Get up early and use a big lens. While excellent photos can be taken any time of the day, morning light always seems to be the most pleasing. While some very compelling photos are possible showing wildlife interacting with and clearly being part of their environment, I always find the portrait style close up images more interesting. It is hard to get photographically too close but all too easy to loose the point of interest by being too far away. I typically shoot with a 500 f/4 with a 1.7 or 2.0 teleconverter.
Animals being typically less predictable than people, or at least more apt to alight from their branch on a whim, the time to react and prepare a shot is brief. One trick to help capture the shot properly is to change to spot focus. Spot is the quickest way to pick out a target and lock in. The standard multi-point focus is too unreliable when you’ve got just a moment to shoot, and I find manually selecting an auto-focus point is too cumbersome. On top of that, I’m not fast enough for manually focus on moving animals. I just got back from the Andes, and forgot to change my auto-focus settings when I was shooting “huachuas” or Andean geese on a remote alpine lake. As I approached, they took off flying, slapping the water with their wings and creating a beautifully-framed shot, but the camera focused on the water instead of the birds, so the shot was lost. Oops. Just spot focus, shift (if necessary) and shoot.
In this shot, I hiked to the edge of a hill to photograph Shiprock in New Mexico and as I was hiking back to the car, this wild horse came barreling towards me, having been separated from its herd. Once it realized I was no threat, it stopped and posed for me in the perfect spot. I got a nice series of photos with different compositions, but this one is my favorite.
This wild dog of Africa, also known as a painted dog or painted wolf, is no bigger than a domestic pet, yet I watched, and photographed, as it took down a much larger impala all by itself. After eating its fill in the most furious feeding display imaginable, it went back for its pack, who were in the process of chasing down a juvenile kudu antelope, but stopped at the kill for the sure thing. They proceeded to tear into the impala as quickly as possible to eat as much as they could before any larger predators such as lions or hyenas approached. When I snuck down to the edge of the Okavango Delta to get a better angle, the dog took notice and put on a threat display, shown here, telling me it was time to back away.
Tip: Down Low, Go Slow and Wear Old Clothes.
I find that my most interesting images come from my willingness to put myself (and my camera) into positions and places that most people won’t. So, I often end up with a “different than usual” perspective for some commonly photographed places. Here in New England, Annisquam Lighthouse on Cape Ann, Massachusetts is one of those places. Google it and you will find a bazillion images. But, how many are from the water? Almost none – unless taken from a boat. In this image, I put on a pair of waders (I’ve also done this in shorts and water shoes) and walked out into the water with my tripod and camera. Stupid? Maybe. But, I moved slow enough to make sure that I didn’t slip and, if I did, I was prepared to hold my camera above the water like The Lady of the Lake handing over Excalibur. The resulting image was so different that it is now one of my most often purchased and viewed photos.
Near Annisquam Lighthouse is another popular place: Front Beach in Rockport, Massachusetts – also on Cape Ann. Let’s agree: nobody likes to have sand in their clothes, to feel damp the rest of the day, or get scraped by barnacles and the edges of sharp rocks. So, naturally, if you are willing to do all of that, then the resulting perspective is not going to be a common one. I took the following image while laying down and getting soaked by a small stream of water rushing to the ocean – all while contorting myself to compose it. Slowing the shutter speed provides the silky sense of water movement and the low perspective gives the scene a more dramatic impact. The old clothes allowed me to get into the position to take it without having to explain to my wife that I ruined ANOTHER pair of pants!
Don’t leave your subject of Interest until you have enough shots. – Or shoot and then shoot again.
Many of us have heard the saying, “Work the shot” but do we really? What’s the first thing you grab when you exit your car at your new photographic destination, a tripod? My suggestion is to first find a subject that you are interested in shooting and with a hand held camera play with the subject matter. Look through the viewfinder at different levels. Is it interesting at ground level? What does it look like if I shoot up on the subject? What does the image look like horizontal, vertical? Move into the subject, and then move away from the subject. Which is better? Once you have exhausted all possibilities now grab your tripod and shoot away. Try bracketing exposures and multiple crops and don’t leave the area until you have enough shots. Once you’re back at your work station or studio and begin to play with the post production of that special image you’ll thank me.
Speaking of shoot and then shoot again; it was during a visit to Dahlonega, Georgia during the 2011 autumn season that I practiced what I preach. It was a fairly unproductive excursion due to the lack of fall color and was really trying to make this small creek look attractive. The more I moved around and worked the shot the more I realized it wasn’t the creek that was attractive but this wonderful assortment of colored leaves that was caught up in a small whirlpool of water in one portion of the creek’s water flow. “Autumn Swirls” was born out of that trip and from that practice of continuing to get shots.
