Raptor Photography Tips

I recently wrote an article on hand-holding large and heavy lenses, which attracted quite a bit of attention and some nice comments and questions from PL readers. I am not really a writer, but a few people asked me about my technique for getting those shots. Let me start by saying that I am not an expert and there are many ways to skin a cat. So this is the way I get my shots and you will have to find your own way to achieving what you want. Let’s start with a “money shot”: what I would say is the shot of the day, the shot that made it all worth it.

Snowy Owl Launching from Rock

So how did it happen and how could you prepare yourself to get this type of shot? To answer this question, I will reverse engineer what happened that morning and show you how I got several shots from a seemingly innocent sitting photo.

I arrive at a place I know the owl has been hanging around and find her sitting on a rock wall near the ocean. I know from previous encounters that this bird is not too skittish, but this is not something you will always know. So I start shooting from a reasonable distance and slowly approach in a stop-and-shoot manner, moving closer after each burst of shots. I am hand-holding a 600mm Nikon VR lens here, but a tripod works just as well. I edge my way forward slowly, letting the bird get used to my presence, but respecting it and not getting too close. Here is where it all started, “the sitting shot” so to speak:

Snowy Owl Photography Life Article #2

Get your sitting shots first – let the bird settle down after your intrusion into its space, but be ready, as it can fly any time. Observe it while photographing, see the signs that will indicate if it is about to fly or move. Make sure you put yourself on the right side of the light if possible. I was limited in this instance, because there is an ocean and stone wall in my way to the perfect side of light, so I positioned myself the best I could.

Snowy Owl Photography Life Article #3

As you can see, the owl is giving signs on what it is about to do. You need to learn these signs, as they vary from animal to animal and you need to be ready when it happens.

You need to decide what kind of shot are you going for: flying or sitting, etc. In this instance, I want flying so I need to make sure that my distance and framing are appropriate for the owl’s wingspan. What looks small in the sensor can become surprisingly big when it launches. In this instance, I didn’t judge it correctly and clipped the wing:

Snowy Owl Photography Life Article #4

While I did clip the wing, the next shot after the one above turned out to be the “money shot” I showed at the beginning of the article and it was perfectly framed for a 300dpi plus size crop. Because you saw the signs and studied your subject, you are hopefully ready for what is about to happen. The owl is going to go from a calm sitting subject one second, to one launching several feet into the air vertically and then rapidly switching to the direction it indicated it would go. So when you see the signs, you need to be prepared to lift and pan rapidly with the bird. It doesn’t end with the money shot, because you won’t know that until you get home and look at all the photos on your computer screen and judge them for sharpness, composition, placement etc.

In other words, the action isn’t over until it’s over, keep the trigger down and get the whole sequence, there may be some surprise photos in that sequence you didn’t see while all the action was happening.

Here is a sample of such a surprise photo in the sequence:

Snowy Owl In Flight Sea Behind

This was a beautiful pose that happened just a few frames into the flight. I did cut off and mess up several full wingspan shots, but you can’t have everything. You have to choose what you want carefully and set your distance from the subject. Too far away and the photo won’t be as detailed as it can be, too close and you’ll miss (crop or cut off parts) all the action shots.

Let’s talk about frames per second as it pertains to this article. You can get great photos at 4 or 5 frames per second, but the slower the fps, the less likely you will have a chance of getting the perfect pose the first time. At 4 or 5 frames per second, you might have to have several attempts to get that perfect eagle getting the fish pose or you might get lucky and get it the first try. For action and bird photography, frames per second matter, the more you have the more frames you will have to choose from. As you can see from the photo below, many frames per second increases your chance of getting that perfect pose you are looking for. I know the sample screen capture is low quality, but you can see all the different poses that are part of this flight sequence and there are some beautiful ones there I wish I had gotten.

