Wednesday, 12 February 2014

How to Photograph Birds of Prey

Birds of prey ranks among the most exciting subjects in wildlife photography. They are fierce, powerful, aggressive, fast, agile and very precise.

How to Photograph Birds of Prey
How to Photograph Birds of Prey

Photographing them is quite a challenge; first one needs to get close enough to get them large enough in the frame, they are wary of humans and take off at the slightest hint of trouble. One requires a lot of understanding about the birds themselves, a lot of patience, should be good at stealth and possess long lenses in order to photograph them in their natural habitat.

Equipment Recommendations

To capture wonderful photographs of birds of prey, one requires a telephoto lens, at least of 400mm focal length. The longer the focal length the better as your chances of getting the shot are directly proportional to the distance from which you can shoot. The further away you are from the bird the comfortable it will be with your presence and vice versa.

raptor photography
Photo by: Jeff S. PhotoArt

Image stabilization / Vibration reduction is a very useful feature to have when shooting with long lenses. A tripod with a gimbal head, camouflage clothing for both you and your equipment etc could also be very useful.

Recommended Settings for Bird Photography

1. Shutter Speed

First and foremost consideration when shooting birds of prey should be the choice of shutter speed. Firstly a shutter speed fast enough is necessary when shooting handheld to prevent camera shake. Then comes how you wish to capture the movement of birds, you can either choose to shoot them with fast shutter speeds of say 1/500, 1/1000 or even 1/2000 to completely freeze any movement and capture the bird sharply. Or choose slower shutter speeds in the range of 1/60 to 1/200 to capture movement especially in the wings.

2. Aperture priority Mode

raptor photography tips
Photo by: Eric Begin

Aperture priority mode is the best mode for shooting birds as it lets you control the depth of field and let the camera choose the appropriate shutter speed to properly expose the shot. One commonly used technique is to set the aperture at the maximum of the lens, for eg. f/5.6 for a lens that has maximum aperture of f/5.6. The longer working distance ensures sufficient depth of field to render the bird sharply where as the background will be a smooth blur. Choosing the widest aperture will also make sure the camera chooses the fastest possible shutter speed possible for the prevailing lighting conditions thus helping you keep up with a very active subject.

3. Continuous Autofocus

bird photography ideas
Photo by: Koshy Koshy

Use the continuous auto focus mode in your camera to make sure the camera continuously tracks the subject and stays focused, this will let you capture them even if they suddenly shifts position or takes off without warning.

4. Use Back Button Focusing

how to photograph birds
Photo by: Tambako The Jaguar

Back button focusing is one technique that is very useful for photographing birds, read more about this technique here:- Back Button Focusing.

5. Use Single Point Auto Focus

bird photography
Photo by: Steve Garvie

Switch to single point auto focus and choose the center auto focus point in your camera. This ensures faster and more precise focusing.

6. Use Continuous Drive Mode

birds of prey photography tutorial
Photo by: Tambako The Jaguar

Continuous drive mode enables one to take multiple shots in quick succession by keeping the shutter button pressed. Doing so will enable you to capture a sequence of images when the bird moves or flies away.

7. Get Over Your Fear of Using High ISO Settings

When it comes to photographing birds of prey one will realize that high ISO settings are not just for low light conditions. You will find life to be much easier using an ISO of 400 or 800 even in relatively bright situations as it gives you faster shutter speeds to work with.

Bird of Prey Photography Tips

1. Focus on the Eyes

This is perhaps the most important tip when photographing living animals (including humans). Make sure you set your focus on the eye that is closest to the camera. if it is not in focus the entire image is perceived as out of focus by the human mind.

2. Get To Know Your Birds

how to photograph raptors
Photo by: Shutter Fotos

Do a quick research and find out as much as possible about the birds you intend to shoot. You can refer books or do a quick search online to find information like the birds that you are likely to encounter in the area you plan to visit, their feeding habits, a bit about their habitat and lifestyle etc.

3. Familiarize Yourselves with Birds Sounds

The easiest way to know the presence of a bird of prey is by its distinct cry. Birds make many distinct noises and knowing which bird is making the sound and under what circumstance will help you locate your subject very easily. This is how experienced bird watchers know the presence of the birds even before they see it. There are many websites that explains about the birds of prey and the many sounds they make. You can also purchase field guides for your Android Phone, iPhone, iPod, or iPad.

4. Find Young Ones to Photograph

By young ones I am not referring to the ones that are still in the nest and have not fledged. It is better not to disturb them as your presence near the nest will certainly agitate the parents and chances are they might abandon the chicks.

bird of prey photography tips
Photo by: Martin Teschner

But fledglings and older birds are more co-operative than adult birds of prey. Younger birds that have just learned the art of flying are often very curious and will let you get much closer to them. Some might even show off enabling you to get great shots.

5. Direction of Flight

When photographing large birds of prey it is a good strategy to stand downwind from them as they like to take off into the wind to make most of the uplift it provides. By staying downwind you will get shots of the bird flying towards you if they take off.

6. Watch Your Background

how to photo birds of prey
Photo by: Bill Gracey

One of the most common problems when shooting birds of prey is the bright sky in the background. Always watch what constitutes the background of your picture. Often a slight change of shooting angle could get you a completely different background. Another important point is the distance from the bird to the background. The more the distance the better as it will render the background as a smooth blur making the bird stand out.

7. Use a Blind / Hide

bird photography tutorial
Photo by: Holley And Chris Melton

It is not much fun to sit and wait in a hide especially during hot humid days. But the strategy pays off well if you are close to a breeding area or some spot where the birds of prey frequently hang out (like a favorite perch).  Undoubtedly the best hide for bird photograph is your car as most birds are used to seeing vehicles all the time and they know it is not a threat to them. But the major limitation of using your car as a hide is that you will be limited to photographing birds of prey perched on trees or poles that are close to the roads.

8. Approach Slowly

bird of prey photography tutorial
Photo by: Brendan Lally 

When approaching a perched bird on a vehicle, make sure you have rolled down your window completely before you reach near the bird. Approach slowly, do not make a sudden stop if you suddenly notice a bird instead drive by and make a second pass, this time slower and gently stop the vehicle where you have a good view and also a nice background.

9. Tell Tale Signs – Bird Raises Its Tail

taking photos of birds of prey
taking photos of birds of prey

If a bird raises its tail it means they are getting ready to take off. It often happens when you get near the bird and have breached its comfort zone. So if the bird raises its tail slow down your approach or better stop and wait a few second for the bird to calm down.

10. Tell Tale Signs – Bird Poops

Birds of prey almost always defecate before flying away when they are bothered by humans. If you see the bird pooping it means that the bird is agitated with your presence and thus it is giving you a visual “warning”. Stop immediately and wait a few minutes, take your eyes off the bird and pretend not to pay attention to its presence and chances are the bird will calm down.

11. Best Time to Photograph Birds of Prey

tips for photographing birds of prey
Photo by: MalNino

The best time to photograph diurnal predators is during early mornings and late evenings when the birds are out hunting.

12. Photographing Nocturnal Birds of Prey

bird photography tips
Photo by: Steve Wilson

Nocturnal predators are extremely tough to find and photograph, most only start appearing an hour or so after sunset and disappear before sunrise.  This brings with it a lot of different variables and so we will cover the topic in a detailed article on a later date.

Related Reading

  1. Bird Photography Tips
  2. Tips for Photographing Hummingbirds
  3. Tips for Photographing Birds in Flight
  4. Zoo Photography Tips - Photographing Wildlife in Captivity 
  5. Bird Photography Tips - Getting Close to Birds