Nikon D500 and Early Morning Ospreys

For a number of years now I’ve been keen to experience the sight of ospreys fishing.  I’ve seen it so many times on television and in images, and it looked incredible.  I had observed a couple of ospreys either sitting on a nest or tree through scopes, but that’s all.

I initially thought that my late August Highlands trip was going to be too late for the ospreys who by that point would be packing up their nests and heading off to warmer climes for the winter.  However I came across a video blog on FB where journalist Andrew Laxton Hoyle documented a trip to Aviemore and a couple of sessions with Gordon at Aviemore Ospreys.  I had only been aware of the Rothiemurchas osprey set-up, so did a bit of research and got in touch with Gordon.  Luckily my trip coincided with the tail end of the season and I booked a morning session for the day after I arrived and was assured that no ospreys meant no payment.

I then panicked – a morning with the ospreys is really expensive, and I didn’t want to screw up!  I did as much research on photographing them fishing as I could and then, two weeks before heading North I made the decision to look out all my old camera gear and part-exchange it for a 2nd hand Nikon D500 which, given everything I’d read about it, seemed like the perfect camera for high-speed bird photography.

This was risky, especially as it only arrived a few days before my osprey session.  On the one rain-free evening I took the camera with the Nikkor 300mm F4 lens attached down to my local Glasgow park and tried it out on the flying gulls.  Wow, impressive.  I used a variety of focusing methods and settled on group focus as the best option.  The camera locked onto the birds extremely quickly and with its incredible buffer (up to 200 images in raw if you use the fast XQD card (also super-expensive, but I figured if I had a camera with such capabilities it was silly not to take advantage of them)) it was easy to capture sharp images of the fast moving gulls. Given that it was my first go with the camera I was delighted with the images I came away with.


This definitely made me feel a little better about the osprey session although I was still nervous I’d screw up as I drove to Aviemore at silly o’clock on Sunday morning as I was scheduled to meet Gordon at 5am.

I didn’t really know what to expect – certainly I had presumed the body of water would be larger than it was – it was really just a small pond filled with hungry fish.   There were two hides set into the ground to give low-level views one for face-on shots the other side profiles.  There were four of us and we used the face-on hide.

It was still dark as we set-up, again I used the Nikon D500/Nikkor 300mm F4 combo, giving me a focal length of 450mm on the crop-frame sensor.  Gordon left us with a walkie talkie and disappeared to a location good for spotting incoming birds.  It wasn’t long before he was telling us of birds circling above.  Great that they were, not so great that the light was still very poor!

They started dropping at 5.45 – for late August far too early for usable images, but a good chance to test out the D500.  I pushed the ISO up super-high (51200) to allow for a shutter speed of 1/500 at F4 – still too slow really, but I knew these images would be record/trial shots only to get the hang of photography the birds – and of couse hoped they’d keep coming as the day dawned.  The ospreys came down so fast, landed in the water, before scooping up a fish and flying directly towards us before heading away.  Amazing to watch.

These are a couple of the very early images, really just to show what the D500 can do at such a high ISO.  I’ve only slightly tweaked the exposure from the raw files, no noise reduction


…not photographs I’d normally publish, but again, I was impressed at how good the camera dealt with the noise at such a high ISO.  With some noise reduction they look ok as photos of record, it’s certainly possible to make out the features of the birds.

Fortunately though, the birds continued to drop for another hour, and the light by the end was almost ok – if I’d had another 30 minutes of action the light would have been great, but that wasn’t to be…  It was mostly juveniles, just learning how to fish for themselves, so there were a number of failures and abandoned drops – but this was good as it meant more appearances.

It was interesting how submerged the birds are initially


and amazing that they manage to haul themselves out of the water, often with large fish in their impressive talons



…and then fly off.  Stunning looking birds when you see them up close.  So powerful with that intense yellow eye.


Not all were successful, some dropped the fish.


It was a wonderful experience if frustratingly dark and frustratingly short-lived.   I’d never really expected to be so close.   The D500 performed brilliantly and I think justified its existence in my camera bag. As with the gulls it locked and kept focus and even in the low-light didn’t struggle with this.  The large buffer allowed for me to find the bird and just keep taking pictures until it was gone, capturing more of the action.  I used the group focusing mode again with back button focus and it worked a dream, I also only took RAWs.  I’d highly recommend this camera for photography like this.  The 300 prime was also a good choice, although there were times, due to the speed of the action that I missed the wing-tips (see below) which was so annoying! And I’d also recommend Aviemore Ospreys.  A fraction cheaper than Rothiemurchas and a lovely setting.  I now have the osprey bug – not great for the bank balance! – and hope to return a little earlier in the season next year to try again in better light.


Highland based nature photographer and guide specialising primarily in Scottish wildlife but available to cover live music and events.

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