camera is one of a kind.

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Sony A9 / A9 II

Sony A9 II

AF score

96%

99%

Lenses used: FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS, FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS with TC 1.4x
Number of images taken: 2,345 (combined)
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00 (A9 II) – 6.00 (A9)

Drive score (20fps)

96%

19 / 20

Note about the lenses: I used the 100-400mm and teleconverter with the A9 version 1.0 when, at the time, the 200-600mm was not available. The performance doesn’t decrease a lot with the TC 1.4x. That said, I consider the 200-600mm to be a better choice (lower price, longer reach, excellent quality).

The A9 II smashed my previous best score, which was taken with the Nikon D500 (85%/98%), and the A9 did the same when firmware 6.0 arrived. Finding only 1 blurred image out of more than a thousand doesn’t leave room for misinterpretation. Even the “slightly out of focus” photos were hardly distinguishable from the sharp images, so I had to be extremely picky.

The real-time AF tracking is the first tracking mode on a mirrorless model that is reliable for this genre. The blackout-free live view when shooting at 10fps or 20fps with the electronic shutter makes it so much easier to follow the kites. No other mirrorless camera comes close to this at the moment. In fact, the only competitor is the flagship A1.

The best Sony A9 / A9 II settings for birds in flight:

  • AF-Area Mode: Tracking with Expand Flexible Spot (or Zone Area)
  • Priority Setting in AF-C: Focus
  • AF Track Sensitivity: 5 (Responsive)
  • Drive Mode: Medium/10fps or Hi/20fps (electronic shutter)
Red kite diving into the water
A9 II, 1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 12800

The main differences between the A9 and A9 II are found on the outside. The mark II model inherits an upgraded design with a larger grip, thicker buttons and two UHS-II card slots.

The battery life is the best you can find and both bodies are weather sealed. The 24MP full frame sensor is excellent concerning dynamic range and high ISO. The RAW files drop to 12-bit when using the electronic shutter in continuous mode, which can limit shadow recovery with extreme post processing, but this has yet to cause me serious problems.

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Canon EOS R3

Canon R3, front view without lens cap

AF score

94%

100%

Lens used: RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1 L IS USM, Extenders RF 1.4x and RF 2x
Number of images taken: 8,450
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.2.1

Drive score (30fps)

94%

28 / 30

The Canon R3 really surprised me. The AF locking speed is impressive (probably the fastest on this list), and the animal detection software is very intelligent. It can stay glued to the subject no matter what passes in front of it. If it wasn’t for the occasional odd behaviour of focusing on the background, the R3 would certainly be at the top of the list. The autofocus is also very fast during video recording.

The R3 has a unique feature, Eye Control, which allows you to focus with your eyeball: simply look at your subject and press the AF button. It almost sounds like science fiction, but it works and is very precise, although I found you need a bit of time to get used to and trust it.

The best Canon R3 settings for birds in flight:

  • AF area: Flexible Zone 1 (medium size)
  • Servo AF: Case Auto
  • Subject to Detect: Animals
  • Eye Detection: Enable
  • Tracking: off
  • Switching tracked subjects: 0
  • Lens drive when AF impossible: on
  • Release Mode: 30fps (electronic shutter)
red kite flying against trees
R3, 1/3200s, f/7.1, ISO 1600, RF 100-500mm at 500mm

The sensor has 24MP, which may not be much compared to other cameras, but it is the best sensor Canon has ever produced, with excellent dynamic range and great high ISO capabilities. The readout speed is very good and you can shoot up to 30fps using the electronic shutter, with live view and no blackouts.

The R3 comes with weather sealing, plenty of controls and customisation, an excellent viewfinder, two card slots and a big battery. The user experience is fantastic and it is one of my favourite cameras on this list. It’s also one of the most expensive, but it is a true flagship model.

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Sony A7 IV

Sony A7 IV, front view

AF score

94%

99%

Lens used: FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS
Number of images taken: 1,316
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00

Drive score (10fps)

94%

9 / 10

The A7 IV received an important upgrade concerning the autofocus system, with real-time tracking and Eye AF for birds. While the latter is not essential for birds in flight, the tracking mode is very efficient in following the birds in favourable or difficult conditions. I was surprised to achieve a score close to what I got with the mighty A1 and the A9 series.

That said, there is a lack of consistency in the performance. Sometimes the camera nailed the sequences perfectly, other times it gave me a few out of focus or slightly soft shots. In other words, I find it difficult to nail a similar score on every outing. But overall, it is definitely a good improvement over its successor the A7 III.

The best Sony A7 IV settings for birds in flight:

  • Focus Area: Tracking with Expand Flexible Spot (Eye AF can be left on or off, not a big difference)
  • Priority Setting in AF-C: Focus
  • AF Track Sensitivity: 5 (Responsive)
  • Drive Mode: Hi or Hi+ (8fps or 10fps)
red kite flying down with blue sky in the background
A7 IV, 1/3200s, f/6.3, ISO 800 – FE 200-600mm G

The camera has 33MP which is good for wildlife, and the new sensor also provides better dynamic range without hurting the high ISO much. The drive speed has not improved (still 10fps max.) but with the optional CFexpress Type A card, you get great buffer capabilities. Keep in mind that you need to choose compressed RAW or JPG to work at 10fps (otherwise it’s a ‘meh’ 6fps with lossless compressed RAW). The viewfinder is fine, and you also get good ergonomics and a long battery life.

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Canon EOS R6

Canon Eos r6 with 100-500mm attached, sitting on a wooden bench

AF score

93%

97%

Lenses used: RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM, RF 600mm F11 IS STM, EF 800mm F5.6 IS USM with adapter
Number of images taken: 5,180
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.2.0

Drive score (20fps)

93%

18 / 20

Notes: firmware 1.5.2 is supposed to improve AF tracking, so the score could potentally be higher.
The camera gave me consistent results with the three lenses listed above.

The EOS R6 proved to be a formidable contender and is the camera that gets the closest to the Sony A9 II, with whom it shares the same maximum continuous shooting speed of 20fps when using the electronic shutter.

