Techniques

Photographing the Peregrine Falcon

by Ofer Levy | January 12, 2015

Peregrine falcon © Ofer LevyPeregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) is for me, one of the most fascinating and exciting subjects in the world of bird photography.

The sheer speed of this bird, coupled with its immense power, sublime elegance and astonishing beauty make the peregrine the king of birds.

I have been fortunate to witness peregrines hunting on two occasions. The ferocity and aerobatic abilities while chasing their prey, as well as the clever way in which they collaborate to pursue the hunt, have left me with memories.

Peregrine falcon poses on rock © Ofer Levy

Canon 1DX, Canon 800mm f5.6, 1/800, f6.3, ISO 2500, tripod, hide.

In this article I would like to share a few important facts for consideration when attempting to photograph these magnificent birds.

Peregrines are highly territorial and become agitated and often attack intruders. Pairs breeding in urban environments may be more tolerant to human activity but if you exceed the boundary, the falcon will certainly react, especially during the breeding season.

Peregrines may be able to chase and scare off any of their natural predators easily (e.g. eagles, ravens, and even pelicans, as well as various mammals including dogs). Humans are not so easily scared away and may stay at a nest watching the spectacle for hours on end. Photographers need to consider they are entering the peregrine’s world, and that for this bird to successfully breed requires an enormous amount of energy. Any time spent defending a nest and territory seriously jeopardizes the well-being of both the young and the adults.

Peregrine falcon portrait © Ofer Levy

Canon 1DX, Canon 800mm f5.6, 1/500, f5.6, ISOS 3200, tripod, hide.

Continuous harassment or encroachment where the adults are trying to incubate successfully, brood young and provide food for a growing family may cause the birds to nest elsewhere the following season, which could be on a substandard ledge that affects the chances of a successful breeding attempt.

A falcon trying to disperse intruders will use the ‘hek hek hek’ or ‘kak kak kak’ call and make passing swoops to scare the potential predator, sometimes even hitting the intruder. It will only stop attacking when the threat is gone. Peregrines cannot afford to burn this energy. Nesting successfully is difficult enough, without human interference. They can also tire considerably under these circumstances and overheat, becoming lethargic and clumsy on the wing which may result in the adult birds injuring themselves. The chicks also can get caught up in this confusion, especially if it is late in the season when the birds are nearly fledged and may prematurely leave the nest with potentially disastrous consequences.

Peregrine falcon close-up © Ofer Levy

Canon 5D3, Canon 800mm f5.6, 1/4000, f7.1, ISO 1600, handheld.

An option for photographing the falcons safely is to habituate the birds at a nest leaving a hide (if possible) a week or so before photography starts. They will get used to the hide being there, and then you can proceed in your photography attempts. Consider walking into the hide before sunrise, although peregrines have extremely good night vision.

Another option is to have a “walk in person” to go with you—two people enter the hide and one leaves. Birds are unable to count and they see a person leaving, and believe that all is clear.

If photographing the falcons during the breeding season is necessary, the most ethical way is to make the visits as brief as possible and keep as much distance between yourself and the birds as you can. Non-breeding birds or floating vagrant falcons at random spots can be more actively pursued. Of course a long lens has a great advantage and will automatically generate some breathing room for the birds.

Peregrine falcon in flight © Ofer Levy

Canon 5D3, Canon 800mm f5.6, 1/6400, f7.1, ISO 1600, handheld.

Interfering with Peregrine Falcons in most countries is a crime and punishable by fines with various laws put into place. I would hope that photographers, naturalists and enthusiasts exercise sound judgment and common sense in any situation with these special birds. I know most are respectful in these circumstances.

Peregrine falcon flying by © Ofer Levy

Canon 1DX, Canon 800 f5.6, 1/5000, f6.3, ISO 2000, handheld.

Most of my pictures presented here were captured at sites on Sydney, Australia’s northern beaches. In my experience, the best and safest time to photograph them is the moment the chicks leave the nest. In the first two to three weeks they usually stay near the nesting site where they practice their flight skills. The parents keep providing their food close to the nesting site so this area usually offers great opportunities for flight shots of both adults and juveniles.

Most of the opportunities I have experienced with the peregrines are for flight shots. Opportunities to capture them perched are quite rare as they normally don’t let me get closer than 30 to 40 meters.

Peregrine falcon with teal sky © Ofer Levy

Canon 5D3, Canon 800mm f5.6, 1/3200, f5.6, ISO 2000, handheld.

In a standard three-hour session I normally have very few opportunities (if any) as the birds fly to and from the nesting ledge. They fly very swiftly and I usually have the bird for no more than two to three seconds in my viewfinder.

