Yeap, that’s the outside temp right this moment at the office and I love it. And you guessed it, I’ve been tossing out the window boiling cups of water. Love that sound! But back to photography. This is a great time to be working with critters, especially big game and birds at a bird bath. Steam is a great source for interesting photographs. Steam can come from breath, hot springs or simply from a heated bird bath. You can photograph the breath like you see from the moose, or the collection of the steam on the critter like the Bison. When you see that breath or you see those frozen crystals on the fur, the viewer of the photo though in the warmth of their home, know it’s cold out and that’s the goal. But here’s the trick to this whole thing.
Steam, be it a vapor or frozen (when than it’s ice), the only way you can see it is when it’s against something dark. And that’s the trick to some, basic staple to me. Backgrounds! Backgrounds are everything but even more so in this situation. For example, there are no photos from my bird baths here to illustrate my points. That’s because not until this summer, could the backgrounds around my bird bath be manipulated to be dark. They’ve always been white snow so I’m racing to get this posted and back behind the camera to see if my plans work. But you can look at the left side of the Bison photo to see what I’m talking about. The frozen hot spring steam almost disappears with the white snow background.
Some are thinking, “That’s too cold for me!” Here’s the trick for that. First, shoot from the inside of your home. Next, shoot from the inside of your vehicle (what I did with the Bison). Lastly, limit your time outside (what I did with the Moose). Figure out what you need for DoF, Exposure and everything else and set that in the warmth of the home / vehicle and then when you head outside, you can wear thick gloves so all you need to do is be able to depress the shutter. Keep in mind that you’re not going camping in the -10 (but that is fun too), you do have that warm interior to get back to so make the shot while you can. Well, gotta get back to my bird baths. Stay warm out there!
Oh yeah … remember that breath you’re trying to capture and how it turns to ice at these temps? DON’T breath on your camera’s eyepiece, you’ll have the same problem to the point you can’t see. I use the Nikon DK-17A Anti-Fog Eyepiece to help with this problem.
Like my good friend likes to say when we’re out shooting but there is nothing to shoot, “We’re sucking dirty pond water!” And that’s how it is right this moment at the office with NO snow! I have the new shooting gallery all set up and ready to go, D4, 800f5.6, SB-910 powered by SD-9 shooting through the Wescott Rapid Box Octa triggered by Pocket Wizard but not ONE bird to point it all at!
With no snow, there is plenty of free water, the main attraction for birds in the winter (free water is water that is not frozen). At the same time with no snow cover on the ground, there is plenty of food that’s easy picking. Lastly, the weather hasn’t brought the birds down in big numbers so the bottom line for Moose’s photographing birds from his desk is, sucking dirty pond water.
You might be wondering why there’s flash in this formula. One of my favorite shots is of this dirt common Cassin’s Finch (making the uncommon out of the common). This male’s red cape comes to life in this bluish light of snow by the kiss of flash. The Octa is to make the light source much bigger than the subject so YOU don’t see the light. It’s big and soft which matches the falling snow. Oh snow, please, snow!
“It’s so cool, he’s still here and drilling” read the text I received from Sharon while still in the Tetons. All of the Aspens on our property have gone bare with fall except one. Our biggest Aspen still has green leaves and that’s the only reason I can figure we have a new buddy in the yard. This immature Red-breasted Sapsucker has been in the yard for over a week now, never really leaving what we now assume he feels is his tree. The sapsucker get their name from their drilling “wells” in living trees so the sap pools and runs out. They drink this nectar and eat the insects that are attracted to the sap. Hummers love these natural feeders as well, but ours have all headed south. You can see our buddies progress as he rings the trunk. Does it kill the tree? Surprisingly, no. He’s a really cool little dude, you can walk right up to the tree and look up and watch him, he doesn’t flush.
