11 Tips for Photographing Ducks in Flight

I love to photograph ducks in flight. It is such a challenge! Ducks are small and fast and at times it feels like you are trying to photograph a bullet. The difference is that a bullet flies in a straight path and flying ducks can be all over the place. That’s what makes it so much fun.

Green-Winged Teals

Green-Winged Teals

Before I took up an interest in photography and found myself visiting the area’s marshes, I thought that a duck was a duck. You know… those green headed birds that float in small ponds of water. The kind that you feed in parks, that quack and splash and waddle.  That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Once I started “putting myself out there”, once I started putting myself in the natural places where ducks naturally visit and congregate, I was blow away. The variety of species and their incredible color and markings drew me in more. The more shots that I got, the more that I wanted to get. No matter how good a photograph you to take today, you know that there is always the chance of getting a better one tomorrow.

When it comes to photographing ducks in flight, the best rule of thumb is to do what you can to increase your odds.  There is so much that is out of your control when trying to photograph any kind of bird in the wild. You don’t know when, where, or how the bird will appear and you don’t know how long you’ll have to get a shot. It’s all out of your control. However, there are a few things that you can do to increase your odds of getting the shot that you want, so don’t overlook taking control in the areas where you can.

Mallard Ducks in Flight

Mallard Ducks in Flight

Doing your homework

  • Learn the area – Although it is certainly possible to get a great shot of a duck on your first visit to a marsh or wetland, you are going to increase your odds by getting to know the area first. Make use of dark, dreary, cloudy days to visit to the place where you want to shoot. Watch and make note of what you see happening around you. Also make note of when it is happening. You’ll be able to make use of this information on the days when you go out to shoot. For example, at a marsh where I visit, I have learned that (for whatever reason) ducks and other water fowl like to cut a certain corner between two areas of water. By positioning myself near that corner, I know that I am going to get opportunities that I would not get anywhere else in the marsh.
  • Watch the calendar – The times of fall and spring migration are going to give you a wealth of opportunities that you will not have at other times of the year. This is because the duck population is on the move. Being a city boy, I was blown away on my first visit to a marsh during fall migration. I’d never seen so many birds in the air at once. So find out when birds are migrating through your area. Then plan to be out there as often as possible in order to enjoy and photograph the spectacle.

Northern Pintails in Flight

Northern Pintails in Flight

A couple basics

  • Time of day – You probably already know this, but it bears repeating. If you are interested in photographing wildlife, then the hours just after sunrise and just before sunset are the best hours of the day because wildlife is more active at those times. This seems to be especially true with ducks.
  • The more light the better – This rule of thumb applies to taking photographs of any bird in flight, but even more so when photographing ducks because they are so fast. You need fast shutter speeds to freeze action and for that you need plenty of light.  Bright sunny days are going to be your friend in this regard.

Female Mallard Duck Taking to Flight

Female Mallard Duck Taking to Flight

When you are out there

  • Be aware of the sun – It’s a basic rule of bird photography, but it is worth mentioning again. You are going to want to position yourself with the sun at your back. Shooting into the sun can give you some nice silhouettes, so that is something to keep in mind. However, keeping the sun at your back will give you the best chance at a shot that shows the markings, coloring and character of the bird.
  • Make note of wind direction. Ducks are fast. That is one of the first things I learned. Dog-gone-it, they are fast! It is almost as if the very moment that you see a duck coming, it is already too late to get a shot of it. By the time you get the camera to your eye, find the bird in the view finder and let the camera focus, the bird has already flown past. In order to give yourself a little more time, make note of the wind direction and then focus much of your attention downwind. The reason for this is that if the duck is flying into the wind, it is going to slow it down a bit and that is going  to give you a little more time to get your shot. Keep looking in all directions, but give priority to the downwind direction.

Wood Ducks in Flight

Wood Ducks in Flight

  • Be at the ready – As I have mentioned a few times now, flying ducks are fast and they don’t give you much time to get a shot. That means that you will want to stay “at the ready”. I can’t tell you how many shots I’ve missed because I’d put my hands in my pockets to warm them, or I’ve let my camera dangle around my neck because I was getting bored. Stay at the ready. Keep your camera in your hands and be prepared to react at a moment’s notice and you’ll keep the ducks from flying past you while jerking your hands from your pockets and fumbling for your camera. This is a lesson I have had to learn time and time again.
  • Fill the memory card – When a bird comes, take as many shots as you can. As it flies past it will happen so quickly that it’ll be impossible to gauge which shot will be your best, so take as many shots as you can and worry about “the best shot” later when you are processing the photographs on your computer. This issue translates into equipment more than anything else. You don’t want to be stopped because your camera’s buffer has filled and it’s trying to write to your memory card. If you can, invest in the memory cards with fast write speeds in order to keep the data flowing from the camera’s sensor through the buffer to your memory card. A fast memory card will reduce the chances of missing the shot that you want. 

    Northern Pintail Taking to Flight

    Northern Pintail Taking to Flight

  • Conceal yourself if you can – Anything that you can do to hide yourself from the birds is going to help you. This can range from the clothes you wear to the place where you set up. Try to blend in as best as you can. Keep from wearing bright colors and wear earth toned clothing or camouflage colored clothing if you can. I envy those who can set up using a duck blind of some type, but don’t be discouraged if that option isn’t open to you. Unfortunately when I visit the marsh my only option is to stand out in the open, yet I get plenty of opportunities as the birds fly by. I am sure that I’d get better and different opportunities if I was able to use a blind, but you do what you can. 

    Green-Winged Teal in Flight

    Green-Winged Teal in Flight

  • Use snow to your advantage. Actually, I learned this tip this spring. I went out to the marsh on a bright sunny day after we’d received about three inches of snow. The bright sunlight reflecting off of the snow filled the marsh with light and I was getting shutter speeds faster than I’ve ever gotten before. Not only that, but the light bouncing off of the snow lit up the underside of the birds as they passed by. I had a great day. I tend to stay indoors after a snow, but not anymore. I plan to take advantage of what I just learned
  • The best tip of all – This last tip is the easiest of them all because when you are outdoors with your camera and witnessing everything that happens around you, it just comes naturally.  Enjoy, Enjoy, Enjoy

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