Photographing Waterfowl

February 05, 2019  •  3 Comments

Anyone who has tried to photograph waterfowl knows that it can be extremely frustrating. Ducks seem to have an amazing sense of their environment, the slightest movement or anything out of place can make them wary and force them away. While I too find photographing waterfowl to be very frustrating, I have some suggestions of ways to improve your odds of success. I will include several examples of my favorite images as they pertain to each of the techniques mentioned.


Camera equipment won't change much with your waterfowl set up. You will likely want the longest lens you have and possibly a teleconverter. You will want to get as low as possible to the water, which means having your lens fixed on a ground pod, supported on a tripod set up in the water, or shot handheld resting on the ground. I use each of these setups depending on my subjects and location. Finally, you will want to wear clothing that is water resistant if you're shooting along the shore.  You will get dirty and/or muddy.   You'll want insulated waders (in colder climates) if you're setting up in the water.  Since it's hard to get your face low to the viewfinder when you are in the water, a right angle viewfinder is invaluable and will help you sit up and still allow the lens to be lower to the water.

Camera settings are fairly straightforward, but as with most wildlife, you will want shutter speeds at or above 1/500 if possible. If you are are looking for flight shots or action shots, like the bird drying off or feeding, you will want shutter speeds a little higher, around 1/1000-2000. For action, you will probably want a little more light.

While photographing "tame" ducks may not feel like wildlife photography, it can often provide the best chances of success for many species. Ducks at local parks may be very used to human presence and will therefore not spook as easily. In these situations, you can get comfortable with the basics like lighting, perspective and environment.  It will also give you a chance to play around with your settings.


There is not any one set of lighting conditions that works best for waterfowl, but certainly golden hour will be advantageous in most cases. The first hour of light will showcase your subject and probably offer some nice warmth in the backgrounds. In the images below I will try to show how well golden hour can work for you. I will also show some images taken in overcast light. You will see that both of these lighting conditions can work, though lower light will push the camera gear a little harder. Lenses with a larger apertures and/or full frame bodies that can push higher ISO (both usually much more expensive) are really helpful in low light.


(above: Common Merganser in direct light)

(above: Common Loon in golden hour)

(above: Wood Duck in filtered light )

(above: Horned Grebe in overcast light)

Loon in the Morning (Common Loon)Loon in the Morning (Common Loon)

(above: Common Loon in heavily overcast light)

(White-cheeked Pintail)Pintail in Soft Lght (White-cheeked Pintail)

(above: White-cheeked Pintail in soft light )


Perspective may be one of the most critical parts of waterfowl photography. Like most wildlife photography, engagement is an important element in your final images. Engagement is often captured by seeing the subject on its plane and establishing eye contact. When your subject is on the water, this means you need to be on that same focal plane. 3-6" off the water is often ideal, and I am almost never over 12 inches above the water. This is one of the big challenges of photographing waterfowl. As mentioned before, your equipment needs to be set up down low, and you need to be able to sustain your position for a long period of time. I have often laid on a shoreline for an hour waiting for ducks, or been sitting in a river in waders for longer than an hour.   If you are in the water, be sure to protect your equipment including a stable tripod and body/lens covers.

In addition to the advantage of creating engagement, the low perspective will also have benefits for your backgrounds. I cover backgrounds in more depth in an earlier blog. Below are several examples of how low perspectives brought in beautiful backgrounds.  

Elevating your camera over one foot above the water will make your image include almost all in-focus water around your subject, since you are shooting down into it.  If you have beautiful color in your water, or great reflections, a slightly higher perspective can be used to feature the water more.  If you're really being creative and you want to go with a wider angle lens, elevation off the water may become less critical.  Even if you crop in a little, the wider field of view will still probably include a larger scene, like the Loon image below (the last image in the series), which was shot from just over a foot above the water.