On the photographic side, sapsuckers and woodpeckers can be a challenge since they are often high in the tree. In this particular case, if I were trying to photograph him from the ground, I wouldn’t do it. The angle up is just too much for a nice angle. But I am able to shoot across to our buddy from our 2nd story deck. With the D4 / 800AFS with its TC-25E at 1000mm I could get the image size you see. The key here is the use of flash. Using the Wimberley F-9 Flash Bracket for Head Version II to hold the SB-910 (powered by Nikon SD-9 with a Better Beamer (shortened SC-29 connecting it all), I shot. When our buddy was on the right of the trunk, it was much easier to meld the flash and ambient light. When he was on the left of the trunk, the use of flash is much more apparent. Why is that? The mind’s eye sees the brightness on the back of the sapsucker and expects a shadow. The combination of the light of the flash and the bounce off the trunk, fine tuning flash exposure for the left side of the trunk took longer than our buddy gave me. On the right side, it was a simple click. The whole time, I’m using CS e4 which permits me to set the ambient light exposure compensation and flash exposure compensation independently and that is critical for my style of shooting. While you’re reading this, I’m back out on the deck with our buddy. I have a small window each morning to shoot as the sun rises and leaves the trunk. mtc
With 50knt gusts, first dusting of snow on Mt Yak and the flocks of Emperor Geese winging their way south, there is no doubt the season has changed. Alaska this time of year is unpredictable and gorgeous! In our modern life with internet, cities and cars, the spirit of the wilderness is often missed by most. This if for no other reason is why I love being a wildlife photographer. It’s a simple journey back to basics.
Our time at Hallo Bay, Alaska was nothing short of magical. It was also very typical of any wildlife adventure where you plan a year in advance to photograph a critter that has no calendar. We were anything but skunked during our time with as many as seven individual bears photographed in any given day which included mom with three spring cubs. And while being at point blank range with a griz eating barnacles is way beyond way cool, that’s not really the point when we venture out. And it shouldn’t be the only goal of your photography with any critter.
Those of us so fortunate to be on that beach, in that meadow or on that mountain slope with our wild heritage need to strive for perfection in capturing the story. This doesn’t come overnight (in my case still on going after 30yrs) but in that journey, we capture the stories that grab heartstrings and that’s why we continue to do it. And in sharing those stories, our photos, with others we bring back a small slice of what it is to be a wildlife photographer. It permits all to step back a moment from our every day lives to journey back to basics. It brings into our lives the spirit of the wilderness.
After three weeks, we’re finally in route heading home with 22k new images. To say we are incredibly fortunate is an understatement and right now, I’m really feeling the pressure to share all the stories. But the reality is, I can’t get them all out fast enough in enough ways to say … wow! After Photoshop World, we went right to the Reno Air Races, their 50th and man, was it incredible! All the fun, racing, shooting and a first for me, daily entries took that 8 days and condensed them it seems to a heartbeat or two. I’ve not even told you the story about the “Great Rain” or the rest of the story of Peterson’s Flying Circus (THANKS to all who dropped by and left a bunch of dead presidents!!!). But because of that experience, Jake, Brent & I are creating a whole new website / gallery / teaching zone (mtc on that). Phew, just thinking about the week makes my head spin! With our trip to AK right after Reno, our duffles were packed the week before and left in the truck because we went literally from Stead Airport to Reno Airport to fly to Alaska.
I’ve been looking for this location in Alaska for bears for twenty years and we’ve finally found it! Hallo Bay is without a doubt an epic location for watching, observing and photographing grizzly bears (yes, we’re takin a 5 folks there August 2014)! It is a wilderness camp, you are surrounded by bears, wolves and birds and there is NO ONE anywhere which includes phones and email! I don’t have enough words to say it all, hoping I have the photos. I’ve been writing notes like a mad man to remember it all as I go through all the images. I hear the call for our flight, it’s time to head home where I hear we had our first dusting of snow at the house. Those folks spending the weekend with us at our Photoshop for Shooters class are in for a great weekend with great scenery and a new story and photo or two!
I’m in Alaska with griz of course. It’s fall which means on the road. Sharon and I left home two weeks ago and won’t see it again until Thanksgiving. We are very fortunate to be able to see so much of our grand planet and share what we find with you! Currently, we’re up in magnificent Alaska working with one of my favorite critters, grizzly bears. Since you’re not able to be here with me, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on planning my 10 days here with you.
