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Photographing Captive Raptors by Windsurf and EOSPete
Submitted By: Pat Date: January 28, 2010, 8:53 PM Views: 3214

Photographing Captive Raptors
by Windsurf and EOSPete

Some wildlife photographers may shun the thought of photographing captive birds. There is much to be said for this approach. You can get much close than you ever could in the wild taking maximum use of the opportunity. Photography wild raptors at such close proximity could almost certainly require photography at the nest involving moths of penitent field work and even then there is the distinct risk of disturbing the birds nesting and endangering the young.


200-400mm lens ideal for maintaining a reasonable working distance and the narrow angle of view will help you to control the backgrounds and limit the obvious captive nature of the bird. Macro lens are ideal for close ups of feather detail. An Extension tube a useful way to get close to birds with a long lens. Where possible a tripod can be used as extreme close ups may require the use of smaller aperture of f11 to gain enough depth of field to ensure sharpness in both the eyes and beak
A bright but overcast day can be the best light for photographing static birds as it creates a large catchlight in the birds eye which brings the subject to life. Overcast light can also help retain detail in the white feathers which under bright sun may easily burn out.

Getting to know the birds moods is essential. Like humans they have tolerance limits of distances of approach, the amount of time they are prepared to pose and even which direction they are prepared to face. I have waited many long hours waiting for the perfect pose. One thing I only recently realised is that night flying birds don't like to look directly towards a bright light source. Obvious I suppose but it makes sense. Pay careful attention to how close can you get before they show signs of distress or seek guidance from the handlers working at the centre.

Look for mannerisms to capture. Knowing how and when do these occur is key to getting the best shots. It may be that a particular birds will look at you if you make a squeaking sound. Watch other photographers shoot first. Wait your turn and the birds may be more settled when if comes to your turn. By watching others you might gain some insights into the birds mannerisms that you want to capture, Talk to the handler as he may also be able to help you get your perfect shot.


Fast focussing lenses in the 200-400mm lens ideal. A zoom in this range provides options for framing as the bird gets closer. Use panning to capture the best flight shots. Rotate from your hips and follow the movement of the bird smoothly, pressing the shutter gently and following through. Before trying to capture birds in flight try to find out from the handler where they will be flying ie direction and what he plans to have the birds do for the show, This will allow you to get in the best position before the flight takes place.

There is a danger in creating a silhouette when photographing of a dark bird in flight against a pale sky. Fill flash can be the answer here. Spot metering from the bird will ensure it is correctly exposed both against a pale sky and also whilst sat on the mews.

The photographer must carefully control the background by either moving position or by manipulating depth of field by use of a longer lens or wider aperture. Narrow depth of field is ideal but ensure that birds head is in complete profile if you want to ensure both eyes and beak are in sharp focus. Really getting in close at eye level will let you make eye contact with the subject at his level.

Mews and Jessies

It is very likely that close ups of the birds will be possible whilst they are perched on the mews. This is an ideal opportunity to get very close to the birds for tight head shots. It is also likely that the birds when flown will have the jessies (leg straps) still attached. If the handler is prepared to remove these then they will offer to do so. Careful framing from a low viewpoint can hide the jessies or putting the bird on the ground can allow you to frame with something in the foreground so the jessies are hidden. The alternative is removing the jessies in computer software afterwards.

All birds have a second eyelid (nictitating membrane) which gives the appearance of a fogged eye. Take enough shots to ensure that the eye is open on some of the shots.

When you get it right the rewards speak for themselves. Take your time, Watch and wait. The results are well worth it.

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September 3, 2013, 5:15 PM
This is a superb article, well written, informative and very very helpful...
Many thanks to both of you, I'm not really a bird photographer, so this kind of information is extremely valueable to me ...... thank-you
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November 23, 2012, 4:28 AM
There is some good information in this article. I wish I had read it before I tried my own shots. I might have avoided some of the pitfalls highlighted in the article.

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