(above: Horned Grebe with engaging eye and distant horizon)

(above: Common Goldenye, low perspective shows the eye and a color gradient in the background)

(above: Common Merganser, low perspective highlights the eye on the water)

(Green-winged Teal)(Green-winged Teal)

(above: Green-winged Teal with a far shoreline illuminated behind the subject)

(above: Common Loon, shot with a wide angle lens a foot or so over the water, allowing for a more scenic view)


With light and perspective achieved, the final element that adds to the finished image will be the environment.  With tight clean portraits, environment will not be a huge consideration. But tight portraits may not always be as engaging as images that include some habitat or pleasing environment. I mentioned that a low perspective will often allow the inclusion of distant shorelines. This is critical when choosing your locations. Try to find areas with pleasing colors in the background. Look at locations and times of the year when you might get color on the trees (Oct/Nov vs. Jan/Feb). There may be element like logs or branches that you can include in your composition. Or you may want to introduce elements like rain or snow to your image. No matter what you decide, the result will likely be enhanced with the inclusion of one or all of these factors. There's nothing wrong with a duck in good light at eye level on blue water, but some of the examples below show what you can do when you include more/varying environments. You can see from these that the inclusion of environment is much more compelling than just plain dull water.

Golden Fog (Canada Geese)Golden Fog (Canada Geese)

(above: Canada Geese and goslings in fog)

(above: Common Loon in mist, ice in the foreground)

Hooded in Fog (Black and White)Hooded in Fog (Black and White)SCOTT KEYS

(above: Hooded Mergansers in fog)

(above:  Wood Duck in snow)

(above: Common Goldeneye with soft reflections)


(above: Hooded Merganser with graffiti)


Most action with waterfowl consists of preening and drying off. While you can obviously photograph ducks in flight, I am not focusing this discussion on that topic because I feel it falls more into the concept of birds in flight. Below are some examples of birds captured during wing flaps or with water dripping off of them. Water coming off of the bird can add some drama to the overall result.

(above: Common Merganser with water drip) (above: Common Merganser with water dripping) Golden White Cheeks White-cheeked Pintail)Golden White Cheeks White-cheeked Pintail) (above: White-cheeked Pintail drying off) (above: Wood Duck drying off)


Waterfowl photography can be difficult but extremely rewarding when done right.  Below are a few of my personal favorites

(Wood Duck)Mood Lighting(Wood Duck)

(above: Wood Duck pair on leathery background)

(above: Common Loon and chick at sunrise)

Merlot (Hooded Merganser)Merlot (Hooded Merganser)SCOTT KEYS

(above: Hooded Merganser in red)



2018 Best by Month

January 06, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

 2018 was a very productive year with a few trips and lots of local birds.  I was able to photograph and share well over 100 species on social media including 24 different species of warblers.  As a birder, I tallied 35 different warblers on the east coast, which is a great total for me.

As the year wound down, I shared my top 12 images on social media, with one favorite selected for each month. Below is a detail of each:

Jan - Rough-legged Hawk, Utah


Feb - Red-tailed Hawk with prey, Eastern PA

March - Black-necked Stilt, Arizona


April - Black-and-white Warbler, Eastern PA


May - Canada Warbler


June - Grasshopper Sparrow


July - Common Loon


August - Black Skimmer


September - Black-throated Green Warbler


October - Lincoln's Sparrow


November - Horned Grebe


December - Common Goldeneye


Hope you enjoyed my work in 2018, and I am looking forward to share a lot of images in 2019.  I will be visiting Texas in April and hopefully able to travel again in October.

As always, thank you for your support.  Feel free to send me a message or comment regarding your favorite image of mine from 2018!


Fall Hawk Watch and Sharp-shinned Photo Study

December 06, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

When I think of my bird photography, I break it down into 4 primary categories; Songbirds, Shorebirds, Waterfowl, and Raptors.  Of these, I believe birds of prey to be the most challenging of all.  There are many reasons for this.  As predators, these birds are extremely alert and have amazing vision.  Sneaking up on them just isn't going to happen.  These birds are also most active mid-day or evening and light is not always at its best.  This can often result in images taken in direct or harsh sun.  Another reason they can be tough, they are often in flight and overhead, so perspective is not always ideal.