There are two very important factors in planning to photograph griz the way I do, one if photographing griz’s story and the other is the Cessna 207. You have to have the right gear to make the photo but you can’t bring the kitchen sink because of the 207. You need that lens and body but you’ve gotta think of useful load and CG (center of gravity). The 207 might take off from your basic runway, but it will be putting down on a dirt strip, commonly called a beach. So with those two very important factors in mind, this is the gear I have with me:
What’s the logic in this selection? The 800mm, there is no logic, I just wanna to shoot with it more. Now it might afford me the opportunity to get the up close and personal shot that does come along at times, but it won’t be my primary lens. My primary lens is the 80-400 that will be a on second body hanging from my shoulder (800mm always with me on a tripod). Using the Vulture Strap, I can easily have it with me all the time. The 18-35 is for landscapes and general shots and the 16Fish is for the flight to and from the lodge and perhaps the big landscape if it might present itself. The flash is for portraits of folks and interior lodge shots. And other than charger, cords and cleaning kit, that’s all the gear I have along. For me, that is going real light but for this trip and for me, it’s all I need. The last piece of must have equipment are hip boots! You walk a lot and often in mud, creeks and marsh and hip boots make that all possible. Often, I’ll take a knee and shoot low, hip boots are great because they keep your pants from getting wet. So, that’s the basics and where I’m at. There will be, as you imagine, a whole lot more coming but for now, you’re up to day where I’m at.
There we were in the metal junkyard in Chuchill, Canada. Then from nowhere a Merlin takes to the air cacking at a crow and chasing it out of the area. In June, that’s a sure sign they are nesting. Merlins are a funny little raptor, they tend to nest on the ground in the Arctic. I’ve seen Merlin for the last 30yrs but I’ve never had glass on one long enough to get better than what looks like a dust spot on the sensor. Here was an opportunity that even though less than ideal (shooting in a junkyard with the sun high overhead), it was better than what I had had, nothing. I had no shots in my conventional or digital files of Merlin.
The last 12 month, the #2 question I’ve been asked has changed. It was, “What’s the best f/stop?” but now it’s “How do I get better?” We have known units of measure, inch, ounce, miles per hours, kilowatts, but there is no known unit of measure for … better. If you can’t get a photo sharp, than just getting sharp images is better. If you can’t get “proper” exposure, than just getting a good exposure is better. If you’ve never photographed a subject before, having images of that subject that are sharp, exposed well and recognizable, are better. But once you get past these basic stepping stones in photography, how do you measure better? How do work towards being better from what YOU think could be better? Seriously, what’s better? I’ve asked some folks when they were shooting if what they were doing was making the photo better. The overwhelming response was, “I think so” but when they looked at their images they said, “I don’t know if they are better.” Hard to know without some unit of measure.
In the realm of wildlife photography, one measure of better is bigger. A bigger subject in the frame must be better. The Merlin is in the top frame but you can’t see it. The middle frame, you can see it but the trunks on the left isn’t helping. There is no doubt there’s a Merlin in the bottom frame. But what is better between the three? What might seem odd to you, these images are arranged in the order I like the best to least, the top my favorite and the bottom the least. Yes, I’m stacking the deck here but I want to make a point that hopefully will make you think. All three images were taken with the D4 / 800AFS w/TC-25e (effective 1000f7.1) so the increase in size comes from my feet, not glass. And better, what’s the measure for me, here, with these three images? Personally, sharp and good exposure aren’t a measure for better, it comes from story telling. In these three images, the top images tells more about the biology of the Merlin and therefore a story. No bigger than your basic jay, when they don’t want to be seen, they aren’t going to be seen. Could I get “better” images?” Not from this opportunity but perhaps in the future. What would make the next images better? For me, better story telling. Ultimately, I would like to have an image like I’ve seen from others, a Merlin on a branch in a spotlight of sun with a dead bird in its grasp. Hey, a guy can dream, right? And perhaps that should be our measure for better. Rather than some technical unit, some other’s idea of better, perhaps our “better” should come from our dreams. It’s doesn’t answer the question, but perhaps you might think about the question in a different light. What is better?”
There is something good for the soul laying in the sand at the edge of the sea! It’s even better for one’s humility as you lie there with this giant lens and folks walk by, scare off the bird you’ve waited 20min to come close, than stop and ask, “Whatja doin?” I’ve been lyin on the beach for a long time and truly enjoy photographing shorebirds this way. And the Willit is a favorite subject of mine. It’s probably because of their personality which they seem to have tons of!
