Birds of prey in flight and other wildlife photography

By Mark Williams - Alberta, Canada
February 27, 2011

I guess you could say my introduction and interest in photography came about more from my lifelong interest in wildlife than the other way around. Although always having been passively interested in photography from an early age, it was not until five years ago that my interest turned into a serious passion. This can be attributed to the instant gratification that digital photography presented combined with my desire to capture the sights and scenes of my outdoor wildlife encounters.

Male Snowy Owl in flight by Mark Williams ©

Male Snowy Owl in flight

My initial introduction to wildlife was through hunting not photography. As a hunter I find myself suspended between the Sharptail Grouse fighting by Mark Williams ©paradoxical situation of respecting, understanding and conserving wildlife while at the same time hunting and using that wildlife. A concept that most none hunters have a hard time understanding. Our conduct, ethics and behavior in the field sheds a spotlight on hunting and how the general public perceives it. This phenomenon also affects wildlife photographers. It was not until the past few years when I began to immerse myself into wildlife photography that I began to learn of the negative press some photographers are drawing due to their actions in the field both in disrespect for private property and in disturbing or stressing the subjects in their natural habitat. I have to remind myself of this at times when filled with tenacity in trying to capture that perfect image.
                                               Sharptail Grouse fighting

In recent years I have chosen to take my camera into the field instead of my bow or rifle. I still get a sense of connection learning about my subject, developing skills and knowledge about their movements, behaviors and nature that enables me to get up close and personal to capture a good image and experience those unique often intimate moments. Aside from a genuine interest in my subjects, it is this challenge that drives me to get up at some unearthly time of day, spend many hours searching for my subject or enduring the harsh elements of the weather just to get that shot.

Blue Grouse by Mark Williams ©

Being self taught as a photographer, I’d have to say my strengths in capturing a great image comes more about from my skills and field craft as a hunter than technical expertise as a photographer. This being said the challenge of capturing that magical moment with a wild animal motivates me to learn my equipment and settings, as I dread wasting one of those once in a lifetime opportunity’s through being ill prepared. I appreciate many forms of photography with a passion for wildlife, birds in flight and birds of prey in particular. There is something about the predatory process of search, locate, attack and consume that fascinates me today as it did 40 years ago as a kid. I consider myself very fortunate to live near Calgary, Alberta, Canada and in such close proximity to abundant wildlife.

Wild prairie falcon stooping head on by Mark Williams ©

Wild prairie falcon stooping head on

I believe that bird in flight photography tends to push the limits of both your equipment and your photographic skills in equal measures. Taking pictures of large even fast moving objects like a hockey, football player or motor racing vehicle is a breeze, when compared to trying to get close enough, let alone managing to capture and track a much smaller 700 gram wild falcon stooping (diving) towards you at 150 miles per hour. Even our most sophisticated sports/nature cameras focusing systems still struggle in reading these subjects under such conditions.

Black bear by Mark Williams ©

The real challenge (and for me, the reward) of true wildlife photography, is learning about your subject, the environment it lives in, its unique behavioral patterns and then in bridging the gap between finding your subject and capturing those close intimate images for others to view. The more I understand about my subject the better prepared I am to minimize any potential negative impact caused by my approach and presence. The use of a portable blind is invaluable in getting close to, yet not disturbing some subjects. In other situations, slow quiet movements and patience along with understanding and anticipating your subject’s behavior, is the key to obtaining those rewarding and memorable images.

Ruddy Ducks Fighting by Mark Williams

Ruddy Ducks Fighting

Many of my favorite images I have taken are not based upon the technical aspects but more of the efforts and challenges in obtaining them. This often includes spending many hours, days and sometimes weeks in finding the subject. Few photographers are prepared to crawl in swampy water to get up eye level to a duck or shorebird or trying to stay warm in frigid -30 °C temperatures holding a metal camera body waiting for that shot of a snowy owl and getting up well before dawn and lying in a wet, snow covered field waiting to capture a specific image of grouse coming into their breeding grounds (Lek) and commence their breeding dance ritual. All of these examples make you question why you are doing it at the time, but are all worth it if you get the shot you want.

Short Eared Owl in Flight by Mark Williams ©

Short Eared Owl in Flight

I use Canon equipment but probably do not use a fraction of the features of my camera that I could or should. For my birds in flight I primarily shoot in manual mode and in this application metering is a non issue. I use Auto white balance and center spot focus and metering in AI servo and I rarely if ever use multi focus or 3d focus points as they tend to grab unwanted objects like a twig or such as you track your subject. I aim to keep the center focusing spot on the birds head/shoulder area to get the eyes in focus. As with any animal subject it is important to keep the eyes sharp even if the rest of the body is “soft”. Easier said than done when the subject is zipping by at 100 miles per hour! Seldom do I go beyond 400 ISO as even with the latest high-end digital camera bodies, I still find they have not conquered the noise issues at higher ISO’s (if you need to crop the picture for any reason). As with all photography, light is your best friend and my experience in this shooting discipline in particular is that regardless of how fast your lens is and how good your camera is, if the light is crappy, the light is crappy and no amount of current high tech equipment is going to give you the results needed for a crisp well exposed image, particularly on fast moving subjects.

Oncoming snowy owl by Mark Williams ©

Oncoming snowy owl

I endeavor to keep my shutter speed above 1/1250th sec. for freezing those high-speed subjects yet still provide a sense of movement for that realistic look. A good fast lens is preferred therefore I shoot a 300mm f2.8 for 80% of my birds in flight. I rarely use tele-converters for in flight shots as they do slow down focusing but they are good for extending focal length in static shots. I have used the 70-200mm for very close encounters like shooting “dancing” grouse from a blind but the focal length is often insufficient. Conversely, the 500mm is often a bit too unwieldy trying to locate a small subject in the viewfinder and then pan and track the fast moving object, but it can be done with practice. As with any activity it pays to have persistence and practice following your subject through the lens will help you yield good results. I accredit my ability to do so, to my early teenage interest in competitive clay pigeon shooting. I recommend practicing photography with small birds in your back garden or city park before attempting to capture more challenging subjects like high-speed raptors. So many times I take experienced photographers out with me that want to capture fast flying raptors only to see them quickly frustrated at not being able to locate them in their viewfinder let alone track as they flew past. You will fill many memory cards with delete-able images but like I said, preparation and practice makes perfect.

Lion cubs by Mark Williams ©

My current limited knowledge of photo-shop and post editing drives me to try get the shot right the first time although I concede post editing can be your best friend and while it won’t make a poor picture good it will make a great picture look stunning! As much as I try continue to learn more about photo-shop and post processing, quite frankly I enjoy going out capturing images more than spending it sitting in front of a computer screen.

Elephant and leopard by Mark Williams ©

Capturing these images presents a different kind of challenge.

Mark Williams

Mark Williams considers himself a serious amateur wildlife photographer whose real job (that supports his passion), is in retail management. Although Mark has only seriously been photographing wildlife for the past 5 years, his work has been published in various books, magazines and even music album covers and a selection can be seen in his website: or Visit Marks Blog.



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