That’s why there always a next time and a better shot, as we, photographers are never happy :)

For those wanting to know about my gear, I was shooting with the Nikon D4 at 10 to 11 frames per second. Also, look closely at the below snapshot and you will see quite a few shots that I missed, because I didn’t pan well enough or just clipped parts of the owl off:

Snowy Owl Photography Life Article #6

I will finish this article by also mentioning that the buffer size of your camera matters. Before the D4, we had a D3X which shot at about 4.5 frames per second and slowed to an excruciatingly slow speed after the buffer was full. This meant that I had to time when to press the trigger to coincide with the action I anticipated, start shooting too early and the buffer would fill in the middle of the action and slow to less than 2 frames per second while writing to the memory card. The D4 has an amazing, basically unlimited buffer and this means that I can just start shooting whenever I want and follow all of the action to its end. This is something you will have to think about with your camera and be aware of; it may or may not be a problem for you.

I hope you will find the above information valuable. Most importantly, just get out there, get into it and have fun!

Here is a parting photo from the owl’s flight sequence that is definitely a keeper. Remember, this all started from a sitting shot:

Snowy Owl Photography Life Article #7

All images copyright Robert Andersen.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Alis Dobler
    January 24, 2014 at 2:04 am

    Thanks for your explanations and of course, GREAT pictures!!!

  2. 2
    ) Mike B
    January 24, 2014 at 4:54 am

    Wonderful shots and great information, thanks for sharing them, now to check out the website.

  3. 3
    ) ras lijji
    January 24, 2014 at 5:37 am

    Hi thanks for shearing your experience with us making us push our self to so better job taking better pictures. This tip come just in time for me because I just got my first zoom lens from amazon,55_300mm. To you and your crew have a bless dayand be saf

  4. 4
    ) Mark M
    January 24, 2014 at 5:38 am

    Fantastic shots and really appreciate the details on how you got them! Thanks for sharing.

  5. 5
    ) Verm
    January 24, 2014 at 8:38 am

    Nice shots. Another tell tale hint that a raptor is about to take off is it will usually defecate a few seconds prior to launch – keeps the load light.

    • January 24, 2014 at 9:04 am

      Thanks Verm

      I knew that, just didn’t know how to say it politely :)

      Rob

  6. 7
    ) JamesV
    January 24, 2014 at 9:53 am

    Great pics and excellent tips. Thanks for this – I have a trip to a hide planned in the next few weeks where we will be expecting to see vultures ( hopefully including a Bearded Vulture) and various other raptors. The tips on anticipating direction of flight and leaving enough space for the wings and launch height are going to be especially useful.

    • January 24, 2014 at 10:19 am

      Not just anticipating direction -> observe and anticipate possible action events, maybe you can see multiple vultures getting agitated with each other and possible interaction and snap it when it happens :)

      have Fun
      Rob

  7. 8
    ) SeanL
    January 24, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Really nice captures and great to see the “behind the scenes” information as well. Do you have a preferred focusing mode when shooting birds, particularly birds in action such as the snowy owl here?

    • January 24, 2014 at 10:16 am

      I rely on the D4’s auto focus (continuous mode) that tracks a moving subject, I don’t like any kind of mode that moves the focus point automatically, I want to be in full control and always try to put the focus point on the eye of the animal and will move the point with my thumb while shooting.

      Regards
      Rob

      • January 24, 2014 at 3:06 pm

        Hi Rob,

        And what about the aperture. Are you shooting wide opened or do you use closer aperture to assure focus (i suppose that on your D4 is more easier to track focus on moving objects than using my D90… :-(
        Thanks

        • January 24, 2014 at 4:21 pm

          Generally speaking we (my wife and I) are always trying for lowest noise so we have kind of set personal rules like 100 iso for landscape and 200 iso for wildlife. These are ideal when light conditions allow, when light doesn’t allow it’s whatever gets us the shot :)

          We prefer shooting 4.5 to 5.6 f-stop – I can’t give you some big technical reason for that other than we like having shallow depth of field and we like the Bokeh effect that creates to separate the bird from the background. That is what we target for wildlife images and most of the images on our website are f4 to f5.6 range. The important thing here is to ensure your focus point is on the eye, right on the eye – the eye has to be sharp !!