Why lie on the beach? While I like having sand between my toes, I don’t like a ton of it in my photo (or my gear for that matter). By getting down low, your depth of field is so narrow that the critter flies off the page. At the same time, when you get down low, the shorebirds tend to come right up to you. You have to pick your background carefully because once down, you’re committed for while. You can see this technique in action on my Kelby Shorebird class. Well, I used this same still technique to shoot the video. It worked out pretty well except those times when folks came up to ask that darn question!
Shooting with a D4 , 600VR2 with TC-14e attached (to maintain Auto Area AF) mounted on a Walt Anderson’s Panning Plate inside a freebie, the DP-6 made a HUGE difference in following action and smoothly especially with your neck all bent lying on the ground. Needing reading glasses these days, this really, really helps! This is an edited down from the 5hrs of video shot to just 5min. I did the editing on the iMac with all the vid residing on the ioSafe N2 and doing the editing right in Premiere Pro CS7. The final video once completed will be much longer than this clip. The goal is to show the comical, methodical approach they have to foraging the tide while maintaining their peaking order. They always leave me with a question, will it? Mother Nature is just amazing!
For years and years, I’ve gone to Yellowstone in the heart of winter looking for one opportunity. I’ve gotten up and entered the park long before sun up in search of that opportunity. And only once have I been rewarded for that persistence. That’s the very nature of wildlife photography. But that one time is one I wouldn’t trade for all the camera gear at B&H! On a dark and snowy day, we came across a fresh elk kill, the carcass hadn’t even been broken open. Over the next ten hours, we witness the carcass nearly disappear and countless coyotes and wolves come and feast. What you’ll see in the video is just one of the coyotes, the one that seemed to have the greatest nerve to deal with pressure that comes eating at a carcass in winter, especially one brought down by wolves. You can tell it’s the same coyote because of the “Z” scare on its nose.
What made this kill really amazing was its location. We could pull the snow coach off the road at an official turnout and be legally far enough away from the kill permitting us to park and stay. If you’ve ever been to Yellowstone, you know that set up is rarer than seeing a Great Gray Owl! So, sitting in the van with just the tripod legs outside, I was able to shoot out of the wind (it was -12). Shooting with a D3s, 600VR2 with TC-14e mounted on a Wimberley / Gitzo, I would shoot stills and video. Shooting in AWB A6 before the sun somewhat brighten the skies (also shot ISO3200 then) was a good idea (but you’ve gotta remember to dial it out once the light appears) The video quality and technique leave a little to be desired but it still brings back a rush of the find to me. This is an edited down from the 4hrs of video to just 4min. I did the editing on the iMac with all the vid residing on the ioSafe N2 and doing the editing right in Premiere Pro CS7. What I wanted to convey in the video can be seen in the first frames and the last frames when you look at the elk carcass. It was amazing that 24hrs later,there wasn’t a single shred of evidence, not even blood on the snow, that any of this had ever taken place. Mother Nature is just amazing!
Seven days ago, we had no, zero, nada hummers in the yard! The flowers were all in bloom, feeders filled and out and still, no hummers. We were really wondering what was up and pretty bummed. As you might remember, last year we had our friend Alvin and learned about how much fun I have with our hummers. Then six days ago, the first hummer appeared and we were happier. At first, only one juvenile Allen’s was in the year and by today, we had five in the meadow fighting for dominance. I’d even seen a Calliope a could of times so I was getting excited. And then this evening … a Rufous Hummer, an adult male, took over “the perch.” Oh my!
We have Rufous in the yard all the time, but never had one proclaim dominance of “the perch” (you’ll need to watch my Kelby class to understand about “the perch.”) And while I’ve photographed them before, I’ve not for a long time. How long? I don’t have any digital images of a Rufous! So I dropped everything, set up the D4 / 80-400 on the Really Right Stuff with Pocket Wizards. When Caesar (what we’re calling him) took off chasing another hummer, I ran out on the deck and basically dropped the tripod to see how it would react to it sitting there (that’s the top photo). It didn’t hesitate for a heartbeat, it came right back to the perch with the camera out. So next time it took off after another hummer, I went back out and fine tuned the placement of the rig and then snuck back into the house. I was no sooner back in and it was perched on the perch.
