Waterfowl Photography Tips

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Eastern North Carolina is apart of the Atlantic Flyway. A stretch of land that starts in the arctic and spans some 3,000 miles south to the Caribbean. Pocosin Lakes NWR, Lake Mattamuskeet NWR & Pea Island NWR are three national wildlife refuges in eastern North Carolina that I personally go to, to photograph waterfowl. On any given day during the winter months one can see everything from dabbling, diving & sea ducks. Mallards, wigeon, pintails, canvasbacks, redheads, scooters, swans & snow geese just to name a few. Hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl pass through these locations annually and are a birder & photographers paradise. Thousands of birders & photographers travel to eastern NC, from all over the world, to witness the large numbers of waterfowl.

Over the years I've learned a quite a few things while photographing waterfowl. For one, it has helped me develop a great deal of patience. Photographing waterfowl is addictive and down right fun. It can be difficult and frustrating at times as well. So I've put together a list of tips that I think will help you achieve better photographs and allow you to have more fun while out photographing.

Here is a short video, recorded at Pocosin Lakes NWR with a few images as well.

 

So, without further delay, here are my tips for photographing waterfowl. Enjoy!


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1. Pay attention to the Wind

The #1 and most important thing to remember when photographing waterfowl is, 99.9% of the time, waterfowl will take off and land INTO the wind. They need the little extra help from the wind when taking off, to get lift. It's the opposite when landing, they need the drag of the wind to help them slow down to land. This one tip has helped me more than any other that I've learned over the years. My success rate when straight up when creating birds in flight images. Also keep in mind if there is a strong head wind, it will naturally slow the bird down. If your just learning how to track & keep up with them while looking through the viewfinder, notice which direction the wind is coming from and focus on photographing the slower birds.

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The Northern Pintails above were banking hard right, right at this moment they entered the head wind that they used to help them slow down to land

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Lastly if the wind is really strong, waterfowl will typically hold up in calmer waters, so near the edge of the pond or lake, where the wind is the calmest. The mallards above were really fighting hard against the large waves. They left the area and landed in a calmer spot near some trees.

 

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2. Fowl-weather

Knowing how different weather conditions effect waterfowl behavior will greatly approve your opportunity to create better images. During the winter, if a cold front/low pressure system is approaching it will cause the birds to take to the air and basically put them in a feeding frenzy. It also means that they will be more-likely to fly around all day instead of the normal early & late hours.

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An important thing to remember when its cloudy & rainy, you will need a fast lens and use higher ISO's. You can create some pretty dramatic imagery when you have adverse conditions such as rain & snow! I personally, can comfortably shoot at 6400 ISO. Know your personal limits and don't be afraid to crank the ISO up. Digital cameras today are much better than in years past and the files can handle higher ISOs.

 

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3. Early & Late

Waterfowl, are most active flying just after sunrise and just before sunset. They will be going to & from feeding/roosting areas. This gives you the opportunity to create some beautiful images. More saturated & vivid colors, low angle of light will help create a surreal & ultra sharp images. Also shooting against a bright sky will help you when creating siholouttes.

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*Keep in mind the direction of the wind. If you can match it and the light you will have the makings of the beautiful photograph.

 

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4. Slow Shutter Speeds

Don't be afraid to slow your shutter speed down & pan! When most people start off photographing birds in general, they want to create super tack sharp images, where you can see sharp detail all the way out to the tips of the wings. That's great and all but don't forget to slow it down. You can create some beautiful, artistic & simply awe inspiring images when you drag the shutter to show movement. Now this does take some practice & patience. After years of photographing I'm still learning techniques that help me achieve the images I'm after. I recommend using a tripod to start off with, and depending on the bird, normally I use a shutter speed between 1/125 of second to as low as 1/10th of a second. Again this really depends on the particular bird & the available light. If its a larger bird such as a goose or swan I can get use really any of those shutter speeds. For smaller waterfowl, such as teal or wood ducks, I personally can't keep up with them for a 1/10th of second. This is something that I suggest that you experiment with and ultimatily have fun with! You never what you can get if you don't try!

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The image above I used a tripod to help me pan with the snow geese. Shooting on continous mode I fired off several images in the sequence this was one of the middle frames and the final image that I show.

 

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5. Fast Shutter Speeds

To freeze action, a shutter speed of 1/1000 of second or faster is best. If you're in great light you can create images with relativity low ISO's. In cloudy conditions its still possible to achieve faster shutter speeds but you don't need to be afraid to use a higher ISO. While shooting high shutter speeds, its best to shoot in continuous mode to shoot multiple frames per second. Even the best photographers in the world will use this method, but I will say this. When I first started photographing wildlife, my particular camera didn't shoot 10 frames per second. To be exact it shot 2 images a seconds. It helped me then & now because I wouldn't press the shutter until the right time.  Never spray & pray. Take your time and watch the bird/animal through the viewfinder and press the shutter when you are ready. 

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6. Focusing

I'll be honest, focusing on a bird the size of a football or smaller is tough. Then add, that the football flying at 40mph, it can be down right frustrating. I'm always getting asked, "how do I focus?" questions more than any other. So here is what I do. When photographing waterfowl I use my cameras GROUP auto-focus mode in continious AF or AI-SERVO. This has 5-8 focusing points working as one to help me track the bird while in flight. Now if the bird is stationary I will go back to single point AF. As with most wildlife photography this takes a great deal of patience and practice. The closer the birds the hard it is to keep up.

*One important thing that helps me most is, follow one bird. Instead of trying to keep up with the entire flock, pick out one individual and stay with it. Focus your eyes and focusing points on this one bird. Follow, shoot & watch it continuously as it comes towards and either lands or flies away.  Remember the football metaphor? One is hard enough but try keeping up with 8-12 footballs flying 40mph. So pick one, lock in on it and stay with it.

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Photography & Additional Tips

 When photographing waterfowl I recommend the following technical tips to help you achieve that perfect photo. I hope these tips help you out on your next photo adventure.

  • Watch your wind
  • Watch your weather
  • Waterfowl is most active in the early & late hours
  • Shoot with fast & slow shutter speeds
  • Understanding each species behavior helps tremendously
  • PRACTICE
  • PRACTICE
  • PRACTICE

Photography is all about the experience, be there with an open mind, open schedule & have fun!

IMAGINE, DREAM, CREATE!

Cheers, Neil.


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