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Welcome! I'm an amateur wildlife photographer from New York State. My specialty is nature and wildlife photography. I specialize in wildlife, birds, and landscape photography. This blog is where I share some of my photos and adventures. Please comment and post questions!

Tips and Tricks

Digital SLR's vs. Point and Shoot Cameras

If you are truly interested in wildlife photography, you will need a digital SLR camera.  Most of the point-and-shoot models simply don’t have the reach you will need to safely photograph wild animals, and ultimately lack quality when it comes to taking a half decent photograph.  Also most point and shoot models advertise optical and digital zooms.  If you are an amateur that cant afford a Digital SLR camera and plan on buying a point and shoot model read the section below.  I highly recommend a Digital SLR if you can afford one.

Point and Shoot Camera Important Information:

Most manufacturers of point and shoot cameras advertise both digital and optical zoom.  Digital Zoom is often used a big selling point by manufacturers.  Its common to see the magnification posted somewhere on the box.  Don’t be fooled, digital zoom is all but irrelevant.  It only is used as a marketing ploy to trap unsuspecting newbies.  Ignore the spec completely, and if a salesperson tries to impress you with it, find another salesperson.   Digital zoom works by magnifying a part of the captured image using digital manipulation.  The process involves taking a certain number of pixels and creating a larger image, but because the new image is based on the same number of pixels, the image loses quality.  Remember that digital zoom can be done in postproduction with any half decent editing software, so you gain nothing from having the computer do it for you.   Optical zoom is the spec that matters.  The lens provides optical zoom and you do not loose image quality.  So the higher the magnification of the optical zoom the better off you image quality will be.  Also the higher the megapixels on the camera the better off your image quality will be.

Digital SLR:

If you’re just looking to get started with Digital Photography a camera body package with and 18-55mm is a nice starting point and won’t require a huge investment up front.  Also sometimes companies sell packages with an extra lens, normally with a longer focal length 70mm-300mm, or 100mm-300mm or a 70mm-250mm.  But be careful make sure the lenses that are being sold with the camera body have IS (image stabilization) included in them.  If the lenses are not IS lenses than you will have to keep you camera very steady while taking photographs in order to keep the images from blurring.   Digital SLR cameras are not camera’s you buy unless you’re really serious about taking photographs.  Not just because of the price tag, but they also have more functionality which makes them harder to use compared to a point and shoot for beginner photographers.

Getting Close & Keeping Steady

Animals are naturally more sensitive to the shape and form of an upright human being than they are to vehicles.  The fear that animals have for humans is well deserved.  When it comes to wild animals do not try and get closer to them, stay silent and still and hidden from view if possible and wait for the wildlife to move towards you.  Chasing animals will not give you a better opportunity at a shot.  Most likely it will give you a shot of an animal running away from you.  Please respect the animals that you are photographing.  Many wildlife photographers use expensive blinds to hide their presence from animals.  In the right circumstances though, you already have a working blind, your vehicle.

Some more cautious animals will flee at the sight of vehicles just as much as they do a human being.  But many species feel much more comfortable around them than they do people, especially in national parks where vehicles are a common sight.

Unfortunately too often, a tourist with a point-and-shoot camera comes along and steps out of their vehicle and approaches the animals.  Which will most likely ruin your chances at a shot.

Stabilizing your camera inside a car isn’t often easy.  You can either set up some tripods so that you can shoot from the driver or passenger seat, but some wildlife photographers find the tripod too constrictive, especially when photographing animals on the move.  Some people also use specifically designed window mounts that functions as a tripod for your camera.  These window mounts are highly prized if you are taking pictures from your car.

In the situation that you do not have a tripod your window is your friend.  You can either roll up your window to the level at which you want to set your lens and place something on the window to protect the glass from breaking (some photographers use bean bags for this purpose), or you can roll the window all the way down and rest your arm or elbow on the window sill to help stabilize the camera.

Remember the rule of thumb to eliminate camera shake: you should be shooting at a shutter speed at or above the effective focal length of your lens.  That means if you shoot with a 70-300mm lens you need to set your shutter speed to at least 1/300th of a second to help ensure that your image will be as sharp as it can be.  But I would recommend using at least a 1/500th of a second shutter speed to ensure your image will be sharp.

Tripods and the window edge trick can help lower this shutter speed, as well as cameras or lenses with image stabilization.  The blur I am talking about is not always obvious when you check an image with your LCD but when you load the image on a computer the blur will be noticeable.  Don’t be afraid to increase your ISO to get the shutter speeds you need.  When shooting fast moving animals such as birds in flight you may want a shutter speed as high as 1/1000th of a second or higher to freeze your subject.  Practice your technique in stabilizing your camera because proper technique in stabilization can go a long way.

Know Your Subject

Get to know your subject’s behavior.  Read books and talk with hunters or experts on the species.  Or just get out in the field and observe the subject for a long period of time to learn their tendencies. 