Here’s the rub. I had to raise the ISO to make anything happen and I hate doin that! Ya, I like the photos but they’re not up to my snuff. When Caesar took over the perch, the sun had already gone behind the pines. I could have used flash but not knowing how tolerate he’d be, didn’t want to scare him off before the morning. So, I shot while I could crossing my fingers the whole time these won’t be the only images I’ll get.
So, if life is being good to me, while you’re reading this, I’m out on the deck with my new best friend, Caeasr.
One of those lessons I learned long ago comes into play in most of my photography. The rufous of the Cliff Swallow head is a great color contrast to the blue of the river so visually the mind’s eye can’t help but see it. Even if it’s really small in the frame. With that comes the story telling, where the mud nests, minimized in size, are set apart by the same color as the swallow, the blue water. And it’s the blue water, the majority of the frame that finishes the storytelling and sets the stage for the subject, the swallow. All that is left is the gesture in the swallow head. There is only one frame of these three where the gesture works for me. You decide what works for you
Left the house at 05:15 to spend some time down at the river. Being near the base of 10,000 foot peaks, it takes a little while for the sun to actually kiss the river. I went early because you just never know what might be around. This morning, I was greeted by a very small group of White Pelicans. Now they are a shy bunch this time of year, nesting seems to just put them on edge. I knew that on the flats where you can see a Lady Bug approach, there would be no “sneaking” up on them. So as the motto goes, “Go out without your longest lens, you’ll comeback short!” I headed out with my stand bird rig: Gitzo 5561SGT w/ Wimberley Head(w/ RRS Quick Release mount attached) is the Nikon 800f5.6 AFS (w/TC800-25e) and D4 with Di-GPS.
I had just gotten everything set up and closed the door of the truck when I made the first shot. Their expression made me feel like I’d caught them in the act…the act of what I’ll leave to your imagination. With the “cool” predawn color I shot in AWB because I wanted that blueish cast to their white plumes and knew the color contrast of their bills (male has the “bump”) against the green of the river bank, you couldn’t help but see them in the frame. I then walked perhaps 10-15′ and put the rig down because I could see they were uncomfortable with my approach. I made than made a serious of second shots and than they lowered into the river and let its flow take them down around the bend and away from me. I didn’t push them, I let them float down and away before finishing my approach and actual target species for the morning. But it was cool to be rewarded again for getting up early and on site. Nature, she’s cool! mtc
OK, you made the choice to pull out the flash (congrats) and you have all the numbers dialed in and you’re getting the results you want (perfection!). That in itself doesn’t make all things rosey! Not even in fact, you still gotta do that thing, storytelling. Here’s one of my favorite birds of the tundra, the plain ‘ol Dunlin. The plain ‘ol Dunlin is anything but plain in its breeding duds, it’s spectacular! While I didn’t find any of its nests this trip, we did find some of these gorgeous little birds on a dark and cold morning. So whole set up (which we were getting faster at setting up after all the practice) came out: Gitzo 5561SGT w/ Wimberley Head(w/ RRS Quick Release mount attached) is the Nikon 800f5.6 AFS (w/TC800-25e) and with the SB-900′s (powered by SD9) light going through a BetterBeamer all being held to the head with a Wimberley F9 Flash holder. And after that, many when they see that image appear on the LCD sigh and think the photography is all done. But it’s not! The top photo is BORING!!! It’s a colorful bird in horribly gray water. I wouldn’t put that on my wall. There’s no life to the photo, there’s no character, just no storytelling.
How do you tell the visual story? Oh man, that’s a more difficult question to answer than how to use the flash as far as I’m concerned! Why? Because we all tell stories differently. For me, I have this long past history of working with Dunlin in Churchill at the nest. I remember all to well all the time watching them land in the grasses and then spending hours determining where they were going to “mouse” to which would be the nest. Than with that info, trying to get the photo of them on the nest. Now if all of this is Greek to you, it means you have some basic biology to learn and that’s the best answer to the question, how do you tell the story? Knowing basic biology helps in so many ways and storytelling is one of the biggest. So the bottom photo to me is much more entertaining, much more eye pleasing and more of a storyteller. Dunlin are always in the water, 365 because that’s where they have to feed. But they are only in breeding plumage for a short time and that time, they are in the grasses. And in the grasses, the viewer gets the hint of why they have the dramatic plumage change. So while the flash brings to life to those colors, I feel you gotta tell the story of why those colors.
