Another Big Day in the Strait of Gibraltar #raptor #photography

We are at the end of August, which is the peak season for migrating raptors in the Strait of Gibraltar. Hundreds of thousands of raptors will cross the 14 Km that separates Europe from Africa this season, as they do every year.

This extraordinary phenomenon provides an excellent opportunity, not only to watch and be amazed by the incredible numbers and concentrations of birds, but also to take pictures of raptors, particularly of the most numerous species. Black Kite, European Honey Buzzard, Short-toed Eagle are the ones that will provide more opportunities, while we will also have the chance to photograph less abundant birds: Egyptian Vulture, Montagu’s Harrier and Eurasian Sparrowhawk, among others.

Our strategy will depend mainly on the weather conditions, and most particularly the wind. As strange as it may sound, a very strong wind will be our best ally, as it will force the birds to get closer to the ground. This way, seeking refuge from the wind in some of the main observatories spread along The Strait, and with a bit of patience, we will be able to get some good shots.

Another great advantage of the strong winds, is that it will prevent the birds to cross The Strait, sometimes even for several days or more than a week, producing large gatherings of birds that will wait in the area for the wind to drop to continue their journey south.

A nice blurry background that doesn't distract our attention from the main subject is alway welcome. In the picture a Black Kite
A nice blurry background that doesn’t distract our attention from the main subject is alway welcome. In the picture a Black Kite
Sometimes is desirable to leave some more "air" and show a bit more of the landscape, like with this Short-toed Eagle
Sometimes is desirable to leave some more “air” and show a bit more of the landscape, like with this Short-toed Eagle

Now, let’s get a bit technical:

As a general rule we don’t use hides to take pictures of birds, this being more a matter of convenience than anything else. For the most part we shoot from the car, from a bird observatory or any random spot. We would do anything that we can to not stand out and call the attention of the birds, of course! But we like to move around and take pictures from different places, while we count or just enjoy the migration. We see the advantage of taking pictures of migrating raptors from a hide, as they can get closer, but your visibility will be greatly limited.

Regarding camera equipment, we use Canon fixed telephoto lenses: a 300mm stabilized lens and a 400mm. The 300mm is almost constantly attached to its friend: 1.4X teleconverter. This allow us to travel light and shoot hand-held for extended periods of time, which we believe is the best way to photograph birds in flight. The new generation of 500mm and 600mm lenses however, seem to be much lighter than their predecessors, and are probably the best choice… if you can afford them!

What about settings and parameters? Normally there is plenty of light where we are, so we don’t need to raise our ISO much, staying around 250 or 320. We set our maximum aperture or two steps below maximum, and this normally gives us shutter speeds of 1/1000th to 1/1250th of a second: more than enough to freeze one bird in the air.

Regarding autofocus… this is the trickiest part when it comes to take pictures of birds in flight, especially if you have mountains, trees, or anything else that it’s not a plain, blue sky in the background. We normally shoot in Servo mode, which means that the lens will keep focusing the whole time your finger is slightly pressing the shutter button. Basically we keep focusing on the bird until it’s close enough or it’s in a position we like. Sometimes you just don’t have time and shoot anyway… as taking pictures in digital don’t cost anything. However, we think that it’s better to wait for the right moment.

A juvenile Black Kite with Tarifa coastline in the background. Even though we focus on the raptor, it's always important to keep in mind what kind of scene the birds have in the background
A juvenile Black Kite with Tarifa coastline in the background. Even though we focus on the raptor, it’s always important to keep in mind what kind of scene the birds have in the background
Even though we prefer a nice blurry background in our pictures, sometimes a plain blue-white sky works out if the subject is close enough and it shows the strength of its features, as it happens with this Booted Eagle, we believe
Even though we prefer a nice blurry background in our pictures, sometimes a plain blue-white sky works out if the subject is close enough and it shows the strength of its features, as it happens with this Booted Eagle, we believe
A female European Honey-Buzzard, as it struggles agains the strong easterly wind, which forces her to keep closer to the ground
A female European Honey-Buzzard, as it struggles agains the strong easterly wind, which forces her to keep closer to the ground

We hope that these notes are helpful when photographing migrating raptors. This is the way we do it anyway, there are tons of manuals and websites with good alternative techniques. As we do get lots of questions on this subject, we thought it was worth sharing our approach.

If you want us to take you to the best locations in the Strait of Gibraltar and get more hints on how to take better pictures of birds in flight, let us know!