Trip report: birds of prey photography in the Czech Republic
If you want help with your wildlife photography, then it’s at hand in the Czech Highlands, where you can enjoy an avian photographic odyssey accompanied by six other snappers, 15 birds of prey and one professional tutor
All was quiet in the forest, with only the whisper of a winter breeze stirring the closely set firs and the trill call of a bird hidden somewhere within its shadowy recesses. Underfoot was a thick carpet of sallow grass and copper leaves, while a shawl of vivid green lichen covered rocks and tree stumps. The scene was positively Tolkienesque.
All we needed now was for the star of this particular show to perform. He was an 11-year-old golden eagle called Rene, with pinsharp talons, a fearsome fishhook beak and a glossy sweep of chocolate and charcoal-coloured feathers. He was magnificent – and I was here to capture him in action in my new role as a member of the unofficial raptor paparazzi.
Arriving with bird on glove and smoking pipe in mouth, professional falconer Milan Straka set Rene down on a mossy mound about 50 feet away. To the left of the bird’s perch was a rough stone path that cut a swathe through the forest, leaving a clear line of trees in the distance. It was the perfect backdrop, providing a sense of depth to our images, and, just like every other location we visited, had been selected specifically for its photogenic qualities.
Pacing back and positioning himself behind us, Milan began calling Rene, whose eyes locked on a dead chick hanging limply from Milan’s glove. I had barely focussed my lens on his beak when he raised his powerful wings above his head and launched himself high into the air before swooping towards us, the rush of air over his outstretched wings accompanied by a rapid burst of camera shutters as we attempted to seal the moment on memory card.
If the thought of having one of the world’s most finely tuned avian predators flying straight for you sounds terrifying, then try looking at it through an unwieldy telephoto lens, while attempting to take a publishable image of it in flight. Judging by the hushed elation of my fellow paps, I could only conclude they had faired distinctly better than I had as I glumly scanned the set of blurry images popping up on the screen of my DSLR. This, I thought, was going to be harder than I’d bargained for.
The previous day I had arrived in Žárské vrchy, two hours south east of Prague in the Czech Republic, to take part in a threeday, twonight bird of prey workshop organised by UK tour operator, Tatra Photography. Joining me were six other seasoned and aspiring snappers from across the UK, with professional wildlife photographer Ben Hall and Filip Fabian, our Slovakian driver, interpreter and daytoday cajoler, completing the crew.
Over the duration of our trip we were given the opportunity to photograph 15 different species of raptor, both in flight and at rest. As someone accustomed to spending more time searching for wildlife than photographing it, the idea of being delivered captive birds on tap seemed a bit like cheating. In fact, let’s be honest, that’s exactly what it was. However, I hadn’t travelled there to find and photograph the native wildlife of the Czech Republic, I’d come to take pictures of a wide variety of birds of prey in the hope of improving my meagre wildlife photography skills – an objective that would have been impossible to achieve under any other circumstances.So why, as one of my companion’s wives asked, was it necessary to fly to the Czech Republic? After all, don’t we have the same birds in captivity in the UK? The answer to that particular question is Helena Kuchynková, founder of Station Stop – a local wildlife rescue centre that houses a number of birds of prey. She is a keen photographer who has spent years searching out the best locations for herself and others to take pictures oThenf her birds.
Then there is the region itself. Known as the Czech Highlands, this part of the country is popular with crosscountry skiers thanks to its undulating landscape and vast tracts of fairytale fir forests. During the winter months the entire area is usually blanketed with several feet of snow, providing the perfect backdrop for nature photography and an added dimension that would be hard to replicate in the UK.
“We run this trip both in November and February to coincide with autumn colour and winter snow and light,” said Ben. “We limit the group numbers to seven, so each participant has ample room, and it is also more manageable from a tuition point of view. The standard varies greatly from complete beginners to more accomplished photographers who come for the chance of adding some great images to their portfolio.”
Sadly, in our case, the weather had not cooperated and any hope of snow quickly dwindled as we headed up into mountains dappled with sunlight. After dropping our bags at our hotel and grabbing essential gear, we headed straight out on the road, or rather straight up the hill outside our hotel, before pulling up in a park where Milan was waiting for us. As locals walked their dogs and the pale evening sun cast long shadows over the fields, we were introduced to Charlie, a 20-year-old buzzard, who was the first of our photographic subjects. Placing him down on a tripod, Milan immediately set to work, calling him to and from his glove as we rattled off the first set of photographs. In between flights Ben walked around the group, asking us how we were getting on, recommending different camera settings or encouraging us to try a different angle to give our pictures a different feel or a more complementary backdrop.
Next up was a red-tailed hawk, a North American and West Indian native that nevertheless didn’t look out of place perched on the dewy branches of a Czech fir tree as we grappled with lenses, tripods and spent memory cards. It was followed by a mighty steppe eagle that was placed in an area of long grass and seemed perfectly content to bask in the final rays of the day, occasionally ruffling its feathers or eyeing us suspiciously as we crawled across the frozen ground, trying to find the perfect angle, until poor light stopped play.
The following morning started with a dawn drive and brought fresh challenges as we were given the opportunity to photograph a number of birds in flight. These included Albie, a three-yearold snowy owl that dutifully performed a series of flybys across an open marsh, and Sammy, a four-year-old golden eagle that glided across a frozen forest pond as we ran from one end to the other, experimenting with water-level and elevated views while trying to perfect the art of maintaining focus during a burst of continuous shots.
