This article will guide you through some of the basics of photographing the many beautiful birds of prey that can be seen at bird of prey centres across the UK, and to a greater extent, across the globe. This article does not try to cover every method of photographing birds of prey or indeed, wild birds. Instead, it aims to offer some advice and guidance to help develop and improve your own techniques.
As with photographing any moving object, a steady hand and smooth panning action will prove invaluable; as will a fast shutter speed.
For this article I used the following equipment to take the images displayed:
- Nikon D300
- Nikon AF-S VR 70-300mm F/4.5-5.6 G IF-ED lens
As it was a fairly bright but overcast day, I set the White balance to Cloudy (although you can simply leave this set to Auto, especially if you are shooting in RAW). The camera was set to take 6fps and either continuous focus or single point focus depending on the flight of the bird (a panning shot or towards the camera). Finally, the camera and lens were set to autofocus to ensure quick and accurate focusing on the moving object (for panning) and manual focus for forward flight shots.
With many of the birds of prey centres offering displays, this will prove invaluable for you to both experience photographing these birds in the air, and to see the typical flight patterns, launch methods and the general speed of the birds on display.
If you are new to shooting birds of prey or have a shorter zoom lens, then the various owls that are regularly on display will prove to be an excellent starting point to learn, as these birds tend to be larger and slower at taking off and in flight. Additionally, they tend to fly low to the ground and as such are easier to track and pan while photographing.
Take off and landing
If you take some time to watch the birds you will soon notice that the typical owl, when taking off from a perch or structure, will initially tense its body and then drop off and swoop towards the ground; flying at low level until it is about to land (assuming it isn’t attacking its prey) and then swoop upwards, spread its wings to slow it and stick its legs and feet forward before landing.
Once you become accustomed to this, you will soon learn to anticipate its launch, pre-empt its flight path and be able to pan along with it while shooting.
You should find that you will quickly become accustomed to panning along the birds flight path, and if your camera is firing in burst mode (which I’d recommend), you should achieve several sharp and in focus shots of the flight.
To get the best effect, I’d recommend using a large aperture (from f2.8 to f8 should suffice) to throw the background out of focus and ensure that the focal point is the bird in flight. Using a shutter speed equal to or greater than your focal length should also help to get sharp images (IS or VR lenses should allow slower shutter speeds and retain a good degree of focus). Finally, try to set the eyes of the bird (if the flight path allows it) as the focal point. The secret to many good bird shots is having the eyes pin sharp, even if the rest of the bird is a little soft and out of focus.
Panning is a simple technique to understand, and in practice can produce stunning results. Basically, panning requires you to hold the camera to your eye, focus on the starting point of the moving object, and as the subject moves along its path, you mimic the movement with your camera, attempting to keep the same focal point throughout your pan.
Depending on your subject type and the expected path, a monopod can prove useful to reduce camera shake and allow for a smooth panning action. This is especially true when using slower shutter speeds to add motion blur to your background and keep your subject sharp and in focus. This technique is seen a lot in motorsports photography, but can also add a sense of speed to bird of prey photography.
Taking time to perfect your panning technique can really pay dividends when photographing moving objects, especially birds in flight.
Another method of photographing birds of prey in flight is to position yourself directly in front of the bird before it takes off. The method for photographing birds using this technique is slightly different to the panning technique and requires the camera to be set up slightly differently.
The aim of this method is to fire off a burst of shots as the bird launches, but instead of using the continuous focus method used with the panning technique; you switch the camera to manual focus and use a predetermined focal point that the bird will fly through to photograph. By using the burst mode on your camera just before the bird enters your focal point, you can almost guarantee a couple of sharp shots during the burst.
You will tend to find that the middle couple of shots will prove the best, as the first and last shots will normally be too soon and too late within the birds flight path to be focussed correctly.
This technique may take a little time to perfect, but once you become accustomed to determining the bird’s flight path and the correct time to start shooting, the whole process will become far more intuitive.
Again, a large aperture and fast shutter speed (equal to or greater than your focal length) should help you to get sharp results. And as stated in the panning technique, focusing on the eyes and head will help draw the attention towards the birds face and focus the viewer’s attention.
I hope this brief guide has given you some useful techniques to try and that the images accompanying the article show you the type of results you can expect to achieve using them.
As always, I’d love to see your results, so please feel free to share them in the WZ2K Forums.