The Canon has a lot of settings to control the autofocus and there is a bit of a learning curve to understand them all. The good news is that even with non-ideal settings, the hit rate doesn’t go below 83%. That said, it’s worth spending time to find the best configuration to get the maximum performance. The animal detection mode is a setting you want to make sure to have enabled. Its speed and reactivity is impressive, switching constantly from the body, head or eye depending on the bird’s position. If it wasn’t for the occasional misfocused shots on the background, the R6 would probably be at the very top of this list.

The best Canon EOS R6 settings for birds in flight:

  • AF method: Tracking with Animals subject detection
  • Initial Servo AF point for Tracking: Auto
  • Servo AF: Case 3 (default settings)
  • Switching Tracked subjects: 0 or 1
  • Lens drive when AF impossible: ON
  • Release Mode: 20fps with electronic shutter
red kite flying against trees with a bit of meat and grass in its mouth, warm light from the sun near sunset time
EOS R6, 1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 800 – RF 100-500mm at 428mm

The sensor resolution of 20MP might seem a bit low for birds and wildlife if you need to crop (this is where its sister R5 could be more interesting), but the high ISO performance is good and there is plenty of dynamic range to work with. Rolling shutter is contained and a non-issue for birds when using the electronic shutter mode. Then we have weather sealing, in-body stabilisation, a good viewfinder and two SD card slots.

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Canon EOS R5

Canon R5 with 800mm F11 attached, and 600mm F11 on the side

AF score

90%

99%

Lenses used: Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM, RF 600mm F11 IS STM, RF 800mm F11 IS STM
Number of images taken: 1,880
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.3.1

Drive score (20fps)

90%

18 / 20

Notes: firmware 1.5.2 should improve the AF performance and possibly the score.
The camera gave me excellent results with all three lenses.

Like its siblings the R6, the Canon EOS R5 shows how much Canon mirrorless cameras have improved, not just for the autofocus who’s potential has always been high, but also in terms of speed and image quality. The R5 features a very good 45MP sensor and, despite the higher resolution, is capable of handling the same drive speed of 20fps like the 20MP R6.

The autofocus settings are also the same and there is a lot you can control. It will take some time to learn all the options available in the 5-pages AF menu of the camera. The most important setting, and one of the most effective, is to enable Animal detection which works really well for static and moving subjects, and very rarely lets you down. The rating is a tad below that of the R6, but a 3% difference is a negligeable variance.

The best Canon EOS R5 settings for birds in flight:

  • AF method: Tracking with Animals subject detection
  • Initial Servo AF point for Tracking: Auto
  • Servo AF: Case 3 (default settings)
  • Switching Tracked subjects: 0 or 1
  • Lens drive when AF impossible: ON
  • Release Mode: 20fps with electronic shutter
red kite flying against a busy background with trees
R5, 1/2000s, f/11, ISO 2000 – RF 600mm F11

The image quality is sligthly below the R6 when it comes to high ISO, but does a bit better with dynamic range, especially when recovering shadows. Needless to say, the 45MP resolution is helpful to crop and magnify your subject when you can’t get close enough.

I didn’t find any issues with distortion when using the electronic shutter. Image stabilisation is really good, even with the 800mm lens. The camera is very well built and has weather sealing. There are two memory card slots, but the first one is for the more expensive CFexpress card, and there is no retro-compatibility with XQD cards.

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OM System OM-1

OM-1 laying on a wooden surface

AF score

89%

98%

Lenses used: M.Zuiko ED 300mm F4 Pro IS, M.Zuiko ED 100-400mm F5-6.3 IS, Leica DG 100-400mm F4-6.3 OIS, Leica DG 200mm F2.8 OIS
Number of images taken: 13,302
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.2

Drive score (10fps)

89%

9 / 10

Drive score (50fps)

85%

42 / 50

Note: good and consistent performance with all four lenses. Only at 400mm with the two zooms, or when using a teleconverter, the speed decreased a little.

OM Digital Solutions promised two things when launching the OM-1. One of them was a better autofocus system, and I’m happy to say they have delivered. The camera feels nothing like any previous OM-D model: it is much more reactive, much faster and has a better understanding of where the subject is at all times.

Bird Subject Detection is the key setting that improves the keeper rate, whether the bird is flying or not. The camera can easily recognise the eyes, head and body, and can also detect small subjects at a distance with busy backgrounds, or when they are partially hidden. With birds in flight, Subject Detection drastically reduces the chance of the OM-1 mis-focusing on the background.

The best result I got was with the 10fps burst using the mechanical shutter, but working at 20fps or 50fps with the electronic shutter only decreased the score by a few points. Up to 20fps, you see live view with blackouts. At 50fps, there is live view and no blackouts which really helps with erratic subjects. The camera can also work at 120fps but focus and exposure are locked on the first frame. Also, 50fps and 120fps are limited to specific lenses.

The best OM-1 settings for birds in flight:

  • AF-Target Mode: Large
  • Subject Detection: Birds
  • Release Priority: Off
  • AF Sensitivity: +2
  • AF Scanner: On
  • Drive Mode: 10fps (mechanical shutter), 25/50fps (electronic shutter)
red kite with grass in the background
OM-1, 1/4000s, f/2.8, ISO 400 – Leica DG 200mm F2.8

The other thing that OM Digital Solutions promised is better image quality but the difference is not as substantial as some might hope it would be. Still, there is better colour accuracy and details at high ISO, and a bit more details preserved in the highlights.

As for everything else, the camera has a 20MP stacked BSI sensor and lots of extra features including Pro Capture, which is useful for unpredictable small birds flying off a branch for example. The ergonomics are fantastic, and the viewfinder (finally) got the upgrade it deserves with a 5.76M dot panel. The battery life is on par with previous models, but the fastest continuous shooting speeds will drain it faster.

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Sony A7R IV / A7R IVA

Sony A7r IV

AF score

88%

100%

Lens used: FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G
Number of images taken: 939
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.20

Drive score (10fps)

88%

8 / 10

The fist time I tested the A7R IV, it performed in a similar way to its predecessor (63%/90%), despite the improvement brought to the AF system. Three years later, with the latest firmware and a different copy of the 200-600mm lens, the results is closer to what I originally expected. The real-time tracking mode makes a difference and is the setting that gave me the best keeper rate.