To maximize the chances of getting quality images during those few seconds I recommend using the best possible body and lens. Here are a few recommendations based on my experience:

  1. Use a camera with the most accurate and fast focusing system and settings.
  2. Fastest possible frame rate. (10 frames per second or more)
  3. Fastest possible shutter speed. (I usually use 1/2500 sec and faster)
  4. Camera which is capable of delivering relatively clean files in high ISO in order to get the high shutter speed even in less than perfect light.
  5. Camera with high buffer. (How many largest RAW files can be taken is a burst).
  6. Fastest possible CF card.
  7. Minimum focal length of 400mm preferably longer 700–840mm

I also highly recommend using only MANUAL exposure control as the birds fly against a changing background.

Peregrine falcon front view in flight © Ofer Levy

Canon 5D3, Canon 800mm f5.6, 1/5000, f5.6, ISO 1600, handheld.

I determine my exposure setting in the following way:

  1. Determine the ISO based on the camera and light. When using the Canon 1D4, I set the ISO to 800 when light is excellent and push it to maximum of 1600 if light is poor. When using the 1DX, my default ISO is 1600 and I will push it to 3200 if light is not great.
  2. I will not go lower than 800 ISO with the 1D4 or 1600 ISO with the 1DX as in my opinion it is a waste of crucial resources needed to get the fastest possible shutter speed.
  3. I try to keep my shutter speed as high as possible. It is possible to get sharp images of the flying peregrines at 1/1250 second or even less but in order to maximize the chances of getting as many as possible sharp images during the two to three seconds flyby—the higher the shutter speed, the better
  4. Aperture. Since I am using the Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS lens on a full frame body (Canon 1DX or Canon 5D3) or a 1.3 crop factor body (Canon 1D4) from a minimum distance of 20 meters I have enough depth of field to shoot wide open at f5.6. If light is great and the birds get closer than 20 meters (which happens more with the juveniles) then I will close the aperture on the expense of shutter speed to f6.3 or even f7.1. (I will not go lower than 1/2500 sec)
  5. All the flight shots of the Peregrine Falcons (and other birds) were taken handheld. I have tried using a few support systems including my excellent tripod system with the full Wimberley tripod head, my Miller Arrow 25 fluid head, a decent Manfrotto monopod and came to the conclusion that handheld is the only technique that works for me even with the Canon 800mm f5.6 L IS. The Peregrines are just too fast and unpredictable in their flight pattern to be able to use a tripod in a satisfactory manner.
  6. When checking the exposure I make sure that the white on the bird’s neck and bright yellow on the legs, beak and eye are not over exposed.
Peregrine falcon photographed handheld © Ofer Levy

Canon 5D3, Canon 800mm f5.6, 1/3200, f5.6, ISO 3200, handheld.

Being a Canon shooter I only have experience with Canon bodies. I find that using a long lens—Canon 500mm f4 plus x1.4 converter (700mm) or the new Canon 600mm f4 plus x1.4 converter (840mm) is a good way to get the maximum high quality images during the brief few seconds long flybys. I use the Canon 800mm f5.6 which is a great lens but is considerably heavier than the first two options so not ideal for this purpose.

Peregrine falcon photographed with Canon 1DX © Ofer Levy

Canon 1DX, Canon 800m f5.6, 1/6400, f6.3, ISO 3200, handheld.

The last season which ended in late November was by far the most productive one in my eight years of photographing these birds. The reason is I was using the Canon 1DX with its superb autofocus system, 12 frames per second frame rate and big buffer as well as the ability to get clean files in high ISO.

Peregrine falcon in flight photographed handheld © Ofer Levy

Canon 5D3, Canon 800mm f5.6, 1/6400, f5.6, ISO 1600, handheld.

Thank you for reading and I hope you’ll find my suggestions helpful and have the opportunity to photograph these wonderful birds in the wild.

Special thanks to my friend Adam Hardy for helping me with this article and who is, for me, the ultimate “Peregrine Falcon Man”.

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.

4 thoughts on “Photographing the Peregrine Falcon

  1. Excellent Images. Wish I had the ‘light’ where I live and photograph.
    Good to get confirmation of what I generally do with flight photographs of Raptors. One question, though not related to photography but to photoshop. When I crop an image to 16×12″ and the scale in photoshop does show the measurement but the image on screen is about 65% when measured with a real scale. I use PS CS5. Any settings to be changed or this is the way it is ?

    Anand Arya, Noida, India.
    anandarya@anandarya.com

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