I love Great Gray Owl images they are always my absolute favorite. Living in the south it just isn’t a bird that I encounter…ever. I’d love to tell you the story of how I struggled mightily through the forest to make the image, but that would not be the truth. In fact it is a bird from a rehab facility, which we placed in perfect light, in a perfect setting and were able to make a perfectly acceptable image. And one that I doubt you could tell wasn’t taken in the wild!
For the casual photographer and many working professionals photographing birds at a local rehab facility can be a satisfying means to an end. That is assuming your goal is getting a great shot of a subject that normally would be quite difficult, too costly or frankly impossible to photograph any other way.
These facilities take in birds that have been injured and raise them back to health in order to be re-released. Occasionally, a bird’s injury may be too severe for the bird to be released and these often become ambassadors for the species and the facility will use them to educate people about the birds. These are wonderful for the facility as it can help them raise money and wonderful for the photographer as you can make some great images.
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Here are my Top 10 Perfect Reasons why rehab birds rock as models!
Shoots Are Always Perfect
The most obvious is that you are guaranteed a successful shoot. There will not be a need to wander the woods in search of that elusive owl or hawk. You can always find the birds at a rehab facility!
Modest Equipment is Perfect
In the wild a 500mm lens is considered the norm for successful bird photography and really is more of a minimum focal length for photographing birds in the woods. At a rehab facility even point and shooters have the ability to make good images because we place the birds on the perch and then you walk up and take your shots. 90% of my rehab images are taken with my 70-200mm lens.
Here is the Great Gray again, this was cropped square, but was made at 200mm.
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Conditions Are Always Perfect
Since we are placing the model where we want we always have perfect light and conditions for the image. Try that in the woods! I’ve even taken diffusers and reflectors to help tame the light for clients on my photography workshops that involve models.
Composition Can Always be Perfect
These birds rarely move once they are in position and so you can really work the subject from all angles. You also have time to photograph a combination of focal lengths and both horizontal and vertical shots. In the wild you may only have seconds to get a single image. With a rehab shoot, you can literally take as much time as you need.
Success Rate is Always Perfect
Well at least the success rate of finding the birds is always perfect. If you don’t get the shots you wanted that is operator error and not bird error!
Experimentation is Perfect
Because we have the luxury of time we can take that opportunity to play with exposures or techniques like blurs and multiple exposures.
I was playing with the exposure and made this “spooky” portrait.
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Cost to Production Ratio is Perfect
You will get a ton of great shots with minimal or no cost. Many rehab facilities offer free exhibitions of their birds or perhaps charge a modest fee. These free shots are not always as customizable as a paid session. These facilities are always cash strapped and I’ve had great luck in hiring their animals for private sessions. Offering them free images or prints is a great way to grease the wheels to get better access to the birds. The better relationship you build with your local facility the better your access will be and therefore you’ll also get better images.
Not only that, but normally you will have several species to shoot from. I’ve photographed 12 species of raptors and owls over a three-day workshop and well that would be tough to do in an un-controlled setting.
Time Spent Shooting is Perfect
Sometimes there are facilities that also have exotic birds that were perhaps confiscated or otherwise acquired by the facility. This can give you amazing opportunities to photograph birds from international locales without leaving town. With a rehab shoot you can get your images and be back home for lunch!
For example, this Harpy Eagle in flight would be pretty tough for you to get in the wild.
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Aiding Species Conservation is Perfect
There are a lot of ways amateurs and professionals alike get images in the wild and some of that entails calls and or bait. There is nothing wrong with this technique as long as it is done in a safe an informed manner. Excessive feeding can cause animals to become dependent on people for food. After you’ve got your shots and you stop feeding them the animals can be in jeopardy. The same is true with calls, excessive calling or inappropriate use of calls can shock birds out of their territories and cause havoc with breeding cycles.
FUN FUN FUN is Also Perfect
It’s fun because the staff is usually friendly and happy to have someone who loves their birds enjoy them. It’s fun because I get some great shots. And finally, it’s fun because I’ve helped out with the fine work done by these caretakers. See how I fit the “Fun” in three times, just like the title says!
There you have 10 reasons why photographing a rehab bird is not only rewarding, but also FUN.
I’d like to add that in no way am I suggesting that you should abandon photographing in the wild. That would be silly and counter productive. I find wild photography is ultimately more rewarding and offers more chances for great behavioral images. I am suggesting though that if you can round out your portfolio or perhaps add species that you cannot find to your portfolio by using the resources you have near home.
Here is a gallery of these and a few more images taken at rehab sessions.
Rehab facilities are not the only answer to the problem of “finding” raptors, I also work with Falconers and their birds. I’ve yet to meet a falconer that a) doesn’t love to show off their bird and b) have pictures of their birds taken.
This Swainson’s is not in “flight” but rather riding the wind on the falconer’s fist.
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