The Best Mirrorless Cameras for Birds in Flight Ranked

A few months 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 station, why not publish a list of all the cameras we used with their keeper rate score for birds in flight?

I liked his idea a lot but at the time, I was busy finishing other things. The holiday break gave me the opportunity to go back to my notes, which luckily I kept for most of the cameras we reviewed.

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


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 and How I Perform the Test
3. The Best Mirrorless Camera for BIF Ranked
4. Other Cameras
5. Summary and rankings
6. Conclusion
7. Additional Resources


Article Updates

  • 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

Preface: Where and How I Perform the Test

The location I go to every time is the Red Kite feeding station at Bwlch Nant Yr Arian, near Aberystwyth, Wales.

Bwlch Nant yr Arian

The process is pretty much always the same: close to 3pm (2pm in winter), the kites start to 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 before disappearing behind the trees.

Because they eat in mid-air, there is always at least one kite that drops a piece of meat into the small lake, followed by another one ready to grab it a few seconds later, giving us photographers an extra opportunity for a dramatic picture.

Red kite diving into the water
A9, 1/2500, f/8, ISO 3200 – FE 100-400mm GM with TC 1.4x

There are occasional fights among kites themselves or with other birds. The feast can last for several hours depending on the day, the number of kites present and the season.

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

How I measure the score

I transfer all the images to my computer and load them into Lightroom. I start to analyse each photo to see how accurate the focus is. I label it yellow if the focus is slightly off, or red if the picture is out of focus.

Sequence of red kite shots
Out of focus vs slightly soft vs in focus examples featuring a kite

From there, I calculate two percentages: one where only the perfectly sharp shots are counted, and another where the slightly soft results are included.

The reason for the second percentage is that often, an image can look good even if the focus is not 100% accurate. As long as you can perceive all the details and don’t pixel peep, the photo can be used for certain applications. It also allows me to write a more precise analysis of the camera’s performance.

When I try different settings on location, I record a quick audio or video memo so that I can group the images according to the parameters used. Then I calculate the percentage for each setting combination to see which one gives me the best result.

I don’t separate the percentages according to the position of the bird (plain or busy background), unless I see a substantial difference in performance.

Here is an example with the OM-D E-M1 II (firmware 3.0) which demonstrates that the 5×5 Target Group and the 18fps burst with the electronic shutter give the best result.

E-M1 II
(firmware 3.0)
Perfect AF onlyPerfect + sligthly soft AF
5×5 Target, 10fps56%81%
All-Target, 10fps47%62%
5×5 Target, 18fps (e-shutter)66%82%
All-Target, 18fps (e-shutter)34%45%

For this article, I included two types of scores for each camera (unless otherwise specified). Each score contains the two percentage calculations:

  • best score, which shows the best the camera can do and the best settings to use. It is marked in green (Perfect AF) and blue (Perfect + Sligthly Soft AF).
  • average score, which is the average result I obtained with different settings. It is found in the beige rectangle along with informations about the lenses used, the number of shots taken and the firmware version.

The average score is important to show how different settings can affect the performance (for some cameras it can be like night and day). Furthermore, I’ve been in situations where I’ve taken pictures on two separate days with the same settings and come home with slightly different results. This is caused by variables that I explain below.

Variables

There are different things that can influence the keeper rate: 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

Having less time means that if I haven’t guessed the correct settings right away when testing a new camera, I can come home with a rather poor score.

Then there is my own skill in photographing the birds. Naturally, now that I’ve been doing it for the past four years, I do a better job than when I first started. That being said, some mistakes on my part can still happen on occasion, or I might have days when my tracking skills are not as sharp as they should be!

These variables rarely influence the score dramatically, but it is fair to point them out. If I’m not satisfied with a session, I always try to go back another day, unless there is a reason that stops me from doing so (bad weather or rented gear that needs to be sent back).

Firmware updates

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 for birds, I always try to go back to the kites and test the camera again. However that is not always possible due to our working schedule, gear availability and so on.

For each product in this article, I’ve included the latest firmware version that I was able to test, or that was available at the time of reviewing the camera.


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 score to show which ones gave me the best performance. I’ve also included extra information that is useful to know for bird photographers.

Sony A9 II

96%

99%

Average: 96% / 99%
Lens used: FE 200-600mm f5-6.3 G OSS
Number of images taken: 1621 in two days
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00

Sony A9 II

The A9 II smashed my previous best score, which was taken with the Nikon D500 (85%/98%). Finding only one out-of-focus 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 100% 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. In fact, its only competitor is its predecessor, the A9.

