Further Thoughts on DSLR Wildlife Photography

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker in snow

Back in October, I posted “Some Notes on DSLR Wildlife Photography” on this site, with some thoughts on what I’d learned in my first few months of photographing the birds of Massachusetts. Six months later, I thought I’d revisit the theme and see how my approach, and skills, have changed since then.

Equipment

When I initially wrote the first article, I was shooting with a 400mm zoom and my wife was using a 300. I since mentioned that I’d upgraded to a 600mm; these days I shoot almost exclusively with that lens — it’s heavy, but once you’ve learned to handle that weight, the extra reach pays off. Photos that were OK at 400mm become good at 600mm, as you get that little extra detail that makes all the difference. Your subjects now cover twice as much of the frame, reducing the need for cropping and the resulting loss of quality, and the camera seems capable of achieving much better autofocus when it has more data to work with.

There are downsides - the heavier lens is both harder to hold still and, because of the zoom, more sensitive to movement. And it is more tiring - you can’t necessarily hold the lens for as long, and your abs tend to know about it after a full-day shoot. That improves with training, but I still wouldn’t advise it as a first lens.

The 400mm has now been largely adopted by my wife, who is finding similar benefits. We may yet both move to 600mm.

The minimum focusing distance on the 300mm we have is 1.2 meters, the 400mm’s is 1.6m, and the 600mm is 2.8m. That means that rather than while you can photograph something almost at your own feet with the shorter lens, you have a “blind spot” extending a couple of meters around your body with the longer one. You might not expect that to be too much of a problem with wildlife, but it’s not unknown for creatures to just get too close. Having a partner with a different lens can help eliminate that problem.

When I wrote the first article, I tended to just sling my “camera rucksack” on my back. That meant carrying a larger bag, a tripod, a couple of alternate lenses and a second body, besides the day’s essentials of clothing, water, snacks and spares. In terms of simple weight, that wasn’t too much of a problem - I’ve often carried more when hiking - but when you’re trying to hold a lens still, particularly at a high elevation, the extra load on your back increases the strain and can interfere with the shot. These days I’ll quite often leave the main bag behind (or in the car) and walk out with a lightweight sling-sack with water and spares, and the camera, with the longer lens, slung over-body and hanging at my side. While this does reduce my options (and is not an approach I’d take if expecting rain), it actually increases what I can do with the kit I do take.

Traveling lighter like this means I don’t have the option of my tripod. It turns out that this is rarely an issue - I can now (with practice) generally hold the camera still enough for most lighting conditions and subjects, and bracing on posts, trees or fences can help with much of the remainder.

There are still use-cases for a tripod - I may use it for time-lapses, prepared shots and so on, but it’s not “core kit” for the style of photography I’ve developed.

On a similar note, while I also own a 1.4 teleconverter, I don’t tend to use that for regular trips either - the loss of light, and focus capability, is too much of a trade-off, and the 600mm is long enough, without that boost, for my needs.

Approach

I am an opportunistic, mobile photographer. I don’t have either the time or the patience to stake out a location, or even to stay still very long waiting for a subject to appear. This undoubtedly means that I miss shots that more “professional” photographers will get, but I’m actually OK with that. My shots are good enough, they don’t have to pay the bills, and I still get to document the wildlife that I see. Even with those limitations, I still sometimes get the occasional shot that makes me go “wow”.

Whether you want to take this approach, a much more methodical one, or something completely different, that’s up to you. The point I want to make here is that none of these approaches are “wrong”, so long as they don’t disrupt other photographers or wildlife. It just might mean that some of my advice is specific to my style, and you may want to adapt or even ignore it.

Despite the above assertions, I’ve sometimes tripped over my own perfectionism. Sometimes I’ll feel that too few, or none, of my photos from a day’s shooting will be “good enough”; not quite sharp enough, no eye contact, not clear enough. This actually started to knock me back for a while, until I stepped back and properly evaluated what I was doing, and why.

Firstly, while I’ve done photography in the past, I’ve been doing this style of photography, and used this kit, for under a year. I don’t, in many senses, “take it seriously”. So why should I take the results too seriously? There is a danger, and I’m sure I’m not the only new-ish photographer who suffers from it, of expecting too much, of comparing your creations to the best, and losing a sense of proportion. Instead, compare your work against yourself! If I compare today’s work with that of under a year ago, it’s much better! It’s closer, sharper, more colorful, more characterful. Eye contact is more instinctive, sightlines are better; there are fewer twigs in the way. I’m getting shots, which might be imperfect, which would have been inconceivable a few months ago.

