The great thing about waterfowl photography is that you often don’t need to travel very far for a fantastic photo opportunity. All you need is a body of water that these beautiful animals are attracted to, and you’ll often find a number of subjects to photograph.
Whether it’s the pond in a city park, or on the shores of the Great Lakes, waterfowl photography is one of our absolute favorite aspects of birding, especially in the winter. Another benefit to photographing waterfowl is that they are often much easier to approach and locate than a species that likes to zip through the trees.
If you’ve found an interesting diving duck near the water’s edge, there is a good chance that the bird is used to having people around, which means that you can get close to the bird without scaring him/her. Some species are more adapted to human behavior than others, but there are ways to increase your chances of a great shot even if the bird is quick to spook.
Waterfowl are great beginner subjects because they don’t demand top of the line equipment. Over the years we have used a variety of different cameras and lenses to take pictures of the many beautiful species of waterfowl that visit our area. We’ve learned a thing or two about how you can take better photos of these creatures, and what to expect when getting started.
Here are 5 powerful tips you can use to photograph waterfowl.
5 Tips for Amazing Waterfowl Photography
1. Use natural light to your advantage
Waterfowl look best when they are lit up by the early morning or late-day sunlight. This golden light not only showcases some of the amazing colors seen in these birds but also creates mood and evokes emotion. The low angle of the sun on at your back is best, so plan your photography trips around these times. Remember the importance of catchlight in the duck’s eyes, as this is critically important for a great shot.
Certain species need adequate sunlight to fully appreciate their plumage, such as Buffleheads and Wood Ducks. Try to capture a waterfowl image in the “golden hour” that displays the bird’s iridescent feathers. This is a best-case scenario situation, and one that many amateur bird photographers strive for.
If you are shooting a backlit image of waterfowl, wait for the right moment. A silhouetted image of Swan against a colorful sunset can certainly be a powerful image, but you’ll need to time it out right. Wait for the bird to splash the water and get some water droplets that reflect the sunlight. Backlit images of waterfowl are tough, but under the right conditions, they make for a very powerful image.
2. Plan your trips at the right time of year
Going out at the right time is important for all species of birds, and this especially true for waterfowl. At certain times of the year, you can predictably expect their to be a wide variety of species available. For example, in our location we see the same slew of species arriving in the early Spring year after year. In some cases, these birds are only present for a one or two week period.
It may be helpful to check the historical eBird sightings in your area, so you can better prepare for certain waterfowl. Winter is one of the best seasons to photograph waterfowl, even though the shooting conditions can be a little unforgiving. Many of the diving ducks we like to photograph prefer the icy cold waters of the Great Lakes, and this means sub-zero temperatures.
However, your dedication and bravery often pay off with stunning photographs of species you don’t see very often. Some of the winter diving ducks we look forward to every year include:
- Surf Scoter
- White-winged scoter
- King eider
- Harlequin duck
- Long-tailed duck
- Northern Pintail
None of the species are present in the Summer, so make sure you get out and enjoy them while they are here. Each season has its own species to enjoy, and for us, winter means the best time for waterfowl photography.
3. Arrive early, and try to blend in
One of the best times to photograph waterfowl is in the early morning as the sun rises in the East. To really capitalize on this scenario, you’ll want to arrive early. Plan your photography session the day before, and arrive at your location before the sun is up. Stay low to the ground, and move slowly. It’s all about earning the birds trust so that they don’t try to get as far away from you as possible. If you have patience and keep low, you’ll stand a much better chance of blending in.
Luckily, a low angle is best for photographing these birds anyway. In general, the lower you can get to the ground, the better. Use a tripod or monopod that allows you to set your camera and lens as close to ground level as possible. To save your knees, bring a foam pad to place on the ground. The more comfortable you are, the longer you’ll be able to stay in the same position at your location. If you’re sitting at the waters edge in the winter, it can become extremely cold. Be sure to over-dress for the weather as sitting in one place for an extended period of time will feel even colder than you’re expecting.
Even after the birds have accepted your presence, it’s important to move slowly and quietly. This can be the difference between capturing a great shot that day and coming home empty handed. A loud noise or sudden movement can be enough to spook one member of the flock – which results all of the birds flying off. This can be a painfully frustrating experience, especially if you’ve been waiting a long time.
If you realize that the lighting isn’t right from your position, or there are other factors that take away from your perfect shot, make note of it for next time. Learning every aspect of your shooting location will come in very handy the next time you visit. Over time, you will begin to better understand how to act and move when around these birds so you can get closer. Patience is everything.
A small flock of Goldeneye ducks in Ottawa, Ontario
4. Recommended camera settings
Like all species of birds, waterfowl can move very quickly. This means that an exposure of 1/500 of a second or faster is required to freeze the action. Even though the ducks and geese may appear to be rather motionless when on the water, it’s the brief moments of action that you want to capture. This includes everything from wing-flaps to shaking the water off of their beaks. A slow exposure will create a blurry photo, and that’s not what we are going for.
Depending on your lighting conditions, you may need to boost your ISO to achieve the appropriate shutter speed. We often use Aperture priority mode for bird photography, and that mode works well for waterfowl in the early morning. You can always reduce noise in your images in post-processing (to an extent), but you cannot repair an out-of-focus, blurry image. Opt for a higher ISO rather than a slower shutter speed to increase your chances of success.
To capture waterfowl in flight, you’ll need to pan your camera lens smoothly along with the bird for a sharp photo. This is a challenging photo opportunity, but well worth the effort if you’re successful. A fast shutter speed, wide aperture and image stabilization will be your best friends in this situation.
Here are some recommended camera settings for waterfowl:
- Mode: Aperture Priority
- Aperture: F/4
- Exposure: 1/1000
- ISO: 400
- White Balance: Daylight
Although the golden hours can create some memorable photos, they also demand your exposures to be spot on. It’s easy to over expose the highlights on the bird that are lit up from the sunlight. It’s equally as challenging to capture the shadows in the image that may include important details and textures of the bird plumage.
Pay close attention to the histogram to ensure that you are not losing any unrecoverable details in the image. In general, we prefer to over-expose our shots by one-stop. It’s easy to dial the intensity back later on in post-processing, as long as the highlights have not been completely clipped.
A Green-winged teal in the late afternoon sun
5. Study the birds behavior for predictive movements
As you begin to learn the habits of each species, you can better predict their behaviour. This will allow you to prepare for what’s next, and have the appropriate camera settings and positioning ready. Experience is one of the biggest differences between a beginner bird photographer and one that regularly produces stunning images. You need to spend time in the field to truly understand what’s required for a one-of-a-kind shot.
Pay attention to the way each species takes off and lands. Some species take a long running start, such as Buffleheads, while others take off almost vertically. The more time you spend observing each species, the more predictable their behavior will be. An example is to sit with the sun at your back, and prepare for a landing shot of a particular waterfowl. When everything comes together, you’ll capture movement, brilliant colors, and dramatic lighting all in one amazing photo. You’ll likely make several trips out to your location before landing a shot like this.
When it All Comes Together
Waterfowl photography is one of the most exciting aspects of this hobby. It demands patience, perseverance and careful planning to execute successfully. Landing a dramatic photo of your favorite species in dramatic lighting conditions is a huge thrill and one that will never get old. It forces you to venture out into nature, and pay close attention to the animals and their behaviour. Even though your ultimate goal is capturing a phototograph to share, you’ll likely discover a new appreciation for our planet and the animals that call it home along the way.