Nature photography is not my specialty however, I do love to get out and shoot wildlife when the opportunity arises. Like all genres of photography nature & wildlife pose obstacles and it can certainly be a challenge. For those who do not do this kind of shooting they often think nature & wildlife is pretty easy. That is, until they try it. Sure, we have all seen those extreme close ups of squirrels eating a nut or the white-tailed deer with her fawn close by and while these kinds of photos appear on many photographer’s social media there is always the backstory of what is really going on.
Let’s take a quick look at some wildlife backstories. The squirrel eating the nut and as we look closer it is actually a peanut and because it was shot at a very shallow depth of field, we are not seeing that it is actually a pile of peanuts that was placed in the middle of a city park. So simple of a shot anyone can do it. As the urban sprawl encroaches and deer have no natural habitat left, we always find whitetail deer literally living in people’s backyards. Capturing a shot of the mother and her fawn can often be accomplished while sitting on your back deck or porch while drinking your morning coffee.
The stories become even more pathetic when we see so called “Wildlife Photographer’s” who have portfolios of fox, wolves, bears, tigers and much more that were all shot at a zoo, reserve, preserve or whatever. There are many places that will let you pay a fee to stick your lens through a chain link fence and capture images of a so called wild whatever. And just like that “you’re a wildlife photographer. Just the same way photographers can pay to shoot a model on a set where the lighting is all preset and there are people to assist and guide you to get an awesome shot of a model and call it “their own,” you can pay for just about any genre of photograph you can think of.
Myself, I may not be the best photographer however, I have made it to 55 years old without paying to photograph wildlife. I have paid models and that was in the context of a commercial gig where photographs are being used for business purposes. There is just some kind of satisfaction that comes from capturing an image/s that came from effort that was put in or it could be just pure, flat out luck.
So, let’s talk about the ‘effort put in” and then we’ll talk about the “luck shot.” Be it a bird house or a photograph, if I put my hard work and effort into it, I know I will love it more and it will bring me much satisfaction. I think back to a time where I had these scrap pieces of wood leftover from a small repair, I was making on a storage building. While cleaning up the wood scraps I thought why not make a birdhouse. Actually, I ended up making 4 Blue bird houses. I placed them across the fields that surrounded my home at the time and when taking my daily walk, I could see them. They lasted about 8 years, nobody ever knew I made them (until now) and it just gave a warm feeling to walk those fields and see the birds in houses I made. I think everyone at some point in their life has made something with their own two hands that has brought them comfort and satisfaction.
Walking through the brush in the predawn hours to get to a point on a ridge overlooking a meadow in hopes… yes in hopes that there will be whitetail deer there when the sun comes up is putting in effort. There is no guarantee the deer will show. Sure, they are there most mornings but, what if something spooks them this morning? I end up doing macro photos of dandelions and field birds lol.
So, how about that luck shot? Everybody at some point in their life will have the chance at a luck shot. I say “have a chance” because many a person has blown their chance at the luck shot. The easiest way to blow your chance is to not be prepared and the biggest prep you can do in photography is “know your camera inside & out and know your settings and how to change them quickly.” Let’s say you had a chance to get a beautiful shot of a red fox running across the field and you have on a 24-70mm because you are shooting a model in the field. You would have to switch lenses and maybe you don’t even own a 70-200mm. In this scenario you didn’t blow your chance, you just never really had the chance. However, if you were shooting the whitetail deer I Aperture Priority and you see the fox and you need to switch it up to Shutter Priority or go in to Manual Mode with a fast shutter speed you should do it just as fast and instinctively as you would put your hands out to break a fall when you trip over something. If you missed getting a shot of the fox because you fumbled your camera settings, you may want to chalk that up the “blowing your chance at a luck shot.”