One photo that really underscore this is this one:

An Osprey being mobbed for its catch by American Crows

Technically, it’s not quite there. The birds are a bit too dark and I’m struggling to lighten them without losing the sky. The sharpness is slightly off. One crow, to be really pedantic, is cut off by the edge of frame.

But when I stop to think about how I took it…

This is a pan-shot of a fast-moving raptor that’s taking evasive maneuvers, and of pursuers that are swooping around it. Those pursuers are almost plain black in real life, and a notorious nightmare to catch in-flight as anything more than a silhouette. And all of the birds are in-focus, you can see details in all of them, and it’s a recording of a moment some people will never even see! It might not be perfect, even if you applied better Photoshop skills than I have, but it’s still a real achievement, particularly for my experience!

Maybe, just maybe, we should all cut ourselves some slack with those “imperfect” photos.

Technique

One maxim I’ve adopted over the past few months is that every photo you take is either a good shot or good practice. The pan is good in the Osprey shot above because I keep practicing panning to follow birds. Sometimes it pays off, usually when tracking something predictable like a goose, and sometimes it’s not quite there, when you’re maybe chasing a hunting swallow.

Another reason the Osprey photo worked was because I’d set the camera up to give myself the best chance. I mentioned “Bird in Flight” mode in the previous article, but I’ve recently adapted that setting to include exposure bracketing of 1 EV either side of the camera’s calculated value. +1EV can give you more detail in darker birds (and is a trick learned from tef on twitter, whose crow pictures speak for themselves in terms of its effectiveness), and -1EV can sometimes save a sky when the camera blows it out. The Osprey image above was taken at +1EV, which helps give the feather detail in the crows, then the levels adjusted back in Lightroom to balance out the image. The purist’s approach here might just be to set a fixed +1EV, but I find the bust of three varied exposures works in a variety of cases.

As you take more photos, you learn to consider more things automatically as you compose them. One of these is to shoot the angle, rather than the bird - a trick known as “threading the needle” in which you move around to find an approach in which you *won’t* have twigs in front of your subject, obscuring the view and tripping up autofocus - or at least, not too many. When you start in photography, you often don’t see the twigs until you check the image at home. As you start seeing them in-situ, you wonder how to move around them. Then, with practice, the task becomes more intuitive.

An extreme case of “threading the needle” to find a Red-Tailed Hawk

Everyone’s familiar with the idea of listening for birdsong when birding, but there are tricks to it. One problem is that evolution has given birds powerful voices, making it hard to gauge distance; whether a bird is likely to be in sight, behind one row of trees, or way off in the distance. The human auditory system doesn’t help with this; we have no perception of distance, limited directional hearing in the horizontal plane, and fairly terrible perception of vertical angle (or at least, I do). This means a bird is often much higher or lower than it sounds like it is - usually higher, in my experience, so look right up!

While we can’t usually perceive distance of a sound directly, we can often triangulate it. This means moving around so that you hear the sound from different angles, then working out where those angles seem to overlap - your bird should be there. If you can hear a bird, you can’t work out quite where it is, and you don’t think it’s so close you’ll startle it by doing so, move around!

Song isn’t the only clue to a bird’s presence, or even of any animal’s. One of the most useful sounds you’ll hear while watching wildlife is a quite rustle in the undergrowth. Freeze, work out where it’s coming from. Triangulation might not work here, because whatever you’ve heard is likely close and prone to startling, but at least you can usually assume it’s on the ground. Listen for it, move slow, and you can find some real surprises. This year I’ve found the year’s first Chipmunk, my first even Woodcock, and both of the year’s early snakes this way. Again, practice helps; you’ll learn to rule out blown leaves, and start learning the difference between slithering, walking, and digging sounds.

Wrap-up

Wildlife photography is a great hobby, and offers a variety of approaches from which you can forge your own way. It’s also a learning experience, and a way to not only pass the time but focus yourself on something other than your human world. Gazing into a distant tree, tuning to the wild sounds rather than the human, I can put aside human stress even in the middle of an urban park, and find a peace that’s been hard to find in the middle of a pandemic.

Multilingual development and DevOps, with occasional politics and craft beer. Like the work? Contribute at https://ko-fi.com/parsingphase

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