Photography Most Fowl

Photographing Ducks and Other Water Fowl

A duck by any other name ...

So okay, I can't wax poetic about ducks. At least, in the past I couldn't because a duck to me was one of those ugly black and white things with mottled red heads. You know, the ones my grandmother used to take my brother and I to feed down at the lake. The ones that bit my fingers.

The only other ducks in my immature thinking were Mallards, and all I could have told you about those were how they were embroidered on certain articles of clothing. A duck was a duck was a duck.

Then I became a photographer and met people with an entirely different view of birds and especially ducks. Suddenly, ducks were beautiful and unique, and I found myself asking, "Where around me are ducks like that?" Turns out, there were quite a few if I'd only stop to pay attention.

Northern Pintail Drake by Pete Moulton

Where are they?

The first key to photographing ducks and other associated water fowl is to go where the ducks are. Start at your local park. Chances are those ducks are more familiar with people and used to being approached. Second, let the ducks come to you. Ducks at city parks like being fed, so their hunger will ensure you get close.

However, one word of caution. Don't feed them yourself. If you are holding a camera in one hand and a piece of bread in the other, the duck will be too close for a photograph. (And you'll endanger your camera, especially if you're near water.) Instead, find someone else who is feeding the ducks and place yourself nearby or bring along your own duck-baiter. This will ensure you have enough distance between your camera and the ducks themselves.

Be sure to check all the ducks in the flock. Some of the more unusual ducks love to hide out with common ones. A good example of this are female Gadwalls, which look much like female Mallards. This Hooded Merganser hen was hiding out in a flock of Ring-neck ducks. An unwary photographer would have walked right past her.

Hooded Merganser Hen by Pete Moulton

How do I photograph them?

Pick a spot with the right angle of light. Do not look into the sun or you will have dark ducks. Front light works the best, though overhead lighting can work or diffused light on a cloudy day. But whatever the time of day, look at how the light is hitting other objects (trees, for example). If the light is coming from a direction away from the ducks, then they will not photograph well.

Also, bring your patience. Ducks are moving objects. Be willing to spend some time in one place in order to get the shot you really want. Avoid "toddler syndrome." You've seen this one: the four-year-old who runs careening through the ducks effectively scaring them all away. Keep your noise and movements to a minimum.

American Wigeon Hen by Pete Moulton

What equipment should I use?

Pete Moulton, who generously contributed these photographs and many of these helpful tips, uses a 100-400mm lens. But a 200-300mm will also work well. Of course, the longer the focal length the greater chance you have of photographing shier species.

If you have a point and shoot, then know what your maximum zoom distance is. As in all types of photography, the more familiar you are with your camera's capabilities, the easier it will be for you to take good photographs without a lot of effort and hassle.

American Coot by Pete Moulton

As a final point.

Lastly, look for other species of water fowl to be in with the ducks: American Coots, Marsh Hens, Grebes, etc. Where ducks feed, you will find other birds using up the opportunity for free grub.

Additionally, find a list of what's common in your area, or the area you are visiting, and learn what to look for. There's nothing more exciting that seeing that rare bird and realizing you know what it is. Lists also help you plan locations to photograph at and know behaviors for different species such as when they feed or are most active.

Pied-billed Grebe by Pete Moulton

I have to thank Pete Moulton for all these photographs. His photographs are what first made me realize that Muscovy ducks (aka. those "ugly, black things") were not the only ducks in existence. Pete photographed all these birds in Arizona.


Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography.