The thing called time..it is SO important in the formula of a single image and in your photography overall. In my travels the last two months, I’ve come across more photographers who either never considered spending a great amount of time with one subject in one place or “have that photo” so move on in a heartbeat. My style of photography has never been to chase the subject. I prefer instead for the subject to come to me. In this way, we use time to get into the flow of life, see subtle changes that can make or break a photograph and quite often, capture the photograph. When I hear a photographer that is bored or has done something before so they’re not going to do it again, I have to scratch my head. With a camera in your hand, how can you be bored or think an image will ever be the same, again?
Here’s an example of what sticking about for just 45min did for photographing Bison calves. As normal, we were up and out early on our K&M Adv SD to where we’d left the heard the night before. Early light just works its own magic we are all well aware of. And with Bison, once you’re parked and you stand next to your vehicle, they will just walk right up to you (and as the signs say, Bison can be dangerous). On this morning, the light was great at first but then the cloud cover started to form which, as you can see in the middle image, softened the light to the point where backlit was great because you had the rim lighting but with really soft shadows. Then the light went flat to the point it had no real character. Shooting with the D4 & 200-400VR2, the trick with all three of these lighting patterns was to look for character in the subject that the light worked with. The only way I know of making that happen is time and while I’ve shot Bison for decades, I never have enough time with them and never get the image I have in my mind. Light and subject are always changing, the trick is being in the right place at the right time with the right subject with the right light with the right gear. No wonder I keep going back to the same place. That’s a lot of luck to make just one photo!
Here’s the deal, backgrounds are everything! No matter the subject matter, the background not only sets the stage for the subject but also tells the rest of the story. How simple or complicated a story is up to you since it is your photograph. Here’s an example of what I mean. You basic Pronghorn doe in the Blackhills last week during our K&M Adventures. Shot with the D4 and 200-400VR2 shooting out the window of the van (BTW, love the D4!). The gray sky, generally not a good background for critters visually wraps around the prong enveloping it rather then making it pop. Not good.
With the same focal length, subject to camera distance and exposure, look at the difference just moving 15′ can make in the background and to the point, the subject! The eyes are sooooo important. Look at how the darker background makes the darker eyes pop. Logically, you’d think the lighter background would make the darker eyes pop but such is not the case. That is in part because the background is so far behind the subject, it’s is out of focus so sharpness rather then color makes them pop. Want or need to learn more about this stuff, here ya go That’s why we came up and are offering the Short Lens Wildlife Photography Course. 760.924.8632, call today!
One of the goals of wildlife photography is to make the uncommon photo of the common. Whenever you do that, you have a winning photograph, it’s that simple. Or is it? Capturing the uncommon can encompass many techniques either separately or in combination which makes it a challenge. So here’s a photo of a Short-billed Dowitcher taken as most do, standing up at your tripod, shooting down on the shorebird. I did this for a long time, most still do and while you get an OK photo, you can do much better relatively easily.
What’s the issue in the top photo? The angle of view takes in a whole bunch of background so the Knot does not stand out. We want our subject to smack the viewer right between the eyes, period! So by taking the lens off the tripod and going down to the level of the shorebird, we make the uncommon of the common by making the background disappear. This means we are lying on the sand, not a low tripod angle but flat on the ground! Now when I first mentioned this days ago, a whole bunch of folks wondered about the wisdom of putting a $10k lens in the sand. Now if you watch my KelbyTraining Shorebird class, you’ll see I’m using a Panning Plate that is in a freezbee. It works great and by using the techniques I go through in the Shorebird Class, there’re never an issue. So this is the beginning to make the uncommon from the common.
