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My 7 tips for photographing birds at a bird of prey centre.

Over the weekend, I was fortunate enough to visit the National Centre for Birds of Prey at Duncombe Park, a bird of prey centre dedicated to the care, rehabilitation and release of some of the most spectacular bird of prey species. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in birds, it makes for a great family day out and offers some stunning photography opportunities.

The educational flying shows are extremely interesting for all ages!

In this blog I am going to share my top 7 tips for photography at a bird of prey centre...

Manual focus

Often you will be shooting through wires fences to get your images. Whilst at first this may look disheartening… do not worry! If you open your lens by choosing the lowest f number possible, you will be amazed at how the wire fence seems to just disappear. Obviously this depends on a couple of factors, 1) The size of the mesh - the finer the wire fence, the easier it will be to get rid of and 2) How close the bird is on the other side, if there’s a bit of distance between the fence and the bird, it will help make the fence disappear.

Left vs right - Large mesh vs small mesh, Bird is close to the fence vs far from the fence. Note how the fence in the right picture has almost disappeared.

Because you can often get very close to the birds, you are able to focus on the eye, something you should always strive to do if possible. When you can focus on the eye of an animal, it offers the opportunity to create a real sense of connection in your image. Manual focus will allow you to make sure that eye is pin sharp!

Bend those knees

I took a real shine to the bald eagle on display at the NCBP, the eagle was out of its hut, and sat on its perch, making for the ideal photography scenario. When you have a bird as magnificent as a bald eagle just sat in front of you, it is almost harder to not get a nice photo, but there are always little tips and tricks to improve your photo.

Just by bending my knees I was able to put myself and more importantly my camera at the eagle’s eye level, allowing me to capture a greater level of connection. An image will almost always benefit from being taken at the subject’s eye level, be it an eagle, a human or a grasshopper!

Note the difference between shooting up at the subject (left) vs shooting at eye level (right).

Be patient!

How does that saying go? Don’t work with children or animals? That’s the one, but I wholeheartedly disagree, all you need is a little patience. I took 140 images of this one bald eagle with only really three or four that I am truly happy with. I don’t know if it is my personality that constantly seeks photographic perfection, or if it is common among all photographers, but if it’s not perfect, I will keep shooting until it is.

I had many photos of the eagle looking straight at the camera, that is until you look at it for a couple of minutes and realise it is a couple of millimetres off centre. A little perseverance and patience allowed me to capture the perfect moment in time when it was staring straight down the barrel of my lens.

I couldn't be happier with this photo, exactly what I was hoping for!

Pick the right lens

When animals are in captivity, I tend to favour the close-up portraits. Capturing the animal in its environment should always be something you aim to do, but when its habitat is captivity, it becomes a different ball game - portraits! I used my Canon 100mm Macro all day and it was perfect, but if you don’t have a macro lens, a telephoto lens of any distance over 100mm will work fantastically too. Being able to get that close to a bird of prey and capture the details of feathers can produce some amazing results.

I couldn't have captured such a detailed shot without the reach of a 100mm lens.

Having a telephoto lens will also help during the flying show, to capture these spectacular birds in flight.

A Great grey owl looking rather spectacular!

Use a support

I took my monopod with me, but I actually didn’t end up using it, mainly because I was shooting with a lens that is relatively light. When shooting, fences and posts can offer excellent support, but often they won’t be at the height for the perfect shot, so taking a monopod or tripod that you can adjust the height of will work perfectly.

When you’re shooting with a heavy lens and focusing on something as small as an eye, it can help a great deal by having that support which allows you to capture the pin sharp image you are after.

There isn't much that beats a pin sharp eye!

Continuous shutter

This one is a bit of a given for any type of wildlife photography. Being able to hold your shutter button down and take several shots within a matter of seconds allows you to choose the best when you review your images later. It can even lead to some interesting shots that you didn't necessarily mean to get! It is definitely worth finding this in your camera settings if you don’t already use it!

A rather freaky mid blink shot!

Review your images

The beauty of visiting birds in captivity is the fact that unlike wild animals, you know that they’re not going anywhere, you can experiment with different shots and different compositions without worrying about the birds flying away and never seeing them again.

You are able to experiment with a variety of different poses.

I’m sure we have all been in the situation where your camera’s metering doesn’t necessarily give an accurate depiction of what is in front of the camera. I found this with the head of the bald eagle, the bright white meant I needed to underexpose in order to not blow out the white. So even if your camera says you are perfectly exposed, be sure to review your images as you may have to go against your camera’s metering.

Reviewing my images meant that I could adjust my settings to capture every detail in the white feathers of this Bald eagle!

Bird of prey centres can be amazing practice for your bird photography, both for portraits and for practising capturing them during flight at one of the daily flying shows. But please remember that the welfare of the birds is the most important thing, if a bird looks uncomfortable, give it some space and respect.

Thanks for reading,


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