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|Category:||Animals / Wildlife|
Birds of prey - Bird of prey photography advice from ePz member Linda Wright(bzbee).
When most people think about birds of prey they envisage noble, intelligent, super sensitive creatures which in the wild are elusive, remote and rare. To a large extent, this is true and photographing them in a natural setting is achievable only with stealth, patience, and very long lenses.
However, birds of prey centres may provide wonderful opportunities for close and dramatic encounters that until quite recently have been the stuff of dreams for amateur photographers.
Image by Linda Wright (bzbee).
In a good centre, trained birds may be flown close to the general public and are content in front of a crowd. Though calm, they display all the instincts of wild birds and with patience, it is possible for photographers to capture interesting natural behaviour such as preening, and characteristic flight. Many places offer photography days in which a falconer will present individual birds in natural settings and encourage them to demonstrate flight in front of a battery of cameras.
Photographers of almost any ability can take advantage of these fantastic facilities. Even with a short lens it is possible to get striking portraits, especially of large eagles at close range. Flight presents more of a challenge but can still be captured with lenses of around 300mm. A fast prime lens is very useful when tracking movement continuously. But of course, the high cost and considerable weight puts such specialist kit beyond the reach of many. However I have successfully captured flight by manually focusing on one spot and using the motor drive. This is a bit of a gamble but the chances of getting a good shot improve with practice. And it’s a question of anticipating where they will fly. Birds stall just before they land – slowing almost to a stop and spreading their wings wide – so this is a good moment to aim for and easy to predict. It also helps to know that they usually take off and land into the wind. So if you stand with the wind behind you, you are likely to get a head-on flight shot.
If you are trying to work with some kind of auto focusing/ tracking mode, the chances of a high ‘hit-rate’ depend almost entirely on the quality of the camera – more specifically the attributes of the sensor. But a bird flying laterally across your visual field will be much easier to track than one flying towards or away, because its movement relative to your position is not changing so fast. So flight of some description is accessible to almost everyone.
The support of a good tripod is essential for sharp crisp portraits but I do not find it helpful to use one for flight, not because it doesn’t provide for enough movement, but more because if I am looking to get the best angle, it is often necessary to move around and that is not possible with a lot of gear. Some centres do not permit walking about during a display so it is important to choose your spot before the event. However, some encourage and welcome photographers and life is much easier. It goes without saying that it is important to respect the centre’s protocol because birds have been trained in different ways and not all of them can cope with swaying lenses.
Given that your lens will be pointing skywards for a good deal of time, it is important to be aware of the sun’s position. Falcons naturally fly at prey from the sun and if you follow them, you may make the mistake of focusing the sun onto your retina. It is extremely dangerous and painful, so watch out!
As for camera settings, I find that 1/640s is the slowest speed I can get away with in flight, unless of course, wing-blur is the aim. That being the case, it is sometimes difficult to get the exposure right when light levels are low – as is often the case in this country! If the bird is at reasonably close range, I try not to open the aperture wider than f 5.6, because they have such long beaks. In low light, the only way to lift the image may be by using a higher ISO, and perhaps risking noise. To optimise the exposure, Manual mode is best – and much easier to work with than many people expect. Everything is a compromise but I think this is what makes bird photography such a challenge and so much fun.
I would heartily recommend a day out in a good centre but be warned – you will eat through your memory cards – take five times more memory than you would expect to use on a landscape day – and even more than that if you have it!!
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