Getting High Quality Bird and Other Wildlife Behavior Shots

by Ofer Levy | October 2, 2014

© Ofer LevyFor more than 30 years, I’ve photographed birds and other wildlife. Recently, I’ve put most of my efforts into capturing images of birds and other wildlife depicting their behavior. It’s not easy, but not beyond the reach of those who dedicate the required time and effort. The digital revolution and mind-blowing improvements in cameras, lenses and other accessories during the past decade have made it possible to get action and behavior bird photos like never before.

Here are my suggestions on approaching this exciting aspect of nature photography.

1. Observe and study the subject in the field.

Don’t skip this important part of the process. I usually spend much more time observing and learning about my subject than trying to photograph the specific behavior. While studying my subject, I get ideas on what behavior I’d like to photograph as well as what strategy I should use. I dedicate cloudy days for observation and leave the sunny days for photography.

2. Plan your strategy on capturing specific behavior.

Once I know what behavior I’d like to photograph, I develop my strategy. This step involves determining which camera, lens and accessories are best suited for the project and which field techniques would work best.

3. Invest time and be patient.

Patience can be a difficult part of the process. In my many years of experience, only a few of my favorite images were achieved within one or two sessions. The vast majority took weeks, months and even years of trying. Luckily I enjoy the journey even when I fail to get the desired results.

Case Studies

Black-winged Stilts mating. (Barton Park Sydney, Australia)

Stilts mating © Ofer Levy

Every year at the beginning of spring, I visit a small wetland not far from the Sydney International Airport to observe Black-winged Stilts. I have seen and photographed them mating there in previous years, but have never managed to get a photo I really liked.

In early spring last year, I watched a group of approximately 30 birds over a few days. Most of them were adults in beautiful breeding plumage. One pair was courting and mating. I realized it was my opportunity to get that mating shot I was after.

The night before the shoot, I positioned my Ameristep Doghouse hide on the bank of the small wetland, and approximately three hours before sunset managed to crawl and get inside without being seen by the birds. I was now surrounded by 30 beautiful Black-winged Stilts completely unaware of my presence.

I used the Canon 5D3 with the Canon 800mm lens mounted on a tripod with a full Wimberley head. I stopped to f10 to get more depth of field. The shutter speed of 1/2500 sec was fast enough for the action and the iso 800 is nice and clean on this camera.

Spending a few days observing these birds enabled me to predict when the few seconds of mating would take place. They performed a display which involved head bobbing and stirring of the water with their beaks prior to copulating.

Great Crested Grebe family scene. (Lake Wallas NSW, Australia)

Great-crested grebe feeding © Ofer Levy

The Great Crested Grebe is not a common bird in NSW where I live so I have to drive for two hours to Lake Wallas to observe them. In previous years, I had tried to photograph them from a hide positioned on the bank, but the birds never got close enough to allow high-quality images.

I realized a floating hide would be the way to go, allowing me to get even closer to get the images I wanted.

The day I took this image, I spent a few hours observing the birds and saw this pair feeding their young chicks. I determined the best spot to enter the lake and to get to a good position without scaring the birds. I had to use the Canon 5D3 despite its low frame rate rather than my Canon 1D4 which was better for this scene with its 10 frames per second only because the 1D4 had a technical problem. Since I didn’t want to get too close to the birds I used the x1.4 teleconverter on the Canon 800mm. I set the iso to 1600 to allow the very fast shutter speed (1/3200 sec) I needed while shooting with the camera mounted on a rocky floating hide. Aperture was set to 11 to allow the needed depth of field to photograph the two adults and the chicks.

When this image was taken, the birds were very close, allowing a full-body shot, and I knew the shallow depth of field would barely allow fitting all the birds into the frame. I waited to get the adults on the same plane and was lucky to get this nearly full frame shot with just enough depth of field for the three heads.

Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher in flight. (Jullaten QLD)

Buff-breasted paradise kingfisher © Ofer Levy

This stunning kingfisher is a summer migrant from Papua New Guinea to the north east of Australia. It nests in relatively small termite mounds built on the ground in the rainforest. I decided to spend a week in Far North Queensland in a place called Julatten where these kingfishers nest. I had never seen these birds before, so I gathered all the information I could from the Internet to be able to determine my strategy. These birds live in the dark rainforest but do forage in clearings and grassy areas. Since light in the rainforest is very low and shutter speed can’t be fast enough, I knew I wouldn’t be able to capture the sharp inflight images I was after in the conventional way. I decided to employ the multi-flash technique, mainly used for hummingbird photography. In this technique, all the light comes from the flashes, and an artificial backdrop (such as a large print) is used.

I spent the first three days of my six-day stay looking for a suitable spot to arrange my setup, and found a perch one of the birds regularly used while hunting. I positioned my artificial backdrop about two meters behind the perch, and placed two flashes to illuminate it. Another two flashes were positioned about two meters away from the perch. All four flashes were set to manual mode at 1/16 of full power and on slave mode, controlled by a Canon Infra-Red Controller mounted on the camera. I set my hide the night before and once the bird got used to it, I was ready to get my shots. My camera was set to iso 500 to keep it noise free. Shutter speed was 1/300, which is the camera flash sync speed. I used f13 to get enough depth of field. I pre-focused on the predicted flight path by using a stick, then locking the lens on manual focus. Camera and lens were mounted and locked on the tripod. I got a few keepers in the two hours I spent in the hide, and this one is my favorite.

Grey-headed Flying Fox drinking on the wing. (Parramatta Park, NSW, Australia)

Grey-headed flying fox drinking © Ofer Levy

This is probably my most successful image so far as it has won awards in Both BBC/Veolia and Nature’s Best Photography International Wildlife competitions and was published in numerous magazines all over the world. It was also one of the most difficult-to-get images in my career. The reason for this was the conditions under which it was taken.

I had been observing these huge bats (wingspan of up to one meter) over the past 10 years and got to know them quite well. I often saw them drinking at dusk after they left their roosting sites on the way to their night foraging sites. When they drink, they fly low over the pond or river until they skim the surface with their chest and belly and then lick the dripping water while on the wing. I could see this behavior could be very dramatic in a photo and was determined to capture it. The problem was they almost always drink at dusk or night when there isn’t enough light to capture the scene without using a flash.

However, in extremely hot conditions when temperatures soar to 40 degrees and above, these bats will drink during the day. Here in Sydney we get only a few such days a year. To make it even trickier, the bats always fly while skimming the water, facing the wind. I tried for a few years whenever the conditions were right, and I was unsuccessful until one day everything fell into place and I got this image with a few other keepers in one extremely hot afternoon.

To get this low shooting angle, I had to stand in chest deep water, camera and lens mounted on the stand only a few centimeters above water level. I also wanted to ensure a steady movement while tracking their flight so instead of using the full Wimberley, I used a Miller Arrow 25 fluid head which I also use for video work. The smooth movement was a great advantage when photographing in this difficult situation.

I used Canon 1D4, Canon 600mm f4, L IS, (older version), iso 1250 as it was cloudy, and I needed the fastest shutter speed possible, f4, 1/1250 sec.

Needless to say, standing in chest deep water with $18,000 worth of gear just centimeters away from deep water, in 42 degrees wasn’t exactly the most pleasant experience of my life.

Lastly, I’d like to share one embarrassing anecdote. I left this image unprocessed in my files for more than a year. For some reason I wasn’t mad about it at first sight and didn’t even bother to process it. When it was time to submit images to the BBC/Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, I revisited the files and discovered this forgotten image.

About the Author

Ofer Levy is a Sydney based professional wildlife/bird photographer and instructor. He is a BBC/Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Nature's Best Windlan Smith Rice prize winner as well as ANZANG Nature overall winner (2007 and 2011). His photos have been published by numerous magazines internationally and have been used in many books, public exhibits, calendars, and other projects. The Australian Museum in Sydney is showing 16 of Ofer's bird images in a special exhibition, which runs through January 2015. As a former science teacher with a master's degree in science, Ofer offers wildlife and bird photography workshops in Australia's most exciting locations.

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