While I appreciate the challenges of raptor photography, I also appreciate the art of hawk watching in general.  Because of the difficulties in attaining great shots, you really have to enjoy the process of hawk watching.  I will often spend 4-5 hours a day just looking at passing raptors, hoping one will fall into a zone that allows for great images.  But even when I fail to capture those moments, I enjoy the quiet of the mountain and the process of observing from a distance.   For those wanting to photograph migrating raptors, I have some advice.  First and most importantly is to be patient.  You must learn to love the process and invest time to make it work.  Also, learn about the spots that will offer you great vantage points and hopefully close looks.  A little research here goes a long way.

This fall, I spent my usual time at my local hawk watches.   This means 2-3 days a week for 5-8 weeks.  I am lucky to be just 10-20 miles from a few good places along the Kittatinny Ridge.  This is one of the top migration paths in the northeast and includes the historic and very popular Hawk Mountain.  

The species I was able to photograph this year were Broad-wing Hawks, Red-tailed Hawk, Merlin, Cooper's Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawks. 

While "sharpies" constitute the bulk of my photography, Broad-winged Hawks are actually the most common sighting.  These birds move through in large numbers over a relatively short times span.  These social birds come in the middle of September and over a few days, there are thousands seen along the ridge.   This year I got to witness one strong morning flight that had almost 1,000 birds recorded by noon.  These birds are known as high soarers, using thermals to gain height and cruise at elevation.   For this reason, I have found them very challenging to photograph.  I shared one image from 2018 on social media and it can be seen below.  This bird flew a little lower and the light wispy clouds broke up the blue sky.  This adult bird is also showing some of his eye, which I often don't get to see when they are flying high overhead.  


Broad-wings belong to a family know as buteos, and the other buteos that frequent the ridge are Red-tailed and Red-shouldered.  Both of the later are late migrants and I did not have much luck with either.  Both were seen, but I only managed one photo of a Red-tailed that I liked, as it shows a nice topside look with a nice green background.


Falcons pass by the ridge regularly and include (from smallest to largest) American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine.  We do not see many of them at close range, but occasionally one of these speedy birds will give us a close look.  This year, I only had one really close view of a Merlin, seen below popping up in front of the lookout.  I had a couple distant pictures of Kestrels this year, but nothing that I shared publicly. 


Sharp-shinned Hawks are the second most numerous raptor that I see on the ridge, and they offer the best looks.  This is usually because they are more curious and aggressive.  They will often make close runs past the look out to investigate or harass the owl decoy.  Below is a series of pictures captured this fall.  The majority of the birds are juveniles, identifiable by they streaky breast and more brown color.  The adult bird morph into birds with grayish top sides and more solid, rusty breasts.   Eyes on the these birds change from yellow to red as they mature.

(Above: Juvenile Sharp-shinned displaying streaky breast and yellow eye)


(Above: Sharp-shinned Hawk in the clouds)

(Above: Sharpie with wings in up and down position)

(Above:  This bird is in a stoop, wings tucked and gaining speed)


(Above: Topside views showing wing spread and tail pattern)


(Above: Sharp-shinned Hawk at dawn over fog and rising sun, a rare golden hour look)

(Above:  Adult Sharpies in the "bowl" allowing solid background with hints of fall color)


(Above: Juvenile bird displays its "bugeyes")

(Above:  An image I have wanted for a while, adult, head on, showing the beautiful red/orange eyes.)


(Above: My favorite image of the season puts this Sharpie right on the horizon, giving the approaching bird a sense of placement)


In, all I felt it was a good season of hawk watching.  I got some nice photos and spent lots of time relaxing in a stress free place that helps me to connect with nature.  I was fortunate to capture, not only raptors, but some nice migrating songbirds along the ridge as well.  While the process of photographing these migrating birds can be very tough at times, if you like the overall process, it can be exceptionally rewarding.


Birds in the Rain

October 11, 2018  •  15 Comments

Over the last couple years, I have done more photography in the rain. I have done this in part because I continue to try to expand my portfolio and add images of birds in different and interesting habitats. In this blog, I wanted to share some thoughts about photographing in the rain. I will share a few images as well and explain situations and settings.

The first consideration for most people when shooting in wet conditions is the protection of their equipment. To that end, there are several ways to help keep your gear protected. The most obvious protection is a rain cover. These can be cheap plastic tubular shaped sleeves which can be purchased for $10 or less. In a pinch, people can use garbage bags. I have used these before when an unexpected shower hit. Other protective measures include a gamut of mid-priced and professional coverings that can cost up to several hundred dollars. Personally, I just always have a cheap rain sleeve available in my truck and it serves my needs.

