The howling wind out of the northeast was at once haunting and comforting, a familiar reminder that late-spring weather along the Mid-Atlantic seaboard could soothe one day and threaten the next. Blanketing the overnight darkness with an envelope of sound, the volatile currents were nature’s cargo carriers for all forms of life from microbes to birds, large and small.
The next day, with the winds still brisk and sunrays dancing on the blue water’s sparkling surface, an Osprey presented itself with startling surprise, hitting the lake with a wallop.
I was familiar with the Nor’easter’s habit of delivering Ospreys and other birds of all kinds to the lake, but this time, distracted by my fixation on finding a pair of hawks that were displaced from a nearby haunt by the storm, I was unprepared for the raptor’s initial dive and impact and missed the photo.
For several weeks prior, I’d closely followed the exploits of a pair of Red-tailed Hawks as they worked and played on two sides of a busy highway. They had a nest in a dense wooded grove on one side of the roadway. Across the noisy bypass, in mature tall trees that lined the road, they spent time dodging a nuisance Blue Jay, surveying for prey, and standing sentry over the nest. The locale was perfect for the hawks and, likewise, for my pursuit of avian photography, specifically for raptors.
Hawks, Ospreys, and Bald Eagles are perhaps the most-photographed birds of prey. Amateurs and professionals alike know they’re formidable yet exhilarating challenges — subjects that have the potential to produce images with lasting impact.
In recent years, the popularity of bird photography has exploded. Once turf trod mostly by a small cadre of successfully published pros and well-heeled hobbyists, bird photography nowadays is within easy reach of legions of people.
Those who are new to bird photography may start with robins on lawns and backyard birds on branches before moving on to the more formidable migratory warblers, for example, or the infinitely more exciting Bald Eagles at one of their winter feeding grounds, such as Conowingo Dam in Maryland or dams along the Mississippi River.
Once that becomes too easy or less thrilling, hawks and Ospreys stand ready to deliver moans and groans over lost shots — and eventually some of the most satisfying images possible in bird photography.
I know well the drill, as it’s one that I’ve chased for nearly two decades. Here’s how to start your own journey.
Bigger and faster subjects
Eagles, with their resurgence in recent decades, seem to be the first raptor species favored by newer photographers. They gather in large flocks at feeding grounds, and they’re plentiful, having recovered from the DDT scourge. Photographers aspiring for bigger and better (and faster) subjects couldn’t ask for much more.
In a recent year, on one of many visits to Conowingo Dam, which spans the mighty Susquehanna River and is the East Coast’s prime destination for those with long lenses, I counted more than 100 Bald Eagles. They fly around the river, swoop down for fish, and perch on massive electric towers on an island just below the hydroelectric dam. So, it could be argued that photographing America’s national bird is easier than other raptors, whose presence in the open wilds is less common.
Eagles are the ideal birds with which to improve technique and build skills for the more challenging species. When that day comes, the world of kestrels, falcons, Merlins, owls, harriers, and the many species of hawk beckons.
I first noticed the Red-tailed Hawk (from the highway-side nest mentioned earlier) on a late-winter morning, while driving past the location of a nest I’d followed a few years earlier. That nest was long gone, having been destroyed in a storm some years before.
The bird was looking in the direction of a stand of trees on the other side of the highway. Since it was the season for nest building, I explored the area below the trees, and, sure enough, high up among the twisted branches was the unmistakable shape of a hawks’ nest. And thus launched another fascinating and demanding adventure into understanding the daily lives of a pair of Red-tails.
The birds are delightfully predictable yet frequently sporadic in their behavior. Just when I thought I had a pretty good handle on the ways of the raptors, they’d surprise me. As challenging as the Red-tails are, they’re such a common and familiar sight along our roads and in most all types of trees that they present unending opportunities for avian photographers.
Like the hawks, Ospreys demand an enhanced degree of attention to detail when it comes to success with a camera. Both have erratic and at times wildly variable flight characteristics — traits that demand what at first seems an extreme heightened awareness to shoot the best airborne images. Experienced raptor chasers know that if you drop your guard, you’ll miss the shot.
To balance the odds in favor of having more photos worth keeping, my advice is simple: prepare, prepare, prepare. Successful photographers are pre-armed with knowledge of their target species, and they have the gear necessary to freeze the spectacular actions of raptors.
The bare essentials for capturing quality images of raptors in flight are a camera body capable of rapid, continuous shutter release and a medium telephoto lens. The lens is the critical component, for without quality glass locked between the body sensor and the bird, your mission is doomed. Depending on the distance between you and the flying bird, a 300mm lens may be sufficient to have the necessary reach. Add a 1.4x or 2.0x teleconverter to a 300mm lens, and a tool kit of manageable weight is in your hands for a confident trek to the great outdoors.
Of course, telephoto lenses of focal lengths from 400mm to 800mm open a vastly more accessible universe of possibilities. The downside is the added physical burden imposed by the bulk and weight of fast pro lenses and the tripods they often demand to steady the shots. Then there’s the notable exception of the increasingly popular Micro Four Thirds format systems pioneered by Olympus and Panasonic and now available from many brands. These cameras offer the equivalent reach of full DSLRs and crop-sensor DSLRs in much more compact physical packages.
4 keys to flight photos
Taking dramatic images of birds in flight demands a simple but essential skill set. It’s comprised of a few key factors. Even once learned, if just one step is overlooked at the critical moment, the image on the sensor may well be a “snapshot” and not a photograph. The implication: Not all images are created equal. It seems obvious at first blush. But even top pros have told me that they’re as vulnerable as we mortals to letting their guards down at the most inconvenient times.
Over the span of years of experience, I’ve synthesized successful bird photography into four essential factors — the right equipment, the knowledge and technique to maximize its potential, the right mental attitude and discipline, and finally, being in the right place at the right time.
THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT. There’s no escaping the demand for quality optics attached to a digital camera body capable of very rapid frame rates.
Whether your tastes and style favor full frame, crop sensor, or smaller formats such as Micro Four Thirds, a robust body and medium-to-long telephoto lens is the beginning of the basics. Just getting started? Be sure to consider the sometimes-staggering savings to be realized on the pre-owned equipment market. Most photo enthusiasts take exceedingly good care of their cameras, translating into a wealth of “almost-new” gear awaiting the savvy shopper.
KNOWLEDGE AND TECHNIQUE. On more occasions than I can count, fellow photographers have approached me at popular birding venues and asked: “What settings are you using?” While I’m happy to share, this illustrates lost opportunities. (My initial settings are simple: 1/2000 shutter speed, lens wide open (be it F/4, 5.6, or 8 with a teleconverter, and Auto ISO manipulated by positive or negative exposure compensation steps.) Think of how your success quotient improves when you’re better prepared.
Well beyond the technical skill comes awareness of the habits of the birds you’re pursuing on any given day. Absorb as much information as possible about the avian world through magazines such as BirdWatching, field guides such as Peterson and Sibley, and the endless list of videos available for free online.
MENTAL DISCIPLINE. When you’re in the field for the day’s photo adventure, this skill is perhaps most challenging of all. Now is the time to pack away the day’s distractions and daydreams, as nothing short of extreme attention locked on your photography mission will suffice. I’ve been burned enough times to know the sure way to miss a potentially great shot is to be gawking and “chimping” over that last capture, for while you’re riveted on the camera’s display screen, just out in front of you that raptor has returned and is dancing and diving in a delightfully exquisite exposition.
LOCATION TO THE THIRD POWER. When you’re prepared with the knowledge, the gear, and the right attitude, it’s time to claim that return on your investments. Raptor-inclined venues can be as near as the field just down the road or many states away at famed hawk or eagle watch site. A valuable resource is the Hotspots Near You feature from BirdWaching, as well as websites such as www.birdphotographers.net, www.outdoorphotographer.com, and Fred Miranda’s photography forums.
Most of all, keep your senses poised to react to the unexpected. The aforementioned Osprey literally dropped from the sky to shatter my pre-conceived notion of my “mission” that day. What started out as a casual recon of a lake for my Red-tailed friend became, after I was shocked into alertness, a few minutes of rarified and frenetic Osprey antics, just yards from my shoreline post.
And because I’ve conditioned myself to pivot and react to unexpected opportunity, I have the photos to prove it and can savor the moment forever. You, too, can chase your raptor-photography dreams with confidence, knowing that having been fully prepared for that exposure of a lifetime, the soft click of the shutter is the sound that’s opening the doors to a lifetime of treasured photographic memories.