The next way to make it more uncommon is to have more then one bird in the photo. This takes everything I mentioned above plus something I find photographers have less and less of, patience. In wildlife photography, the “great” image doesn’t came by constantly chasing it. It might every so often but if you want consistent results, you need to park and let the critters come to you (something we’ll cover in Short Lens Wildlife Photography Course). Laying down on the sand, you loose a lot of maneuverability so have to find a place where the birds like to frequent. That just takes a little time watching. Then you lie there and wait and watch. When you see a pair or more starting to head your way, you get ready to shoot. The first thing you MUST understand that because you are lying down, DOF is zip no matter what f/stop you pick! You’re shooting with long glass and you’re really close to the subjects so there is NO WAY you can get the background bird sharp. This means you have to think creatively in your composition. Here are two examples of what I think works in this scenario. So to make the uncommon from the common with these Red Knots took no more then lying down in the sand flat and waiting. These are things in everyone’s budget. And before you say you don’t have a 600mm, you only have a 400mm…not a problem, just slide closer in the sand! When you’re lying flat, birds come real close because now, you’re no longer a tall monster but a beached seal.
So we arrive at North Beach lagoon at Fort DeSoto to see nothing, zero, nada bird but a lonely GBH way off in the distance. For the start of our 2nd day of our K&M Adventure FL, I was a bit nervous. I mean, the idea is to be shooting cool subjects. Well, I really didn’t pause, walked right over to the beach. And at first, didn’t see much but then after a couple of minutes, the birds started to appear at the wave line and we never looked back! It was a killer morning, I filled 2009 images from two and a half hours of shooting and like you see above, they don’t suck! I love shorebirds! You’ve got here are Willet, Marbled Godwit, American Oystercatcher and Ruddy Turnstone.
I started out with my rig on the tripod but as soon as I got to the shoreline, I knew I had to get down. Here’s the deal, while shooting from a tripod is just fine, the angle of attack to me is too steep, it includes way too much background which is sand. Yes, sand is where they live but it doesn’t really aid in visually making them pop. So I wanna get down on their level. While this really restricts your movement, when you watch their biology, you can find places to get down and make the shot. If you want to learn the entire technique, head to Kelby Training. The whole thing is about backgrounds, my favorite pet peeve.
And if you’re not shy, like asking questions and want to learn from guys who have been doing this stuff for a combined 60yrs, come along on a K&M Adventure. We have an opening next month in South Dakota, a couple this fall and two next winter in Grand Canyon. For more info or to register, call 760.204.1506. Now, back to the sand, there are more birds to photograph!
K&M Adventures in down in FL with a great bunch of folks and killer subjects. To get everyone on the same page, warmed up and pixels workin, went to a favorite, secret beach that’s great for cool birds. We had a White phase Reddish Egret come in and then this Tricolored. While note rare, the Tricolored is simple a fun bird as they go through their gyration foraging. For wildlife photographers, they are great practice for long lens panning. With the low light levels, there is an even greater challenge to the photography. What a perfect start!
Then the sun popped up. Right then I was focused in on this Laughing Gull. The sun bounced off the puddle in front of the gull really giving it a “weird” light that for some strange reason, I like. So I clicked and after the first click, off the gull flew.
Then there are the shorebirds. I love Willets and this one coming into its breeding plumage is schweet! Whenever I find a shorebird in breeding plumage, I’m like a bulldog, I just can’t let go. I worked it looking for the elegant portrait like you see here and anything interesting biologically. Never got the biology but sure had fun!
I was pleased to receive so many requests for the story behind this photo I posted yesterday. The San Joaquin Kit Fox (SJKF) is an endangered critter that has lost about 92% of its historic range. The city of Bakersfield is ground zero for the “urban” population of the SJKF where while it seems backwards, the SJKF is “thriving.” The biologists I’m so fortunate to work with have worked with both the wild and urban population for decades and this past week, I was with Torey who is working on her masters looking at an natal dening dynamics. She monitors a number of natal dens (natal means there are pups) at night right after sunset when the height of activity with pups tends to be. That’s why I was there, this being my second year to work with Torey and her project. Those who came to my Wildlife Photography class at Photoshop World saw video from last year’s field work.
This den site is on the Cal State Bakersfield campus where I’ve been photographing kit fox since 1988. The urban kit fox specializes in eating human food, trash, and they are very good at it. In fact, a project a few years ago looking at isotopes found no difference in diet from kit fox and humans. The story behind this den is it is very special, being the natal den for two different age class of pups, pups from two different moms. It was important to me to document this and along with the data Torey is collecting, can be used to help the foxes in the future.
