It's a hot August day. We sit and wait, scanning the horizon. There is no shade and all we see is Southern California chaparral stretching before us as far as the eye can see. We're on a ridge looking to the east at the floor of the San Joaquin Valley with all of its agricultural fields below us and the Tehachapis far off in the distance. With no warning, we hear the rush of wind first behind us and then overhead. "Sneak attack!" the cry goes out as we stand up at the same time, bringing our bins to our eyes. A giant shadow envelops us briefly as a California Condor wings on by, not ruffling a feather as it gracefully floats by us on winds it has soared on for a millennium.
It's 1983 and Sharon and I are at the "Sign" working with biologists to photograph the last remaining California Condors. Our goal is to photograph the condors in flight, capturing on film their primaries fully extended so individual condors can be identified. This is at a time when there were only 17 condors left in the wild, in the world! I first learned how to photograph birds in flight, raptors, with the California Condor. My fascination and love for this group of birds that started at that hot, dusty sign with these masters of the air has only grown from those early days.
Is photographing raptors all that different from photographing birds in general? In many respects no, much of the same techniques I've already described on the pages of Vividlight about photographing birds applies to raptors. But then there are some very specific techniques unique to raptors. It's both of these I want to share with you this month.
A Quick Review - The Basics
Proper handholding consists of making yourself into a tripod, that's to say, providing your camera with three points of contact. First, bring your elbows into your sides. Second, cup the lens in your left hand. Third and lastly, pull the camera back against your forehead, using the eyecup. You don't hold your breath and slowly let it out. You don't grip the lens from the top so gravity is pulling it out. You do practice this simple technique so when you put the camera to your eye, you're good to go!
Proper long lens technique is just as important though it has fewer steps to remember. This technique is for any lens that you attach directly to a tripod. The two things you need to do are, rest your left hand on your lens barrel just like you rest your hand in your lap and press your eye up against the eyecup. With both of these two techniques, all we're dealing with is physics and in this case, the physics of movement. In both cases we are working at stopping the wave that's normally created by the firing of the camera that travels to the front of the lens and then travels back to the film plane where it causes images to be out of focus.
Panning is a technique where you keep the film plane traveling in relationship with the subject's movement. You do this by literally moving the camera, a scary thought to many. If handholding, you use proper handholding technique and twist at the trunk to follow the subject in the viewfinder. If tripod bound, you use proper long lens technique and pivot the lens on the tripod again following the subject in the viewfinder.
These three essential techniques are not new and should not be new to Vividlight readers. Search through the archives and you'll find I've written about them before. You'll find I'll write about them again as they are essential to our success. Now, let's get on with photographing raptors!
There is one rule about flight photography you cannot ignore, and that's not to photograph flying birds against gray sky backgrounds. This means that when it's overcast, you don't point the lens up. The two photographs of the Osprey flying into the nest are perfect examples of what I'm talking about. The visual impact of the image with the blue sky background screams volumes about what I'm talking about, as the blue sky has incredible visual impact. But there's more than a visual reason to refrain from gray skies.
When it comes to metering and light, the gray sky background is a no win situation. First and foremost, the range of light between the gray sky and the underside of the wings of the bird is so far beyond the range of the film, there is no way you can obtain a decent image. If you were to meter for the shadow under the wing to bring up that detail, the sky would blow out. Meter for the sky and you'll have a silhouette for a subject. This is a no win situation, so don't take the photo in the first place! This goes for perched images as well as flight.
But then again, I don't want you to get hooked on rules. If you look at the image of the Bald Eagle in flight, you'll notice it's against a gray sky. So what gives? There is a difference in gray skies believe it or not and in this case, the gray sky behind the Bald Eagle has light streaming through it so it's not a solid overcast gray, but a moody gray sky. This is a fine line, a line between great images and sucky images!
They're Made for Flight
I always leave room in front of the bird when I'm composing. When the raptor is smaller than half the frame, I compose it so it's flying into the frame. This means that if the bird is flying left to right, I select the left AF sensor in my D1H and then pan to the right. If the opposite is true, then I select the right AF sensor and I pan to the left. Selecting these sensors naturally forces me to compose how I desire without really thinking about it. And at the same time, I'm using the AF system of the D1H to its optimum. The last thing I do, the very last thing, is to center the raptor! This is the most boring composition and I'd rather not take the photo if I can't get it out of the center.
When the bird is smaller than half the frame, how bad is centering, really? If you look at the images of the Peregrine Falcon, Rough-legged Hawk and Red-tailed Hawk and you cover up the portion of the image in front of the bird so you only see the bird, you'll quickly see what I mean. Leaving room for the raptor to soar into the frame makes all the difference for success!
If the raptor fills more than half of the frame then I go for my favorite shot, corner to corner wing tips. This is, to place the bird of prey so the wing tips go corner to corner in the frame. This means typically the bird is flying right at you like the image of the Bald Eagle. When this is happening, I select the center AF sensor and let it track the approaching bird while I concentrate on the composition of corner to corner.
A critical part of the flight equation in flight photography is the light. A perfect example of this is the photo of the Turkey Vulture. There is only one way you can capture the grace of this ugly bird in flight and that's when it tilts its wings up to catch the breeze and the sun lights up underneath the wing. Now you can have only one wing lit up and be successful but having both has more visual oomph. You can look at all the flight shots in this article and see for yourself what I'm referring to.
Getting this light under the wing, you need to learn to take advantage of when raptors are "ringing." Ringing is a term from falconry and refers to when raptors are making circles as they rise up in the wind currents. You need to watch for this behavior then follow it in your lens, taking the photo when the raptor banks so all of its underneath feathers are lit up.
This brings me to the feathers. If you look at all the images in this article, you'll notice that all of the feathers are in place. All of the primary and secondary feathers are present, there are no holes. This is important to me in my bird photography. It's strictly a psychological thing, but I don't want birds of prey which are so magnificent, looking moth eaten. This means that I won't photograph a raptor in molt; it must have all of its feathers present for me to take its photograph.
What do I mean by that? Look at the two images of the Sharp-shinned Hawk. One is taken from below, an "up the butt" shot as I call it. This is an all too typical pose folks capture of raptors. I can't stand this pose! To capture the stature of the raptor and more to the point, the stare, you must be shooting the raptor at its level. Just look at the other image of the exact same Sharp-shinned Hawk taken from its level; there's all the difference in the world between the two images!
The stare itself is captured by centering the bill in the frame (edge to edge) and then just waiting until you see the whites of both eyes. Again, look at the image of the Bald Eagle. The bill is nearly centered and I'm at the same level as the eagle. In this case, I captured the stare going down the bill as the eagle was looking down. The triangular shape of the bill is what draws our eyes into the stare of the raptor and it's this shape we must utilize to bring our subject and the viewer of our image eye to eye!
Do you need both eyes to capture the "stare?" No, like you see in the image of the Red-shouldered Hawk, you can capture the stare with only one eye visible. The "trick" in making this work to your advantage is to have the raptor looking down at a slight angle like with the Red-shoulder. This point like many of the points I've made in this piece seem trivial but they make the biggest difference in successful bird of prey photography.