My love for photographing ducks in flight can be traced back to my duck-hunting days. Nearly 20 years ago, though, I put down the shotgun and began pursuing ducks with a telephoto lens. Since then I have made many thousands of images of ducks in flight from the East to the West Coast, from my home state of Ohio to the Aleutian Islands and the most northern reaches of Alaska.
Ducks are a beautiful and diverse family of birds that are a challenge to capture, especially in flight. They often gather in wet places unsafe for equipment; their bodies move quickly across a frame, while their wings beat faster; and they can be sensitive to disturbances from even the most careful photographer. But the experience is supremely rewarding, and a great shot a sure prize. The following tips can help you make successful images of wild ducks in flight.
Find Your Quarry
First, pre-scout your location in the days before your planned outing. Look for concentrations of ducks in accessible areas near cover. A food source may bring open-water diving ducks into river mouths and bays. In winter, look for open pockets of water in frozen lakes and marshes. While searching for your quarry, examine the setting and keep in mind the time of day that will work best for achieving front-lit images from the accessible vantage points.
Mind Your Settings
It is almost always best to use manual-exposure mode for photographing birds in flight. Manual mode enables you to set an exposure based on the subject and existing light. Any of the auto-exposure modes (such as aperture or shutter-priority modes) leave you at the mercy of the varying background tones as birds fly against sky, woods, cattails, or water. It is next to impossible to adjust the exposure-compensation dial and continue to accurately track a duck in flight.
I strive to be at shutter speed of 1/2,000th of a second or faster when attempting to freeze fast action. You can opt for slower shutter speeds depending on the results you desire—for example, slightly burred wingtips can imply motion. But be forewarned that very slow shutter speeds can result in severely blurred wings and streaked backgrounds if fast panning is necessary to track the subject. Set your aperture to f/5.6 or f/8 and adjust your ISO accordingly to give you a good exposure for the ambient light conditions.
Focus tracking may be the most difficult challenge of capturing images of ducks in flight. Use your continuous or servo autofocus mode to best track most moving subjects. Pre-focus the lens to the distance you wish to begin tracking your subjects. Use the center focus point, or center focus point with surrounding focus points, and concentrate to keep the focus points directly on the head of the duck. Depth of field is shallow, and focusing on the wing will give varied results. To further aid tracking, it is imperative to pan faster than you think is necessary. More often than not, when I miss that perfect capture it is because the center autofocus point is on the bird’s feet instead of the head.
Position Yourself Accordingly
For action shots, including take-off and landing shots, it is important to remember that ducks will almost always take off and land into the wind. The extra lift of a headwind makes their landings more controlled and provides additional lift for takeoff. Sunny mornings with easterly winds are ideal for implementing decoys to attract ducks into photographic range. Incoming ducks will generally glide in facing the wind, providing a perfect front-lit situation. West winds then will work better with afternoon light. Some ducks, especially divers, will at times resemble speeding rockets as they attempt to land with a tailwind. The fast frame rates of today’s modern digital cameras can capture a spectacular series if you are able to pan fast enough to keep up with them!
At some locations ducks can be quite tame, and so concealing yourself is less of a concern, but some of my favorite moments have been when I need to meld into the environment to avoid detection. In these cases, I feel a more personal connection to the ducks while sloshing in their marsh, breathing their air. I can often be found slipping into the dark water an hour or more before sunrise, wearing waders that are hopefully not too leaky. I use a fisherman’s float tube and a floating duck hunter’s sled to safely transport my gear. I often bring a dozen or more decoys to set in front of me, with the wind and light at my back, to encourage the ducks to fly into optimal range.
In marsh habitat I prefer to set up immediately adjacent to a muskrat hut. Downed logs, shoreline brush, or thick patches of cattails can also provide good cover. Take great care in setting up your tripod to avoid an expensive mishap. For duck portraits on the water I set the lens as close to the surface as possible in order to achieve a frog’s-eye view of the action. But for in-flight shots it will be much easier to track your subjects if your lens is about 18 inches above the water level. Once secured atop the tripod, drape camouflaged material over your lens. You'll better see approaching ducks if you avoid covering yourself completely with the blind. Rather, drape it around you or simply tuck in close and hide behind the material. Be sure to wear a face mask or at least keep your face hidden behind the camera. And definitely wear earthen-toned gloves to hide the movement of your hands.
Protect Your Gear
Remember to move deliberately and with care to avoid a dunking when wading with your gear. It may be best to take a walk in the marsh without your camera gear first to help you get acquainted with the challenges. I recommend the use of dry bags, and you may wish to consider insuring your gear. Be sure to clean and dry your gear immediately when you get home.
There are many challenges associated with this type of photography but the results can be stunning—and there is little better than enjoying the sights and sounds of the marsh as dawn breaks over the horizon.
Award-winning photographer Brian Zwiebel is co-owner and guide at Sabrewing Nature Tours. He has been photographing birds for more than 20 years and his images have been internationally published in various books and magazines.