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Flying photography: Great shots require more than a wing and a prayer

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BY MIKE WINTROATH
Imagine trying to shoot a duck flying at 50 mph — with a rifle, not a shotgun and a scope that must be focused before you pull the trigger. Then add a rule saying you can’t shoot until the duck is below the horizon and about to land on water. You’ve got three to five seconds to get the shot. That’s waterfowl photography. Waterfowl are the most difficult, frustrating and timeconsuming subject I photograph.
It’s a lot easier to shoot a duck with a gun than with a camera and a 500-millimeter lens. But with some planning, patience and hard work, some of my birds in flight images are the pictures of which I’m most proud. Here’s what you need to know if you want to replace your gun with a camera when it comes to shooting waterfowl.
Gear
Use the fastest camera you can afford for shooting birds. A single-lens reflex camera that can shoot continuously at five to 10 frames per second will do the trick. With anything slower, you’re trusting your luck. Forget about tripods and monopods. It is best to hand-hold your camera. Find a good lightweight lens, something like a 100 400 mm. Or sacrifice your back muscles by using a 500-mm fixed-focal-length lens. Even with a 500-mm lens, I feel like I always need a bigger lens.
Alone Time
It’s best to go by yourself when photographing waterfowl. If nobody is shooting at them, ducks usually return after they’re spooked. I avoid photographing from blinds because I want to be mobile. I usually leave my truck before sunrise wearing a desert ghillie suit, carrying a backpack chair, a duck call around my neck, sometimes a jerk string with three duck decoys, one camera body with a 500 mm lens, a few snacks and a bottle of water.
Preparation
Always scope the area. Bumbling about in cold water before sunrise is a recipe for disaster. When I head into a duck field or timber, I know exactly where I am setting up shop. I know when the sun will hit my spot and I know my background, which is why I try to find a field that is close to a tree line.
Positioning
Always position yourself with the sun behind you and, if possible, so birds will be flying perpendicular to the front of your lens. I want a photo of a duck coming in for a landing while flying toward the lens and that is one of the toughest shots to capture. Many auto-focus systems can’t keep up with a moving target headed at the camera. Often those images end up slightly out of focus.
Settings
Many photographers shoot in program mode, but I prefer aperture-priority where I have more control over my settings. Shooting in aperture-priority allows me to select the aperture and the camera selects the shutter speed. I usually set my aperture at f7or f8 because those produce the sharpest images with plenty depth of field, meaning when a bird’s head is in focus, the rest of the body will remain sharp. A fast shutter speed is crucial, too. I adjust my ISO (film speed) so my camera will select a shutter speed 1/1000 of a second or faster. Any shutter speed setting between 1/1000 and 1/2000 of a second is fast enough to freeze a bird in flight. Most cameras offer two focusing modes: One-shot or continuous. In one-shot mode, the shutter release is partially depressed, focus is attained and locked. Most cameras have a significant shutter lag and focus won’t be accurate for any moving subject unless it is moving parallel to you. Continuous mode uses predictive auto focusing. When you depress the shutter release part way, the camera continuously calculates where the subject will be and focus is constantly adjusted. Continuous mode is much more accurate for flight shooting. Turn image stabilization and vibration reduction off. The image stabilizer slows the auto-focus system, and faster auto focus is more important than image stabilization.
Practice
Hone your techniques by photographing big, slow birds: Great egrets, great blue herons and eagles are good subjects. Knowledge and equipment are never enough but patience and persistence always pay off. ♦
–Mike Wintroath is an Arkansas native and outdoor enthusiast. He enjoys wildlife photography, rock climbing, trail running, whitewater kayaking, hunting and fishing
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