What do you do when you’ve gone to the Arctic to photograph birds and it’s snowing? That one little element, light, is just not happening. You can’t stay in bed, you gotta do something about it and that something is, flash. I hate flash! It’s a royal pain in the ass to set up and lug around, I don’t care how you do it. But, what are you going to do, you need the light. Well, we had that situation more than once so the flash was dragged out. First understanding why flash. If you look at the photo above, the Yellowlegs looks dull. Yes, you could fix this in Photoshop and very easily these days but for me, that is just not an option. I want to do it in camera so than you have to ask what’s the problem that you want to fix? The issue is the color cast, the bluish-dull light on the Yellowlegs. This is caused by the overcast, clouds, snow increasing the color temp beyond AWB ability to deal with it. You can shoot AWB A3-A6 which will warm up the scene, but it’s not the same as good light. If you want to bring in that kiss of light to bring to life to the subject and you want to do it in camera, than you’ve got to bring in that flash. Damn!
The reason I’m bringing this up because when I posted the above photo, I received some emails asking how I got the “bright” Yellowlegs on a snowy day. The mechanic of the shot is Gitzo 5561SGT w/ Wimberley Head(w/ RRS Quick Release mount attached) is the Nikon 800f5.6 AFS (w/TC800-25e) and with the SB-900′s (powered by SD9) light going through a BetterBeamer all being held to the head with a Wimberley F9 Flash holder and just listing all that stuff is a pain, setting it up is murder when your hands are numb. OK, I’m over that so now it’s time to actually make it all work.
Fist, be sure to set the zoom on your flash to 50mm. Next is to Align the flash beam with the subject. The F9 flash holder wants the flash to be pointed straight out but we’re focusing 20-25′ right in front of us. You have to point the flash DOWN to take the narrow beam we’ve created to hit the subject. You want learn the position back at home when it’s not mission critical by setting all this up (oh boy) and focus on a wall 20-25′ away and then take photos adjusting the flash until it hits the point you focused. Lastly, you need to set the ambient / flash exp comp. The D4 / D600 / D7100 rock here because they have Custom Setting e4 which permits the ambient exposure to be separate from the flash. Since I use that, all I did was dial in -1 on the SB-900 and shoot. And here’s the rub, it’s easy for me to say, it might be hard for you to do and that’s normal! Flash is a pain and I hate it but it’s a tool we gotta embrace for those times when it’s the only answer. In the final application, the viewer can’t see the flash, the photo doesn’t look like flash was used. We want the flash to just remove the color cast, the dull look. We don’t want to look like the subject is in the headlights of a vehicle. That melding of light is what all this hell is all about!
The Dipper is just the best entertainment! They are a panic in feathers 365 as they go about their daily routine. They were once called Water Ouzel but their named was changed which more reflects their basic biology. They are constantly “dipping” as they peer through the water looking for their food under its surface. Add to this mix a fledgling along with double clutching and it’s non-stop fun!
So the photographic challenge is first and foremost the water. The creek is full to the brim with the winter runoff so getting close physically for the most part if not possible. If the Dippers come to you, fly to your side of the creek, you have a chance otherwise you need big guns to get a decent size image of this fist size bird. I’ve shot here with the 300f4, 200-400VR2, 600VR2 and now with the 800AFS w/TC-25e all with success. I normally have flash for fill because of the shadows but didn’t this day. One problem with flash with all the water is the spray and mist. It’s floats in the air and often is between the flash and the subject. The flash freezes it making the image full of white orbs which are really visually distracting.