The best Sony A7R IV settings for birds in flight:

  • Focus Area: Tracking with Expand Flexible Spot
  • Priority Setting in AF-C: Focus
  • AF Track Sensitivity: 5 (Responsive)
  • Drive Mode: Hi (8fps) or Hi+ (10fps)
Red kite flying above the water
A7R IV, 1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 4000

The A7R IV features a stunning 60MP sensor but, despite the huge resolution, the buffer is surprisingly good when shooting at 8 or 10fps. You can take advantage of the APS-C crop for extra reach, and you still get 26MP to play with. Naturally you can decide to crop later in post. After all with 60MP, there is lots of leeway for cropping which is quite useful for wildlife and bird photography. The camera also introduces a better build, thicker buttons, an improved grip and a stellar 5.76M dot EVF.

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Nikon Z7

70-200mm 2.8 lens with teleconverter and Z7 camera

AF score

88%

96%

Lenses used: Z 70-200mm f2.8 VR S with TC 1.4x, Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 C (F-mount with FTZ adapter)
Number of images taken: 882
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 3.12

Drive score (5.5fps)

88%

4 / 5

Drive score (9fps)

82%

7 / 9

Note: the best score is with the 70-200mm 2.8 and TC 1.4x. I realise this is a shorter focal lenght in comparison to other lenses tested here, and that an update with a 500/600mm would be more fair.

When it came out, the Z7’s autofocus system received criticism but when I tested it for the first time in 2018 with the Sigma Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary, it gave me a decent score of 65%/85%. It proved reactive in most situations but there was a lack of focus accuracy.

Then I tested the camera again in 2020 with the native 70-200mm f2.8 for Z-mount, the teleconverter 1.4x and the latest firmware, and the score improved a lot. The improvement I saw on the Z7 is the same I saw in the Z6, that also got an increase in performance thanks to Nikon’s firmware updates.

The best Nikon Z7 settings for birds in flight:

  • AF-Area Mode: Wide-area (L), note that the Tracking mode is not reliable
  • AF-C priority selection: Focus
  • Focus tracking with lock-on: 1 (Quick)
  • Release Mode: Continuous Speed High (5.5fps)
two red kites take with the nikon z7
Z7, 1/2500, f/4, ISO 1400 – 280mm

The Z7 can shoot up to 9fps but you don’t get live view. Instead, the last images taken are shown in rapid succession in the EVF. Just like with the Z6, to get live view you need to decrease the speed to 5.5fps which is not the fastest for capturing animals, but that is the setting where the camera performs best. The design is identical to the Z6 and includes weather-sealing, an excellent EVF, a comfortable grip but just one single XQD card slot (CFexpress compatible). Like the Z6, the buffer capabilities are mediocre.

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Sony A7 III

Sony A7 III

AF score

86%

99%

Lens used: FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM + TC 1.4x, FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G, Tamron 150-500mm F5-6.7, Sigma 150-600mm DG DN Sports
Number of images taken: 1,066
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 3.10

Drive score (8fps)

86%

6 / 8

Drive score (10fps)

81%

8 / 10

Note: the 200-600mm and the Tamron 150-500mm gave me the best score. The Sigma is inferior by about 10 points (75% / 91%). The 100-400mm with TC 1.4x were used in 2018 with firmware 1.0.

The A7 III shares a few specs with the A9 (specifically the number of AF points) but, despite not having the same processing and calculation speed, it proved a very good contender for this genre. The first score I got with the A7 III was 77% / 96%, soon after the camera came out in 2018. It was a good result at the time, obtained in mixed weather conditions, and it showed all the improvements made in comparison to the predecessor, the A7 mark II.

The score got better more when I tested the camera again later with other lenses, mainly the Sony 200-600mm and Tamron 150-500mm. The camera had also received various firmware updates that might have contributed to the boost in performance.

The best Sony A7 III settings for birds in flight:

  • Focus Area: Zone
  • Priority Setting in AF-C: Focus
  • AF Track Sensitivity: 5 (Responsive)
  • Drive Mode: Hi (8fps)
Red kite against the blue sky
A7 III, 1/2000, f/8, ISO 250

The 24MP BSI sensor is excellent in every way. You have two SD card slots, great battery life, weather-sealing and a good continuous shooting speed of 10fps – although, as with the A6400, I prefer to use the 8fps mode to keep a live view. The refresh rate and resolution of the viewfinder are not the best, but it has a good magnification. The ergonomics, like the A9 mark I, are not its strongest point, especially with large telephoto lenses. A grip extender or battery grip is advised.

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Nikon Z6

Nikon Z6

AF score

86%

95%

Lens used: AF-S NIKKOR 300mm F4E PF with TC 1.4x III and TC 2.0x III, Z 70-200mm F2.8 with TC 1.4x
Number of images taken: 1,347
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 3.10

Drive score (5.5fps)

86%

4 / 5

Drive score (12fps)

82%

9 / 12

When I tested the Z6 in 2019 with the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary lens, I got a respectable score of 73% / 88%. One year later, I got the chance to try it again, this time with the compact 300mm f4 PF, the 2.0x teleconverter and the latest firmware update. I wasn’t expecting to see such an improvement!

If last year the Z6 was a very capable already, this time it proved to be one of the very best mirrorless camera when it comes to autofocus and keeper rate. It does an excellent job of understanding where the bird is and locks onto it really fast. Unlike the D500 DSLR, the Tracking mode doesn’t produce the best results, so you need to choose the Wide-area Large setting instead.

The best Nikon Z6 settings for birds in flight:

  • AF-Area Mode: Wide-area (L)
  • AF-C priority selection: Focus
  • Focus tracking with lock-on: 1 (Quick)
  • Release Mode: Continuous Speed High 5.5fps
Red kite against a light blue sky
Z6, 1/3200, f/8, ISO 1250

The Z6 can shoot up to 12fps but live view is deactivated and you see the last image taken instead. To have live view (with blackouts), you need to select the lower setting which decreases the burst speed to less than half. The camera is comfortable to hold, is very well-built and has weather sealing. There is a good EVF, excellent image quality (24MP full frame sensor), but one card slot only (XQD / CFexpress) and the buffer is not great when shooting at the fastest burst speed.