I shot last season with the D3s which did an OK job. It’s 720p video was OK though it did not do a great job with the WB of the funky night lights. When it comes to AF, that didn’t work at all for me at night so that was a challenge since we are working in the dark. The D4 on the other hand did an amazing job IMHO! I knew from past experience that is my shutter speed were to get below 1/100, I would not have sharp stills of the pups. They are simply balls of activity! I had used the Auto ISO in the video mode but hadn’t tested nor trusted the Auto ISO for stills. Now I’m not a “raise the ISO” kinda of shooter, I’ve always worked at either ISO 100 or 200. But I needed to get the photos and this was the tool available to me. So when the female first appeared and was running over to the den, the light was already nearly gone and I set the ISO to 800 to maintain the 1/100 speed. Within a matter of moments the light dipped more so I raised the ISO to 1600. I’m shooting wide open not only because of the low light but to minimize the DOF, the brown line in the foreground is one of the den entrances.
I’m sitting out in the open in my kit fox chair, the same chair I’ve been using since ’88 for just photographing kit fox. On my Gitzo 5561 is the 600VR w/TC-17e attached to the D4. When the vixen came to the den, it was killer to just lay down the hammer and rip the files, tracking her the entire route coming across the lawn. Having basically an endless buffer just simply rocks! That’s one aspect of the D4 I thoroughly can’t live without already. Once she checks all the den entrances, the signal is given and the pups emerge. She nurses for a heartbeat and then starts pacing, looking for the male’s arrival. During this time the light fades to night and all the pups, five of them, emerge to play and wait for the male and dinner. Once the sun is gone, I switch to video mode, shooting 1080p30.The TC-17e is removed at this point. I’m manually focusing using the LCD to do so for most of the action. When I can, I do put the AF sensor on still fox and hit the AF-ON button which, even working in total darkness, locks right on. The D4 is now in Auto ISO since it’s shooting video and is up to 12800. 12800! The first time I saw that number on the LCD I says to myself, “can this even be useable, I have nothing to loose!” But once I looked at the resulting video, I was blown away. And that’s the simple story behind the photo.
The cell buzzes and I see my sweet bride is calling. I’m just sitting in the truck with the camera sitting across my lap so I answer. “Whatja doin” she asks? “What I always do, I stare at dirt” I reply. She’s says with a smile in her voice, “And you do it better then anyone else!”
I wish when I started working with the endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox back (one of the 1st species to be listed as endangered back in ’64) in ’87, I kept records of all the months I just started at dirt in anticipation of a fox emerging from a den only to see dirt the whole time. Seriously, I have spent an entire day staring at dirt through the lens looking for activity only to see at most, an ant or fly. It just goes with the game, just because I show up doesn’t mean mother nature will. And you might think I’d learn and perhaps stop or do it better but neither is the case. I am working with the best biologists on the planet and even though some of the dens have collared animals and we know that animal is in that den, it still doesn’t mean when you have light, they will emerge. The Kit Fox is a “nocturnal” animal by nature but it does have some daytime activity. That’s what I count on, that “some” as I stare at dirt.
I got home at 02:00 today after another great week working with my friends, both biologists and kit fox at five different den sites. Two of those sites, I never saw a fox. At one, the photo you see above, that’s the only click I made after a couple of days at the den. One other, I only shot video at night under funky lights and the other, well on the very last day at the very last minute, I was blessed with some great biology in the last glow of light of the day. To me, that is an amazing week of success and that’s because I have come back from a week and all I have are shots of dirt!
I am always very appreciative of folk’s praise when they give me grandiose titles as a wildlife photographer. But I’ve seen images from “weekend warriors” that are much more spectacular then what I’ve captured in my career. What I am probably the best at though is staring at dirt. I’m a long haul, project wildlife photographer not going after the “best” shot but the “best biological” shot that not only tells a story about the critter but answers questions about its biology to move preservation forward. There is a big difference between the two “bests” in my book. And to me part of that is ego and commitment driven. While a “best” photo lives a glamorous life for a short time being heralded as the best, sadly they are forgotten in as short period. On the other hand, “best biological” gets nearly no notoriety but the images lives on for a very long time in science. To me, that’s much more a valid goal for my images.
