With any genre of photography, preparation is a huge factor that directly correlates with success. Photographing wildlife, specifically birds of prey, is no exception.
I enjoy photographing birds in general, but birds of prey, like eagles, owls and osprey have this sense of awesomeness about them. They are like the “Godfather” of the birding world (The Al Pacino/Marlon Brando kind of Godfather, not the kind that gives you lame Christmas gifts). These birds are a ton of fun to photograph for me, so I wanted to share a few tips with you. Hopefully, if you’ve struggled with trying to photograph these birds, these tips will help you to enjoy it as much as I do.
Being prepared can be the difference between getting your shot and going home with the story of the one that got away. What do I mean by being prepared? All of the tips I’m going to share with you fall into this category, so let’s get started.
There is an old saying, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” That is the same strategy we should employ here. So, if we think of these birds as our enemies, we should keep them close. We should study where they live, what they eat, when they are most active, etc. The more we know about these birds, the more likely we are to be successful.
Birds like eagles and osprey usually nest in the winter. They usually nest near water so they can supply their young with a readily available supply of fresh fish. They are also usually more active at dawn and dusk. Based on those few facts alone, we’ve narrowed down time of year, time of day and location to be most successful. Likewise, owls usually live in swampy, marshy areas and are more nocturnal than other birds. They also feed on mice and other rodents frequently. Owls do not “nest” as such, as they are opportunistic. They will nest in another bird's abandoned nest, a hollow tree and some even ground nest. It’s also a good idea to try to photograph these birds at National Parks, State Parks or even Wildlife Management Areas, as the birds there are far more comfortable with people and will tolerate humans much more than normal. Again, by “keeping our enemy close” we already know enough to have a better chance of success.
Let’s talk about gear. You are going to need an SLR, a relatively long telephoto lens, a sturdy tripod, and a pair of binoculars.
I would recommend a lens of at least 300mm. Anything longer will give you that much more of an advantage. I’ve had the most luck with lenses in the 400-600mm range. Birds of prey have a couple of weapons they can use against us as photographers. They are by nature skittish, and they have amazing eyesight. These long lenses help us to overcome those two things. Telephoto lenses have come a long way over the years, but anything in that range should be mounted to a sturdy tripod. I use several of the Vanguard line of tripods, but my favorite is the Abeo Plus 323CT. It is sturdy enough to hold a big lens, and the carbon fiber makes it super lightweight. Another tool that helps that many photographers wouldn’t normally think about are a good pair of binoculars. I use them frequently. Mostly due to my old, beat up eyesight. The “nocs” (say it like that so you will sound super cool) that I’ve been using lately are also made by Vanguard - the Spirit ED 10x42. A camera with a fast frame rate will also help you when the action picks up. So, now we have our SLR, telephoto lens, tripod, and nocs, and we know where to be. We are all set…almost.
It’s time to discuss how to properly setup our camera. This can be different for different scenarios, but for the most part we want to try to capture action, so that means we are going to need a fast shutter speed.
It is ideal to have a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second, or higher. The way we are going to accomplish this is by setting our aperture to a high aperture, or low number. For instance, shooting at F/5.6 or F/4 are going to be good starting spots. If you have a lens that will not allow you to open up to F/5.6, then just use the largest aperture opening you can. One of my favorite lenses for this type of photography will only open up to F/6.3, so that is what I choose most often. If you have opened up your aperture and your shutter speed is still below 1/500th, then we will need to raise our ISO in order to get our shutter speed up. Basically, just raise the ISO in stops until you get your shutter speed where it needs to be.
Now that we’ve covered our exposure, how should we meter? This is preference, but I also meter everything in evaluative metering mode. This allows me to adjust my exposure compensation for the scene quickly, if needed. When photographing a bird in flight with the sky as the background, for instance, I always over expose the bird by a full stop. This is because I am using evaluative metering mode, and my camera thinks the scene is too bright and tries to compensate for that. If I didn’t overexpose by a stop, then the bird would be dark and hard to see in the final image.
Birds of prey are difficult, but very fun and rewarding to photograph. Hopefully these tips will offer you some better success. If you want to try some of these tips out right away, try them on easier, more cooperative subjects first, like pigeons or common songbirds.