Taking Flight

Miguel Lasa may be a physician by training, but he’s a top wildlife photographer by avocation
One of Miguel Lasa’s specialties is wild snowy owls; in fact, he used to conduct wild snowy owl photo workshops in Canada. Snowies present an exposure challenge. Lasa meets it by using plus exposure compensation and the histogram. He doesn’t use flash for snowy owls because the snow serves as a handy fill reflector.

If you visit Miguel Lasa’s website, you’ll find some amazing photos of ospreys, snowy owls, bald eagles and other birds swooping and diving and battling and just generally being birds. Many pro photographers photograph birds, and do it amazingly well. But UK-based Lasa has a talent for bringing the viewer right into the middle of the action with his photos and capturing the birds’ “personalities” as well as their motions.

Lasa spends much of his “spare time” out in the field (he’s a family physician by profession), often far afield, enjoying wildlife and making terrific photos. Besides birds, he also photographs bears, big cats and other animals—in fact, he recently won the “Creative Visions of Nature” category in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2008 competition with a gorgeous and unique shot of a rim-lit polar bear. He tracks down exotic birds and beasties in far-flung locales—Finland for ospreys, Alaska for bald eagles and brown bears, Canada for snowy owls and polar bears, India, Tanzania and even his native Spain. But his techniques and tips (see the “Bird-Action Photos” sidebar) can be applied to photographing flying birds anywhere.

Passion, Patience And Research
“You need to really enjoy what you’re doing so you can spend a lot of time out in the field,” Lasa says. “I sometimes have to wait many days, even weeks, for the right moments. If you don’t enjoy being out there, it’s difficult to get the shots.”

Lasa photographs bald eagles in Alaska. Many tours will get you to the birds, but capturing powerful photos requires knowledge of eagle behavior, a good sense of timing and long lenses. It also takes lots of patience to get dramatic shots of people-shy wild birds and sometimes use of a blind. miguel

To capture some species, Lasa must spend long hours in a blind, or hide. “You have to enter the hide while it’s still dark, then stay there until it’s dark again,” he says. “Birds have memories, and if they see someone entering or leaving the hide, they’ll stay away.”

A big believer in research, Lasa tries to learn all he can about a species and its behavior and habitat. “Some are easy to photograph, some are not,” he says. “Some are found only in specific locations or are most easily found there. Research will help you find birds and photograph them.”

Ospreys are one of Lasa’s specialties. These raptors dive feet-first into shallow water to snag fish, their primary source of food. Capturing the action is a challenge. One secret: Try to find a smaller body of water, so the osprey has to dive in near you.

The Right Stuff
Like most bird pros, Lasa uses pro D-SLRs and lenses. “You need a fast shooting rate to ensure that you get a shot or two with the wings in the right position,” he explains. Obviously, a quick and accurate AF system also is essential. Lasa uses a 10 fps Canon EOS-1D Mark III for flight shots, and he has many colleagues who use pro Nikon models, which are excellent for flight shots, too. Lasa uses a full-frame EOS-1Ds Mark II for environmental shots (photos of birds in their environment can add variety to a portfolio of tight action shots) and even an EOS 40D (with its 1.6x crop factor) for bird portraits. (Interestingly, his award-winning polar bear shot was made with the 40D.)

“When you’re in a blind, any noise—even that of changing lenses—can cause the birds to leave,” Lasa says. “So a telephoto-zoom can provide some noiseless compositional flexibility, letting you bring distant birds closer and also capture nearer ones without clipping fully spread wings.” That said, Lasa uses pro 300mm ƒ/2.8 and 500mm ƒ/4 prime lenses, and thus has to make an educated guess as to which will work better from the blind for a given situation.

Unless he’s deliberately trying for a blur effect, Lasa uses higher shutter speeds, at least 1/1000 sec. He adjusts his ISO, generally between 200 and 800, as the light changes to maintain a fast shutter speed. His fast pro lenses also help here.

“For best image quality, it’s better to expose properly at a higher ISO than to underexpose at a lower one,” says Lasa. “I switch to ISO 800 if 400 won’t give me at least 1/1000.”

He uses shutter-priority AE mode, so he can be sure of having a fast enough shutter speed. He also likes the artistic background blur of wide apertures, so he adjusts his ISO to allow him to use the desired shutter-speed/aperture combination in the existing light level.

Keep an eye out for nonaction moments, too. This is one of Lasa’s most popular shots. It looks like this snowy owl is laughing, but it’s actually screaming a warning at the photographer.

While all D-SLRs have wide-area, multiple-point AF systems, most bird photographers use single-point AF for flight shots. “I use the center AF point for most flight shots,” says Lasa. “If I know which way the bird will go, I sometimes use one of the other AF points to suit that particular composition.”

Autofocusing is quicker with single-point AF, and often the central AF point is the most sensitive. “The most important thing is to keep the active AF point on the bird,” he stresses. “And that isn’t easy—it takes lots of practice.”

Like many bird pros, Lasa uses a gimbaled head on his tripod, allowing for smooth panning to track moving subjects.

Of course, Lasa uses continuous AF for flight shots. His pro cameras and lenses allow him to set things, so pressing a button on the lens sets single-shot AF for birds at rest. When he senses the bird is about to move, he lets go of the button and is back in continuous AF.

Lasa points out that his EOS-1D Mark III (like many newer pro models) has a special setting telling the camera how to behave regarding the background, i.e., how long it should wait before focusing on the background should you let the AF point move off the bird. “If the AF moves to the background, lift your finger off the button and start over again,” he advises. “The camera won’t quickly regain focus otherwise.”