One of the best tips I can pass on is to make sure you know your camera body inside and out. Nature photography happens FAST! If you fumble around trying to find a button or dial, the shot is lost. Read the manual. It’ll save a lot of frustration.
1. Keep Good Company: Go on excursions with really good photographers, show them your photos and listen to their suggestions.
2. Get Closer: Getting the lens closer to animals (whether underwater or above) is perhaps the single most important habit. Take a few shots, then carefully move a little closer and shoot a few more, then a little closer to take a few more, and so on. In my experience, you will often find that the best photos of animals are among the last few, i.e., the closest ones.
3. Slow Down: I often used to act like a tourist – always in a hurry to get a shot and move on, to go elsewhere to see what else might be around the next corner, and therefore only snap a few quick photos of each subject. Now, when I find an interesting subject, I spend five minutes, 10 minutes or even half an hour with it, trying different angles, exposure combinations (such as different aperture for different depth of field), and so on. I might shoot 100 photos of a great subject, and I am surprised how often the best is one of the very last ones I took.
4. Think Vertical: We are generally accustomed to shooting horizontally, because that is the natural way to hold a camera. But many subjects are much more striking if the camera is turned vertically. Cultivating the habit of shooting vertically is not easy. When shooting animals (underwater or above), I try to force myself to shoot 1/3 of my photos vertically, and I am surprised how often the vertical shots of a subject are better.
Whether I am shooting in the coastal marshes of Louisiana, the wilderness in Alaska, the potholes in Saskatchewan or the bird feeder in my back yard, I always prepare for any opportunities to shoot birds in flight (BIF). Early on, BIF photography was very challenging but it now is second nature. Certainly, there are multi-day workshops that one can take to learn how to do this properly-but for the sake of this blog, here are a few tips that you might find helpful.
First and foremost, pre planning is critical. I shoot primarily in the manual mode but have preprogrammed a “starting” configuration for BIF using one of the custom buttons (normally C3) on my Canon cameras. I preset the shutter speed at 1/1600sec, f/8 and ISO 800, AI SERVO, Hi speed continuous, evaluative metering and auto white balance. And then adjust from there for what is proper for the given situation. Generally, this first means metering off of a mid-tone in the available light to determine proper exposure, and then adjusting the f-stop and maybe ISO for proper exposure while keeping a high shutter speed.
While on the topic of exposure, one could spend hours talking about exposure with BIF. Basically, the bird’s coloration relative to the background and available light often requires that you add or subtract light from the “perfect” exposure for the scene. For example, I normally add light if I am shooting a dark bird against a bright background so I don’t lose feather detail. What happens is the meter looks at the scene and usually will make the bird darker so the sky is nor over exposed. The reverse often happens on a white bird. So normally for me, that is opening the f-stop 1-3 clicks (not f-stops) that will somewhat overexpose the sky but properly expose for the dark bird. On white birds, I do the opposite. I usually subtract light so the detail on the white bird is not clipped. Same technique as what I do for the dark birds on a light background, but in reverse. Of course, I always fire some test shots and look at the histogram. And I try to slightly expose to the right on the histogram as I know I can usually recover some detail in post processing. (I often use fill flash with a better beamer but that would be a subject into its own)
For focusing, there are several things to consider. For strategy, I usually use single point or maybe one of the expanded focus strategies- but almost never the “ring of fire” strategy with all the focus points available. Reason for the latter is that unless the bird is flying in a wide open sky, one of the wide range of available focus points will often grab something in the foreground-making the bird out of focus altogether. Also if the birds tend to fly on fairly predictable path, I will pre focus to a point so the focus will not have to hunt as much to establish focus.
Now that brings us to a bit more advanced technique called “Back focus”. Most BIF photographers that I know use “Back focus”. It requires you to reprogram the * key (Auto Exposure lock) on a Canon to activate AF or autofocus. (It is a simple process to reprogram on a Canon. Your manual will tell you how). The primary reason for switching the keys is that it seems easier to press with your thumb in the second position. Now to use Back focus-What you then do is bump the * key (now AF-on) to acquire focus on the bird and then release and press the shutter to capture the image. Now this two-step process seems more difficult but in practice, I think you will find that you will get better results. Since birds often fly erratically, sometimes you may bump the * key more than once to help the AF establish proper focus. Again, while this may seem difficult, it really is not if you take some to practice before you go in the field. If you can find a safe way place, I recommend practicing shooting automobiles going down the highway. Perfect the skill there and your time in the field will be more pleasurable.
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