          Hope this helps
          Rob

  8. 9
    ) Jose Luciano
    January 24, 2014 at 10:11 am

    A wealth of information! Thanks for sharing your experience Robert.

  9. 11
    ) Foothill Son
    January 24, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Something I’ve found to help with hand holding long lenses is a beanbag camera support called The Pod. I attach it to the lens tripod support (mine’s on a quick release) then use it like a palm rest under my left hand. It can also be set on something solid like a car window frame or a fence post. http://thepod.ca/ They can be found at major photo retailers or on-line.

  10. 14
    ) Colin Scott
    January 24, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    Really fine shots, Robert and an article packed with good advice.

    We really need to take on board what you are saying about respecting the bird or animal. No photo can make up for putting the subject under unnecessary stress.

  11. January 24, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Just to thank the author of the post for so wonderful pics of that owl. They are really amazing and that bird is really beautiful and also terrible.
    Great and helpful tips.

  12. 17
    ) Andrew S
    January 24, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    I mostly shoot the D800 which has slower FPS due to the amount of data processed. I think it is important to help the buffer overflow by using the fastest writing memory cards. I have been frustrated a lot of times as the shooting rate slowed down and a beautiful raptor flew close by. May make the difference in getting the money shot.

    • January 24, 2014 at 4:12 pm

      Hello Andrew

      I shoot in 1.2 crop mode to maximize my speed and pixels when I shot with the D800. This will get you a respectable 5 frames per second. I have gotten beautiful action shots at that rate with my old D3X – sometimes your timing will be off and you may require multiple attempts to get the exact pose. A little luck involved at that FPS – but hold off on your trigger finger until the last possible moment then press and fire hoping for the best :)

      • 48
        ) Andrew S
        February 5, 2014 at 6:18 am

        Robert,
        Do you have any tips regarding this subject? Snowy owls in particular, but also other birds, fly low below the horizon, the camera “sees” a nice landscape shot and refuses to focus on the moving bird even though I am accurately tracking and panning. I use single spot focus and AF-C and jiggle the shutter button off and on but sometimes it will just not focus. I am using the D800 for the most part to get more pixels on the bird for cropping purposes but have a recently purchased D4. Do you see any difference in the performance of those cameras in that regard? I know that you have both from your posts.
        Thanks for sharing your advice and shots. Both are much appreciated.

        • February 6, 2014 at 7:18 am

          First – pixels versus shutter speed

          I have the D800 and it is no D4 – after using the D4 to capture stunning flight sequence in all its detail its hard to go back to 4-5 frames per second – you miss so many shots – I know the pixel thing and cropping – that is why I keep waiting for a D4X. In the mean time my go to camera for action is the D4 for several reasons.

          – The frames per second matter – more choices of shot poses – more chance of getting the shot – the less pixels suck – great focusing speed – this camera just performs for me
          – I find the D4 just handles things better – exposes better in difficult situations – helps me get the shots – it just does – might be a marriage made in heaven for me :)

          The focusing on a bird in flight – tracking it thing: It’s a tough one – yes sometimes it just doesn’t focus – but sometimes you think you are on the bird and your NOT :)

          I have found that with NIKON the center focus spot performs best – sometimes I get errors focusing when I move the spot off center – this I have noticed more with the 800mm – but there are still times when I am forced to go to the center because the focusing is playing up off center.

