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Wildlife photography

Growing in popularity, but still not well-known, woodcock photography hunting sounds like a dream to us. Find all of our top tips and hear from those who enjoy the taking these photos.

Wildlife photography

It’s 10 a.m., and the dogs have already been searching out woodcocks for an hour, in this forest there is a great display of the most incredible autumnal colours. All of a sudden, everything falls silent: the two setters have just come to a standstill in front of some birch trees at the edge of a patch of fir trees. The woodcock takes flight, and I quickly squeeze the trigger several times. The dogs continue their quest, seeking out this woodland beauty. As for me, still under the spell of the emotion of the scene, I rush to take a look at the display screen on my camera. In the middle of the image, I spot a red mark... That’s it, I’ve finally taken my first shot of the season.

Over the past few seasons and given the boom in social media, we’ve been seeing more and more hunters posting incredible woodcock wildlife photographs. Shots of stunning landscapes, equally as stunning dogs, some shots of Scolopax Rusticola in flight, and even, for the luckiest among us, some shots of the bird spotted on the ground.

Taking woodcock wildlife photos is no easy task: Woodland hunting in itself is an initial challenge. Effectively, in this enclosed environment, the lack of light is the first foe encountered by the wildlife photographer. Plus, the woodcock’s near-perfect imitation of its woodland surroundings and the way it flies so quickly makes the activity very complicated indeed.

Camera vs. smartphone: which is best for taking shots while woodcock hunting?

The smartphones available on the market today allow you to take superb photographs. They can be used to take dogs when they top or to photograph the landscape. However, you’ll reach the limit of their capacities when the dogs are moving at speed in the midst of their hunt, or when the woodcock takes flight. It’s very rare to see photos taken on a smartphone of a woodcock in flight. So, you’ll need a DSLR or hybrid camera with a lens if you’re looking to take shots of moving dogs or woodcock in flight.
In order to determine the best kit for taking photos when woodcock hunting, we’ve interviewed three wildlife photographers who take incredible woodcock hunting action shots all year-round.

First stop: Brittany. Here, we met up with Arnaud de Wildenberg, a well-known fishing guide who enjoys woodcock hunting, and who most importantly is a professional photographer, working with the biggest agencies around.

Wildlife photography
Wildlife photography

Arnaud, could you introduce yourself?

I’m 66 years old and I discovered hunting a long time ago, with a 14 mm. I got my shooting licence when I was 16. After studying law, I was drawn by my passion for photography and started out as a journalist photographer in Afghanistan. I photographed the first Russian helicopter taken down there.
When I returned, I dreamt of working for Gama. So, I applied and I got the job. Next, I worked with Sigma and won two World Press awards, and also won the first Paris-Match award for a report on the famine in Uganda. I had the incredible opportunity of taking photos around the world.

In 2000, I found that I'd lost all emotion from my work, so I moved to Belle-île-en-Mer, where I became a fishing guide.
In 2001, a friend sold me a setter named Gordon, so I started hunting with pointer dogs in this area. I soon fell in love with this sport. A man, a dog, and a bird. It’s a trio I find great joy in.
Soon after that, I acquired several English setters. I have the pleasure of hunting 4 mornings each week, and the joy of collecting between 150 and 200 woodcock each season.

My past soon caught up with me, and the evolution in photography equipment gave me a desire to combine hunting with photography. Nowadays, I often enjoy heading out with my camera instead of my gun.

Could you give us some tips on wildlife photography, particularly for woodcock?

First of all, you need a pretty high-performance camera, with a relatively high photo throughput rate. In terms of lenses, I'd recommend a 70 - 200, with an aperture of f2.8, if possible. As for the shutter speed, I think the ideal is at around 1000, but it all depends on the lighting conditions. Another little thing that I do when my dogs are pointing, I set my focus and throw a pebble or a twig, making sure that I throw it high so that I have time to get ready to aim my camera at the place where I’m guessing the woodcock is.

NEXT STOP: LES LANDES TO SEE MR BERNÈDE.

Laurent, year in and year out, we’re seeing your woodcock shots online or in magazines: 

How did you get into woodcock wildlife photography?

I've also been an avid photographer, and when I was younger I had a film camera and developed my shots myself. In 2002, I discovered the world of digital photography. That gave me a real desire to try my hand at wildlife photography. I kitted myself out little by little, and I started to pack my camera kit with me when I headed out hunting. I love woodcock, and I’m a member of Section 40 of the National Woodcock Hunting Club.

How easy is it to photograph woodcock?

Not easy at all, it’s no mean feat given the various factors to take into account, such as the lighting, the vegetation, the speed and the trajectory of the bird. Framing the woodcock is an immense pleasure. I also love capturing my Gordon’s expressions and quirks, so it's already a joy to be able to photograph your dogs during trips out hunting woodcock.

Do you still hunt woodcock with guns?

My vision of hunting has changed. The dog's work and the respect for the fantastic bird that is the woodcock have meant that I’ve found it easy to put down my gun and pick up my bird freezing device, as I like to call my camera.

Wildlife photography
Wildlife photography

Have you got any tips for anyone wanting to get into woodcock wildlife photography?

I’d recommend that any hunters looking to get into photography invest in a good camera lens. You need the light to be able to get in. In my case, at the start of the season as I’m working behind the dogs, I use a basic 18 - 135, which allows me to shoot landscapes, the pointing dogs and to attempt some woodcock in flight. Next, without a gun, from December to February I use a 70 - 200 f/2.8, which lets in more light and means I can take some shots of woodcock in flight. As for the settings, on a Canon for example, I'd recommend the AI mode for tracking subjects, and the M mode for constantly adjusting the aperture and iso settings, so you can shoot as quickly as possible. You’ll need a shutter speed of at least 1/1600, but it's rare to get that. My last tip is for when the weather is bad and the lighting is poor: don't bother getting your photography kit out.

Meeting Alexandra

To finish, we had a few questions for Alexandra Kafanke, who took one of the grounded woodcock photos that illustrates this article.

Alexandra, how did you end up in woodcock wildlife photography?

Almost 10 years ago, I met a guy who was crazy for woodcock, and he introduced me to his passion. I quickly came to love following the dogs and photographing them. I kitted myself out following advice from Laurent Bernède in particular, and I started to take a few shots that often illustrate my partner’s articles.

Can you tell us anything more about the way this shot was taken of the woodcock on the ground? Do you usually photograph woodcock before they take flight?

This photo was taken one morning when I went out on my own with the dogs. I’d like to add that I got my hunting license a few years ago. One of my setters pointer in a pretty tricky spot that I wasn't familiar with. I tried to reach him, but couldn’t manage it. So, I got down on my knees to crawl under the vegetation. As I arrived behind the dog, I immediately spotted the woodcock, that was just 30 centimetres in front of him. I aimed my lens, adjusted my settings, and pressed the trigger. It’s a wonderful memory. I don’t think the woodcock expected me to approach in a crawl, so that meant I was able to get the shot. I've managed to capture woodcock on the ground one or two other times, and it’s always a little victory that brings great joy. We often go out just with our cameras, and on an evening it's a race to see who can look at what’s on their SD card first. It’s such a pleasure to see stunning shots of your dogs or, if you’re lucky, of a woodcock in flight.

Wildlife photography

Woodcock wildlife photography seems to be a real joy for the growing number of people enjoying the activity, as they take the time during a hunting outing to photograph the environment, dogs or Scolopax Rusticola: It’s a great way to collect wonderful memories of your hunting companions, as well as of the fantastic game bird that is woodcock.