The D4 was important to me to obtain because of digital as a tool. The D1 besides opening the digital world to my photography (and for many of you as well), captured a photo of the kit fox that went around the world hours after being taken that made an impact. I foresaw the D4 with its high ISO video as well as still abilities able to do the same thing for this same species, one that is very much imperil. All I had to do was get the two together, the D4 and the kit fox which required me to perform my specialty with flawless professionalism, stare at dirt. And that last evening in that last moment of light with the camera ISO set at 1600, something I never did in the past, I made the shots that are in the process of being written up as I type because once again, biology and technology came together for a moment to record while not earth shattering and nothing you’ll see on the evening news, history. You see a hint of that in the photo right above, not even 12hrs old by now. There is no pay, no assignment, no fanfare just the simple reward that applying a craft with passion, a photo can make a difference in the grand scheme of things. All of this doing what Sharon says I’m the best at, I stare at dirt!
A very important tool and technique you need in aviation photography is panning. When shooting ground to air, being able to not just track and compose but get the subject sharp is essential. This is true when shooting fast subjects at slow shutter speeds (like 1/50). We like to do panning drills at our Air2Air Workshops and at Stallion 51, we had a very special panning practice subject. This is Bandit, Lee’s 8yr Harris Hawk. Lee, a falconer has a very special relationship with Bandit who he hunts throughout the year. Areal training is also part of their relationship. What you see here is Bandit in action. Flying from his perch across the field at ground level, just before he reached Lee, Lee throws up a tid bit high into the air, slightly behind Bandit. He flies up and then inverts in air to catch the morsel. As you can see, he has no problems doing this and when it comes to panning practice, it’s great!
I’ve seen raptors perch on many things in my day, but never before on a $3mil P-51D. It was way cool to see this team work together and a marvelous photo opp!
I have a thing for Woodstorks, a throw back to early bird evolution that have managed to hang on in our modern word. Their deliberate nature, their at times comical approach and graceful flight is just one of those pleasures in wildlife photography that doesn’t need to be captured to be remembered. I was glad to see them my last evening and to spend a little more time with them. It was a good trip!
Wildlife photographers seem to spend a lot of time and a lot of money to capture eyeballs. The upclose and tight shot is very popular. I personally have no problem with that style and every so often, indulge in it myself. When photographers ask me to comment on their images though of “eyeballs” I ask them why they shot it that way. To date, I’ve never gotten an answer that really was meaningful. Many think that that’s just what you need to do. While getting the upclose and personal shot might seem like a challenge because you do need to own big glass and you do need to get close physically, I’ve always felt it was the easiest form of wildlife photography. What I’ve always found to be a challenge is making the shot when the subject is really small in the frame.
When you fill the frame with the head of a critter, the rest of the image is taken care of because, there is no room for any other element. There is nothing that can take the mind’s eye from the subject. When the subject doesn’t fill the frame and in this example of a Great Egret, doesn’t even come close, making sure you see that subject and then move the eye around the frame and back to the subject I think is a gargantuan hurdle to the great image. I find that a long lens is still essential to do the dance, include wanted elements while excluding unwanted. But you have to go beyond that and become a great story teller! So when it comes to the question, do you need to fill the frame? You don’t have to fill it with the subject but you do have to fill it with elements that take the mind’s eye and imagination back to the subject. That’s just plane old hard!
We’re cruising down Periwinkle coming up to the fishing pier when I looked up and saw an Osprey with a great fish. I’m picky, I only stop when the dead fish looks really cool because otherwise, it’s just a dead guppy. Risking a parking ticket, we jumped out and went over to make the shot. What you see above is the first click and as you can see, it has issues! The background makes you wanna puke so I picked up the camera and moved left and closer. With that big mackerel and since it was still basically whole, I knew it had just landed with the fish so the Osprey wasn’t going to go anywhere if I moved and I needed to move.
