Birds of prey have fascinated me since I was a young boy. When we were out in the countryside my dad would spot them, point them out to me and tell me which bird it was, and I just couldn’t get over how beautiful and dangerous they were. This fascination remains with me today, and I still get excited when I see the birds in the wild. Like any wildlife, they can be difficult to photograph, so here are a few tips on how to make your shoot a successful one.
Where to Find Them?
When starting out, to give yourself the best chance of getting some great photographs of the birds, I’d recommend visiting a conservation or zoo type centre as opposed to heading out into the wild unknown. Not only will this be far safer, but you’ll also see a variety of birds and will hopefully be informed and educated rather than waiting in a hide getting cold and bored.
I’m very lucky to have a hawk conservancy a short drive away and a couple of weeks ago I visited on a cold December day to find that we were some of the only visitors that day, so were treated to a close encounter with some of their more hospitable birds.
Types of Birds
Birds of prey is an umbrella term that encompasses a large variety of birds ranging from owls, to falcons, eagles, vultures caracaras. The appearance and behaviour of each type of bird varies greatly, so if you’re heading out looking to get a picture of ‘an eagle,’ then it’s likely you may not find what you’d perceive to be a typical ‘eagle.’
Have a quick google of some well known terms such as ‘bald eagle,’ ‘osprey’ and ‘barn owl’ to give yourself an idea of what the different types of birds look like. Also, be aware that some birds are likely to be more active at certain times of the year, depending on breeding and temperature, so if you’re wanting to photograph something in particular, its worth calling ahead or researching first.
Getting Up Close
One of the most rewarding elements of my trip was having the opportunity to get up close and actually hold the birds. There’s no need to be scared, as the birds in captivity will have been trained and along with the help of their handler and a thick leather glove, you’ll be perfectly safe to get right up close.
During my trip, at one point I had two owls on one arm and my camera in my other hand trying to get a portrait shot, this was an absolute privilege and being that close enable me to capture some great moments.
There are various ways in which you could approach a portrait shot. My preference was to use a wide angle lens and get up close, but I can appreciate that it might not be for everyone, and using a longer lens and shooting from a distance might be more suitable for some birds. In a similar fashion to working with pets, it can be a good idea to use food as bait to get the bird to hold itself in a particular pose. But you won't got long, so you’ll need to take your chance.
As always with any portrait shot, the connection with the eyes is the most important thing and birds of prey tend to have large glassy eyes that captivate the viewer, so take advantage of that as best as you can.
As I just mentioned, timing is essential in getting the shots you want, and these birds aren’t going to wait around for you or even consider the fact that they need to look your way, so you need to be prepared for that one moment when everything falls into place.
Use shutter priority mode and select anything from 1/125 up, anything slower and you’ll start getting motion in the shot. Depending on what lens you have, you may need to employ a wide aperture to allow enough light in, but as the bird’s movement is unpredictable, aim to have an aperture of nothing wider than f/4 or f/5.6 otherwise you’ll risk the chance of not having the whole bird in focus.
The option of working indoors or outdoors will depend upon the facilities available at your location. I was lucky enough to be able to work both indoors and outdoors and found each environment to have both positive and negative attributes.
When working indoors, there situation was far more controlled, the birds were free to fly around the room, but that’s reasonably confined, so they were never too far away and I was able to easily tempt them back onto my arm. The main problem however was a lack of light, so using quick shutter speeds became problematic and the quick motion of the birds started to blur.
The main advantage of working outdoors is the chance to photograph some of the bigger birds that wouldn’t be able to fly indoors. With this comes much more action and movement, the chance to capture some significant birds in flight and eating.
You’ve also got enough light to work with, so freezing action is easier. The only downside really is that the birds have a tendency to fly off and sit in a tree for a bit, then when they do come by they’re gone in a flash, so you’ll certainly need a long telephoto lens, 200mm or even 300mm would be ideal, which will allow you to get great images even if the birds aren’t right up close.
If you’re an amateur or enthusiast, I’m not necessarily recommending that you head out into the wild, this is serious business and I wouldn’t want anyone to venture out on my recommendation unless they were confident they know what they’re doing.
It’s essential to keep your distance, you don’t have the option of getting up close in the wild, so a long lens from a camouflaged hut is by far your best option. It’s essential that you research beforehand so you know what birds you’ll expect to find and how to understand their behaviour to give yourself the best chance of getting the shots you want.
Give it a Try!
If like me, you’ve got a fascination with these amazing birds, then hopefully these few tips will have excited you enough to get out there and give it a go for yourself. Wildlife photography can be a trying business and will take patience and perseverance, but once you’ve got the confidence in yourself and in your camera settings, you’ll be equipped to get some great shots.