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Fujifilm X-H2S

AF score

82%

97%

Lenses used: XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6, XF 150-600mm F5.6-8
Number of images taken: 8,965
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.03

Drive score (40fps)

82%

33 / 40

Drive score (20fps)

82%

33 / 40

Fujifilm X-H2S with XF 150-600mm attached

The X-H2S didn’t bring the substantial improvement I had hoped for. The results are comparable to the X-T4, or even the X-S10, as far as birds in flights are concerned. The main problem the series still faces is the struggle to keep the bird in focus throughout the entire sequence, especially when the animal flies in front of a busy background (trees, etc.). The behaviour is often unpredictable. I tried all sorts of setting combinations, but couldn’t find something that would make a drastic difference. The addition of an updated software and bird subject detection AF doesn’t help. In fact, I had to turn bird AF off to get better results.

That isn’t to say the X-H2S is not a good performer for wildlife photography in general. The score is decent and the advantages are tangible in comparison to other APS-C cameras: a large grip, great customisation, faster sensor readout and continuous shooting speeds up to 40fps with live view and no blackouts (only the OM-1 is faster on this list as far as drive speed goes). Bird and Animal subject detection can be very useful for static or slow moving subjects, although I found some inconsistencies with focus accuracy (which may have been fixed with firmware 2.0, but unfortunately it came out when I’d already sent the camera back to the rental company).

The best Fuji X-H2S settings for birds in flight:

  • Focus Area: Zone 7×7
  • Focus Priority
  • AF-C Custom Settings: Set 4, or Set 6 (0, 2, Front)
  • Subject Detection: off
  • Drive Mode: 20, 30 or 40fps with electronic shutter
Red kite in flight
X-H2S, ¹⁄₂₅₀₀ sec, ƒ / 8.0, 2500 – XF150-600mmF5.6-8 R LM OIS WR at 600 mm

The X-H2S offers the same resolution as the X-T4, but the sensor is stacked, offering more speed as described above, as well as less rolling shutter effect when panning quickly (with the electronic shutter). The video capabilities are impressive, with a maximum of 6.2K (3:2 aspect ratio), 4K 120p (with a sensor crop), unlimited recording and a great choice of internal codes and bitrates. There are two slots, one for CFexpress cards and one for SD cards. The battery life is good, but can decrease more rapidly when the boost mode is active, which is necessary to get the best AF performance the camera can deliver. I’ll try to test the X-H2 as soon as possible to determine which one I recommend between these two.

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Fujifilm X-T4

AF score

81%

96%

Lenses used: XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6, XF 200mm F2 (+ TC 1.4x), XF 70-300mm F4-5.6
Number of images taken: 6,700
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.23

Drive score (20fps)

81%

16 / 20

Drive score (30fps)

79%

23 / 30

I was eager to test the X-T4 and its updated autofocus algorithm. According to Fujifilm, the camera can analyse color and shape data in addition to distance data, and the success rate should be two times better in comparison to its predecessor the X-T3.

My tests showed that there is indeed an improvement, but I wouldn’t say that it is 2x better. Like the X-T3, the settings you choose can drastically influence the results. The best score I got was using the inexpensive 70-300mm, and the superb and very expensive XF 200mm f2 prime lens. The 100-400mm is on the same level.

Using the electronic shutter with a blackout-free live view is great for following the birds, and the camera has plenty of burst speeds to capture the most difficult moments (including a Pre-Shot mode). Note that the buffer is limited when selecting the fastest speeds.

The best Fuji X-T4 settings for birds in flight:

  • Focus Area: Zone 7×7
  • Focus Priority
  • AF-C Custom Settings: Set 6 (0, 2, Front)
  • Drive Mode: 20fps with electronic shutter, 10 to 30fps with e-shutter and 1.25x crop

As for everything else, the X-T4 is very similar to the X-T3: a 26.1MP APS-C sensor, good EVF, weather-sealing and two SD card slots. The ergonomics without an optional grip remain limited when using large lenses but the battery life has improved thanks to the new unit. After more than 4000 shots, I still had two bars left out of five.

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Sony A6400

Sony a6400

AF score

80%

93%

Lens used: FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM
Number of images taken: 290
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00

Drive score (8fps)

80%

6 / 8

Drive score (10fps)

77%

7 / 10

Note: Version 2.0 added Eye AF for Animals, but it doesn’t work with birds.

It was an ideal sunny day to photograph the kites and, being already familiar with Sony settings, I didn’t need to prep the camera or test anything in particular. The autofocus proved to be really good and I can’t say I’m surprised. The A6300 and A6500 did well before, and the software improvements brought to the A6400 did the rest. Real-time tracking works well but is not quite as realiable as the Zone area, unlike more expensive full frame E-mount cameras.

The best Sony A6400 settings for birds in flight:

  • Focus Area: Zone
  • Priority Setting in AF-C: Focus
  • AF Track Sensitivity: 5 (Responsive)
  • Drive Mode: Hi (8fps)
Red kit skimming the water
A6400, 1/3200, f/5.6, ISO 2000

The A6400 has a fast continuous shooting speed of 10fps, but I prefer to use the setting below (8fps) because I get live view (with blackouts) in the EVF. Live view is important because kites can change direction at any moment and you need to react quickly. The 24MP APS-C sensor delivers excellent image quality, but the overall ergonomics of the camera is not great and the battery life is limited.

The recent A6600, with its bigger grip and same battery as the A9 series, should fit the job better. It shares the same AF system as the A6400, so you can expect a similar score.

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Fujifilm X-S10

Fujifilm X-S10, front view

AF score

78%

94%

Lens used: XF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 R LM OIS WR
Number of images taken: 750
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 2.10

Drive score (10fps)

78%

7 / 10

Drive score (30fps)

71%

21 / 30

The X-S10 features the same autofocus system and drive speed as the X-T4, including the same software algorithm and locking speed, so I was not surprised to see similar results to the flagship APS-C camera. I only tested it with the 70-300mm, which is a perfect fit thanks to the small dimensions. In total, the combo weighs around 1kg.

