Tips for photographing birds of prey

The next Birds Of Prey Photography Workshop is  26th November 2022. Book now.

I was amazed at what we were able to capture.

Okay so I'm a professional photographer with around twenty years experience of using a variety of cameras and lenses, exploring and using lots of camera settings. I understand the theory and know what settings I should be using for most scenarios and I can compose lovely images. However, that does not make me an expert in all genres of photography. Some of them, frankly, just don't interest me, even if I admire them. Others are completely out of my comfort zone.

Photographing birds of prey in flight is (was) a great example. Have you ever tried to capture a sea gull on holiday or a duck coming into land on the water? You get some idea of how difficult it can be to get a sharp, well composed image of something quite small and fast. Then you go along to a falconry display and conclude you have no chance of getting any shots of whole birds in focus.

By chance I met Lisa from Shropshire Falconry at a Christmas market and could tell straight away that she would be perfect to work with and host a workshop with. We agreed a date for Spring 2022 to teach people how to photograph these truly wild, magnificent and mesmerising birds. Photogenic even when completely still.

Taking portraits like these is fabulous especially in a natural setting, but the real thrill and challenge is when they are in flight. This is where it is not simply enough to have a good camera and long lens and to understand all your settings. That is all helpful, of course, but the expertise and guidance of the falconers is the critical part. Lisa and Steve at Shropshire Falconry were absolutely fantastic at explaining what behaviour to look out for, what flight path the birds would take, where to position ourselves for the optimum shots. They've worked with photographers for years and know how to pace the sessions, which locations will make the best backdrops and how the light will affect the shots. At the start of this post I said I knew all the techie stuff but that alone would not have guaranteed me any good shots. We needed that specialist knowledge to give us a much higher chance of success.

We were blown away by just how many good quality images we had by the end of the day. There was a wide range of abilities from people who had just moved off auto mode to people who had been shooting all sorts of subjects in manual for several years. Entry level cameras with relatively cheap zoom lenses to quite expensive and sophisticated gear. It definitely wasn't all about the kit but about the advice on bird behaviour we received on the day. Take a look at the blog for some tips and insight into the day.

One thing that really helped people and gave them a good head start was the Facebook group I set up a few weeks ahead of the workshop. I shared lots of content and advised which settings they needed to research and practise beforehand. The key things to understand were Focus Mode and Focus Area and I was able to give lots of direction on this. And I'm quite happy to share that I had to do quite a bit of Googling and watching YouTube videos to understand the bewildering number of options on my Sony A7iii. But it was so well worth it as it really paid off on the day.

Top tips for birds in flight

  • Use a lens with a top zoom of at least 200mm.
  • Crop your images later to make the birds in flight look closer.
  • Shoot in the highest JPEG quality or RAW.
  • Shoot in Shutter Priority or Manual and use 1/1000 for slower, bigger birds e.g. owls and 1/4000 for the fastest ones e.g. raptors.
  • Use Auto ISO to save time.
  • Research and practise your Focus Area and Focus Mode settings beforehand.

I would recommend this workshop to anyone who is looking for a bit of challenge, wants to learn a few new skills and enjoys a day out in nature with like minded people. Just look at these smiles (hopefully not just laughing at me!).

The next Birds Of Prey Photography Workshop is  26th November 2022. Book now.

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