First I moved left and backwards up a little knoll to get a better angle (I hate shooting up the ass) but it just made the background worse. So I moved left as far as I could (big bush). Doing as much as I could by moving, I then started to refine the elements in the viewfinder. I still wasn’t pleased with the background so went to vertical and while I liked it better, the background got worse (the bottom of the frame). I went back to horizontal because it was the best option of them all but it wasn’t the best in a perfect world. With that, I watched the munching and then made the click when the action and posture were the most pleasing. Yes, it was shot at highnoon and the background is still a little busy but it was the best that could be captured and that’s how it is sometimes with wildlife photography. So with all of that, you have two options. Click or don’t click, it really comes down to that simple of an option and since its your photograph, it’s up to you. In this case, I liked the fish so I clicked.
It’s pretty well known I’m not a ISO pusher. I do it once a year just to make sure the ISO button on the camera works, but otherwise I don’t do it to extend shooting time. I get asked why this is a lot, a lot and there are many answers. But the main one that comes to the heart of my photography is, a day should come to an end. No matter what occurred that day, when the sun has gone down below the horizon and it was in these two images, there is simply a natural order to life and it’s time to stop. The shutter speed was down to 1/5 when I made these clicks and that’s when I turned the camera off and just watched the world say good night. That moment to watch, that minute to stop and reflect is often the best part of the day. A favorite quote I love to share is this. “It was exposed forever on the thin emulsion of my mind” to which I add, “and a beat of the heart.” There is simply no ISO that can capture that.
We have a whole lot of bird feeders on our property. They serve a couple of purposes, one of them being bringing in species that otherwise wouldn’t stick around long enough to get any glass on them. One popular food source we put out is commercial suet. It brings in all sorts of birds, most being nuthatches and woodpeckers. Red-shafted Flicker are real common at our feeders though you rarely seem them about in the forest. We love these guys, especially in the spring when the males go to attracting mates. The males attract a mate by drumming on choice branches and trunks, those that are hollow and resonate really loudly. Well the males that visit our feeders have found that the aluminum chimneys on our homes make a really loud should when they drum on them. Our neighbors don’t take kindly to them, but it makes me laugh. I normally don’t photograph the birds directly on the feeder but rather perches beside them. I really focus on this during the winter and in the spring when the birds are in their finest. But here’s the problem…
We’ve got nothin but dirt! We have not one stitch of snow on our property where we should have a minimum of ten vertical feet. This presents a whole bunch of problems but for my photography, two kind of big ones. The first being with no snow cover, there is a ton of food available for critters. There is no need to gather at our feeders for food when the critters can range near and far for food. At the same time, photos like this one above of a Flicker waiting its turn for the suet with the snow falling during a break in a storm aren’t possible. It’s so bad, I don’t even have my 600mm set up by my desk (where it was when I took these two photos) because there ain’t no snow! Can you say bummer in the sierra?
Can you see the difference between the two Flickers? One is a male and the other a female. On our property, the females are really scarce so whenever they appear, I try to make clicks. The bottom photo is the female, you can tell by the lack of the red mustache. If you look at the bottom of the perch or her breast, you’ll notice lots of white light. That’s not flash fill, that’s natural fill…snow! That’s the other reason why I’m bummed right now because even if I had birds, without the snow I would have to work harder because I would need flash fill. As it is though, we’ve got nothin but dirt!
There is one aspect of winter I look forward to on the flats each year. That’s the carpet of brown vegetation. The shrubs, grasses, reeds, everything has gone dormant and brown making it the perfect home for many dickie birds. Many of the dickie birds are in their winter browns and the combo in the gorgeous mellow light of winter just sucks me in!
The biggest challenge of this type of dickie bird photography (White-crowned Sparrows are seen here) is capturing a “clean” photo. The shrubs, grasses and reeds are a very busy world and the dickie birds move through it like we drive freeways. They often don’t come up on top of the vegetation because that’s how they get eaten, down deep is safety. The way I approach it is find the perch with the background I want within the area the dickie birds are forgaging. Then I psssst, psssst a couple of times and more times then not, a bird will come up on the perch to see what’s up. You don’t have much time, you need to have prefocused on that perch, but you do get rewarded. White-crown Sparrows are a long time favorite of mine and I know them well so making these images is a relaxation making it even more enjoybale. Ah, the brown of winter!
