Saturday, November 5, 2016

Behind The Lens

A spontaneous moment at sunset along Imperial Beach
Recently, I was asked about the work behind my photos. Photography is a fantastic way to tell a story and help inspire the writer to write. But there's a lot of thought that goes on behind the camera work.  It also helps having a great lens for a decent price(the AF-S Nikkor 200-500 mm f/5.6E ED VR lens). It's a heavy lens, but still "light" enough for me to carry around on my wildlife shoots.  Today I'll share some of the thinking behind the pictures taken with my camera. 

a spontaneous moment at Lover's Point near Monterey, CA
Practice practice practice.  I look at my old photos, which I thought were great at the time, and scratch my head.  How in the world did I think those were ever good?  Of course, we are our own worst critics when it comes to our own work.  The simple fact is that it takes time and practice to capture that "perfect" moment. And I'm still perfecting my craft.....

a good example about keeping a steady hand while on a rocking boat in Monterey Bay, CA
Be ready at any time for that "spontaneous" moment. Never leave your camera home thinking you won't need it. This summer, I missed an opportunity to snap a photo of the American Woodcock in flight because I was too lazy to bring my camera with me. I am still kicking myself over it:)

Gray-collared Chipmunk in Greer, AZ, "shhhhhhh, be very very quiet."

Be patient.  That's something I still need to practice.  I get antsy and like to move around a lot. But with wildlife, we have to move slowly or stand perfectly still for that perfect moment.

Pronghorn at Las CiƩnagas Grasslands, near Sonoita, AZ

Lighting. I always have to remember where the sun is located when I'm snapping off photos of my subjects.  Never shoot directly into the sun as you can burn out your lens and always try to have the sun behind you as you are filming your subject.  And remember, sunsets always have a special kind of lighting that makes for great selfies:) In Arizona, we often can have too much light which makes for terrible and overexposed photos. So it's important for me to attach the hood to the lens and filter out the extra light.  Also, certain times of the day are worse than others.  Mid-afternoon is way too bright. So time of day is also important.

the Botteri's Sparrow poses nicely at the CiĆ©nagas Grasslands in Southern Arizona.  Perfect lighting and perfect pose.
Sports mode. Capturing wildlife while out in the field can be tricky.  I recommend using the sports mode to shoot off a rapid line of photos for those action shots.  You may take 500 photos of nothing, but there is a rare chance that you will get one "perfect" picture that makes it into a national magazine.  That's part of the fun and challenge of photography.

A Snow Goose in flight, use the sports mode on your camera to capture a bird in flight
Random moments.  I am not a fan of people posing for photos.  Like many photographers, we want to capture that random moment. Take for example my niece(below) this summer in Wisconsin.  She was looking out from the bow of the ship when she turned to ask me a question.  I was ready to capture that moment.

ISO settings. Wildlife can be tricky and lighting is always an issue because wildlife is spontaneous.  So on overcast days or in shady woods bump your ISO up.

A Five-striped Sparrow perches on a limb in the infamous California Gulch along the Mexican-US border during a rainy day.
Composition. Or what I like to call the artistic side of photography is very important.  A lot of thought and prep can go into capturing the right kind of color, movement, lighting, etc.  Here are two photos that I love.  One was random and the other was planned. 

A Cedar Waxwing makes for the perfect picture on a farm near Brillion, WI
Research beforehand helps put together the "perfect picture" A Rosy-faced Lovebird feeds from the blossoms of an Ocotillo plant in Tucson, AZ

A steady hand. I must be able to hike. In my opinion, anything over 6 pounds is too heavy...especially when you're carrying binoculars and a water pack(for our summers here in Arizona or in Central America). Some would even say that 6 pounds is too heavy. So, make sure you can handle the camera out in the field.  A camera that is too heavy will make your steady hand shaky. There is a camera and lens that is just right for YOU. But you need to find it.

