How to Photograph a Bufflehead

March 5, 2017

A bufflehead, sometimes referred to as a “butterball” by duck hunters, rides the waves on a windy morning at Horseshoe Lake State Park in Illinois.

The bufflehead is one of Missouri’s smallest ducks, just a little bigger than the green-winged teal. They also possess several colors from your childhood crayon box, including violet, magenta, and metallic green. I ran into a group of them Saturday morning at Horseshoe Lake, feeding off a rocky point. Below I’ve outlined my technique for photographing these tiny waterfowl from 25 – 30 feet away, the proximity required to avoid significant cropping and loss of feather detail.

Step 1 — Where to Go:

Head to a moderately open body of water where you might expect to find buffleheads and other divers. These images were taken at Horseshoe Lake but I’ve also photographed buffleheads on the Mississippi River, Ellis Bay, Perry Lake in Perry County, and even on Teal Pond at Riverlands.

Step 2 — Equipment:

Get your equipment ready, including the longest and fastest lens you can afford. I prefer a 500/4. I’m going on the assumption that if you have one of these monsters, you know how to use it so I’ll leave it at that. Dress in drab colors, preferably camouflage, including some camo to throw over your camera and tripod. You’ll need a cushion or something comfortable to sit on for a long time, up to three hours. I use a Cabela’s Predator Lounger, which is a camo beach chair.

Step 3 — Setting up Your Hide:

Buffleheads prefer certain locations on a lake for courtship and feeding, year after year. Glass the lake for a place along the shoreline where they are active. You might be surprised that they tend to aggregate near a shoreline more often than not. Once you’ve spotted a group, park your car at least 100 meters away and head to a patch of cover at the edge of the lake near their location. It is okay to flush them because they usually come back if you are well concealed. Settle yourself in as fast as possible and take advantage of natural cover.

Step 3 — The Wait:

The wait is the most important part. It might take up to three hours for a group of buffleheads to return. Sometimes they will stay just out of range for hours, taunting you like a spring gobbler. My advice is when you feel you can’t sit there another minute, give it another hour! That’s my rule. The only thing working against you, other than a bad case of the fidgets, is that the longer you wait, the harsher the light becomes. Oh, I suppose another factor would depend on how much coffee you had on the way to the lake. Joyce suggested the other day that I get a “Stadium Pal” like Wolowitz had on “Big Bang Theory”while waiting in line for the new “Star Wars.” By the way, don’t play on your iPhone. It will guarantee an opportunity for an image which you will be guaranteed to miss!

Step 4 — Prepare for the Shot:

Often a group of buffleheads will move back to the shore and then follow it up or down to your location. Keep an eye out peripherally, both ways at all times. They can sneak up on you! When you see them approaching, aim your lens in that direction while they are still too far out to notice. Let them swim right into your lens! Sometimes, a group of buffleheads will be straight out from you at about 150 meters when all of the sudden they decide to lift off and fly right into your lap. Be ready for anything. Below is an image of a typical fly-by at water level that can happen in a matter of a second or two. These birds are fighter jet fast! Don’t miss the opportunity.


Step 5 — Don’t Blow It!:

When the buffleheads finally come into range, make sure you don’t blow the shot due to their extreme dynamic contrast. Try to expose for the whites and wait for the dark face of the bird to come into a swath of friendly light. The brighter the morning gets, the tougher it gets to expose a bufflehead properly. As you can see from these images, they were taken beyond the optimum shooting time.

If you follow these five steps, you’ll have a decent chance at capturing nice images of one of Missouri’s most fascinating waterfowl. Don’t be discouraged if this method doesn’t work the first 10 or 20 times you try it. Photographing ducks is a frustrating endeavor, to say the least.


A closer view with a little more feather detail at the rear.


Check out the head on this little drake! The bufflehead is so named because it has such a large head, not unlike a buffalo.

Happy shooting, and I look forward to seeing some of your bufflehead pics! And remember, I’ll be able to tell how far you were away when you released the shutter.

Thanks for looking,


Email me any time at:  Natureframes@Rocketmail.Com

Gallery of Images/Print Info:


Note:  If you are interested in a metal print of one of my images, let me know. I’m using a lab in St. Louis that does amazing work.



2 comments on “How to Photograph a Bufflehead”

  1. Since Step 1, for me, would include “Take a very expensive flight of nearly nine thousand miles and thirty hours”, I give my own “How to” below.

    How to enjoy a photograph of a Bufflehead:

    Step 1. Switch on your laptop.
    Step 2.Go to
    Step 3. Select this post.
    Step 4. Admire the beautiful image, and write to tell the photographer that.


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