This bottom photo is the one I wanted, how’d I get it? The problem is the light gray plumage against the light colored rocks. I wanted that wide open mouth and frantic wing beats of the food begging so needed a dark background with just some light on the fledgling. Lower light levels with a moving subject means you risk an out of focus photo because of slower shutter speed. But slower shutter speed communicates the frantic beating of the wings as the fledgling begs. So I watched the parent and the fledgling. The fledgling spent a bunch of time in the sun, can’t say I blamed it. When the fledgling moved back in to this dark corner of the creekbed I didn’t take my eye off of it because of the darkish background. Luckily there was some reflected light off the water onto the fledgling. Having seen the parent come and go to feed with heartbeat speed, I knew I’d have just a moment to make the shot. With the slower shutter speed, I knew I’d get the wing beats, it was just that mouth that was in question. As the parent flew towards the kid, you see what transpired and by letting the D4 rip, captured one tack sharp frame (the 800mm is freakin sharp!) of the moment. You could sum it all up with my general wildlife photography philosophy, combining biology with technology…with a big dash of passion gets the shot!
So there we were after breakfast on our Mono Lake Weekend at the falls. Now the falls have had American Dipper nests since the creation of the Sierras. Knowing that, I took the 800AFS with me to the falls. For the first time, I had the dedicated TC-25e attached which makes the 800mm a 1000mm f/7.1. I figured my friends the Dippers who I’ve been photographing in this one location since 1982 would be the perfect test zone for this combo.
What I didn’t expect was the Dippers would already have fledge 1 kid and working on double clutching. Or the fact that the 800mm/TC-25e combo would be for freakin sharp! Not only sharp, but in these conditions it would focus blazing fast on the D4. OMG, I was in pig heaven! After helping a participant on our Weekend, I would use the lull time to stand at the 1000mm and watch the fun of the Dippers which was catchy, most of the Weekenders got into photographing them as well. Why not, they would practically land on your shoe! What you see here is what I saw and photographed.
The adults spent most of their time going in and out of the nest (the top frame). Their nest looks like a igloo made out of moss. Then every 10-15min, the adult would grab a grub (they get by flying underwater) and would feed the fledgling. Normally I would use a flash to light up the shadows but I didn’t think I would really be spending much time with the Dippers. Well, I was wrong but couldn’t go get the flash. So I waited until the white water would work as a reflector. The 1000mm worked beautifully, the creek really ripping and the Dippers were really active and as you might have guessed looking at the blog title, what you see here isn’t all of the story. You’d be guessing correctly, mtc.
Push! Just so we start on the same page, you can photograph your critters any way your heart says works. You like that click, than you are doing it the right way. There will more than likely be a point in time when you just want something more, spread your wings as it were. It’s at that moment in time you need to start pushing your photography. How do you push? You do it one foot at a time: right foot, left foot, right foot, left. In this case, the first step I recommend you take in photographing shorebirds is, gettin down!
Getting down works wonders to clean up the background, but we’ve got to do something with it. We want that clean background to make the subject pop so that’s the start, but we want to push our photography a bit further. Shooting with a D4 / 600VR2 w/TC-20e3 (damn sharp converter!) the combination of focal length and being flat on the sand makes the Marbled Godwit visually pop. It’s then we push, push the shutter release looking for that gesture!
The top image is the safe shot. It’s the one taken when there is little or no movement. It’s the safe shot because if the subject is not moving in the low light, than you have a sharp image. With wildlife, the eye at the very least has to be sharp. Then you go for a the little more riskier shot, when the Godwit start the sewing machine action looking for food. But I’m going to encourage to go beyond that, risk it all and look for that gesture when the shorebird walks and does sewing machine! In low light, this is a lot of action to freeze but can be done. This last frame with beak down and legs crossed is what I like to go for. It’s a real simple click when you look at it but then, there’s a lot going on. But makes it happen is the clean background making that gesture pop. In pushing your critter photography forward, look for the gesture.
The weather finally broke so at 05:15 Sharon and I were at Mono Lake with the new 800f5.6 AFS on my shoulder. I had my typical setup, Gitzo 5562GTS, Wimberley WH-200 with Moose Cam (Contour, with the only change being shooting with the D800 as my D4 and half of my gear is in for their annual CLA at Nikon. I was happy as a pig in clam shit to be out shooting critters! It was a brisk morning but not even a stitch of wind with clear skies. With the dirt still wet from the “storm” that went through, I figured the critters would be out and busy, making up for the days of snow, hail and rain. We walked and walked, looked and looked, nothing! Seriously?!
