Photographing birds of prey
And anything else that is very very challenging!
A couple of weeks ago I arranged an evening of birds of prey photography with a local venue - the excellent Gauntlet Birds of Prey Centre. The event soon booked up with 15 people from my Love Your Lens Facebook group all keen to bag some shots of magnificent large birds in flight. We had a wonderful evening, extremely well looked after by Graham and team, who flew a variety of birds for us and kept us entertained with insights into their characteristics and personalities.
I kicked off the session with advice on the best settings for photographing fast moving subjects, as this was what most people wanted to capture, many of them for the first time.
One of the main challenges was the many different focusing modes across camera models and, of course, there's no standard terminology across the various brands. I also believe that you can't always recommend a one setting for all solution either, especially for focusing, as it can come down to individual technique and preference.
To get us all warmed up (and lulled into a false sense of confidence!) Graham posed birds on tree stumps for us. I think most people got some beautiful images during this period, as the light turned great at just the right time.
Below are some of the portraits taken by attendees.
After this point things became just a little trickier... Graham and his team flew a succession of birds for us to capture in mid flight. Large birds, small birds, fast birds and 'slow' birds and for a while there was little sound apart from wings whistling past our heads, calls from the bird handlers and, of course, thousands of clicks of shutter buttons!
I took around 500 images in around two hours and I'm sure everyone else did too. Glancing or 'chimping' at my screen every now and again I knew my strike rate was low but I was confident that I must have some good sharp shots in the bag.
There were a few despondent faces as people started to realise that that this wasn't easy and that, although camera settings were important, technique and practise, lots of it, were essential. And an understanding of bird behaviour, their characters and habits is also vital for good bird in flight shots.
After an excellent and highly enjoyable evening in the company of other photographers we parted ways, promising to upload our best shots to the Facebook group. And some great shots were posted in the coming days, but also lots of comments about the very high number of failures versus successes. I had fully anticipated deleting at least 80% of my shots but was disappointed to see that it was much higher than that. I have about 5 sharp, reasonably well composed images from around 400 of birds in flight!
I've spent some time thinking about this and also reassuring people that they did very well and have got some images they should be proud of. Here are some of them.
I don't know about you but I think all the images in the galleries are pretty impressive for people who were mostly photographing birds of prey for the first time. However, I know many of them were quite disappointed that they didn't do better...
I was a bit frustrated with myself for having quite a lot of rubbish shots and it perhaps surprised a few people because I'm the pro photographer and the teacher. But it's important to recognise that I am not a pro bird photographer. I've 'mastered' quite a few genres and can teach people about camera settings, composition, light, editing and lots of other useful practical stuff. But I have not spent months or years specifically studying and photographing birds. I think people under estimate how much skill, practice and experience is involved. Most of our successful shots on the evening involved about 80% luck and 20% skill.
So for anyone trying a new type of photography or even taking up photography for the first time, please bear the following in mind:
It is important (and inevitable) that you will make many mistakes. You will learn from them and become a better photographer.
Do have a go at new types of photography and challenge yourself. In the early days you may not really know what sort of subjects or genres really ignite your passion for photography, so try new stuff. But manage your expectations so that you don't lose confidence. It can take years to become 'really good'.
Be honest with yourself. Is this a genre that you absolutely love and really want to master? If so, be prepared to do the work - research it, decide if you need training, and practise, practise, practise. I loved the experience of photographing birds of prey and would jump at the chance again, but I'm not passionate about it enough to spend lots of time and money on it.
Don't compare yourself to others, only to yourself a few months or years ago. Comparing yourself to others is where madness lies! You will never be good enough and will always be frustrated and disappointed. Instead look at how much you have improved, how much you've learned and enjoyed your photography. Be proud of yourself and celebrate your successes rather than always looking for what didn't work.