Photo Tips

The most important things you need for successful nature photography are patience, persistence and dedication. You need to be ready when something spectacular happens, whether you are chasing sunrises or animals. Equipment specifics are secondary to being out there a lot. The best equipment can't take any picture if it is sitting at home while you are sleeping. Consider these things to improve your photography:
Get up early
Mornings are best for photography. First light is pleasantly orange, lakes are mirror smooth, animals are active, and you don't have to deal with crowds of people. That early alarm is a big shock, but resist the urge to hit the snooze button. The first few minutes after sunrise are especially crucial for scenic photos and you don't want to miss that. You will spend a lot of time driving around in pre-dawn darkness, but the traffic will be light. Once you arrive, you get to enjoy the quiet morning solitude as well as get great pictures. If there is one thing to dramatically improve your photos, this is it.

Do it often       "F/8 and be there"
Nature is like a lottery, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. You have a better chance of winning if you play more often. You never know when that big bull elk will walk out of the forest or a few clouds will create a stunning sunrise, so you need to be there when it happens. However, remember it is a fine line between persistence and futility.

Be Ready
Keep your camera readily accessible. Some photo opportunities are fleeting, and if you can grab your camera and shoot out your car window, you will get shots that others will miss. Many photographers keep their equipment in the back of their trucks, completely unreachable, and miss those impromptu shots.

Use a tripod
Image stabilization helps to keep the lens stationary but it is only so good. A tripod is handy to keep the camera trained on the subject while you wait for it to do something photogenic. It is also handy to keep your arms from getting so tired. It is an absolute necessity for a long exposure.

Know your subject
You need to know when and where to expect to find subjects. When you spend a lot of time waiting and watching for the perfect pose, you will learn about animal behavior. Seasons greatly affect animal behavior. Mating season is a good time to photograph large animals, since they are in prime condition, preoccupied, and active.

Understand the light
Morning light is also better because of its shallow angle compared to mid-day light which basically shines straight down. Remember, you are taking pictures of the sides of the subjects, not the top, so you need the light to illuminate the sides. You can photograph subjects like birds for about the first three hours of a day. After that the sun is too high, the bird's belly is in shadow, and the eyeball highlight is gone. Time to go home for a nap.

Many things look good when photographed with bright sun and blue sky. A thin overcast can help by reducing the harsh contrast slightly, but the sky will appear white. Other subjects look better in cloudy overcast light. Flowers benefit greatly from the non-directional and shadow-free light of a cloudy day. Waterfalls are not so blitzed with overcast light, plus a relatively long exposure can create a wonderful silky effect.

Beware the light meter
The built-in light meter does a fine job when it is seeing an average scene. But large areas of white or black can fool it and cause huge exposure errors. If your subject is standing on sun-lit snow, the meter will be fooled by all that bright snow and reduce your exposure, which will leave your subject as a silhouette. Conversely, if your subject is sun-lit with a dark shadowy background, the meter will be fooled by all that dark area and increase the exposure, which will blitz out your subject. In these situations, switch to manual exposure control.

You will also have to adjust your exposure if your subject is very light or very dark. Subjects like white pelicans need less light so you can retain detail in their white feathers. Similarly, black bears need more light.

There is a lot of confusion regarding this compensation. I have been told to accomodate a light subject by both "opening up" and "closing down". The source of confusion is where you start, an incident or reflected meter reading. For example, say you have a snow-covered scene in direct sun. If you start at the typical sunny day exposure of 1/250 at f/9.5 at ASA100, then you need to close down about one stop. If you take a reflected light reading using the camera's meter, it will be something ridiculous like 1/250 at f/22. Starting there, you need to open up about two stops. As always, if you are in doubt and have the time, bracket your exposures.

Focus on the eyeball
With a long lens, you don't have a lot of depth of field, so use it wisely. An animal's eye is the most important part and it should be razor sharp. A highlight also improves the photo immensely. Some animals have jet black eyes which look like holes in their heads without that highlight.

Don't harass your subject
In the quest for that frame-filling close-up, we all try to get close to the subjects. The tolerance distance for each animal is different, and you can't predict exactly what that will be. Sometimes the animal may accept or completely ignore you. Others will walk or run away, which only leaves you with a fleeting butt shot. A bird that feels threatened won't come to its nest, so you won't get any shots. If you have an uncooperative subject, it is pointless to harass it, so please don't. Remember, the welfare of the animal is paramount.