To nail exposures in tricky situations, Lasa uses the histogram display. “Each time I set up, I take a shot and check the histogram. I make any necessary exposure adjustments, and I’m ready when the action starts.” Lasa likes his histograms to stretch 80% to 90% of the way to the right end, but not all the way, to avoid blown-out highlights (a frequent problem with white and partly white birds).

Lasa sets his cameras’ evaluative (multisegment) metering with up to +2 stops of exposure compensation in snow or overcast lighting and rarely more than +1 stop in bright sun. But he points out that each camera’s metering system is different, so it pays to test yours to see how it works. Learn your meter, use exposure compensation as needed, and always check the histogram of a test shot before the real action begins.

While he doesn’t use flash for snow shots because all that white nicely fills in shadows naturally, Lasa sometimes uses fill-flash in summer to lighten shadows and separate the bird from the background. A flash extender (such as the Tory Lepp Project-A-Flash or Walt Anderson Better Beamer) uses a Fresnel screen to concentrate the flash beam, narrowing its angle but extending its range—perfect for super-telephoto work. Many D-SLRs and accessory flash units let you adjust the flash-to-ambient light ratio. Lasa recommends experimenting with this until you get a balance that looks natural. Shots that look flash-lit are seldom very good.

Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM
Lenses For Bird Photography
Serious bird photographers seem to gravitate to the pro 300mm ƒ/2.8, 400mm ƒ/2.8, 500mm ƒ/4 and 600mm ƒ/4 optics, in large part because they autofocus faster and more accurately than lesser lenses. But if your budget doesn’t allow for these expensive and bulky beasts, lower-priced lenses in these focal lengths can get you some good flying-bird shots. Major-brand 80-400mm, 100-400mm, 120-400mm, 150-500mm and 200-500mm super-tele-zooms are good bird lenses, but not as quick as pro models.
Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4L IS USM

It’s Now Or Never
Photographers strive to get the best composition in-camera, but Lasa says it’s more important to get the best moment. If you can do both, great. But don’t miss the moment by taking too long to compose. With flying shots, you usually have enough space around the bird to recrop when editing the image. But you can’t reshoot the moment in Photoshop.

For a number of years, Lasa conducted workshops photographing wild snowy owls in Canada. While he no longer does those, he points out that species-specific bird-photography workshops allow you to go out with an expert (or a team of them) to an area where the birds are found. Benefits include on-the-spot expert advice, access to the desired species and a much greater likelihood of getting great shots than if you head out on your own. You’ll get more out of a workshop—and more great shots—if you hone your action techniques on local flying birds before setting out on a workshop adventure.

Miguel Lasa’s Top 10 Tips For Your Best Bird-Action Photos
1 Passion & Patience. Give yourself time to get your shots. Birds live by their schedules, not yours.
2 Do Your Research. The more you know about your subjects, the more likely you are to find them and capture photogenic moments.
3 Use A Suitable Camera. Bird-action pros use pro cameras for a reason—they react more quickly and autofocus more quickly and accurately.
4 Use The Right Lenses. Pros use pro super-telephoto lenses because they’re sharper, autofocus more effectively and can better withstand hard outdoor use.
5 Use A Fast Shutter Speed. Birds move fast. Unless you’re after a blur special effect, use the fastest possible shutter speed for sharp flight photos.
6 Use Spot AF. The center AF point is generally the most sensitive, and the camera will acquire focus more quickly and maintain it better if only the center AF point is active. But be sure to keep that point on the bird at all times—that takes practice!
7 Use The Histogram. You have a tool that helps you nail those exposures—use it! Check the histogram for a test shot before the real action begins.
8 Use Fill-Flash When You Need It. An external flash unit with a flash extender can lighten shadows and separate the bird from the background.
9 Get The Moment Now, Compose Later. You’ll probably have “air” around the bird, allowing you to crop the shot when you edit it. So concentrate on capturing the decisive moment and keeping the active AF point on the subject, and worry about precise framing later.
10 Take A Bird Workshop. If you want to photograph a specific type of bird, take a workshop that specializes in that bird. The leader will find birds, get you close, show you how to get the best shots and can provide good feedback on your efforts.

To see more of Miguel Lasa’s photography, visit www.miguellasa.com.


    I have to agree with Richard Dumoulin. The practice of baiting Snowy Owls with live mice is getting out of control. Some groups actually start “seeding” the owls for weeks before the workshop to ensure they have a habituated owl. So before you ooh and ahh over the close shots just remember how they were taken and their “special techniques” for getting close to owls. The pictures of young snowies begging for food is sad sad testament to this type of photography. To make things worse, with a few exeptions, they never credit how they got the photo and very often photoshop out the obvious store bought mouse. Its just lazy!


    Good article but not all the truth. I live in Quebec Canada where most of the snowy owl photos have been made. Local photographer respect the snowy owl, it is the bird that represent Quebec. I have seen M. Lasa’s workshop in action. No need for patience or a long lens. They were using baits (live mouse) to get the snowy owl at 10-15 feets from the group. A mouse was thrown in the snow every 10-15 minutes. If you want my advice, these are easy shots.

    Part II (see previous comment)

    The snowy owl become used to feeding by the man and they “cry” for more mouse (see the majestic photo of the snowy owl on page 3 – this is exacly an image of a snowy crying for a mouse… in the wild a snowy owl will never approach you and never do that). The snowy owls became domesticated last winter and they followed people around “crying” for mouse.

    This thing did happen in Ontario and the local photographers there were not happy at all. Now the business has moved to Quebec. We are not happy at all. I personally perfer to wait 4 hours in the cold and snow to take a photo of a wild bird. Domestic snowy owl can be photographer at the zoo. Don’t make money domesticating wildlife bird for rich photographers. Please respect nature and wildlife.

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