Shooting captive birds in controlled settings is an ideal way to gain top class images of a range of raptors in the U.K. These workshops and courses are offered up and down the country, varying in the birds on offer and the surroundings in which they take place. Some workshops are set within falconry centres, where the choice of background and natural perches may not be adequate enough to provide you with stunning pictures. Alternatively you want somewhere as rural as possible, so that you have the opportunity to create images that look natural. Working with captive birds is completely different to being out in the field, where choices of background and lighting can be limited. In controlled conditions, you don't have to worry about disturbing the birds (although respect any instructions from the falconer) this means that you can move your position to find the best background, and to alter the direction of lighting. Make the most of the situation, and be creative; you've nothing to lose especially if you are shooting digitally.
Try a couple of different lenses (or focal lengths if using a zoom lens). A telephoto lens of 300mm or more will give a lovely diffused background leaving your subject to stand out clearly. In contrast, a wide angle lens will allow you to include the bird's surroundings which can make a really exciting and interesting image this will look fantastic if the bird is set in the appropriate habitat. When taking static portraits, pay attention to the jesses (straps around the birds legs) you don't want to spoil the perfect image by making it obvious that the bird is not a wild one. Ask the falconer to move the bird slightly so that the jesses are hidden by foliage or even turn the bird round if necessary. Use the immediate surroundings as much as possible: if the bird is perched within a tree of burnished autumn colour then pull back to include those complimentary leaves. In terms of background, it's usually best to find the most attractive colour that provides a nice uniform backdrop. That said, with lighter birds such as barn owls, a completely dark background can be a great setting to place the bird against. When it comes to lighting, try to be creative as possible. Cloudy days won't give much option to change things, but if the sun is shining then you have choices. After taking a shot with the light behind you, try moving so that the bird is lit from the side, and if possible, have a go at shooting into the light to create a beautiful halo effect. This can make for a much more striking image. Make the most of the opportunity and don't just go for the standard shots.
Bear in mind that the setting can be very important. To make the images look truly natural, you need to know the habitat that the bird lives in, so that you can shoot in the correct environment. A barn owl sat on a farm gate or a buzzard shot against a valley backdrop are good examples of images that could be taken in the wild. In contrast, you're unlikely to find a little owl sat amongst a patch of heather moor, but this could be the ideal setting for a peregrine falcon.
When it comes to flight photography, it's mainly a case of taking lots of pictures to get a couple of perfect frames having the facility to shoot at least 3 frames per second will help. Autofocus is advisable when tracking birds, and particularly when they are flying past you in straight line flight. If you are shooting a bird flying head on towards the camera, then it's best to switch to manual focus, pick a point on the ground to focus on, and then fire rapidly as the bird flies into range.
Birds of prey have universal appeal, and are regularly used by many markets and can appear in books and magazines, as well as being used by advertising agencies and for other PR work. Cuter' images such as young owls may even appear on postcards and greetings cards. Natural looking images of popular British species can be extremely saleable in the U.K. it's only your imagination and creativity that limits the possibilities.
Paul Miguel is a professional landscape and wildlife photographer based in West Yorkshire . His work is regularly used by a number of magazines and publishers. He also runs a range of photography workshops.