Sunrise makes for a great morning during this shoot with a Sandhill Crane in Manitowoc, WI
When I photograph from the car, I always make sure I shut the engine off to cut the vibration down so that I won't have blurry photos. When I'm on a pelagic(an ocean trek) where the boat is constantly moving, I try to find a rail or a wall to lean against to help keep my hands steady.  That is TRULY challenging!  Sometimes I just sit down and plant my feet in a good spot to anchor myself.

Ring-necked Pheasant at Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary.  I took this shot to see how the colors and feather detail would sort out in the photo. 
Safety first. Always be careful while you're out in the field.  I've heard funny stories and sad ones about the photographer being so focused on their subject that they actually put themselves in danger!  Take for example a birder who was looking at an Elegant Trogon in Madera Canyon.  She was so focused on the bird that she didn't realize she was next to a bear!  When both bear and birder noticed one another, both parties ran in opposite directions.

A lot of hiking went into this first ever reported Pine Flycatcher; we brought our waterpacks and cameras. Experiment with different cameras and find the right fit for you. 
In the desert, I have been known to almost step on a rattlesnake or fall into a cactus while capturing my subjects on camera. I do my best to understand my surroundings but there are times I am not paying attention like I should be on the trails. In any case, these treks always come with lots of great stories:)

Understanding habitat can help connect the dots between plant and wildlife.  Here a Gilded Flicker hangs out on top of a Saguaro Cactus at Saguaro National Park in Tucson, AZ
When you find something sacred like an owl or rare animal, always remember THEIR safety.  I only tell people where these special critters are if I  know and trust them.  Why?  Well, I have discovered that there are people who will do anything to get that picture.  I'm not one of them.  I'll never risk the life of bird, reptile or mammal to get that picture.

Spotted Owls pose for perfectly for the camera in Miller Canyon near Sierra Vista, AZ

The most important part about photography is to have fun.  Experiment with settings or angles or lighting.......

A random moment in Avalon on Catalina Island makes for a fun pic

And remember, it's all about the lens. When I first began my photography, I used a simple point and shoot.  But as I worked my way up the "photography ladder", I wanted clearer and more detailed photos.  There's always a better lens out there, but my attitude is that if I can't hike because I need to bring a tripod with me, it's not worth it.  I like the mobility factor.  The bigger and more expensive the lens; the heavier the camera can get.

Detail is everything to a wildlife photographer.  A Broad-billed Hummingbird poses at a feeder at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, AZ
Every shoot is different.  And each day brings with it a new challenge.  It's what makes photography so much fun.  Until next time.....

A coatimundi surprises me on a winter's day in Ramsey Canyon, AZ


  1. Lots of great advice, I am mainly phone-scoping my shots at the moment and really enjoying the results. I think your pictures are absolutely fantastic.

  2. Hi Chris, Enjoyed your post about photography... I too have come a long long way since I first started taking pictures years ago... Of course, having digital now really helps since I can take a gazillion pictures to find ONE I love... ha.... My biggest problem is patience... I always have something else to see, somewhere else to go, etc.... ha

    Thanks for sharing the beauty.

  3. You're a story teller so your images are part of that, and I do see how they've improved over time. I do like that little Chipmunk especially.

  4. Some great tips here - one of my favourite ideas is to use a pillow of some sort to support you camera on the door of the car if you are using the car as a hide.

    Darters and Anhingas are 'sort of' the same thing - our Darter and the American Anhinga are different species, but they are in the same genus - so there are very closely related.

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  5. A great post and photos Chris with wonderful advice :) Especially love the pheasant and waxwing pictures but they are all superb.

  6. Many wise words there Chris, and some fabulous images to illustrate your points!

    Best wishes - - - Richard

  7. Hi Chris. I don't know if it's intentional, but I can't post a comment to your latest blog post (Where The Wild Things Are).

    I know it all seems like a disaster at the moment, but don't lose heart.

    1. Hi Richard, it was:) It's hard not to lose heart. SO disgusted with racist, homophopic, and the religious right wing. There's a special place for them all.


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