Learn from your successes and failures
When you get some bad photos, ask yourself "why is this photo bad?" and determine what you can do to recognize that situation and avoid repeating that mistake. Similarly, when you get a great photo, ask yourself what makes it so good and try to do that again. Be honest with yourself in your evaluation of your photos. Just because you went to great pains to get a photo doesn't automatically make it spectacular.

Show only your best work
Take lots of pictures and sort them mercilessly. If any are out of focus or blurred, throw those out immediately. If you get a dozen dynamite shots, nobody else needs to know how many hundreds of duds you threw away.

Wildflower photos

are a totally different matter.
For more hints, see Advice for Wildflower Photography.
My Equipment

I finally went digital in 2010, when Canon tempted me with their new 7D. I must say, it's awesome. Technological advances like image stabilization and autofocus make it much easier. The ability to adjust subtle lighting and color tint is great. I have gotten photos with the digital camera that would have been impossible with film. However it is easy to become a mindless zombie and let the camera do it all. If you're not paying attention, the camera will happily focus on the bird's butt instead of its head.

I had been using an old Canon A-1 camera. The incompatibility of my old lenses to the new cameras was the main factor in my reluctance to go digital. I had a range of lenses from 24mm to 800mm. Longer lenses are often envied but are not the ultimate panacea. Besides their expense, they are heavy and awkward, prone to vibration, require precise focusing, and attract unwanted attention from curious tourists. They also do not give you as much magnification as most people expect. My rule of thumb is: if you can't see it with the naked eye, you can't take a decent picture of it with a 600mm lens. To see the effect of different length lenses, see my lens focal length chart.

(2012 update: I discovered an adapter that lets me use the old 800mm FD lens on my 7D. See how it performs here.)

I used a Mamiya 7 medium format rangefinder camera for scenic photos. Yes, it is a step backwards from 35mm in terms of size, cost, versatility, and ease of use. But those giant 6x7cm transparencies definitely make it worth the extra trouble! The quirks of a rangefinder take some mental adjustments, not the least of which is the propensity to photograph the inside of the lens cap. Using a polarizer or split neutral density filter on a rangefinder is less convenient than on an SLR, but definitely possible. No you can't do macro photography or super telephoto wildlife photos, but it is great for general landscapes like waterfalls and big mountains glowing orange at sunrise. I chose this system because it was reasonably light and portable for those long hikes. It has worked well. But alas, now it's pretty much a paperweight too.


Where to find wildlife

Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this question. I regularly go to Rocky Mountain National Park because it is close to home. National parks are good for photographing wildlife because the animals are there and they are relatively tolerant because they haven't been hunted. You don't have to deal with getting permission from private property owners, or worry about power lines and fences in the background. It is faster and easier to cruise the roads early in the mornings instead of hiking somewhere, because you can cover a lot more area. Some days you won't find anything. You need patience and determination to keep looking.

You don't necessarily have to go to exotic locations for wildlife. Keep your eyes open and you never know what you might find. For example, both of these photos were taken within two miles of my house in the city. A roadside field was flooded with spring runoff and some migrating white pelicans landed in it. A gnarled old tree with a big empty cavity stood in an open space area which I had passed hundreds of times, but for a few days, this screech owl was in the cavity.

Photography is not really a social pastime. Locating the animals is as much a part of it as actually photographing them. After I have spent several days scouting for bird nest holes, I'm not anxious to tell other photographers. At a minimum, I will have to share "my" subjects, and the other photographer may not have the same level of respect for the subject. Some photographers will pump you for information and offer none in return, which seems unsociable and unfriendly. A few photographers are major jerks with huge egos, but you soon learn to avoid them. Wildlife photography is competitive, but we can at least be civilized.

Equally important as where to find wildlife, is when. The changing seasons greatly affects the animals' behavior and your photo opportunities. Great horned owls nest in February and have fuzzy chicks by May. Migrating birds come through the area in April and May. Nesting songbirds can be photographed in late June. Mountain goats need to be photographed early in the summer, before they start losing their hair and look like rotting carpets. Different wildflowers bloom at different times throughout the summer. The leaves on the aspen trees turn to gold during September, which is influenced by altitude and latitude. Elk start their mating activities in late September, followed by mule deer, then bighorn sheep at Thanksgiving.

If you can't make 80 trips to the park each year in all seasons, or don't want to get up at 4AM and drive around in the dark, you might consider buying a book. For less than the price of two rolls of film, you get to see the results of the best days I've had in the mountains over the years. I hope you will get as much enjoyment from my seeing my photos as I had taking them.

How to do wildflower photos
Lens focal length chart
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