          I have been working hard on rolling my finger off the trigger and panning with the bird for a bit ensuring its center to the focus spot and then re-pressing the trigger half way to focus – it’s taking a bit of getting used to – but this seems to work for me when I didn’t get the tracking working from the start. It’s a difficult workflow because when you are in the middle of a flight sequence time is of the essence (as you would know) it’s a mind twist and a gamble to take your finger off and restart mid flight :) – however you get it and it works awesome. Occasionally you just don’t get it because !!!!! – it sucks

          Also even though its lighter with the 800mm I get the shots less than my favored 600mm (action) that might stll be the learning curve and longer focal lenght – but I have a favored combination that works for me over all others – (600mm & D4) – when I fail to get shots I revert to that combo because it WORKS FOR ME :)

          Long reply but I hope this helps
          Rob

          • 50
            ) Andrew S
            February 7, 2014 at 5:30 am

            Thanks again Rob.
            I know what you mean about favored combinations. I shoot the 500mm f/4 as my preferred lens but I mostly travel with the 300mm 2.8 and put on a TC. Somehow I seem to have more trouble tracking with that combo since the balance, or length, isn’t quite the same. I do appreciate the D4’s FPS capabilities, it’s like having an automatic gun as opposed to a breech loader at times. Nothing more frustrating to get the focus right but have a series of flight shots where the pose is the same in each shot like the shutter was synchronized with the wing beats. The D4 feels like a pro’s camera alright but I think double the pixels on the D4x will make it even better.
            Thanks for all the work you have put into answering our questions. Maybe more work than you anticipated but we all appreciate an honest man taking the time to help us out.

  13. 18
    ) Brian
    January 24, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    Clear explanation and great photos. More please!

  14. January 24, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    Great tutorial and thanks for posting – but here is my question: When the owl is sitting there, how do you hand hold and keep ready a 600 F4 and wait for him to take off ?? – I shoot a 3002.8 W/2X and while I am waiting, it MUST be on a monopod so I can concentrate on the flight ! The only time I actually hand hold is when I am trying to pick out birds that are already in flight and that is for about 30 seconds to a minute at most – then I set the camera/lens down on the ground and wait for another opportunity.

    • January 24, 2014 at 6:35 pm

      Hello Larry,
      Very good question. As I said in my first article I don’t hand hold the lens for the entire time I am waiting for the bird to move. I do hand hold for several minutes ( say 5 min or so ) at a time but mostly I am 100% concentrated on the bird’s behavior and am looking for tell tale signs that the bird is about to fly ( as I described in this article ). Once I think the bird is about to fly I would hand hold and hope I am right :) . I personally find the Monopod to be about as limiting to my movement when panning with the bird in flight as it is the Gimbal. I would also try and pick out a bird already in flight but seems as if I get my best pics when I am on the bird from the start of the flight e.g as the bird is taking off from sitting position.
      Hope this helps.

      • January 24, 2014 at 7:03 pm

        Robert, thanks for the response. So, when handholding you could easily miss – unless you are arnold schwartzinegger. It is also difficult for my eyes to oberve the bird’s behavior without having the lens up to view through OR a separate pair of binoculars – which using the binoculars slows things down to the point of missing some of the action. With a monopod, you can keep your lens trained on the bird and able to observe with great concentration and never miss – unless you are not paying attention/distracted. Knowing how to use and actually using a well articulated monopod is a great asset for the sitting then flying scenario. For the picking up of a bird already in flight – it is hard to beat handheld !

        • January 26, 2014 at 4:16 pm

          Its always a tough choice – which to choose (tripod or handheld) I make the choice by deciding what type of shot I am going for and the situation at hand. Do I expect to be there for hours waiting (then tripod) do I expect the action to happen fairly quickly (hand held) -> there is always a chance you can miss – happens all the time LoL – but anticipation is what gets me the shots mostly – watching the bird closely you get the feel for when it will fly and then I raise the camera and hand hold – the bird doesn’t always fly when I want it to so sometimes I lif and lower the camera several times before the action really happens

          Rob

  15. 24
    ) Gene Duprey
    January 24, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    What do you have your AF mode set to? Release or Focus, or one of the alternatives?

  16. January 25, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    What wonderful set of photos, thanks for sharing! Great article as well.

  17. 27
    ) Peter C
    January 25, 2014 at 11:51 pm

    Robert thanks for taking the time to put this excellent guide together!

  18. January 26, 2014 at 11:16 am

    I just want to say something about a comment posted on PL’s facebook page implying the use of mice and expensive gear.