The best Fuji X-S10 settings for birds in flight:

  • Focus Area: Zone 7×7
  • Focus Priority
  • AF-C Custom Settings: Set 6 (0, 2, Front)
  • Drive Mode: 10fps/30fps with electronic shutter and 1.25x crop
red kite flying with blue sky in the background
X-S10, 1/2500s, f/5.6, ISO 800 – XF 70-300mm at 300mm

The X-S10 also shares the same 26MP BSI sensor as the X-T4, but the body is not weather-sealed, the viewfinder is smaller, there is only one card slot and the battery is older. The advantage is the larger front grip, which makes the camera more comfortable to hold. It’s a shame that some of the buttons are too small.

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Olympus OM-D E-M1X

Olympus OM-D E-M1X

AF score

74%

91%

Lens used: M.Zuiko 300mm F4 Pro, M.Zuiko 150-400mm F4.5 Pro
Number of images taken: 1,296
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 2.00

Drive score (18fps)

74%

13 / 18

Note: firmware 2.3 mentions ‘Improved precision of focus when using single-focal-length lenses’.

The important thing to know about the E-M1X is that an AF Target other than the 5×5 grid can lower the score quite significantly. As for everything else, it is the camera that finally gave the OM-D range a decent autofocus performance for this genre.

Firmware 2.0 added Bird Subject Detection, but I didn’t find it to give the camera a boost in performance when it comes to birds in flight. It is more useful for static or slow moving subjects.

The best OM-D E-M1X settings for birds in flight:

  • AF-Target Mode: 25-Target Group (5×5)
  • Release Priority: Focus
  • AF Sensitivity: +2
  • AF Scanner: Mode 3
  • Drive Mode: Continuous Low with electronic shutter (18fps)
Red kite flying and eating
E-M1X, 1/2000, f/4, ISO 1600

The E-M1X is one of the only mirrorless camera with an integrated vertical grip. It is built like a tank, is very comfortable to hold and has a superb battery life. The high speed continuous shooting (up to 60fps) and special features such as Pro Capture are great for bird photographers. And while the body is rather large for a four thirds sensor, remember that the lenses remain compact.

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Nikon Z50

AF score

74%

87%

Lens used: AF-S NIKKOR 300mm F4 PF and TC 1.4x III
Number of images taken: 1,080
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 2.01

Drive score (5fps)

74%

3 / 5

Drive score (11fps)

69%

7 / 11

The Z50 showed better performance than expected. There isn’t a lot to configure to get the best results, and its Auto-Area AF mode is more reliable than the one found on the Z6 (although I still advice to use the Wide-area L option). The autofocus was a bit slower when I tested the camera with the TC 2.0 III but, with the teleconverter 1.4x and the compact 300mm f4 PF, it is one of the most interesting setup in this article.

The best Nikon Z50 settings for birds in flight:

  • Focus Area: Wide-area (L)
  • Priority Setting in AF-C: Focus
  • Drive Mode: H 5fps
Z50, 1/2000s, f/5.6, ISO 1400 – 300mm f4 PF with TC 1.4x III

The Z50 is a mid-range camera, so there are a few things experienced photographer might like a dual card slot, UHS-II support and a larger viewfinder. The grip is good despite the camera the compact dimensions, and there is weather sealing, although not as advanced as that of the Z6. The fastest burst speed is 11fps, but the buffer is not great.

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Sony A6500

Sony A6500

AF score

73%

97%

Lens used: FE 70-300 F4.5-5.6 G OSS
Number of images taken: 138
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.02

Drive score (8fps)

73%

5 / 8

Drive score (10fps)

n.a.

n.a.

Note: bad weather and me arriving late at the station limited the amount of time I had to test the camera. This is why there isn’t data for the 10fps burst. However, I suspect the score would be similar to 8fps, as with many other Sony cameras.

The kites didn’t stay around for too long so I didn’t take a lot of pictures. The 70-300mm proved to be a bit short as well. Concerning the performance though, there is nothing special to declare. It does the job well, without the need to fuss with settings more than the strictly necessary.

The best Sony A6500 settings for birds in flight:

  • Focus Area: Zone
  • Priority Setting in AF-C: Focus
  • Drive Mode: Hi 8fps
Red kite soaring
A6500, 1/2000, f/5.6, ISO 1250

The A6500 shares many similarities with the A6400 including the fastest burst speed of 10fps and the 24MP APS-C sensor. The AF performance was a tad below, perhaps because of the lens, or simply because the AF algorithm is not exactly the same. The overall ergonomics and the poor battery life are its weak points. The viewfinder is a bit small as well.

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Fujifilm X-T3

Fujifilm X-T3

AF score

72%

96%

Lens used: XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6
Number of images taken: 1,034
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 3.10

Drive score (20fps)

72%

14 / 20

Drive score (30fps)

69%

20 / 30

Note: firmware 4.0 gives the X-T3 the same algorithm and 0.02s locking speed as the X-T4. Therefor, the score should be theoratically more similar to 81% / 96%.

The X-T3 has a fast sensor readout that allows you to shoot up to 20fps with live view and no blackouts by using the electronic shutter, just like the Sony A9. The clear and uninterrupted live view really helps for birds in flight. Like Olympus cameras, picking the right setting is paramount.

The best Fujifilm X-T3 settings for birds in flight:

  • AF Mode: Zone (7×7)
  • AF-C Custom Settings: Set 4
  • AF-C Priority Selection: Focus
  • Drive Setting: CH 20fps with electronic shutter
  • Power Management / Performance: Boost
Red kite eating on the wing
X-T3, 1/3200, f/5.6, ISO 1250

The X-T3 has a 26.1MP APS-C sensor that offers good image quality. You can also shoot with a 1.25x crop to get extra reach (16MP output). The battery life is not exceptional but there is an official battery grip available. The viewfinder is really good, the camera is completely weather-sealed and there are two SD card slots. The ergonomics are not the best with large lenses such as the XF 100-400mm, but the vertical grip or an optional grip extender can help.

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Olympus OM-D E-M1 III

front view of the omd em1 mark 3

AF score

72%

94%

Lens used: M.Zuiko ED 300mm f4 Pro IS, MC-14
Number of images taken: 1,655
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.1

Drive score (18fps)

72%

13 / 18

Note: with the MC-14 teleconverter, the performance decreases (59% / 88%).

The E-M1 III inherits the same autofocus system as the flagship E-M1X (except for Intelligent Subject Detection). So it’s not surprising to see a similar performance and keeper rate. The tips to get the best result remain the same concerning the AF Target mode (use the 25-Target group). The L burst with the electronic shutter is also better than the one with the mechanical shutter.