The best Sony 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 A9 II 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 the body is weather sealed. The 24MP full frame sensor is excellent concerning dynamic range and high ISO. The RAW file bit depth drops 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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Sony A9

95%

98%

Average: 95% / 98%
Last lens used: FE 200-600mm f5-6.3 G OSS
Other lens used: FE 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 GM OSS + TC 1.4x
Number of images taken: 1249
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 6.00

Sony A9

When I tested the A9 after its release in 2017, it gave me the best score of all the mirrorless cameras I’d tested (80%/95%) and was very close to the Nikon D500. Since then, the camera has received various firmware updates that have improved the autofocus and introduced features such as real time tracking and Animal Eye AF. It is therefore not surprising to see that its score has improved to the point that it is on par with its successor the A9 II, with whom it shares the same sensor and AF system.

The best Sony A9 settings for birds in flight:

  • Focus Area: Zone or Tracking with Expand Flexible Spot
  • Priority Setting in AF-C: Focus
  • AF Track Sensitivity: 5 (Responsive)
  • Drive Mode: Med 10fps o Hi 20fps (electronic shutter)
Red kite skimming the water
A9, 1/3200, f/8, ISO 4000

Like its successor, the possibility to shooting with live view and no blackouts (thanks to the electronic shutter and super fast sensor readout) makes a difference for birds in flight. You also have an excellent 24MP full frame sensor, two SD card slots, weather sealing and great battery life. The grip is not the best in class, and some buttons are a bit small (things that Sony has improved with the mark II model).

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Canon EOS R6

93%

97%

Average: 86% / 95%
Lens used: Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM
Number of images taken: 3618
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.2.0

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

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. The main lens I tested the camera with was the new RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1. The fastest apertures are not exciting, but the lens is compact, superbly built and one of the sharpest zooms of this kind I’ve ever tested.

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Nikon Z7

88%

96%

Average: 88% / 96%
Lens used: Z 70-200mm f2.8 VR S with TC 1.4x
Number of images taken: 437
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 3.12

70-200mm 2.8 lens with teleconverter and Z7 camera

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.

Now there is a few things to consider: the focal length was shorter this second time, it’s a native Z-mount lens instead of an adapted lens so it is probably not the fairest comparison if we want to be pedantic. However, the improvement I saw on the Z7 are 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)
  • 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).

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Nikon Z6

86%

95%

Average: 86% / 95%
Lens used: AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR and TC 2.0x III
Number of images taken: 303
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 3.10

Nikon Z6

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 showed to be 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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Sony A6400

80%

93%

Average: 80% / 93%
Lens used: FE 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 GM OSS
Number of images taken: 290

Sony a6400

Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00
Version 2.0 added Eye AF for Animals, but it doesn’t work for 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.

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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Canon EOS R

79%

98%

Average: 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

Canon EOS R

Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.0.0
Version 1.4.0 has improved the AF so that it tracks smaller subjects more efficiently, which could be useful for birds. This came out after I sold the camera and I haven’t had the chance to test it since. That being said, the performance was already excellent with the original firmware.

It was a cloudy day and the kites didn’t stick around for long, but the EOS R did admirably well 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

While the AF proved its value, the overall speed of the camera leaves a lot to be desired. If you want AF priority with continuous shooting, the maximum speed is 3fps, which explains the lower number of pictures I brought home.

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-T4

79%

94%

Average: 68% / 90%
Lenses used: XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR, XF 200mm f2 R LM OIS WR (+ TC 1.4x)
Number of images taken: 5,600 (I know, it’s a lot!)

Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.02

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, and the best score I got was using the superb but expensive XF 200mm f2 prime lens. 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).

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: 10fps/30fps with electronic 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 A7 III

77%

96%

Average: 77% / 96%
Lens used: FE 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 GM OSS + TC 1.4x
Number of images taken: 407

Sony A7 III

Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00
Version 3.0 enabled Eye AF for Animals, which is no use for birds.

Ideal weather conditions and familiar settings led to no disappointment with the A7 mark III. The camera shares a few specs with the A9 (number of AF points) but despite not having the same processing and calculation speed, it proved a good contender for this genre.

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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Olympus OM-D E-M1X

74%

91%

Average: 54% / 70%
Lens used: M.Zuiko ED 300mm f4 Pro IS
Number of images taken: 714
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00

Olympus OM-D E-M1X

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 the autofocus performance we were waiting for this genre.

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 the only mirrorless camera at the moment 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, the lenses remain compact.

