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)
(above: Common Loon in heavily overcast light)
(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)
(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.
(above: Canada Geese and goslings in fog)
(above: Common Loon in mist, ice in the foreground)
(above: Hooded Mergansers in fog)
(above: Wood Duck in snow)
(above: Common Goldeneye with soft reflections)
(above: Hooded Merganser with graffiti)
ACTION and INTERACTION
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) (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
(above: Wood Duck pair on leathery background)
(above: Common Loon and chick at sunrise)
(above: Hooded Merganser in red)