    The shots I have posted as per all of my images are nature at its best without the use of such tactics. You don’t need to and shouldn’t use mice or other bait because it just isn’t necessary. If you are willing to do the hard work and go as many times as is needed to get ‘the shots’ you will. Photographers who throw mice are lazy and also interfere with the natural behavior of the wildlife they are photographing. They essentially end up giving a bad name to all photographers who do it through plain hard work.

    As for the price of equipment, these photos can be achieved by anybody at a serious amateur level, however you do need the focal length to get this close without disturbing the animal, but it can be done with tele-converters and sub $1000 cameras. It’s all about getting out there as many times as is needed :)

    You rarely pop in for five minutes and walk away with magical shots, no matter how expensive the equipment, you need to study your subjects behavior and be patient, then you will get rewarded with the shots.

    Regards
    Rob

  19. 31
    ) Alec Trusler
    January 26, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Robert thanks for sharing your images with us, I use a Nikon D300s and a 300mm f4 plus 1.4 convertor for most of my wildlife shots and I am thinking of buying the Nikon 7100 will the buffer and fps be enough ? do you think this will do a better job than the 300s ?

    Regards Alec

    • January 26, 2014 at 2:29 pm

      Hello Alec

      I might wait a bit if you are not in a hurry – surely there has to be a d400 coming shortly.

      I am not up on all the camera specs but I see the 7100 has more pixels, better video, better noise but buffer might be a problem. I will refer you to this article by Thom Hogan.
      h t t p://w w w.dslrbodies.com/cameras/current-nikon-dslr-reviews/nikon-d7100-review.html

      Regards
      Rob

      • 34
        ) Alec
        January 26, 2014 at 3:00 pm

        Thanks for your reply Rob, I have been waiting for some time to upgrade and like you say d400 hopefully will show up some time this year!
        Alec

  20. 33
    ) Tom Crossan
    January 26, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Great article and comments Rob.

    This may sound simple, but an older photographer with glasses I have found that I get better results if I “shoot” and focus with both eyes open. I found out many years ago in the military that in lots of instances I could shoot with both eyes open.

    With using both eyes I do not having to squint so I do not get that tired and watery eye after a few minutes with the resulting blurred focus. Also with using both eyes I am more aware of what is happening around the subject.

    I use a Nikon D800 with a Sigma 50-500, and no tripod, plus no mice or raw meat.

    I find that I really enjoy the journey involved in getting to the locations in the Australian bush where I can photograph the birds. Even if I do not get that “keeper” image, no day in the bush is wasted.

    • January 26, 2014 at 4:12 pm

      Great to hear and you know what, photography is not just about getting those keeper images, it’s also about getting out there and just experiencing this wonderful world in person :)

      Rob

  21. 37
    ) Arun D
    January 26, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    Hi Robert,
    I never read such a simple article, Just fantastic/amazing. The way you explained is simply superb. I love it:)
    And also the photo’s are great.

    • January 27, 2014 at 5:32 am

      Hello Arun
      Glad you like it – I appreciate the compliment :)

      Rob

  22. 39
    ) Dan
    January 29, 2014 at 9:36 am

    Describing your thought processes in tandem with your physical actions makes this really understandable. That, combined with the annotated photos and followup comments makes this the most helpful wildlife tutorial I’ve viewed. Thanks! I can’t wait for the weather to improve so I can try this with my 70D and new Tamron 150-600.

    • January 29, 2014 at 10:16 am

      Thank you Dan

      I actually have some follow up photos and pointers – Not sure how to post them yet, but I appreciate the compliment, this makes writing the article worth it.

      Rob

  23. January 31, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    Hello Robert,

    fabulous images and excellent article. I have one more question however regarding the settings you use to capture birds in flight. I have received varying advice on what settings I should have, so I am never really sure what I should use.

    This is what I have:
    AF-C Priority Selection = Release
    Dynamic AF area = 21
    Focus tracking with lock-on = Short

    I shoot at Continuous High release mode and Continuous-servo AF.