The best OM-D E-M1 III settings for birds in flight:

  • AF-Target Mode: 25-Target Group (5×5)
  • Release Priority: Focus
  • AF Sensitivity: +2
  • AF Scanner: Mode 3
  • Drive Mode: Continuous Low with electronic shutter (18fps)
red kite flying against trees
E-M1 III, 1/2500, f/4, ISO 1600 – 300mm f4 Pro

The E-M1 III is very similar to the mark II concerning other specs. You get the same excellent battery life, two SD card slots (although only one is UHS-II compatible), Pro Capture (up to 60fps), a well designed body that is very ergonomics and solid. You have the advantage of a compact system and lots of choice when it comes to lenses.

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Olympus OM-D E-M5 III

Olympus OM-D E-M5 III

AF score

72%

93%

Lens used: M.Zuiko ED 300mm f4 Pro IS
Number of images taken: 833
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.0

Drive score (10fps)

72%

7 / 10

Note: firmware 1.6 adds an improvement with AF and prime lenses.

The E-M5 III inherits the AF system of the flagship E-M1X, so it is not surprising to see a similar score with the smaller camera. As with the other OM-D models, choosing the correct settings is important to get the best performance, especially when it comes to the AF Target.

The best OM-D E-M5 III settings for birds in flight:

  • AF-Target Mode: 25-Target Group (5×5)
  • Release Priority: Focus
  • AF Sensitivity: +2
  • AF Scanner: Mode 3
  • Drive Mode: Continuous Low with electronic shutter (10fps)
Red kite flying with broken wing
E-M5 III, 1/3200, f/4, ISO 320

The E-M5 III lacks a large grip, a dedicated battery grip, a bigger battery and dual card slots, which make it less compelling than other cameras for this specific genre. The continuous shooting speed goes up to 30fps but you lose continuous AF. It does retain interesting functions for birds such as Pro Capture, and comes with weather-sealing despite the plastic build.

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Sony A7R III / A7R IIIA

Sony A7r III

AF score

71%

97%

Lenses used: FE 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 GM OSS + TC 1.4x, FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS
Number of images taken: 400
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 3.20

Drive score (10fps)

71%

6 / 10

The first time I tested the A7R III for BIF was not the best weather-wise (dark clouds and not a lot of light), and I was also using a lens with a TC 1.4x attached, so perhaps the score was somewhat penalised (62%/88%). A few years later, with the latest firmware and the excellent 200-600mm zoom, the performance was better. Note that phase detection works up to f/8 in continuous mode. With smaller apertures, focus is locked on the first frame (except for the Low burst of 3fps).

The best Sony A7R III settings for birds in flight:

  • Focus Area: Zone
  • Priority Setting in AF-C: Focus
  • AF Track Sensitivity: 5 (Responsive)
  • Drive Mode: Hi (8fps) or Hi+ (10fps)
Red kite flying
A7R III, 1/2500, f/8, ISO 12800

The A7R III features an excellent 42MP BSI full frame sensor. If you use it in APS-C crop to benefit from the extra reach, you still get 18MP which is not bad at all. The design is the same as the A9 and A7 III: dual memory card slot, long lasting battery and weather-sealing but not perfect ergonomics. The viewfinder has more resolution and a faster refresh rate than the A7 III however. The burst speed goes up to 10fps but once again I prefer 8fps to have live view (and a bit more buffer given the large files).

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Olympus OM-D E-M1 II

Olympus OM-D E-M1 II

AF score

66%

81%

Lenses used: M.Zuiko 300mm F4 Pro, Leica DG 100-400mm F4-6.3
Number of images taken: 816
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 3.0

Drive score (18fps)

66%

12 / 18

Note: possible improvement with the AF and prime lenses when firmware 3.6 is installed.
Performance is consistent with the two lenses.

The E-M1 II received a significant boost in AF performance with firmware 3.0, inheriting some of the flagship E-M1X’s algorithm. This made the score jump from 43% to 66% (green percentage). This is also thanks to the 5×5 Target area that, just like on the E-M1X, is the best setting for birds in flight. Using the fastest burst with the electronic shutter also helps.

The best OM-D E-M1 II settings for birds in flight:

  • AF Target: 5×5
  • Release Priority: Focus
  • AF Sensitivity: +2
  • AF Scanner: Mode 3
  • Drive Mode: Continuous Low with electronic shutter (18fps)
Red kite eating meat on the wing
E-M1 II, 1/2500, f/4, ISO 400

The E-M1 II is an excellent camera for many reasons: it is compact yet features a very comfortable grip (one of my all times favourites), so holding the camera with a large lens is not a problem, even without the battery grip. The battery life is excellent and there are tons of features that can be useful for bird photography such as Pro Capture.

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Fujifilm X-T2

Fujifilm X-T2

AF score

63%

87%

Lens used: XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6
Number of images taken: 1,103
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00

Drive score (8fps)

63%

5 / 8

Note: firmware 4.10 added an updated AF algorithm to improve the tracking of animals and detect their texture better. I tested this update via the X-H1 (same software), but the results were pretty much the same.

The X-T2 proved to be a good step up from the previous X-T1 thanks to the larger number of phase detection points covering the sensor, better focus areas to choose from and a larger buffer. The improvement for birds was quite significantly, making the camera more reactive and increasing the keeper rate. It is important to select the correct settings, otherwise the performance can decrease significantly.

The best Fujifilm X-T2 settings for birds in flight:

  • AF Mode: Zone (7×7)
  • AF-C Custom Settings: Set 4
  • AF-C Priority Selection: Focus
  • Drive Setting: CH 8fps
  • Power Management / Performance: Boost
Red kite flying with meat in its beak
X-T2, 1/2000, f/5.6, ISO 1250

The highest burst available, CH (8fps) doesn’t give you live view but at the time I made an effort to use it to get a faster speed which always helps with the kites. You can increase the speed to 11fps with the optional battery grip. The EVF refresh rate goes up to 100fps in Boost mode. The 24MP APS-C sensor gives you the same quality as the X-T3 (if not even slightly better at high ISOs). There is weather-sealing, two SD card slots but you will most certainly need an extra grip for better comfort.

