[Editorial note: This was originally posted to my old site on November 22, 2009.]
Yesterday, I photographed a mating pair of red-tailed hawks gathering material to build a nest. Now I’ll give you a detailed walkthrough of this photo shoot, with the hope that some of you will find some of it interesting and helpful.
First: How did I find these hawks?
In many cases, I actually have to use some naturalist skills to find my subjects. In this case, however, I received a hot tip from a friend and fellow photographer. His information was good enough to get me within about 50 yards of where I needed to be, at the peak time. Even though I “found” them through a hot tip, it’s still worth mentioning. Almost any serious outdoor photographer could benefit from building up a network for getting these kinds of occasional tips. You could do this, too.
Once I got the tip, I came at my earliest opportunity. In cases like this, don’t wait. Even when photo opportunities seem like they will be continuing to go on for a while, they often suddenly end due to undpredictable reasons – so don’t delay.
I selected the 300 f/4 lens with a 1.4x teleconverter for this shoot, and left the 600 f/4 lens in the car. I could come back for it if I needed it. The 300 can be used for extended periods handheld, whereas the 600 is so large, heavy, and cumbersome that I can only handhold it for perhaps 30 seconds or so. Ergo, it’s primarily for tripod use.
I expected (and hoped) that I would be shooting the birds in flight, on unpredictable flight paths, from fairly close. That’s not the kind of shooting you want to do from a tripod. Tripods and large, heavy lenses (around 500 mm f/4 and up) make it a hassle to move around and change position a lot. And, in use, large lenses mounted on tripods limit maneuverability too much for fast moving, erratic flying, nearby subjects. Many people preparing to enter into the world of using big lenses think that gimbal tripod heads will solve this issue; in fact, they don’t even address the real problem at all. Gimbal heads allow you to keep the camera and lens neutrally balanced as you move it around – which is pleasant and makes things a little faster and easier, but isn’t really important. The main problem with moving a very large lens in a wide arc, mounted on a stationary pivot, is the way you have to move with it. In order to appreciate the difficulty, realize that a 600 mm lens mounted on a camera makes a package nearly 3 feet long; and this means that the camera body sticks out well behind the pivot point toward the center of the lens. Swing it around in a right-left direction, and you have to speedily dance in a little circle around your tripod as your camera swings around, while avoiding tripping on the tripod legs (all the while keeping your eye on the subject, through the lens). Swing your lens upward from shooting something in front of you to shooting overhead, and you need to go from standing height to kneeling height (with your neck arched waaay back) as your camera dips dramatically. Now try to swing it left-right and upward and keep your eye on the subject, all at the same time, moving lightning fast to follow a bird flying almost overhead. Trust me, you don’t want to do this. You’d have an easier time doing a triple lutz.
So, very large lenses on gimbal tripod heads are great when a bird is taking a smooth and predictable flight path in the low distance (for example, flying along a river channel), but a lighter telescopic lens, handheld (or on a monopod), is better when the flight path might be practically on top of you.
As I strolled the short distance from the car to where I was headed, I took a light meter reading and set my exposure (f/8, 1/1,600th of a second, ISO 640), and pre-focused the lens to a middle distance – perhaps 20 feet away from me. Then I set the autofocus to the AI servo mode, and set it to 3-meters-to-infinity setting. I loosened the lens collar, swung it upside down, and tightened it – I’ve been experimenting with whether I prefer the collar upside down for more comfort, when shooting handheld.
Shortly after I arrived, a red-tailed hawk flew right by me. Since I wasn’t yet familiar enough with this particular scene, I didn’t yet know where the hawks were flying from, and didn’t yet know their preferred flight paths. Thus, I wasn’t looking in the right direction, and didn’t see it coming. I didn’t get my lens on it until it was practically right next to me. Ideally, I’d have preferred to have shot this a split second earlier, when the bird was perhaps 8 inches or a foot earlier on it’s flight path. That would have made the angle of the bird coming slightly toward me, rather than flying slightly away from me. In this particular case, I think that would’ve looked a little nicer. Nonetheless, I enjoy the unusual view of the trailing edge of the wing, and the feet and talons.
The very close pass helped further convince me that these hawks were not very skittish – something I’d already suspected from the fact that they’re building a nest in a high-foot-traffic public area. This was helpful to know that they will probably tolerate close approaches, to get close shots.
The hawks landed on the trees, grabbed slender branches in their talons, and held on tightly while twisting the branches and flapping their wings for lift, to break branches off the trees, to be used as nest material.
Meanwhile, as they were distracted, focused on what they’re doing, I moved in closer.
Once a hawk had broken off a branch, it started to arrange so that the branch wouldn’t get in the way, as it prepared to fly.
As I watched this, I considered this an early sign of impending flight. I didn’t want to miss the take-off shots and the flight shots. And further, the autofocus has the easiest time tracking the focus if it’s properly locked onto a flying bird from the start. But I couldn’t keep constantly ready to shoot, either. For one thing, it’s too tiring to hold the camera and large lens to my eye for indefinite, long periods of time. Additionally, I also had to get ready for the bird’s flight. I had to get the desired distance to frame the bird the way I wanted once it had its (surprisingly long) wings extended. I wanted a nice angle to the light, and a nice angle to the bird (assuming it flew back in the direction it came from). I also wanted to be positioned where I could photograph the hawk’s flight against blue sky, instead of cluttered branches.
So, I figured out where I wanted to be and moved into position, while trying to keep my eye on the bird, for further signals of when it was about to fly. I knew that right before it flew, it would lean forward and crouch down, in preparation to jump into the air. That’s when one knows to be ready for the animal to take flight at any instant.
During the take-offs, the hawks held the branches tightly, and raised their wings fully outstretched straight overhead, for a powerful downstroke, while jumping into the air.
As it flew toward me, I tried to keep my selected autofocus point on the hawk’s eye. I tried to time the bird’s wingbeats, cognizant of the fact that its head would be in the shadow of the wings, except when the wings were either below the head or stretched back. I had to be very attuned to tracking the flight at just the right speed. If I started too slow or followed through too fast, as the hawk accelerated from a dead stop, then the first or last shots would be motion-blurred. Tracking the flights of birds as they fly toward you and somewhat overhead is a little trickier than tracking birds flying across the distance, because the rate of change speeds up as the bird approaches.
My shooting was a little off, through the morning. I was making a lot of little, thoughtless errors, as I was trying to figure out the situation – where they were flying to and from, where I had unobstructed shots, and so on. Nonetheless, the two hawks were making it as easy for me as one could reasonably hope for, and so I had some success.
They made a few more passes, and I got what I could, before they ended their activities for the morning. All in all, I took 85 shots in a little over 2 hours. Most of them were “keeper” quality, though most of them did not hit the level of thoughtful composition and careful creation I strive for. Now that I have a better feel for the place, I’ll go back and try to do better, when the weather allows.
Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Shoreline Lake, Palo Alto, California
All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.