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Nikon Z50

74%

87%

Average: 70% / 84%
Lens used: AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR and TC 1.4x III
Number of images taken: 1080
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 2.01

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 12fps, but the buffer is not great.

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Sony A6500

73%

97%

Average: 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

Sony A6500

It was a cloudy day, I arrived late and 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

72%

96%

Average: 60% / 87%
Lens used: XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR
Number of images taken: 1034
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 3.10

Fujifilm X-T3

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.

The camera has received various firmware updates that have also improved the AF performance. There isn’t a drastic difference in comparison to the first version, but I find it a bit more reactive for distant subjects such as birds. Like the 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

72%

94%

Average: 63% / 88%
Lens used: M.Zuiko ED 300mm f4 Pro IS, MC-14
Number of images taken: 1655
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.10

front view of the omd em1 mark 3

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. With the MC-14 teleconverter, the performance decreases (59% / 88%).

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

72%

93%

Average: 66% / 89%
Lens used: M.Zuiko ED 300mm f4 Pro IS
Number of images taken: 833
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.0

Olympus OM-D E-M5 III

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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Olympus OM-D E-M1 II

66%

81%

Average: 56% / 81%
Last lens used: M.Zuiko ED 300mm f4 Pro IS
Other lens used: Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm f4-6.3 Power O.I.S. Asph.
Number of images taken: 816
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 3.0

Olympus OM-D E-M1 II

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 significantly from 43% to 66% (perfect focus). 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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Sony A7R III

64%

88%

Average: 64% / 88%
Lens used: FE 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 GM OSS + TC 1.4x
Number of images taken: 196

Sony A7r III

Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00
Version 3.0 added Eye AF for Animals, but it doesn’t work with birds.

The day I tested the A7R III for BIF was not the best weather-wise (dark clouds and not a lot of light), so perhaps the score has been somewhat penalised by it. Also the fastest aperture I was able to use was f8. All things considered, the camera did a good job and I’m sure there is room for improvement.

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)
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 choose 8fps to have live view (and a bit more buffer given the large files).

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Sony A7R IV

63%

90%

Average: 60% / 90%
Lens used: FE 200-600mm f5-6.3 G OSS
Number of images taken: 298
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00

Sony A7r IV

It was a cloudy day but not as bad as with the A7R III. That said, despite the improved AF system, the A7R IV performed in a similar way to its predecessor. There is a difference if you try to use the new Real Time Tracking mode. The performance on the mark IV is significantly better with a score close to the best I got with Zone Area (59% / 92%).

The best Sony A7R IV 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 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 8fps. 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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Fujifilm X-T2

63%

87%

Average: 52% / 79%
Lens used: XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR
Number of images taken: 559

Fujifilm X-T2

Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00
Version 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, 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

62%

83%

Average: 53% / 68%
Lens used: XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR
Number of images taken: 1,044
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00

Fujifilm X-H1

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

51%

69%

Average: 40% / 58%
Last lens used: Leica DG Elmarit 200mm f2.8 Power OIS with TC 1.4x
Other lens used: Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm Asph. Power OIS
Number of images taken: 1292
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 2.0

Panasonic G9

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 increased the score to 50%/69% 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 +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 (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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Other models

Below are additional cameras I’ve tested for birds in flight but I didn’t keep all my notes about the AF performance and the keeper rate. The score represents the sharp results only.

Fujifilm X-Pro2

60%
Lens used: XF 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR
Number of images taken: 567

Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.01
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

50%
Lens used: Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM C with Metabones Mark IV Smart adapter
Number of images taken: 1566 in two days
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.00

It was with the A7R II that I first stated taking pictures of red kites. It was at a different location, Gigrin Farm, which is further away from where I live. 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

50%
Lens used: Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm Asph. Power OIS
Number of images taken: 867
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.1

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

50%
Lens used: M.Zuiko ED 300mm f4 Pro IS / Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm Asph. Power OIS
Number of images taken: 667 in two days
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 4.00

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

40%
Lens used: Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm Asph. Power OIS
Number of images taken: 421
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 1.10

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

38%
Lens used: Leica DG Vario-Elmar 100-400mm Asph. Power OIS
Number of images taken: 1540 in two days
Firmware version when last tested for BIF: 2.00

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 is a quick recap of the best AF keeper rate score for each camera. As we test newer products, we will update this article with our findings.

AF rateGreenBlue
Sony A9 II96%99%
Sony A995%98%
Canon EOS R693%97%
Nikon Z788%96%
Nikon Z686%95%
Sony A640080%93%
Canon EOS R79%98%
Fujifilm X-T479%94%
Sony A7 III77%96%
Olympus OM-D E-M1X74%91%
Nikon Z5074%87%
Sony A650073%97%
Fujifilm X-T372%96%
Olympus OM-D E-M1 III72%94%
Olympus OM-D E-M5 III72%93%
Olympus OM-D E-M1 II66%81%
Sony A7R III64%88%
Sony A7R IV63%90%
Fujifilm X-T263%87%
Fujifilm X-H162%83%
Panasonic G951%69%

Then we have a second ranking, which was suggested by reader Speeding in the comments. He rightfully pointed out that it would be interesting to see how many good shots (keepers) each camera will give you based not only on their AF performance, but also their continuous shooting speed.

So in the table below, I calculated the amount of in-focus photos each camera would give me over a 4 second long burst. I chose 4s which is a duration most of these cameras are capable of handling at the maximum speed before the buffer becomes full.

I used only the green AF score to simplify, and I used the burst speed found in the recommended settings for each camera throughout the article. I rounded the number to exclude decimals.

4s burst rateGreenSpeedKeepers
Fujifilm X-T479%30fps95 / 120
Sony A9 II96%20fps77 /80
Sony A995%20fps76 / 80
Canon EOS R693%20fps74 / 80
Fujifilm X-T372%20fps57 / 80
Olympus OM-D E-M1X74%18fps53 / 72
Olympus OM-D E-M1 III74%18fps53 / 72
Olympus OM-D E-M1 II66%18fps48 / 72
Olympus OM-D E-M5 III72%10fps29 / 40
Sony A640080%8fps26 / 32
Sony A7 III77%8fps25 / 32
Sony A650073%8fps23 / 32
Sony A7R III64%8fps20 / 32
Sony A7R IV63%8fps20 / 32
Fujifilm X-T263%8fps20 / 32
Fujifilm X-H162%8fps20 / 32
Nikon Z788%5.5fps19 / 22
Nikon Z686%5.5fps19 / 22
Panasonic G951%9fps18 / 36
Nikon Z5074%5fps15 / 20
Canon EOS R79%3fps9 / 12

This second rank is interesting because it shows that some cameras, despite having an inferior AF rate, have the potential to deliver more usable images thanks to their faster burst.

However, the numbers in the keepers column must be considered an estimate rather than a realistic performance because there are variables to take into account.

First, the continuous shooting speed you select in the menu and the actual speed the camera uses can be different. For example the X-T4 speed decreases when using Focus Priority, which is an important setting to improve the AF rate. Other variables can also influence the burst speed. I don’t have data for the real fps of each camera, so just keep in mind that the numbers above are “theoretical”.

Second, it is almost impossible to assess with math and percentages if these cameras will deliver the usable images when it matters the most in a sequence (for example when a bird is pulling a fish out of the water). So the better the AF rate is, the higher your chances to capture the perfect shot are.

Third, I used the burst speed that gave me the best result for each camera, which is not always the fastest. But I could calculate the keepers based on AF and various fps for each individual camera. For example with the Nikon Z50:

  • you get 20 shots (15 good and 5 bad) at 5fps with an AF rate of 75%
  • you get 48 shots (33 good and 15 bad) at 12fps with an AF rate of 69%

The bottom line is that the order can change depending on what we prioritise the most. But I thank Speeding for the suggestion because it gives us a second perspective on these results, and it reminds that burst speed matters too.


Conclusion

Sony used to dominate this ranking with three E-mount cameras in the top 5, but Nikon and Canon have closed the gap and we have now two Sony, two Nikon and one Canon (and I have yet to test the R5, which could shake the top positions further).

The A9 series’ keeper rate was unreachable before but Canon is now very close and has taken the lead with certain function such as Animal detection (the Sony version doesn’t work with birds yet). One can only applaud the progress made but all these brands concerning autofocus technology and the performance in general.

The autofocus might be the most important thing, but the continuous shooting speed also helps, and in this case we can highlight other products like the Fuji X-T4 that strikes a nice balance between AF and speed.

Naturally, 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. If you look at our wildlife round-up, where we analyse all these things, Olympus and Sony are the brands that tick the most boxes.

Before I conclude, let me tell you about the one thing that surprised me the most while writing this article. I went out a second time with the A9 II, just to try and capture kite images with better light conditions. When sorting through the photos back home, I didn’t even bother double checking the focus accuracy of the files I decided to keep. It is the first time that I’ve found myself trusting a mirrorless camera 100% for birds in flight.


Additional Resources

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

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