My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Practice, Practice, Practice, The Mighty Mallards

This post may seem to be somewhat repetitious if you have been following my blog for a while, but I wanted to pull together several recurring themes and expound on them a little.

Back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when I was just getting started taking photographs, one of the things the experts used to repeat often was that much of the difference between a pro and an amateur was that the pros took many times the number of photos than the typical amateur did. Back then, photography was a lot more expensive, since you had to buy film, then pay for developing it, even if you did your own developing, there was still a cost to it.

With the advent of digital photography, the per picture cost has gone away, once you have the equipment, the photos cost you nothing. There’s no excuse for not practicing more often any longer. However, just shooting lots of photos won’t help you to improve your skills. You have to look at each photo and figure out why what you see on your computer screen isn’t what you thought you were going to get when you pressed the shutter release. You have to learn from your mistakes, not continue to repeat them over and over again for the sake of taking lots of photos.

There are many good books and websites that can help you to help you to improve your photographic skills, if you are willing to take a critical eye to your photos and are willing to admit their shortcomings. I’m not going to try to take that on here, the gist of this post is practice.

We’ve all heard the saying practice makes perfect, and that’s as true for wildlife photography as anything else. You have to practice in order to get better, but what do you find to photograph as practice? We would all love to shoot great photos of rare, magnificent wildlife, but that’s not going to happen often enough for the purposes of practicing. Luckily, there are a few species around here that are both beautiful and common, like mallards, robins, and herring gulls, to name a few. You may have different common species where you live, but I’ll bet that you can find some common species that make good practice subjects.

The knock against those species is that they are common, so what? If you’re taking practice photos, that doesn’t matter, delete the majority of them, after you have analyzed them for quality, then go out and shoot a bunch more.

Why are mallards so common? Because they are tougher and smarter than most other waterfowl. They learned to co-exist with humans, despite the deadly onslaughts that we released on them. Instead of retreating to ever smaller bits of pristine wilderness, mallards moved right in with us, or I should say, they simply refused to move out of our way. As the Europeans marched their way across the North American continent, the mallards dug in and said “We were here first, and we’re not going anywhere!” Despite being shot and poisoned, mallards held on, hoping that one day we would come to our senses. Now, we hold that against them.

Mallards are tough, tenacious, and adaptable, fine qualities if you ask me. It probably doesn’t hurt that they are prolific breeders as well. 😉 Except for the breeding part, I think we could all do well to be more like the mallards.

We humans seem to only place value on things that are rare, whether it is wildlife or other things. Gold is only valuable because it is rare, the same with diamonds. Neither has any real intrinsic value, nor widespread use in civilization. Gold is a slightly better conductor of electricity than copper is, but not enough to make any large difference, despite what some manufacturers of stereo equipment say. Diamonds have some use as an industrial abrasive, hardly a use that would cause them to command such a high price. The only reasons we place so much value on gold and diamonds is they are shiny or sparkly, and rare.

That works out well for most things, not so well for wildlife. We look down our noses at some very beautiful species, simply because they are common. And what happens when a species that used to be rare makes a comeback and becomes common again? I’m afraid of the answer to that one.

From what I have seen so far, the answer to that frightens me. As some species that used to be relatively rare are becoming more numerous, if they inconvenience humans in the slightest of ways, there are people calling for some one to do something to reduce the numbers of those species. Take the Canadian goose. I have written about them often, how rare they once were here in Michigan, and how well they are doing now. People today don’t know how numerous they used to be, they only remember the way it was when the geese were pushed near the brink of extinction. They were here first, they have every right to survive and co-exist with us. Too many people seem to think that nature should conform to our whims, and that we should never have to make any kind of allowance to accommodate wildlife. That’s the kind of thinking that lead us to push so many species to extinction, and even more to close to the edge in the first place.

Anyway, I decided last summer that I would use how common mallards are to help me become a better photographer, so I have set out to take the perfect mallard photo.

Just when I think that I have done about as well as I can…

Male mallard

…I get even better photos, that blow away my previous bests.

Male mallard

Then get one that’s even better.

Male mallard

By practicing on the mallards, I think that my photography has improved greatly over the last year, what I learn while photographing the mallards translates well as far as lighting and exposure. It’s trickier to get a great photo of a mallard than it would seem.