I have wanted to get a decent shot of a blue heron for many years now. I have put effort into getting a chance at a shot and it never worked out. My longest lens is a 70-200 and really it would be much easier if I had something longer like a 400mm. But still I try. I was at the local wildlife preserve up the street from my house, rain was forecasted and I wanted to shoot a YouTube video of a LensCoat camera rain cover. There is a small lake with some geese and occasionally some wild ducks. Blue heron frequents the lake but, on this day, I know there will be people fishing and the blue heron will most likely not be seen.
I arrive at the lake and I get set up with my camera on a tripod and I just have to wait for the rain to roll in. I figure I will shoot the YT video under the premise that I am there to photograph Canada geese. Actually, I am sick of photographing geese because I can do that any time on any given day. Soon a few fishermen arrive and not long after that there comes a blue heron. Wow! He flew in from the opposite side of the lake and perched high in a dead tree overlooking the whole scene. At this point he is too far away for any kind of a decent shot, he is just sitting and watching and he is not going away so that is a very good sign he will stay. Now I’m getting a little excited and I start to go over camera settings and making sure the batteries are good. After all I did none of the normal pre-shoot checking because I figured I would just be there long enough for the rain to start, I could record the video of the rain cover being put onto the camera, talk a little about the rain cover while the cover got nice and wet and it would be a wrap and I’d head back home to a nice cup of coffee.
The coffee will have to wait… and the rain is running late. According to the satellite images on my phone the rain should have arrived already. I’ve got the camera racked out to 200mm and I’m in Tv (shutter Priority) set to 1/1600 sec and if is forcing the aperture to f/3.2, ISO is set to Auto and it is coming in at ISO 250. The Blue Heron perched in the tree at 10:50am and I’m waiting, he has been in the tree for over 10 minutes. What if the rain comes and I start to shoot my video of the rai cover and the bird makes a move? I need a plan. Mentally I start to run through everything. (The camera settings are good; camera is in my hand and not on the tripod. If he moves, he will most like move to the furthest place from any humans. Double check: AI Servo is set. I’m good). I shoot a few photos of geese and I’m thinking the whole time; this bird is about 600 feet or more away, he can see color, he can see my blink… hell he can count my individual eyelash hairs. I can’t really control what the fishermen are doing however I can control what I’m doing. Don’t look at him, look at the lake, fiddle with the camera… do anything just don’t look at him. If he sees your eyes he will fly away. I say this because this is what always seems to happen. When the heron sees my eyes and or my camera lens, this is when they seem most apt to fly away. As I stated earlier, I have been trying to get decent shots of a Blue Heron for several years and not having a 400mm (or more) lens makes it a bit difficult, but I still try. How many times have I had a good clear shot and as soon as the camera comes out the bird flies away.
It is 11:15am he has been in the tree not moving a muscle. 11:18am he drops from the tree and flies over the water along the shore of the backside of the lake. There is a small island in the center of the lake, as he emerges from behind the island, he is only about 24 inches above the surface and I lock focus and start shooting. I keep shooting until he lands and would you look at that? He lands only 200 feet from me but quickly walks behind a wall of cattails. After only a few minutes he came walking out of the cattails and there he/she was. Just standing there letting me take as many photos as I’d like. Even when two people walking in the park were returning to their car and came close to the shoreline the blue heron just stayed there looking very cautious. I captured a photo of the heron looking at the lady returning to her car, while at the same time a huge fish (most likely a bass) is going after minnows and creating a raucous in the water near the heron. Still he never flinched and stood strong.
After picking at minnows for several minutes the heron moves back behind the wall of cattails and just hangs out. And wait what’s this… another Blue Heron arrives at the lake and perches in the same tree as the first one did. Soon he drops from the tree to the water in front of the tree and not long after flies the same route along the backside of the lake and lands at the same spot as the first one did. Now there are two of these gorgeous birds with in 2 yards of each other. The second one I can see and the other is hiding in the cattails. Sadly, I was not blessed with getting a shot of both in the same frame but, that is ok, this day has been generous enough and I’m very happy. Now all I need is for the rain to roll in and I can shoot my YouTube video and all will be good with the world.
Is that an eagle? What the…
To be continued in part 2.