FYI: Photographing Waterfowl

Who doesn’t enjoy walking up to the neighborhood pond and snapping a capture of a beautiful Greenhead Mallard or Wood Duck? I’ve done it many times. But, if you want to photograph ducks in the wild, that is a much higher level of difficulty. I have some tips for you gleaned from almost 50 years of hunting them. I still hunt them, but now with a camera.

Waterfowl have keen eyesight and recognize colors. They also don’t like being around humans. Why? Because certain times of the year, people shoot at them. With guns. For these reasons, waterfowl can be a real challenge to photograph. For the purpose of discussion, let’s talk about the most common waterfowl in our area, and the hardest to photograph, ducks.

Line Dancing Ducks

The first step is finding them. Drive around and check out Wildlife Management Areas, lakes, ponds, fields or rivers until you see ducks in the air or on the water. This is called scouting. Now, find a spot to sit where you can observe what’s going on without alarming the ducks.

Ducks, like all waterfowl–as well as many other critters–are creatures of habit. They tend to stick with these habits, as long as they’re getting what they need. When entering or leaving the area you are now watching, you will find that most of them take a similar route. That’s called a flyway. Not the Atlantic or Mississippi Flyway, but a local flyway. It’s like a road system.

Case in point: Duck Alley.

Duck Alley

I call this place Duck Alley because a lot of ducks fly over it as they pass from the large marsh on the left, to the large marsh on the right. I found this by scouting. There are many more spots just like it. I walked on to the dike, looked around, and saw ducks in the air and on the water. I sat down and watched to see what kind of flight patterns they were using. Most of them crossed the dike in the same general area. Within an hour I had a good idea of where I wanted to set up to get some captures. Hunters call this “pass shooting.” Now that I hunt with a camera, I call this…er, “pass shooting.”

Remember when I said ducks were a challenge to photograph? Yep. You need to hide, and hide well, if you want to get close enough to get a good capture. Not necessarily full Camo, but at least earth tones that blend in with the surroundings. Wearing that beautiful white sweater your wife or husband got you for Christmas is not going to cut it. Ducks won’t come within a quarter mile of you. Heck, if I walked around out in the open wearing full Camo the ducks wouldn’t come within a quarter mile. Movement is another thing that frightens them. If there is enough cover, like the shrubs and tall grass lining the edges of this dike, you can sit or stand behind that as well.

Black Bellied Whistling Ducks

I’m not opposed to the occasional shot of ducks on the water or on the ground, but my main target is ducks in flight. One thing to keep in mind about your camera settings: Ducks are fast fliers with rapid wing beats. If you are accustomed to capturing larger targets like Herons or Egrets, you will most likely find that your shutter speed needs to be faster for these guys. I start at 1/1600 and go up from there if needed. Don’t be afraid to raise your ISO to compensate.

Mottled Ducks on the fly.

So, you’ve found a good spot, you’re wearing the right clothes to hide yourself, it’s time to set up. That flyway you discovered: don’t set up right underneath it. If you do, you will get shots that are either head on or directly overhead. Neither are very good opportunities.

The best way to position yourself is to set up off to the side of the flight path you think these birds will take. Which side? The side with the sun at your back, if possible. Definitely not with the sun in your face. Now you get opportunities like the photo above, that will show off the beautiful colors and textures of the birds.

Last step: I like to bring a folding chair and sit down while I wait. I don’t move around as much sitting as opposed to standing, and I present a lower profile that is harder to see.

Here come the birds! I try not to move much at all until they get as close as I want them to be. Then, I slowly and smoothly raise the camera and start shooting, while still seated if possible. Jumping to your feet at the last minute will cause the ducks to flare: lying over on their side like a fighter jet, trying to get the heck out of there. Now your opportunity is a belly shot with minimal color, missing the speculum: that colorful wing patch.

Flaring duck.

This takes practice. A lot of practice. But it is how you get good captures of wild fowl. And, while you’re out there, you are going to have other opportunities as well, like this juvenile Tri-Colored Heron. Good luck!

Published by Larry Maras

Nature Photographer in Summerville, SC.

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