How to Photograph Birds of Prey

flying bald eagle.jpg

Here are some quick tips to keep in the back of your mind when you are heading out to shoot some birds of prey in flight...

Direction of flight

Did you know that large birds of prey like to take off into the wind for more uplift? Because of this it is always best to stand downwind.

If you do this it means you’ll get the birds flying towards you for a better shot. You will also have a better view of their eyes and wingspan.

Focal length

A 300mm f2.8 telephoto lens on a camera with a 1.5x crop-factor sensor gives you an effective focal length (EFL) of 450mm. This is a great focal length for shooting wildlife as it blurs backgrounds. However, using a 500mm lens f4 or 600mm will get you that much closer to your subjects for more intimate results and increased details.

I shoot with the Sigma 120-300 f2.8, a Sigma 150-500 f5-6.3 and a Nikon 400mm f4. I also have a 1.4x teleconverter that i use with the 120-300mm. With that teleconverter on the 120-300 f2.8 I now have a 168-420 f4.0, and that does not take into consideration with the crop factor.  Take that 420 and apply your own crop factor and that will give you the focal length that lens now offers…

Keep your distance

Always be aware of what’s behind your birds. Move around so the background is clean and uncluttered. Make sure you compose your shots so the background is as far away as possible – it’s better if it’s 50 or 60 feet away rather than 10 feet away. The further away the background, the more out of focus and less distracting it will be, especially shooting at f4 of 5.6.  

Speed it up

You’ll need to use a fast shutter speed to capture birds of prey as they move quickly, even quicker still when flying. With an aperture around f/4 or f/5.6 on a telephoto lens use a shutter speed of at least 1/500 sec – or, better still, 1/1000-1/2000 sec.

High speed shooting

When photographing wildlife and birds, it’s best to use high-speed continuous shooting mode to increase your chances of getting a good shot. Most DSLRs have a High-speed Continuous shooting mode, varying from 4 fps to 8fps…

Aperture Settings

There are a couple trains of thought. Some like to use an aperture of f4 to f7, others prefer to shoot at apertures of f9 or f11. If you want a bird in flight entirely in focus, think of the focal plane that will be in focus. Take the snowey owl in the photo above. That bird has a wingspan that can get up to 6 feet. At certain angles the sing tips would be out of focus at f5.6. I photographed the owl at f11. Even at that aperture, at the distance of 60 feet, only the front wing, head,  body and top of the back wing are in focus. The back wing is a little blurry at the very back.

I would have suffered a background that was not diffused enough, but it worked in the snow, and the owl looks pretty good.

Do not forget the lighting

It is always best to shoot when the sun is closer to the horizon. I always try to get the sun behind me so that it is lighting the bird properly with natural light. This can be overcome using an external flash and a better beemer. It will give you a burst of light to fill in the shadows if the natural light will not do the trick.

We run numerous workshops that contain birds of prey. Please feel free to check out the workshops that we run around the world by clicking on the workshops below.

One day Snowy Owl Workshop

Snowy Owl and Great Grey Workshop

Bald Eagles in BC

Golden Eagles in Mongolia


Kevin A Pepper

Kevin is a photographer and educator based in Waterloo, Ontario. His first love is photographing nature, regardless of the season or weather condition; the Ontario landscape and its wildlife are his inspiration. But you will also see other styles of photography in his portfolio. From street photography to urban exploration of abandoned buildings and architecture, he loves to capture it all with his camera for his corporate clients and his growing personal portfolio. Kevin’s images have been featured in Canadian Nature Photographer, PHOTONews Canada, Photo Technique Magazine, The London Free Press, The Weather Network, and National Geographic Online. His diverse client list includes the City of Cambridge, Olympus, GORE Mutual, TVO, and African Lion Safari. Kevin also operates “Northof49 Photography”, a company launched in 2012 dedicated to teaching amateur photographers through International and Canadian-based workshops. In the coming year, Kevin will be leading workshops in Iceland, Mongolia, Tanzania, Venezuela, Provence, and numerous destinations across Canada. Website: