Hunters Of The Heavens…Photographing The Swift, Silent, and Deadly

Birds of prey have a way of capturing our imaginations as they sit majestically on a tall perch or soar effortlessly way up high. They certainly inspired Wilbur & Orville Wright in their endeavors to develop a winged machine that could take to the skies. But even before the Wright brothers, men like Samuel Langley and Leonardo Da Vinci were occupied with

Langley's "Aerodome" - Royalty Free Image

DaVinci's Helicopter -Royalty Free Image

theories of birds and mechanical flight. It’s hard to imagine, but these regal birds were the primary influence of modern flight as we know it today. Consider the following quotes:

“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return”.-DaVinci

“Nature has made her flying machine in the bird, which is nearly a thousand times as heavy as the air its bulk displaces, and only those who have tried to rival it know how inimitable her work is. I watched a hawk soaring far up in the blue, and sailing for a long time without any motion of its wings, as though it needed no work to sustain it. How wonderfully easy, too, was its flight!” — Samuel Langley

Wright Brothers Maiden Flight-- Royalty Free Image

The founding fathers of aviation spent countless hours in observation of birds in flight. Isn’t it ironic that the Wright brothers chose Kitty “Hawk” North Carolina as the location of their maiden voyage of manned flight? Now while it is doubtful that any of us are attempting to add to the body of aviation knowledge, it’s hard not to stare in wonderment as we watch these magnificent raptors soaring above. Just as Da Vinci, Langley, and the Wright brothers once pondered, what might it be like if we could only spread our wings and feel the thermals flowing beneath us?

Whether it is the majesty of an eagle, the power of a falcon, the mystery of an owl, or the spirit of a hawk, their splendor has a way of lifting our souls upon newfound heights. But all ye songbirds, rodents, and small mammals beware, for their shrilling squawk is a reminder that they are circling threateningly, watching with their tack sharp eyes, waiting to swoop down and sink their talons into the flesh of their prey. Make no mistake; these are the hunters of the heavens.

Crested Caracara Soaring The Skies.

PHOTOGRAPHING BIRDS OF PREY: Essential Requirements & Tips



Photographing birds of prey can be a difficult challenge because raptors are naturally wary and have very keen eyesight. They can spot a field mouse while soaring high in the sky so they are certainly not going to get caught by surprise if someone is trying to stalk within photo distance. Preparation, patience, and a little avian knowledge are the keys to getting great images. I’ll bet all these years you thought having a bit of a bird brain was a bad thing. 🙂 Keep this in mind, birds of prey are creatures of habit that will follow their food source year round. So if you spot birds of prey hunting in a field, or perched atop a particular branch, take note and see if they are hunting or perched at the same location on a different day. If they are, it’s a good probability that you can setup

Harris' Hawk.

Screech Owl.

near those hunting/perch grounds and capture a wonderful image. Birds of prey are also opportunistic and will take advantage of any carcass they come across so they can be baited to a particular area with time. So once you’ve setup at a location, all you need to do is sit and wait.

Harris' Hawk.

Crested Caracara.

Camera Equipment & Settings
You’ll need a fast, long telephoto lens mounted on a gimbal type head and solid tripod. You’ll want to use a 300mm lens at a minimum but 500mm and 600mm are ideal. A sharp zoom (e.g. Nikon’s 200-400/Canon’s 100-400) on a crop factor camera will also be good. Set your camera’s ISO to a minimum of 200 in good light, but 400 is likely a better option. Use the maximum aperture (f4, f5.6) to achieve faster shutter speeds. This will freeze the action. If you are shooting a static subject, a wide open aperture will give you a pleasingly blurred background. Shutter speeds of 1/500 or 1/1000 should be sufficient to freeze the action of larger birds of prey but smaller raptors such as the Kestrel may require a faster shutter speed. Finally, set your camera’s focus mode to Continuous (AI-Servo for Canon; AF-C for Nikon) and use the maximum frame rate if you are after birds in flight. Don’t be afraid to experiment with slower shutter speeds (1/60, 1/200) if you are after motion blur.

Young Screech Owl.

One last tip: If you are photographing birds of prey with the sky as the background, you might want to overexpose by 2/3 of a stop as the meter will tend to darken the image trying to render middle toned colors when the sky is filling a large part of the frame. Crested Caracara.

I never get tired of photographing birds of prey. They have such a commanding and powerful presence, even in pictures. I’m always looking to add to my gallery of raptors and will be getting out this fall looking for new ways in which to depict them. Until next time, may the good light shine down upon you. — Kevin

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