Just about everyone loves birds, but raptors inspire something else in us. They are powerful and majestic, they are fierce hunters and they can also be elusive. It’s uncommon to spot them and when we do, it can be uniquely thrilling. So it follows that it’s an even greater challenge to capture these amazing creatures with our cameras. Have you ever wished that you could get a National Geographic-quality shot of a hawk or an eagle? It’s possible for anyone with the right tools and the right knowledge. Read on to find out how.
[ Top image Barn Owl in-flight by Flickr user Greg Gard]
Bald Eagle by Flickr user Scott M Duncan
One of the biggest challenges with photographing raptors in the wild is distance. When you spot an elusive creature like a bald eagle, it’s often some distance away from you—and if it’s not, your presence in its environment can actually be disruptive to the bird. Raptor photography in nature is difficult and it requires patience. It also requires a long lens.
I’d love to be able to tell you that you can get those awesome Nat-Geo style shots of raptors using a basic point-and-shoot. You know I am a fan of the point-and-shoot for beginning photographers, especially since photos shot by modern point-and-shoots are starting to come really close in quality to those shot by entry-level DSLRs. But for most point-and-shoot cameras, the issue isn’t photo quality, it’s reach. Now, there are some very good point-and-shoot cameras on the market that have excellent zoom (the Panasonic TZ70, for example, has a 30x optical zoom lens that is the equivalent of 720mm). But if you don’t own one of these cameras, wild raptors will remain forever elusive. And remember that you can’t compensate with digital zoom, either—digital zoom is really just in-camera cropping—because your camera will “zoom” in on your subject by cropping out the space around it, resulting in a lower resolution (and lower quality) photo. So if you camera doesn’t have a decent amount of optical zoom, you’ll need to beg or borrow a camera that does. But if you can’t do that, either, never fear—there are still some really good ways that you can get raptor photos without a super-long zoom lens—you just won’t be able to stalk them in the wild.
Raptor centers and wildlife rescues
Almost every community has a nature center or wildlife rescue organization, and there are almost always raptors there, either as permanent residents or recovering patients. To find the right sort of organization for photos, you will need to do a little bit of research. Call the local wildlife rescue to find out if there are any birds in residence. Ask also about education animals—some organizations have permanent residents who visit schools to teach children about birds of prey. Ask if you can come along to take photos. Most organizations are going to be happy to accommodate you.
Some areas have dedicated raptor centers that are basically small zoos that only keep birds of prey. These centers can get busy, so it’s a good idea to call them to find out when their slowest days are. Try to schedule your visit around any flying displays and make sure you pay attention to the weather. Overcast days are bad for bird photography because they feature dull, boring skies and the light is often not bright enough for the fast shutter speeds needed to capture in-flight birds. But high noon on a sunny day isn’t ideal either, because that hard light can kill important details and add unwanted shadows to the scene. Choose a day with blue sky, but stick to the morning or afternoon hours. Hazy days and partly cloudy skies that help filter the hard light can work very well for bird photography.
The Gyrfalcon by Flickr user Bill Gracey
It also helps to visit ahead of time, so that you can assess the location and plan where to set up. If you plan to shoot the flight displays, try to position yourself so that the sun is behind you, and in a place where there isn’t a lot of clutter in the background that could interfere with a clear shot of your subjects. And get your settings dialed in in advance—flying raptors move fast, so you’ll need a shutter speed of at least 1/1000. That means you may have to turn up your ISO—a setting of ISO 400 is perfectly acceptable for this type of photography. Choose a larger aperture, but not too large—remember that your subject is probably not going to be flying parallel to your lens at all times, which means that it may be hard to keep in focus at very large apertures. f/5.6 is a good place to start. And use focus tracking, if your camera has it.
Remember that caged birds can be really challenging to photograph, too—so another thing to watch out for is centers that house their birds behind tight wire mesh. You can shoot through cages with a large aperture, but you’re going to get some blur where the wire is so it’s best to look for centers that house their animals behind glass or, better still, have them in cleverly designed enclosures that have nothing but space between bird and visitor (this is common in rescue centers, where some of the birds may not be able to fly).