Carrying the rig over my shoulder as I always have, I swear it felt a little lighter than with the 600AFS but I know that’s because the 800mm rig is slightly better balanced on my shoulder. With time to kill, I started to check simple things like, how close can I get with the 800mm and focus on a critter? Manually focusing, I can be 18′ away from a subject and have it sharp. This is not how close it focuses with autofocus, but manually which is what I do most of the time when up close. At this distance at f/5.6, the DOF is bloddy narrow as I discovered when the first Violet-green Swallow appeared. Now being the middle of May, there should be a bucket load at the Tufas but all we had was this one. So as the sun came over the horizon, I had it in my sights and started to shoot. I was way too far away but it was the first bird we’d seen this morning so I wasn’t waiting. I wanted to photograph some critters in the worst way!
OK, I got a little closer, made some more clicks and then it flew off. Bastard! So there we stood, in the gorgeous light with no one to play with. So we kept walkin, lookin, checking all the normal haunts for swallows but with none in the air, I was feeling a little low. Then we came across some Canadian Geese with goslings! Goslings already, pretty big ones no less. While cute and all, shooting them with the 800mm seemed, well, a little anticlimactic after waiting three days to shoot so we just watched them as they strolled by. It was a gorgeous morning at Mono Lake though, looked like I should have been after landscapes rather than critters. We continued walking….
About 45min after sunrise and the nip disappeared from the air, I started to hear the swallows but didn’t see any. Then one came in from high above and landed. I now had two and then, lucky for me, a female showed up! Yeap, being spring and all, soon we had male swallows coming from everywhere to woo the one female and I could finally go to work. The swallows perch on the Tufas for brief periods as they do flight displays, fight with each other, all those male things they do in spring to get the attention of the female. The 800AFS had zero problems focusing from perch to perch as the swallows moved about. The AF speed is great and when the opportunity afforded itself, I would walk in slowly to get as close as I could to continue shooting. Only once did I walk too close that I couldn’t focus. That doesn’t count all the times the swallows landed so close I couldn’t focus no matter what. And was the Moose Cam on all of this time? It was running, I just haven’t edited it to post.
Sharon then saw another group of swallows on another set of Tufas so we wandered over to them. This is where I struck gold and had a male land on a Tufa right in front of me after taking a bath. For five or six minutes it groomed its feathers while calling to the other swallows flying by. On top of the Wimberley, the 800mm was real easy and fast to swing around to keep up with the action. You must be wondering if I was chimping all this time to see the results? Nope, didn’t check them until getting back to the office a short time ago and could see them on the 24HD Cintiq. That’s when I was blown away by the spooky sharpness of the 800AFS! I mean, this is one very sharp lens! It is also very obvious that the DOF at MFD is nothin, not even from the tip of the bill to the back of the eye on the swallow. Well, with these images in the can and the light getting hard, we started walking back towards the truck.
We spent time where we normally see Least Chipmunks but they didn’t want to play. Looked for the cottontail rabbits, none to be found. We kept walking back up the path. As were strolling up looking about, I heard the distinctive twitter (song not social media) of a Green-tailed Towhee. A second later saw it singing from the top of a big Tufa. While not a great perch, I walked to it. Then a female flew up from below it and they were off flying through the sage. I was just about to move on when the male came back and perched on a much better, smaller Tufa. I made a couple of clicks and moved closer. Made a couple of more clicks and then it sang! Those are the shots I love to get in spring.
For the next ten minutes I was able to work the towhee, getting closer and refining the background. The 800mm focal length has always been my favorite because of the ease of manipulating the background, in this case grabbing rabbit brush way off in the distance just getting its spring green. Now as my good friend Kevin pointed out this morning, the 600AFS with 1.4x gets you to the same place and this is true. Well, not too long that female reappeared and my subject jetted off through the sage in hot pursuit once again. So ended my first outing with the new 800AFS lens. Sitting now at my desk looking at the results, there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that Nikon did an amazing job with this lens! This morning’s shoot was just with the 800mm itself, I didn’t attach any teleconverters to it. I will in due time but for now, I want to learn just what the lens will do on its own. mtc.