Birds of prey are one of the most exciting wildlife subjects a photographer will have to photograph. Usually their distance from the camera, fast movements and the bright sky pose huge problems for photographers. I was recently given the gift of a birds of prey photography experience at my local Falconry Centre. In this post I will give you my best bird photography tips and ideas as well as share a selection of the images captured on the day.
Birds of prey photography experience
If you happen to live in an urban area like me, there is a slim chance of photographing birds of prey on a daily basis without traveling to more rural areas. There are hundreds of falconry centres dotted around the UK with many offering photography sessions. The Falconry Centre in Hagley, West Midlands is my local falconry centre home to a wide variety of birds of prey native to the UK and from around the world. The falconers are a small, friendly team of falconers who have a passion for Birds of Prey. Their experience with birds of prey extends back over 25 years.
The Falconry Centre have been offering bird flying experiences for a number of years however photography experiences are new to them. The photography sessions take place in a dedicated private, secluded area in a natural setting, away from the regular visitor-accessible parts of the Centre. The session is designed around photographing a selection of birds sitting out on natural perches (such as branches, mossy stones and tree stumps) with their flying equipment as well-hidden as possible. The birds remain on perches during the session, so fast movements against bright Skys are eliminated, allowing you to photograph them from different angles under natural light conditions in a rural setting. You will also be able to get a lot closer to birds of prey than you would in their natural habitat.
My session started with tea, coffee and biscuits during a welcome briefing, followed by a short stroll to the secluded area where we were greeted by “Orn” a 16 year old Bald Eagle sitting out between the green foliage.
Equipment for the day
Usually for bird of prey and wildlife photography a long telephoto lens is required, usually between 200 – 600mm. As the birds were sitting out and quite close a focal length of between 70-200mm was perfect for the session. That said where the birds were very close I was able to use the wider aperture offered from a 50mm prime lens. The best lens is always the one you have with you and for that matter all I had with me was my Nikon D7100 camera coupled with my trusted Nikon 50mm 1.8D AF and Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-105 mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR Lens
5 Top tips for perfect portraits
- Focus on the eyes
Zoom your lens in close and try to fill the frame with the birds head and upper body. As the subject is static use a single focus point directly over the birds nearest eye. The eyes are the fist thing we look at in a photo and therefore this tip will ensure the eye is pin sharp.
- Continuous autofocus
Continuous autofocus ensures that the camera will keep focusing for as long as the shutter button is half-pressed. Focusing in this mode is perfect for shooting birds of prey photography, as the birds never stay perfectly still.
- Increase your shutter speed
Set the shutter speed in manual mode or set a minimum shutter speed within the auto iso settings to reduce the chance of motion blur. A minimum shutter speed of at least 1/500 sec will help to avoid camera shake. Faster shutter speeds will also help if the bird decides to make any unwanted sudden movements.
- Shoot manual or aperture priority
If you are confident shoot manual for ultimate control or switch to aperture-priority as this will allow you to control your depth of field. A wide aperture of f/1.8 will create a lovely creamy bokeh however apertures of f/4 up to f/5.6 will blur out the background for a separation shot. Wide apertures also allow you to shoot at faster shutter speeds, helping to maintain a lower ISO.
- Use a monopod or tripod
Reduce camera shake even further by using a monopod or tripod. I handheld all my shots as I expected to be rushing around. As the birds were sitting out and the session was quite relaxed my time was really my own. There was no rush to compose and shoot a shot and enough space to use a tripod without causing inconvenience to those around me. I will definitely be taking a tripod in future for the extra stability.
Bonus tip – Watch the backgrounds
When composing your shot have a look around and think about what is in the background of the shot. A few steps to the left in this shot would have removed the fence and offered a natural backdrop of green trees and bushes. Other common issues include plants and trees growing out of heads and brightly coloured objects that distract from your subject.
I really loved the birds of prey photography experience. I had an excellent day and the other participants were great. Its a good idea to respect other photographers space on these days and be aware of who and what is within your immediate surroundings. After all you don’t want to fall over someone crouching down to take a shot as you turn around. Not only do you risk damaging your gear you could also fall badly and hurt yourself.
The falconers really know their stuff, don’t be afraid to ask questions about the different species and learn a little bit more about the birds your taking a lovely photograph of.
Have you been on an experience day? Are you planning to go on a birds of prey photography day? Leave a comment below with your experiences or let me know if you found one of the top tips useful.
Other images from the day;
I am in no way connected to The Falconry Centre and did not receive any form of payment for this post.