Capture Action

Starting out, I was content to capture any animal in focus and properly exposed.  I didn’t care what they were doing in the image as long as I got them in the shot.  As you develop your other skills, you will find that the most compelling and successful images are one that captures an animal in action.

Capturing action requires more patience than just getting the animals in the frame.  It’s pretty much impossible to move toward an animal without impacting its behavior.  They will often be rattled or cautious in the presence of people.  It takes time for the animal to settle back into its normal routine. 

Increase your chances of capturing hunting or feeding behavior by photographing at dawn and dusk.   These hours are the best for light and for locating wildlife as well.  Being to the spot you want to try and photograph wildlife a half hour before sunrise or a half hour before sunset will help ensure that you find your subjects when they are doing something interesting.

A tip for capturing action of birds of prey, including bald eagles, I noticed a couple of years ago after photographing birds of prey for years.  Most of the time they are in frame just before they take flight they will defecate.  I noticed this after most birds I was photographing were defecating before they would take flight.  I thought it was weird but now I use it as a great way to catch the birds in action.  You make sure you set your DSLR to shoot continues bursts and then when the bird defecates you start the burst.  Most likely the bird will soon after this take flight and you should capture at least one good shot of the motion of the take off.  These shots look more impressive than regular shots of the birds of prey sitting on a branch.

Anticipating Action and Using Burst Mode

You need to be able to anticipate the action that you subject is going to take.  That’s why it is important to know your subjects tendencies.  When you anticipate action start shooting.  Even if they don’t do what you think they are going to do, at least you did not miss something.  I try to take advantage of the burst rate on the camera for this purpose.  I will normally take bursts of 3-4 shots, but sometimes I will take more depending on the action that is occurring.  You will be surprised to see the changes that take place between shots in a burst.  The reason I shoot burst is because normally there is one great shot in a group.  The more photographs you take the higher the chance is that you will get that one great shot. That’s were being able to take those short bursts at a higher frame rate is important.  That’s why the cameras speed is important, and you need to make sure that your memory card can keep up with the cameras speed.

Long Lens Technique and Camera Settings

Shutter Speeds, Aperture, and ISO

For me shutter speed is the most important, both for freezing the action and for reducing the effects of camera shake.   If I’m shooting a static subject I try and shoot with shutter speeds of 1/400th of a second, but even with a relatively static subject it is amazing how much just a little movement can lead to a blurry shot.  So even for static subjects, I prefer higher shutter speeds. For a flying bird or a running mammal, I really like a minimum of 1/1000th of a second, but I prefer over 1/2000th of a second, and if I can get to 1/3000th of a second or more than I am really pleased. Since the best wildlife shooting opportunities are right after sunrise or right before sunset, having enough light to sustain these shutter speeds is often a challenge.

I usually shoot in the full manual mode so I can choose which settings to set for everything.   But you can set your camera to Av mode (aperture priority mode) and then the camera will change all the other settings such as shutter speed automatically to suit.  Once you have AV mode turned on, you can change the f-number by rotating the main dial above the shutter button. Note: this is for Canon digital cameras. You may need to refer to your manual to find out how to change the F-stop for your specific brand of camera.

When the f-number is small, the lens diaphragm is actually wide open.  If the aperture is a large number, say F22 then the lens diaphragm is smaller or more closed. This often causes much confusion with beginners.

•    Opening your lens more refers to lowering the f-number.
•    Closing your lens more refers to a higher f-number.

The best way to understand how aperture works is to take numerous photographs with different f-number values and see what the difference is.  Take images at both ends of the scale. One with as low an F-number as possible and one with as high an F-number as possible. More importantly, when you view them on your computer take notice of how much of the photo is in focus.

If I’m shooting at sunrise I normally shoot at ISO 1600. About 45 minutes later, I can usually move the ISO down to ISO 400, and I almost never go lower. With the current generation of DSLRs, those ISO’s should not be a problem.   Right after sunrise or right after sunset I am lucky to get to 1/250th of a second or 1/400th of a second shutter speed.  That’s where I consider Image Stabilization to be a must.  Without Image Stabilization I would not even try and shoot with lower than a 1/400th of a second shutter speed, because you will get motion blur from the camera shake, especially if you are holding the camera.  While Image Stabilization won’t stop motion blur, it sure will do a wonderful job with the camera shake. Since much of my shooting is done hand held with marginal light, that is why, for me, I do much better with my IS lenses than I do without in all types of shooting situations.

One additional point about shutter speeds is that the closer you are to your subject, the higher the shutter speed needs to be in order to freeze the action.  This is because the closer the subject is, faster the subject is passing through the field of view.  That's the reason why with small birds, it is very difficult to freeze the wing motion even if you want to. Since most pictures of small birds are taken from a very close distance it requires exceptionally high shutter speeds to completely freeze their motion.

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