“Probably the most common mistake is to use a shutter speed that is too slow for the situation,” explained Ben, as I swept my camera from side to side, struggling to keep Sammy in the frame. “To ensure a pin sharp shot of a bird in flight it is vital that shutter speeds used are fast enough to freeze a moving subject,” he continued. “I find people are often reluctant to shoot at a high ISO setting for fear of noise, but as I always say – it is best to have a sharp image with noise than a soft image that is noisefree.”
While Sammy pushed my skills to the limit, an even greater challenge was provided later that afternoon as we headed up to a wooded hilltop surrounded by open fields. This time our muse was a small lanner falcon as it performed aerial acrobatics, circling and hovering effortlessly overhead, before folding its wings back and hurtling to the ground to claim a small mousesized toy that Milan dragged across the ground. Sadly, all I managed to capture on camera was a blurry shot of its fanned tail feathers as I attempted to track its aerial stunts.
Back at the hotel that evening we were given a presentation by Milan and Helena, who explained how they had forged a living working with their beloved birds. While Milan offered an insight into his 34 years working as a professional falconer and breeder, not to mention consulting on a number of Hollywood films featuring his birds, including Van Helsing and Brothers Grimm, Helena described how she had established her rescue centre for birds and small mammals such as pine martens, foxes and hares, before putting us
to shame with a slideshow of her own wildlife photography.
Sample tour: Tatra Photography’s Birds of Prey Workshop runs in both October and February and costs between £499 and £529 per person. This includes return flights between the UK and Prague (departure airport negotiable), all transport, two nights’ accommodation and three days’ photography tuition. Over this period you will have the opportunity to photograph a number of birds of prey in flight and at rest in a variety of natural settings.
Getting there: The flight from London to Prague takes just under two hours. From Prague airport it is a further two hours’ drive to Žďárské vrchy. All of the photographic locations are within an hour’s drive of the hotel.
Visa requirements from the UK: No visa is required for British passport holders
Recommended equipment: During the winter this region of the Czech Republic can be covered with several feet of snow so take appropriate clothing and footwear.
As the majority of the birds’ flights are performed at relatively close proximity, a lens offering a focal length of up to 300mm should be sufficient, although you may want to consider taking both wider and longer lenses for variety. Matt used a Nikon D3200 DSLR camera with a Nikon Nikkor 70-300mm lens and a Sigma 150-500mm lens. For the static shots a tripod or bean bag is recommended for stability. As this is a short trip, only the evenings are spent at the hotel and there is little time available for uploading or editing photos, so take chargers, spare battery packs and plenty of memory cards.
When to go: Go in February for the snow and winter light, or October for the autumnal colours. The variety of birds will be similar at either time so it comes down to personal preference in terms of the natural backdrop on offer.
Tel: 0161 408 8988;
On our final morning, proceedings took a macabre turn as roadkill was introduced as a photographic prop – first with Hades, an eightyearold raven, which was offered the severed head of a young deer Helena had found dead on the roadside the previous day (it turned out Hades was more interested in biscuits), and then later with a northern goshawk, which was presented with a dead hare. No sooner had the hare’s corpse been placed on the forest floor than the goshawk set about attacking it as we looked on through our viewfinders, not sure whether to be horrified or in awe.
Last up were the little guys, starting with Adele, a twoyearold boreal owl that perched motionless in the branches of a birch tree, seemingly oblivious to the volley of shutters all around. As we experimented with angles, distances and settings, Helena explained that the boreal owls are native to the Czech Republic, with a small number living in 20 nest boxes she had personally installed in the forest we were standing in.
Providing the pintsized finale was Ruby, a little owl that Helena carefully placed in a hole at the base of a fir tree, back in one of the original forest locations we had visited. As my fellow paps erected tripods or hunkered down behind tree stumps for the last time, I knelt down to one side of the tree, the owl just visible at the mouth of the hole, and focussed my camera. Distracted by my movement (or was it the swishing of my waterproof trousers?), it leaned forward to see what this strange human was up to, and I took a couple of shots of it looking towards me. For once, I’d captured the moment just as I’d wanted – the resulting image of it peering grumpily out of its tree root hole providing my favourite memento of our avian photographic odyssey.
Ben Hall offers his top 10 tips for taking beautiful images of birds
- Shoot at eye level
Depending on the height of your subject, this might mean lying flat on the ground, or trying to find a raised vantage point, so it is not always as simple as it sounds!
- Focus on the eye
The eye is the most critical part of the image and must be pin sharp, unless, of course, you are using some intentional blur for creative effect.
- Watch your shutter speed
The main cause of a soft image is the shutter speed dropping too low. Keep a close eye on your settings at all times and increase your ISO if necessary.
- Blow out the background
Using a wide aperture will lead to an out-of-focus background. This will in turn eliminate distractions and help the bird to ‘pop’ from the frame.
- Leave negative space in front of the bird
When composing your shots, leave room in the frame for the bird to move or look into. This will help to create a pleasing and balanced composition.
- Use a stable support
Tripods are, of course, essential for wildlife photography but this doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of other means of support. Beanbags are especially handy for ground level subjects.
- Practice handholding
Handholding your camera for flight shots gives you much more freedom of movement. Just be sure to keep your shutter speeds high enough.
Using a slow shutter speed and panning with a moving subject can convey a sense of motion and energy. Just be prepared to take lots of images!
- Use predictive focus
When shooting birds in flight, switch to the predictive focus mode which will track your subject as it moves.
- Go wide
Rather than attempting to fill the frame, pull back and show your subject in context. This type of image is often by far the more interesting.
We wouldlike to see your wildlife photos so dont forget to upload them to our flickr page HERE. Every month we print a selction in the magazine as well as our weekly newsletter.