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Fujifilm X-H1

Fujifilm X-H1

AF score

62%

83%

Lens used: XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6
Number of images taken: 1,044
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00

Drive score (8fps)

62%

5 / 8

The X-H1 features the same AF system as the X-T2 so it is not surprising that the performance is very similar. At times, it can be a bit slow in locking onto the bird when it moves fast, or a bit slow to re-adjust the focus when the sequence doesn’t start in focus. Otherwise, the performance is rather good but you need to make sure to have the correct settings.

The best Fujifilm X-H1 settings for birds in flight:

  • AF Mode: Zone (7×7)
  • AF-C Custom Settings: Set 4
  • AF-C Priority Selection: Focus
  • Drive Setting: CH 8fps
  • Power Management / Performance: Boost
Red kite flying above the water
X-H1, 1/2000, f/5.6, ISO 640

The high price of the X-H1 and some missed opportunities (better battery life) that could have made it better than the X-T range didn’t convince many photographers to switch, despite the larger and more comfortable grip. Significant discounts in the second half of 2019 have given the camera a second life. Like the X-T2 and X-T3, you get weather-sealing and two SD card slots. The EVF is also good with a resolution of 3.69M dots and a refresh rate of 100fps.

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Panasonic G9

Panasonic G9

AF score

57%

70%

Lenses used: Leica DG Elmarit 200mm F2.8 Power OIS, Leica DG 100-400mm F4-6.3 OIS
Number of images taken in the last test: 2,392
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 2.4

Drive score (9fps)

57%

5 / 9

Drive score (20fps)

38%

7 / 20

The G9 is the camera that gave the most disparate results depending on the specific settings or background. With the kite against blue sky using the mechanical shutter, I got a score of 78% / 94%. Choose the fast burst of 20fps with the electronic shutter and the bird against trees, and the score dropped as low as 21% / 32%. Thankfully, the latest firmware has improved the results when the animal is against a busy background.

The best Panasonic G9 settings for birds in flight:

  • Auto Focus Mode: Animal Detection with 1-Area (largest)
  • AF Custom Settings: AF Sensitivity +1, AF Area Switching Sensitivity +1, Moving Object Prediction +1
  • Focus / Release Priority: Focus
  • AE/AF Lock: AF-ON Near Shift
  • Drive Setting: High 9fps (mechanical shutter)
Red kite flying in the early evening
G9, 1/2000, f/4, ISO 200 – Leica DG 200mm f2.8 + TC 1.4x

In all my other tests, the G9 did admirably well, outranking the OM-D cameras and proving to be as good as some of the best Sony models. The design is superb, the EVF is truly one of the best out there (also thanks to the selectable magnification), but the challenge that a bird in flight can present is too much for the DfD contrast detection AF to cope with.

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Additional content:


Other cameras

The following is a list of cameras for whom my feedback is more limited, either because I didn’t keep all my notes about the AF performance, or because I didn’t have time to test them in-depth.

Canon EOS R

AF score

79%

98%

Lens used: Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM C with Canon RF to EF adapter
Number of images taken: 141
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.0.0

Drive score (3fps)

79%

2 / 3

Drive score (8fps)

n.a.

n.a.

Note: the weather was really bad and the kites didn’t stay around for long. As a result, I’ve only tested the slow burst of 3fps, which is the one that guarantees focus priority over realease priority.
Firmware 1.4.0 has improved the AF so that it tracks smaller subjects more efficiently, which could be useful for birds.

The EOS R showed a promising performance concerning focus speed, locking speed and tracking. This camera is a bit of a mystery to me because at other times with much slower subjects (runners), the performance was not that impressive. But I guess the Dual Pixel CMOS AF system can rise to the occasion in challenging situations.

The best Canon EOS R settings for birds in flight:

  • Focus Area: Zone or Large Zone
  • Tracking Sensitivity: +2
  • Accel./decel. tracking: 0
  • AF point auto switching: +2
  • Drive Mode: Low Speed (3fps)
Red kite flying
EOS R, 1/1600s, f/6.3, ISO 6400

The lag in the EVF is significant because rather than showing live view with blackouts, the camera “covers” the blackout with the last image taken. As a result, you get a mix of live view and playback images that looks like a laggy / buggy video sequence. The ergonomics is good on the other hand and the image quality, while not at the same level as Sony, is more than decent.

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Fujifilm X-Pro2

AF score

60%

n.a.

Lens used: XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6
Number of images taken: 567
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.01

Drive score (8fps)

60%

5 / 8

Note: various improvements have been brought via firmware, and they are the same you can find on the X-T2 and X-H1 (the three cameras share the same AF system).

The X-Pro2 was the first camera released with the third generation X-Trans sensor, which also introduced a new AF system at the time and marked a significant leap forward for the X-series. Curiously, the X-Pro2 optical viewfinder proved an unexpected ally when taking pictures of birds in flight.

The best Fujifilm X-Pro2 settings for birds in flight:

  • AF Mode: Zone (7×7)
  • AF-C Custom Settings: Set 4
  • AF-C Priority Selection: Focus
  • Drive Setting: CH (8fps)
  • Power Management / Performance: Boost
Red kite skimming the water
X-Pro2, 1/1000, f/5.6, ISO 800

Sony A7R II

AF score

50%

n.a.

Lens used: Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM C with Metabones Mark IV Smart adapter
Number of images taken: 1,566
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00

Drive score (5fps)

50%

2 or 3 / 5

It was with the A7R II that I first stated taking pictures of red kites. At the time, the hot topic was AF compatibility with Canon EF lenses, and this is why I tested it with the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary, a popular budget lens for wildlife photographers. Now that Sony has released its own native E-mount telephoto lenses, I’m sure the score could increase a little.

The best Sony A7R II settings for birds in flight:

  • Focus Area: Zone
  • Priority Setting in AF-C: Focus
  • Drive Mode: Hi 5fps
  • AF System: Phase Detection AF (with adapted lenses)
Red kite flying with meat in its talons
A7R II, 1/1000, f/6.3, ISO 400

Panasonic GH5

AF score

50%

n.a.