Shooting through glass also presents some challenges, though, since unwanted reflections can come between you and your subject. To lessen the chances of this happening, try standing at an angle to the glass. If you have a rubber lens hood, you can also butt the lens right up to the glass, which will cut out those reflections entirely. If the enclosure is outdoors, a polarizing filter can help cut back on reflections, too. And beware smudges—a busy raptor center almost certainly has its share of sticky-fingered children putting their hands all over the glass. It’s not too weird to wipe the glass down a little before you shoot, so stash a pack of glass wipes in your camera bag.
Wild raptors: How much zoom?
You can get by with a 300mm zoom lens at absolute minimum, but this is one instance where more really is better. To get really stellar raptor photos outside of the local wildlife rescue or raptor center, you need a lens somewhere between 400mm and 500mm. You might be tempted to buy a super zoom for this purpose, but if you do get hooked on raptor photography you’ll be better off with a prime lens, which will give you more flexibility with your aperture. Built-in image stability is almost essential, because at those longer focal lengths you can get camera shake even when you shoot with faster shutter speeds. Remember the 1/f rule, which states that you need to shoot your subject at at least 1/500th of a second when you use a 500mm lens. You may be doing this anyway when shooting raptors in flight, but in lower light you may need slower shutter speeds to shoot them at rest. A tripod can help, but having good image stabilization in your lens is going to increase your odds of getting a great photo.
How to find and photograph wild raptors
Once you have your good zoom lens and some experience photographing captive birds, it’s time to branch out to wild raptors. To do this, the first thing you have to do is know what sorts of birds live in your local area, and where they are most likely to be spotted. You can consult your local nature center or you can speak to a local bird watching club—both organizations will likely provide you with the information you need.
Some parks have permanent bird blinds set up, which are available for public use during park hours. A drawback to these permanent blinds, of course, is that you may have to share them with others. Alternately, you can purchase and set up a blind of your own (look for “hunting” or “ground” blinds on Amazon.com) or you can just shoot from your car window. Most birds are used to seeing vehicles and don’t consider them to be a threat, so your car—even if it’s neon green—can be a great base to shoot from. Do take some precautions, however. Find a safe place to park and don’t trust your GPS—I’ve had my GPS lead me down nearly impassible dirt roads, so it’s best to rely on a good map of the area whenever you’re going to take your car off the beaten path. And drive (and walk) slowly—just because your subject is used to your car doesn’t mean it won’t be alarmed by sudden stops or fast moving people getting in and out of it.
Choose your subject carefully
Most diurnal birds of prey eat breakfast, just like you do—so seek them out in the early mornings when they’re hunting. If you wait until later in the day not only will the light be less favorable, they’ll also be a lot less active. You’ll also have a chance to photograph them again in the afternoon, when they’re out looking for some dinner. If you’re finding that your subjects are frightened by your presence, try to seek out younger animals. Younger birds don’t know enough to be afraid of humans, but finding them may be challenging and will probably require something of a commitment. Know where the nests are but don’t stalk them, since you’ll risk scaring the parents away from vulnerable young. Instead, wait until the young birds are learning to fly and then take limited shots during short visits.
Flying for Life - A Hawk Attaching a Small Bird by Flickr user najeebkhan2009
Whether you are photographing wild raptors or birds at a raptor center or wildlife rescue, the name of this game is respect—these birds are beautiful and powerful but they are also part of a fragile ecosystem. Some may be endangered and some may just be fearful of humans, so it is always best to keep your distance, to move slowly and to leave if your subjects appear agitated or fearful. Remember that you can always come back another time, so get what shots you can in the time available, and plan to return in a week or two for another go. You can never have too many shots of these amazing creatures, and at some point they may even become used to your presence, which will make your job a whole lot easier.
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