Photographing Snowy Swans
Plus 5(ish) Tips for Wildlife Photography
Each year as winter approaches and temperatures sink, I get nervous I won’t be able to find birds and wildlife to photograph. Most of this December and January I came up empty handed at my usual spots. I did get lucky enough to shoot short-eared owls, muskrats, nuthatches, and geese early on, but then as the scouting trips continued, I continued to go home without images.
So you can imagine my delight when a trip to Prophetstown State Park resulted in several days out with mute swans. I usually don’t see much at Prophetstown, and honestly, I haven’t given it enough time. But in the weeks prior I had been on the look-out there for another species when I came around the corner and saw this beautiful family of 3: a mated pair and their juvenile.
My wildlife photography blues lifted as I got closer to the water and began to assess the situation from a safe distance. Here are some things I was considering:
1. Where can I best get eye-level with the swans and still give them their space?
Getting eye-level with an animal or bird creates an intimate portrait, so getting on my belly was a must. If I would’ve shot from a standing position, the swans would have looked dominated or hovered over, and I didn’t want that.
2. What is the best background for the birds?
I wanted to make sure I stayed aware of what was behind each of the swans and what it would look like in my final image. Now, in this situation, I had the rocky, scraggly lines of where the pond met land. I tried my best to pick the cleanest spots and wait for the birds to swim in front of them. I moved around a lot, sometimes Army crawling, to make sure my background was as clean as it possibly could be in the situation.
3. Am I getting a variety of shots?
Am I remembering to shoot vertically and horizontally? Have I gotten wide shots of the birds in their environment and close-ups to show the details? Did I get any video? Did I vary the numbers of swans in each shot? There are so many things I should remember, and thankfully I had 4 days to make additional shots and corrections if needed.
4. Am I catching the best gestures of the swans?
Am I waiting for intimate moments between mother and juvenile? When do they puff up their feathers? How do they eat? What’s the best head position when they preen? These are all things I have to consider as I watch through the viewfinder on my belly. I want to capture what swans do, how they behave, and their individual personalities the best that I am able.
5. Are my settings correct?
This question is first and foremost and the one that should always be going through my head. I still make a lot of mistakes, but I’m working on keeping my eye on each of my settings as I peer through the viewfinder. I want to make sure my shutter speed is high enough to capture their feathers and movement, but also keep my ISO low enough where I don’t have noise.
All this plus light, lens choice, aperture, weather, etc. were going through my head. Again, I had four days so it was a great time to practice and hone my skills. Getting to know this swan family, even if only for a short time, gave me a chance to see how regal and protective the father was, how delicate and pristine the female was, and just how messy and gangly their juvenile was – just like my 13-year-old boy!
The most magical day was when snow started falling. I had been craving snow. It cleans up the background in photos and accentuates the subject so nicely. Plus, it’s just so darn pretty! I was resigned to the fact that snow was not in the forecast at all for the next 10 days, but then as I lay there, here it came! The swans glided through the soft flakes as I pressed my shutter and let it fly. They were so beautiful.
I have so much to learn and need to grow in so many ways, but these days are why I keep going with this crazy wildlife photography passion.