    Using rear auto focus and Dynamic-area AF , I select a focus point on the bird’s head, preferably the eye and lock the focus.

    As the bird takes flight I press the the rear auto focus button again while pressing the shutter attempting to keep the focus point on the bird’s head as it moves.

    I will occasionally use Auto-area AF if the bird is against a very plain background or in the sky.

    My results are mixed and I have tried both hand-holding my 500mm f/4 or mounting on a gimbal. Both serve their purpose. I really want to improve my bird photography and would appreciate your feedback on my camera settings and technique I use?

    • January 31, 2014 at 3:42 pm

      By the way, I use a D3s. I also wondered if you tend to use the center focus point or does that really matter?

      • February 1, 2014 at 8:12 pm

        I don’t really see anything wrong with your settings per se – However I wouldn’t trust dynamic af – that means you leave it up to the camera where it focuses.

        The all important focus point is the eye of the animal / bird in question. Generally when tracking a bird, eg: panning with it, I don’t alawys find I have time to change my focus point during the act of panning – sometimes when I prepare for launch I will put the focus spot slightly to the bottom and make sure it is pointing to the eye – but sometimes the focus spot is in the middle of the screen (kind of a safe place to be) but focused on the eye. The eye of the animal has to be sharp or your images won’t look right.

        You need to make sure you have the speed needed for action shots – sitting or stationary shots require far less speed to get a sharp photo.

        Hope this helps
        Rob

        • February 3, 2014 at 9:51 am

          Hi Robert, appreciate the response. Just want to clarify one thing. So you use Single-point AF?

  24. February 3, 2014 at 9:55 am

    To answer in one word :)

    Yes !!

    Rob

  25. 51
    ) Tallahassee Traveler
    February 8, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    I prefer single point C AF, but my batting average for birds in flight is very low.
    Do you recommend locking the focus and shooting away, changing to dynamic focus with 9 points selected or trying to track the bird with a single point.
    I noticed on your money shot if the single point AF was on the birds eye and centered you might have missed the shot.
    What do you advise?

    • February 10, 2014 at 7:18 am

      I use single point – I have tried dynamic focus with 9 points but I hate it, I see the focus spot jumping around as you are panning and you have no control over where it focuses – So I do it the hard way. One you are on the bird the camera does a pretty good job of staying focused even in flight. BTW it takes practice to get it right, it takes a little time. I used to make my husky run full speed at me and I would practice panning on him and staying focused on his face. Many years of chasing the bald eagles in my area has made me pretty comfortable hand holding, picking up the bird in flight and panning but I still miss shots :(

      Rob

  26. 52
    ) Claude B.
    February 9, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    Great shot and a fantastic bird.
    Sadly, many photographes attracted those fantastic bird with mouses.

    I hope this is not the case!

    • February 10, 2014 at 7:12 am

      Hello

      Thanks and NO its NOT the case. I have already had a spaz at photographers who throw mice. There is a record of that happening to the Rye Harbor Owl and that is why we think she is so friendly or not afraid of humans. I hate the act because it takes away from the hard work true wildlife photographers put it. The shots can be gotten through patience and waiting for the bird to fly – lazy photographers can’t wait, it’s sad and they interfere with the natural behavior of the bird :(

      Rob

      • 55
        ) Claude B.
        February 10, 2014 at 8:02 am

        Thanks for mentioning your position, in that case the compliment of “fantastic super shots” applied in a full compliment.

        In my area (Quebec) some tours are organized at +$2500. to photographs that bird and they mention “Mouses included” !!! Sad!

      • 56
        ) Tom Crossan
        February 10, 2014 at 2:07 pm

        I think a lot of this type of photography of using bait is centred the fact that some photographers are lazy and require instant gratification and they are not given the time required if they are on tours.

        I think it is very sad that any animal has to die just to give some photographer an opportunity to take a photograph of another animal. Sick really.

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