Lens used: Leica DG 100-400mm F4-6.3
Number of images taken: 867
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.1

Drive score (9fps)

50%

4 or 5 / 9

The score I got with the GH5 is not far off the G9 and it makes sense since they share the same AF system. However I didn’t keep the photos and I suspect many were taken with the bird against the sky, where the DfD autofocus performs better. It too has received improvements via firmware, although Animal Detection has been left out for some reason.

The best Panasonic GH5 settings for birds in flight:

  • Auto Focus Mode: Custom Multi (11×11 or 9×9 grid)
  • AF Custom Settings: AF Sensitivity +2, AF Area Switching Sensitivity +1, Moving Object Prediction +1
  • Focus / Release Priority: Focus
  • AE/AF Lock: AF-ON Near Shift
  • Drive Setting: High 9fps
Rear view of a flying red kite
GH5, 1/3200, f/8, ISO 2000

Olympus OM-D E-M1

AF score

50%

n.a.

Lens used: M.Zuiko 300mm F4 Pro, Leica DG 100-400mm F4-6.3
Number of images taken: 667
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 4.00

Drive score (6.5fps)

50%

3 / 6

I used the E-M1 to review the 300mm Pro lens which was at the time the first extreme telephoto lens designed for wildlife. The E-M1 didn’t do badly overall thanks to its phase detection system, and performed equally well when testing the Panasonic / Leica 100-400mm. Speed and reactivity are not as good as the E-M1 II however.

The best OM-D E-M1 settings for birds in flight:

  • AF Target: 3×3
  • Release Priority: Focus
  • C-AF Lock: High
  • Drive Mode: Continuous Low 6.5fps
A red kite with its wings spread
E-M1, 1/1000, f/5.6, ISO 400

Panasonic G85

AF score

40%

n.a.

Lens used: Leica DG 100-400mm F4-6.3
Number of images taken: 421
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.10

Drive score (5.5fps)

40%

2 / 5

A few tweaks to the software and one extra setting (AF sensitivity) allowed the G85 to perform better when the bird is against the sky. But as soon as the subject flies lower to the ground, the camera becomes confused too easily by the other elements in the scene.

The best Panasonic G85 settings for birds in flight:

  • Auto Focus Mode: 9 areas
  • AF Sensitivity: +2
  • Focus / Release Priority: Focus
  • Drive Setting: M 5.5fps
A red kite flying
G85, 1/1600, f/6.1, ISO 500

Panasonic GX8

AF score

38%

n.a.

Lens used: Leica DG 100-400mm F4-6.3
Number of images taken: 1,540
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 2.00

Drive score (5.5fps)

38%

2 / 5

The GX8 uses an old version of Panasonic’s contrast detection system (DfD) and all the cameras using the same version never did well with the red kites. The camera often struggled to lock onto the subject both when the bird was against the sky and when against a busy background.

The best Panasonic GX8 settings for birds in flight:

  • Auto Focus Mode: 9 areas
  • Focus / Release Priority: Focus
  • Drive Setting: M 5.5fps
Red kite flying
GX8, 1/1250, f/6.3, ISO 1600

Summary and Rankings

Here are two lists with all the results, starting with the AF score.

Remember that the AF Score doesn’t necessarily represents the hit rate at the fastest burst speed. For example, if a camera can work at 30fps but the keeper rate is higher at 20fps, the AF Score will show the result taken at 20fps. It’s purely an indication of the autofocus performance for each camera.

AF Score

Sony A1

98%

100%

Sony A9 / A9 II

96%

99%

Canon EOS R3

94%

100%

Sony A7 IV

94%

99%

Canon EOS R6

93%

97%

Canon EOS R5

90%

99%

OM System OM-1

89%

98%

Sony A7R IV

88%

100%

Nikon Z7

88%

96%

Sony A7 III

86%

99%

Nikon Z6

86%

95%

Fujifilm X-H2S

82%

97%

Fujifilm X-T4

81%

96%

Sony A6400

80%

93%

Fujifilm X-S10

78%

94%

Olympus E-M1X

74%

91%

Nikon Z50

74%

87%

Sony A6500

73%

97%

Fujifilm X-T3

72%

96%

Olympus E-M1 III

72%

94%

Olympus E-M5 III

72%

93%

Sony A7R III

71%

97%

Olympus E-M1 II

66%

81%

Fujifilm X-T2

63%

87%

Fujifilm X-H1

62%

83%

Panasonic G9

57%

70%

Then we have the Drive Score ranking, which represents how many good photos (in focus) each camera can give you at its fastest continuous shooting speed. Remember that to keep things simple, I’ve only taken into account the green percentage in this case.

It is interesting to note how the order of some cameras changes drammatically. Please refer to the chapters at the beginning of the article where I explain with more details the difference between the two rankings.

Drive Score

OM System OM-1

85%

42/50

Fujifilm X-H2S

82%

33/40

Sony A1

94%

28/30

Canon EOS R3

94%

28/30

Fujifilm X-T4

79%

23/30

Fujifilm X-S10

71%

21/30

Fujifilm X-T3

69%

20/30

Sony A9 / A9 II

96%

19/20

Canon EOS R6

93%

18/20

Canon EOS R5

90%

18/20

Olympus E-M1X

74%

13/18

Olympus E-M1 III

72%

13/18

Olympus E-M1 II

66%

12/18

Nikon Z6

82%

9/12

Sony A7 IV

94%

9/10

Sony A7R IV

88%

8/10

Sony A7 III

86%

8/10

Panasonic G9

38%

7/20

Nikon Z50

69%

7/11

Sony A6400

77%

7/10

Olympus E-M5 III

72%

7/10

Sony A7R III

71%

7/10

Nikon Z7

82%

7/9

Sony A6500*

73%*

5/8*

Fujifilm X-T2

63%

5/8

Fujifilm X-H1

62%

5/8

*Note: the A6500 can work at 10fps but I only have the results for 8fps.

It goes without saying, but the two rankings above focus on autofocus and speed only. They don’t tell you the full story. When it comes to birds and wildlife in general, there are other things to consider such as the cost, the size, the sensor, the lenses, the ergonomics and extra features that can be useful when taking pictures of animals. Please refer to the description of each camera throughout this article to learn more about them.


Additional Resources

Below you can find additional articles about mirrorless cameras, birds in flight and wildlife photography.