Monday, 19 September 2011

The elusive art of “Bird of Prey Photography” … or is it that elusive?

For me, birds of prey capture my imagination because they seem so regal and powerful, the majestic imagery of an animal that can soar so silently until it strikes at a prey sort of compels me to want to capture the perfect emotion of the moment when the shutter clicks.

How many times has this happened to you? You are standing there, waiting, after some time has passed you’re A.D.D. sets in and your mind wanders, you start looking at the resident ducks, the occasional squirrel that darts past aimlessly and you start photographing “something” because your shutter finger is getting itchy… then all of a sudden, splash, squawk and before you can turn the lens towards the sound, the bird of prey is flying off away from you with a fish in its claws?

You regale in a full range of curse words, get pissed off at yourself and go shoot the same old ducks butt sticking out of the water as it feeds on the weeds below… you’re blanked again and you swear off bird photography till you see the next image that inspires you.

Nature photography is patience… it’s planning, and it typically takes hundreds of photos before you capture that one photograph that meets your expectations. But if you think nature photography can be difficult, try taking photographs of birds of prey. This type of photography amplifies all of the above and offers the photographer an extra set of obstacles. There are harsh lighting conditions, shy and sometimes overtly aggressive subjects, you have to take into account shutter speed, aperture, distance from the object to ensure detail, size of the subject, background noise and the actual speed of the bird that you are shooting.

But all that being said, if you love to photograph birds then there is nothing more exhilarating than capturing a picture of a beautiful bird in its native habitat. If you do not consider yourself a bird photographer, I would encourage you to try it… Look at me, I never considered myself a bird photographer. Anyone that knows me would chuckle if they heard that I was willing to spend long periods of time perched in a “blind” or wait in a covered area attempting to photograph one of our local birds of prey. I actually spend more time scouting areas, talking to locals to learn what they see and identifying habitat than I do taking photos.

Have I lost you? Are you thinking to yourself, “planning, scouting, going out time and time again just to learn about a birds habits… is this guy for real?”

Yes, it’s true… you see there are a few sayings that photographers always need to keep in the back of their mind. One, success in photography comes more from the six inches behind the viewfinder that what’s in front. The knowledge you gain by planning will increase your chances of success. Two, it takes at least twenty visits to a location to get a photograph that has that “WOW” factor. These repeat visits and patience will pay off, trust me!

How to Find Birds of Prey
When you initially spot birds of prey, get familiar with the area where you are trying to find them. I have noticed that many birds that I photograph have a regular routine in their habitats. They hunt at the same times, they perch on the same limbs, and they hunt the regular locations. This is true for hawks, eagles, herons and many other kinds of birds.
One thing to remember, flight is tiring for these large birds. They do more sitting and standing then they do flying. So when you are trying to locate birds, watch the tree lines and single trees adjacent to tree lines. If you see a Heron in a specific pool, or a Hawk spending the day perched in a particular tree scouting for prey, there is a very good chance that they will come back to that spot again and again. They may not come back tomorrow, but they will eventually, and if you are prepared, you will be rewarded.

Do not ignore indigenous species of birds for “tells” of the location of birds of prey. If you hear a murder of Crows raising a racket, look around them. This often happens due to the presence of a bird of prey. Crows love to harass these meat eaters. So next time you hear a murder of crows going crazy, get out your long lens and see what caused it. This trick also works with other territorial birds such as sparrows and mockingbirds, these birds will verbally scold and chase any predator birds in their area to protect their young and livelihood.
Photographing Birds in Flight
Photographing birds in flight and capturing their gracefulness is a challenge that any wildlife photographer needs to aspire too. When comparing a perched bird to a bird in flight is “no-contest”. Hands down, the more interesting images are always of a bird of prey in flight.
The best time of day for flight photography is during the golden hours, up to 90 minutes after sunrise or 90 minutes before sunset. The reason for this is not just to get the bird lit with beautiful golden light versus the harsh noon light. The sun is lower in the sky so the underside of the bird will be better lit, you will catch the finishing touches like the glint in the eye and it will aid in proper exposure. Another great time to photographing a bird in flight is when there’s snow on the ground, or over a larger body of water. The light reflects off the snow and water and illuminates the underbelly of the bird more effectively.

Considerations to Increase Success
Exposure Mode - Always try to shoot in Manual mode, setting your aperture and shutter speed manually will reduce the amount of bird silhouettes. When tracking a bird in flight, chances are you will slip off your target. If the camera was set in Shutter priority or aperture priority your camera will suddenly meter differently and you will ruin the shot.
Aperture – If possible, try to keep your aperture up around f/5.6 to f/8.0 if the light is there. These settings will allow you not to miss the detail in the bird’s eyes. If light is low and its forcing you to dial up the aperture to f/2.8, bump up your ISO value to maintain higher shutter speeds and more optimal needed for birds in-flight photography.
Shutter Speed - I have photographed birds most shutter speeds and have captured the moment, but luck had a lot to do with the capture. I panned properly, the tracking was easy, the light was perfect, etc… As a general rule of thumb, try keeping your shutter speed above 1/1250 of a second or more. The faster the shutter speed, the better your chances of getting a tack sharp image of that bird in-flight.

Focus and “Frames Per Second” – Your DSLR has a few different focus modes. For bird photography especially you should set your focus on “Continuous Focus”. This will allows you to track the bird and the camera will constantly adjust focus on the focus point of the lens. Where to put that focal point? I aim for the neck or head with an aperture of f/8. There will be some forgiveness with that setting. It is an f/2.8, well, focus right between the eyes of the bird and hope for the best… and I do mean hope… this is one of those times where you will take those hundred plus images to get the one image with the WOW factor.
“Frames per second” is the amount of images your camera can take in a single burst. This, coupled with continuous focus only helps photograph sequences, but won’t make all of your images in focus. Tracking the bird is half the battle, if your focus point slips off your target it doesn’t matter how many frames per-second your camera can fire, they will ALL be out of focus. Also, I find that with my camera, which does 6 frames per second, tends to take one or two images to catch optimal focus. So not only do we have to worry about slipping off the focal point, your hop sis generally to get the image on frames 3 thru 6
As with anything, practice makes perfect. I practice my hand held panning skills on birds such as pigeons and local garden birds. They are smaller and faster, move in more erratic flight patterns and will give you the practice you need to refine this skill. Remember, practice makes perfect.

Happy shooting everyone!