Photos captured by D3x, 600VR w/TC-17e
Winter is coming and hopefully with it, lots of the white stuff. Snow is a marvelous background or stage for photographing wildlife in so many ways. One that I recently pointed out is its great light bouncing qualities. It makes shooting critters anytime of the day a no-brainer. Next, it cleans up the world so nicely, making lots of the natural world’s clutter disappear. One of its greatest gifts though is its ability to set the stage for our photograph.
There is no body who sees a photograph of white sweeping across the landscape who won’t know it’s snow. That in itself is huge! Talk about easy story telling, put the white stuff in there and you can say it’s winter in a heartbeat. And with it being white, anything you stick on it will visually pop without any problem. That’s huge too! The three photos here, the Coyotes in Yellowstone, Polar Bear on the edge of the Beauford Sea or Dall Sheep in the Yukon territory demonstrate this. The “subject” in each one of these photos gets smaller and smaller yet, you can’t help but to see them. You don’t need long glass to make these types of images come to life. You’ve just got to see them and get past having frame filling subjects but let the whole world into the frame.
This brings up for many I’m sure the question of exposure. There is some really old, really bad advice out there on this topic but like anything photographic, YOU must find what works best for you. Personally, when shooting snow I don’t automatically do anything with my metering. Using modern cameras with meters connected to computers, I don’t find an issue so it comes back down to what it is you want to communicate. I’ve written about this before, if you wanna find out more, head here. The biggest trick of all if simply getting out in the snow because once there, the whole winter wonderland opens up and the photographs seem to be endless!
Ah, the first snow of the season that will stick has fallen, winter is on! I love shooting critters in the snow for many reasons. They have their thickest fur, densest feathers, most of the time they are all puffed up to stay warm giving themselves the “I’m full and pleased” look. It is also easy to photograph them. I have learned over the years what patches of snow to NOT remove as it acts like a natural reflector so flash fill is not required. No matter the time of day, the snow bounces light up and makes getting snap shots easy to take. All you need are the critters!
Attracting critters in the winter is real simple, food and water is all it takes. When it comes to food, suet works great because it is such high energy but even better, it doesn’t freeze. Lastly, suet hangs so snow doesn’t collect on it and even if it does get wet, it’s fat so it won’t spoil. We do put out seed but it’s a pain to keep clear on some days. Water is the best, it’s free and brings in everything critter from birds to mammals. The only trick is to keep it from freezing. There are bird bath (some even solar powered now) heaters which draw no power really and keep the water just a couple degrees above freezing. This “free water” as it is called is vital to critters since they still need to drink especially in the winter.
Now if there is a trick to this when it comes to photography, it’s putting up food and water so you have a shot. That means watching backgrounds! Now I tend not to shoot the critters at the feeders and baths, but when they come and go to them. In the top shot, this is the suet post, you can see the suet cage in the lower right corner of the frame. I hung it this way because the Clark Nutcrackers (who you see here), Steller Jays and woodpeckers love to land and argue about who gets to eat. I needed a beefy branch for all that activity. But it’s the line of birds waiting their turn at the offerings that I love to photograph the most. The bottom shot is a favorite from this spring (birds are missing from our feeders right now ). I love the light and the gesture. You might be saying, “There’s a stick going through its head” and you’re right. If you showed me this image I too might make a joke about the skewered brains. But for some reason, it doesn’t bother me here which doesn’t make it right, I just like it. So with Thanksgiving just around the corner, remember to be thankful for the wildlife we have about and remember to set them a place at the table!
Photos captured by D3x, 600VR
Ah, the blaaaaas of August are past and wildfowl and shorebirds are starting to hit the area. Another reason fall is a favorite time of year for me. While the ducks, geese and shorebirds are in their fall plumage, it’s fresh, new plumage which makes them great targets of opportunity! But how can we do more then just take a photo that says, “They have arrive” and rather say “Hot dogs, they have arrived!”?
