How to Photograph a Goshawk in Flight

A behind the scenes look at how Charlie Hamilton James photographed this bird of prey.

Charlie Hamilton James photographed Ellie for the February 2018 National Geographic magazine story, Brainiacs.

If you see a bird doing something cool on TV in the UK, trainers Lloyd and Rose Buck are more often than not behind it. Their northern goshawk, Ellie, has appeared on TV loads of times. She’s a bit of a star.

Goshawks are ambush hunters. There’s not much time in their world for much outside of killing. Their shtick is to wind and weave at high speed through bushes and trees to outmaneuver their prey. The agility of goshawks is mind blowing. To tell the story of this bird, I needed to show her speed and grace.

I wanted to shoot the image on a long exposure and then light the flight path of the bird to create motion blur, giving Ellie the look of a jet exploding out of the gap in the branches.

First, I needed a dull day (luckily there is no shortage of those in England.) Then we found a tree limb in Lloyd and Rose’s garden that had formed a natural hole narrow enough that Ellie would have to navigate it, rather than fly easily through.

We lit a thin sliver of the tree to highlight Ellie as she came through the hole. We kept the rest of the frame dull so the blur created by Ellie’s movement wouldn’t be ghosted by whatever was behind her.

Then we added some strobes. By setting the camera to a reasonably slow shutter speed—around 1/8th of a second—we’d get Ellie coming through the hole in the branches at high speed. She’d burn her flight path on to the camera sensor as it was lit by the big studio light, then just before the camera shutter closed the strobes would fire and freeze her body. That was the plan anyway.

It took two days to get the image. Ellie didn't mind—she was getting fed and we’d only work when she was ready. The really tricky thing was firing the camera at the right moment. She was moving like a bullet and I had to guess where she’d be at the end of the exposure rather than the beginning.

I think we got it in the end though.

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