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Tips and techniques

Photographing Wintering Swans

By December 28, 2015No Comments

Story and photographs by Bob Feldman

In late October, the last of the cabbage white butterflies flutter through the gardens and are gone. With their departure, the ground soon begins to get frosty, and the time to head for the river to look for swans is near.

The Huron River starts in a Michigan swamp, runs through five counties, and empties into Lake Erie. Its course takes it through Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I live. As the fall lengthens into winter and the leaves fall from the trees, large stretches of the river that have been concealed by foliage become visible from a riverside road.

A mute swan takes off on the snow.

A mute swan takes off on the snow.


I look for swans along the local stretch of the river and its impoundments. Generally, two species of swans are harbored here: introduced mute swans and native trumpeter swans. The mute swan adult is easily distinguished from the trumpeter by its bright orange bill with a black knob. The trumpeter’s bill is black. Both are big birds, with individuals weighing more than 20 pounds each.

Michigan has one of the largest mute swan populations in the country, which can be traced back to a single pair that was introduced from England in 1919 to Charlevoix County. There is a policy by the state department of natural resources (as well as several other state DNRs) aimed at severely reducing their number because of concerns about their impact on the environment and other wildlife. (For more information on this, see:,4570,7-153-10370_12145_59132_59333-263418–,00.html.)

The trumpeter is a good photographic subject; the mute swan is a great one. While the trumpeter

A trumpeter swan makes a splash.

A trumpeter swan makes a splash.

typically carries its neck in a C-curve, the mute swan’s neck is seen in a more graceful S-curve. The mute swan, when displaying, arches its wings up high and brings to mind a floating white wedding cake.

The images that accompany this article were all taken in winter—an uncommonly brutal winter. A winter swan shoot in Michigan or a state with a similar or even more severe winter climate is not an activity to be lightly undertaken. However, with the assistance of a super telephoto lens—something in the 500mm to 800mm range—a photographer can usually find a sane and stable piece of ground to shoot from. This activity need not be (and I do not make it) an extreme physical sport.

A mute swan stretches a leg.

A mute swan stretches a leg.

There is often snow and sometimes ice. There is no question that brutal winter conditions can make for beautiful foregrounds and backgrounds. A white blanket can hide some of Mother Nature’s less-becoming features, but this concealing beauty can be deceiving. The possibility of potential pitfalls and slippery stuff lurks beneath one’s steps. So I proceed cautiously, reminding myself that my youthful enthusiasm is confined within a septuagenarian’s body. As for the swans, so long as there is open water and food, some of the swans will risk even the toughest winter and stay in Michigan. What might the swan and the photographer have to deal with under these conditions?

For the photographer, a white bird on white snow is not too hard to deal with if one shoots during the shoulders of the day. However, a white swan on dark water or black ice can present a problematic contrast at almost any time of the day. This may require some extra pre-shutter-release thought about desired results, exposure compensation, and the employment of post-processing tools and techniques.

For the swan stranded on ice, the challenge is one of survival. A grounded swan cannot simply flap its wings and fly up. It is so heavy-bodied that it needs to taxi in order to generate sufficient lift for takeoff. This is usually done by running over water. I have seen swans run on snow and even on water that has some ice layered beneath it. But I have never seen a swan attempt to run across a field of solid ice in an effort to fly. The swan will carefully walk its way slowly across the ice to the nearest open water, or it will just stay put.

These are stressful conditions for the birds. On more than one occasion, I have stood for an extended period of time photographing and then just watching a lone swan stranded out on the ice. When darkness fell, I went home. Returning the next day, I found that the swan was gone. Sometimes the ice had melted; sometimes it had not. I’d like to think that all of these strandings had happy endings.

Bob Feldman has a passion for creating beautiful images reflective of the natural world. He is a frequent contributor to Nature Photographer magazine and has been published by National Wildlife and Audubon. Bob with his wife, Jorja, are photographers for the Ann Arbor Observer and author its “Outside” department. Contact info:

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