When shooting in the rain, I also often shoot from the protection of my car, either right out the window or by popping the trunk of my Jeep and using it as a cover. Then I can stand under the raised trunk and have some freedom to move a bit. If I am out hiking in the rain, I work to be more careful to keep my camera body protected and make sure I am personally staying as dry as I can with good rainproof clothing.

Once the gear is protected and you are ready to photograph, there are some considerations to be made. Primarily what to shoot and what settings to use to best capture the environment. In the rain, birds will still move and feed, but my experience is that they are often less active, which can be frustrating. Keep in mind, with rain comes low light and this means you can shoot all day. So while they might be less active, you have a lot more time to find and photograph them. When selecting rain species, I will try to target species that are very reliable or find an area that might be more dense with birds.

I'll review the settings for images that have rain drops that actually show in the scene. I will specifically review shutter speeds to show how the rain drops themselves will look very different when different shutter speeds are used. As a general rule, I will stay between 1/100 - 1/400 of a second. Anything slower than 1/100 will make it almost impossible to to get a sharp image and anything faster than 1/400 will make the raindrops appear very small, more like dots than streaks. My sweet spot is around 1/250. One important factor to consider is that rain will likely create very low light conditions. This will often tax your camera body and force higher ISO (noise). Using a lens with a wide aperture (f2.8-f4.0) will help a lot. I own a 500mm f4.0, but will often use my 300mm f2.8 (wide open) in these low light conditions to help keep noise under control. The wider field of view means a smaller subject, which gives me a more environmental shot and shows more raindrops. Having a camera body that handles noise well will also be a big help. Even with slower shutter speeds, my ISO will often be over 1000. If you have a lens that has a minumum aperture of of 6.3, you may find your ISO as high as 3200 or more. Some full frame pro bodies can handle this noise really well, while lower-end crop bodies will likely struggle. Low light photography is much easier with better gear. 

The first series of images shows a few different species during a rain storm. The Dickcissels below show light drops from fine, misty-type rain. Editing these scenes helped bring out the faint drops. In the first image you get a sense of the natural environment with the bird clinging to a wet plant stem.

(Above: Dickcissel - 1/125, f4.0, ISO 500)

(Above: Dickcissel - 1/400, f4.0, ISO 1100)

The two Barn Swallow images below show two very different looks. In the top image, the bird is a bit smaller in the frame, and the rain is very evident. This was taken in pretty heavy rain and you really get the sense of this with the droplets obvious and abundant. The bird in the bottom image was much closer, and the rain drops appear longer. This is simply an effect of the closer distance.

(Above: Barnswallow - 1/250, f4.0, ISO 500)

(Above: Barnswallow - 1/200, f4.0, ISO 500)

The two images below are good examples of really slow shutter speeds. These are difficult to get sharp, but at shutter speeds of 1/100 of a second (or slower), the rain drops are very elongated. They really stand out, especially against the dark green background. One suggestion for all rain shots is to try to make sure you have a darker background. Having a light background or sky background will usually drown out the raindrops and cancel out the intended effect.

(Above: Indigo Bunting - 1/100, f4.0, ISO 320)

(Above: Magnolia Warbler - 1/60, f4.0, ISO 140)

** Note: these settings were not intentional. I was trying to shoot at 1/200 but accidentally rolled the shutter speed **

Sometimes I will shoot right after a rain storm ends. The birds generally become a little more active then, and the issues of working in the actual rainstorm are no longer present. In each of the images below, the wet leaves and drops of water add interest and contribute to the overall mood of the image.