Here’s the description of a male mallard from the All About Birds website…..Head iridescent dark green. Narrow white neck ring. Breast chestnut-brown. Back and wings brownish gray. Underparts light grayish. Rump and under tail black, with white area just in front along flanks. Tail white on outside with black middle feathers. Central tail feathers curled up toward back. Bill yellow to greenish, with black nail at tip. Eyes dark. Feet red to orange…. And, may I add that much of the grayish areas of a mallard are subtly barred feathers that are very hard to capture well in a photograph.

Getting all those colors to render correctly, and to be exposed correctly, takes some doing. You have to get the light just right. Fortunately, mallards normally allow you to get approach them closer than most other wildlife will, which helps.

And in truth, I have set as a goal getting the perfect photo of all the common species that inhabit the area I live, which is why I continue to photograph chickadees, even though I have dozens of shots of them saved on my computer already.

Black capped chickadee

That brings up another point, to me, almost any shot of a chickadee is an action shot in a way. They seldom sit still for any length of time at all. Even when they are perched, they are still moving, looking around, and just plain fidgeting.

And since I want to be able to capture action shots like this…

Mute swan landing

Then mallards make great subjects to practice on, since they are normally up to something.

Male mallard

I often include what I call my bad action shot of the day in some of my posts, they’re not always that bad, but a lot of them are.

Mallards in flight

Mallard chase

Mallard chase

Mallard landing

Mallard chase

Mallard chase

Mallard chase

Mallard chase

Mallard chase


When it comes to action shots, practice is critical. Being able to stay focused on the action while zooming in or out as needed, and getting your timing right all require a lot of practice.

Mallards in flight

Not only do mallards provide plenty of action to practice on, they are darned entertaining to boot, which makes photographing them that much more fun. They are about the perfect size bird to practice on, large enough to show up well in photos, but quick enough to help me work on my timing for smaller birds, like this golden-crowned kinglet.

Golden-crowned kinglet in flight

Now that was a tough one to catch! Golden-crowned kinglets make chickadees seem large and slow in comparison!

Here’s a coupe more of the kinglet while it was perched.

Golden-crowned kinglet

Golden-crowned kinglet

Back to mallards, you never know what they are going to do, or why, like this female trying to play wood duck.

Female mallard perched on a stump

What she was doing on a four foot stump is beyond me. That’s another point in the mallard’s favor, they are unpredictable, and each one seems to have its own distinct personality.

Female mallard

So if you want to improve your skills at wildlife photography, pick a common species in your area to practice on, keep shooting, and continue to strive for the best possible photo of that species that you can get. You don’t have to choose mallards as I have, any common species will work, but you could do a whole lot worse than the mighty mallards.

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!


12 responses

  1. I agree with your defense of Mallards & Canada Geese- and I too never get tired of taking pictures of them. Fantastic shots, especially those of the Golden-Crowned Kinglet!

    March 25, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    • Thank you, those are the best shots I have ever gotten of them. It was one of the few times they didn’t stay back in the branches of an evergreen.

      March 25, 2012 at 6:54 pm

  2. sharkbytes

    I don’t have the patience to wait very long for the critters to perform. I just keep trying to catch them whenever I’m in the right place.

    March 25, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    • Who sits and waits? I may pause for a while during one of my walks while I am taking the photos, but for the most part, those were taken on the fly.

      March 25, 2012 at 8:30 pm

  3. I think all of these pictures are excellent, but I especially like the chickadee. I can’t remember ever seeing a better shot of one, even in a bird guide.

    March 25, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    • Thank you, that’s become my personal goal now, to take the best possible photos of the more common species around here.

      March 25, 2012 at 9:59 pm

  4. Wow, wonderful shots! I’ve yet to venture into shooting (fast) moving objects… 🙂

    March 26, 2012 at 7:58 am

    • Thank you! Computer problems this morning have prevented me from commenting on how good your elephant photos are!

      March 26, 2012 at 10:35 am

      • 🙂 Thank you!

        March 26, 2012 at 11:14 am

  5. As you know, the mallards are great practice shots for me too! 😉 They do pose well. Nice read on take about common species and great shots as usual!

    March 30, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    • Thank you. They do like to pose for the camera, but they are very agile in flight as well, something I had never noticed until I began to photograph them in flight.

      March 31, 2012 at 10:03 am

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