On of the best ways is to change your angle! I’ve become pretty famous for that video clip that shows all to well my poor imitation of a beached whale but getting down low is a must! This shot of a Red-necked Grebe is a classic example. I’m not totally flat on the ground but perhaps 12″ off it, the legs of the Gitzo not totally flattened. I did that because I loved the pattern in the water which is what attracted me to the photo in the first place. Shooting with the 600mm w/TC-17, it was easily to isolate the reflection of the trees on the other shore which you see as simple green breaking up the pattern of blue. So you start to move your images forward by not just plunking down your tripod and being satisfied with getting a sharp image.
You knew this was coming but gotta say it anyways. You gotta greet the sun! The sun hasn’t even come up on these Short-billed Dowitchers still napping into the day. This is important for two key reasons. The first is the mellow light and lack of shadows. That’s important for the second reason, the calm water. The mirror properties is what makes these fall drab plummaged shorebirds spectacular. So, greeting the sun is a must in my book!
One thing I can’t encourage wildlife photographers to do enough is go out shooting when the weather sucks! I’ve been saying it for 30+yrs and still say it, some of the best photography is in the worst weather! Fall is when winter storms start to make their appearance. Before, during and after a storm you can have some incredibly dramatic light like on these Blue or Dark Phased Snow Geese. They didn’t have that single shaft of light on them when I started to pan with them but knew they would fly into it and they did. Click! You and your gear won’t melt if it gets wet. Simple, basic care like a clean, white towel and blotting your gear dry (do not wipe!) and you’re rockin in that dampness. And the photographic rewards of that one magical image will warm you up better then any fire!
The whole trick to all of this is getting out! DO some homework, visit bird hotlines and websites and see where the birds are coming in and then get there! Do you need a 600mm? I’m often asked that question and if you wanna play with the big boys, you sure do! If you’re just starting and learning, you sure don’t! A 400mm lens does a great job and is all the focal length I had for years and started my business with. Never loose sight, it’s the person behind the camera that counts!
I was just talking with our forest biologist (a neighbor) last night and the thickness of the fur on the critters came up. When you see the bears and squirrels with a thick, healthy coat now and not 30 days from now, it hints to a cold and wet winter is coming. For photographers, it also means some great photography! Mammals look their best when they are fat, both body fat and thick fur. This combination fits what the public stereotypically think of a critter and when it comes to visually grabbing their attention, this is important. So how can you take advantage of this in your photography?
One of the first things I would do is head north. Winter comes earlier in the far north so critter are already getting in condition there when some down south are still finishing up with the spring brood. How far north? All the way! Depending on your budget and how much you like to explore, I’d start at the Arctic Ocean and work your way down. Sept is great there and Oct is great in Anchorage just to give you a reference. Then you get down to Yellowstone where late Oct rocks! It’s all hooked into cold, cold temps at night and cool to coldish during the day. That starts the whole cycle.
Take advantage of the gorgeous, gorgeous fall light! Light in the fall I think is some of the most romantic, moody and emotional of all light during the year for critters. This does mean getting up early, stalking light and chasing it all day long until the last beams slip away. Do this means you are dressed to deal with the chill! The mammals have a thick coat for a reason (and put on all that fat) and that’s because it’s cold! This is a great time to underexpose and take advantage of those long shadows!
And for most of the ungulates, it’s the time of year when love is in the air. You wanna get close, you wanna capture great biology, you wanna capture that unique photo, there is nothing like sex! Critter sex that is. When their mind is on each other, they could give a rat’s ass about dumb photographers and that is key.
And wrapping this all up in a successful trip takes homework. You gotta know the critters biology, you gotta find where they are this years (because last year don’t count, they have legs!) and if it is cold there when you wanna be there. And understand the weather you might be getting into. I was just told a a story from last year where three photographers headed out to photograph elk but didn’t do their homework. They spent three days stuck in their truck as a snow storm closed in on them and left stuck on a back country road. It’s going to be a great fall for photographing mammals, the fur is thick!