(Above: Black-and-white Warbler - 1/250 f4.0, ISO 640)

(Above: Canada Warbler - 1/500, f2.8, ISO 800)

Nick Smeshko (262)893-9071

(Above: Northern Waterthrush - 1/400, f4.0, ISO 800)

Nick Smeshko (262)893-9071

(Above: Hooded Warbler - 1/500, f4.0, ISO 800)

The last thing I want to discuss with respect to rain is how wet conditions can make interesting images of the subjects themselves. Wet subjects can offer a different look to familiar species. Many times, wet subjects will shake off the water from their bodies, like the Dickcissel immediately below is doing. Remember, shooting slower shutter speeds will make sharpness difficult, and will show motion blur. This image is very interesting to me, as the head and eye are sharp but the fanning tail shows motion. When subjects look like they are about to shake off, I will always shoot a maximum burst of photos to get as many frames as possible, hoping to catch that one frame that offers the wow moment.

(Above: Dickcissel - 1/200, f4.0, ISO 1100)

(Above: Barred Owl -1/250, f4.0, ISO 500)


As you can see from these examples, shooting in the rain can provide a much different look for your images and can add diversity to your portfolio.  While there are several challenges to these wet and overcast conditions, I think the results are well worth the challenges.


The Grassland Birds of 2018

July 25, 2018  •  2 Comments

I spent some time recently with several species of grassland birds.  This blog will show a few of the species that I usually see in Pennsylvania.  The most prominent of these species was the Grasshopper Sparrow and I actually made several trips to capture them in various scenes with different light.  I was not able to get a really good image of an Eastern Meadowlark, which to me is one of the iconic grassland birds.  I was, however, able to get photos that I really like of two tougher species, the Bobolink and Dickcissel.  All of the birds featured were photographed this year.

I also included a couple of "fringe" species in this blog as they were birds hanging out in fields near the grasslands but probably not really birds that I would typically refer to for this habitat.  The miscellaneous birds included here are Indigo Bunting, Willow Flycatcher, and Barn Swallow.

This series was a lot of fun for me, I hope you enjoy the glimpse into my (slightly obsessive) world of birds photography.

The Grassland Birds:


To me, the Meadowlark is the iconic grassland bird.  Below, an Eastern Meadowlark perches in a farm field in eastern PA.  These bird have decreased in numbers in the state over the past few decades, mostly due to habitat loss.


This bird has been tough to me to photograph locally.  I was able to find one in a freshly cut farm field, but wasn't thrilled with the light.  In order to get some in better light, I ended up going south to Delaware at sunrise, where there was a large protected grassland and a nice number of birds.  


Dickcissels have become very rare in eastern PA.  I am lucky that each year, a small population returns to a farm area not far from my house.  I watched this bird (below) sing on a wire and drop occasionally to feed in an oat field below the wire.  Once seeing the pattern, it was easy to get some nice close looks.  These pictures were taken from my car.  With light clouds on the horizon, you can see some magenta tones mixed with the soft golden light.  The last of the three images, shows a female, buried deeper in the field.

Grasshopper Sparrow:

I have a hotspot for these birds near my house and spent many days with them trying to achieve different looks.  In the series below, you can see silhouettes, backlit shots, and a variety portraits at golden hour.

Field Sparrow:

Another sparrow that I saw a lot of in July was the Field Sparrow.  My favorite was the action shot of one feeding on insects in thistle.  Once I saw the behavior, I focused on the thistle and waited for him to reach in and feed.  Another good example of observing behavior and anticipating action shot.

Song Sparrow:

A common species that I wanted to include in this series.  Here composed on a thorny vine, framed by some thistle, followed by a tight side-lit portrait.

The Fringe Species:

Indigo Bunting:

I love the colors on this bird and background in the first image.  These male buntings can range in color from a light aqua to a deep blue depending on the individual and breeding status. The second picture shows the blue bird on a yellow ground (sunflowers) that makes for a nice combination of complimentary colors.

Barn Swallow:

I set a challenge for myself one evening by trying to photography swallows in the rain, in flight.  At slow shutter speeds 1/200-1/500, this is a real task.  I took hundreds of frames and finally managed to get a few that showed sharper heads and gave a sense of motion in the rain and wings.

Willow Flycatcher:

While not usually thought of as a grassland species, this Willow Flycatcher in eastern PA, was adjacent to the grasslands that I was working, and he presented so nicely, I had to get him involved here.  These two images were taken on different days and in different conditions.  The top was taken during golden hour and the bottom pictures was taken on an overcast, rainy day.

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