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

How do they do it?

I was somewhat back to story telling to go with my photos, but then I made the mistake of watching a few more of the how-to videos online. I shouldn’t watch any more of those videos, not because I know how to do everything well, but because every time I watch one of them, my mind gets stuck on the photography aspect of my life. I then forget about why I’m shooting the photos in the first place.

In watching all of the how-to videos that I’ve watched over the last several years, I’ve come to the conclusion that how professional photographers go about getting the fantastic wildlife images that they get has less to do with camera gear and settings, and more to do with how they go about getting to the point of shooting those images in the first place.

Right from the first of those videos that I’ve watched, I’ve thought that if I were in the same situation that I could get images just as good as the pros do. Back then, that wasn’t true, and I’m not sure that it is now, but I’m getting closer all the time.

Let me explain. One subject that comes up in many of the videos that I’ve watched are brown bears fishing for salmon in Alaska. There’s a lodge in one of the National Parks where one can rent a cabin, and be within walking distance of one of the rivers where the bears come to fish. You can get up in the morning, walk down to the river, and spend the day shooting the bears. Bears are large subjects, relatively easy to photograph. You know where the bears are going to be and what they’ll be doing, in the river looking for salmon. You can position yourself so that you have good light on the bears as they fish. For the photography, all you have to do is press the shutter release at the right time.

Well, it isn’t quite that easy, but close to it, they still have to compose the shot and get the correct exposure, but when you’re shooting one subject in the same light for the most part, that is relatively easy. I’ve never photographed brown bears fishing for salmon in Alaska, but it from what I’ve seen in the videos, it is easy in my opinion.

On the other end of the size spectrum, there are the hummingbirds. From the videos that I’ve watched, the way to get good shots of the hummers in flight is to mix up a batch of sugar-water as you would for a hummingbird feeder, and use an eye-dropper to put a few drops in the same flower all the time. The hummers soon figure out that the one flower has a never-ending source of food, so they return to it again and again. Then, the photographer can pre-focus on the flower, and wait for the hummer to return. They can even set-up a few strobes on stands to both light the hummers and to assist in freezing the motion of the hummer’s wings. Silly me, I try to follow them in flight and catch them as they feed on one flower after another.

Then, there are tactics such as baiting, or going to a private nature “preserve” where semi-tame animals are brought out by handlers to perform for the photographers.  The professional photographers also know the areas where large numbers of their intended subjects gather naturally, but one has to be able to travel to those areas at the right time of the year to take advantage of it. An example of that would be the huge flocks of snow geese, sandhill cranes, and other species of birds that gather around the few sources of food and water that they need in the arid southwest part of the United States, to either winter over, or on their way south to better places to spend the winter. We do get flocks of the same species here in Michigan, but Michigan has an abundance of good places for the birds to hang out in, so the flocks are much smaller here because they’re spread out more.

When you look past the actual photography aspect that I’ve seen in the videos that I’ve watched, in most of them, when you get right down to the nitty-gritty, it’s more about controlling the subjects and less about camera controls. And, I suppose that you can say that it takes money to make money. Guided wildlife tours, renting cabins close to an abundance of willing subjects, time at a private nature preserve, all those things cost big bucks, more than I’ll ever be able to afford.

I’m not complaining, just pointing out the fact that the wildlife photographers who shoot stunning images time and time again have many more advantages than just great photo equipment and the ability to use it.

The professionals have to give themselves every advantage that they can get, they are in a highly competitive market where it’s hard to earn a living.

That brings us back to the videos that I’ve watched. Most of the photographers who give the presentations are sponsored by a camera company or a company that runs the photo tours, or both. The videos are in some respects, very long commercials for the companies that sponsor the presenter. By the end of the videos, you’ll think that you need every one of the expensive lenses that the sponsoring company produces, and that the only way to get truly great wildlife images is to go on one of the tours. Very often, the person doing the presentation heads up those tours, or holds workshops on their own, and that’s how the presenters make their money, or they at least get to go to fabulous places for wildlife photography at no charge as the headliner for the tours. But, most of us don’t have the financial resources to do those things.

Looking back, my two best images of a perched bald eagle were both shot using the Beast (Sigma 150-500 mm lens) on the 60D camera body, a set-up that I’d never use for a bald eagle photo now that I have better gear.

Bald eagle

I was able to get close to the eagle and in a position where I had good light for a change.

My best eagle in flight image was shot with the 7D Mk II, with the lowly 70-200 mm f/4 non-IS lens, which is the cheapest L series lens in Canon’s line-up at the current time.

Juvenile bald eagle in flight

The funny thing about that image is that I was doing a test at the time to see if it was the IS that was causing my images of birds in flight to come out as poorly as they were at the time, and it was. That led me to purchase another of the lower cost lenses in Canon’s L series line-up, the 400 mm f/5.6 non-IS lens. I’ve also found that turning the IS off on the lenses that I have that have IS is also effective, but then there’s the time factor of searching for the right button to slide on the lens to turn the IS off, and in most instances, I don’t have the time to do that.

That’s because of the way that I go about getting the images that I do, there’s a day-night difference in the way I get my photos as compared to how the pros get theirs. I seldom have the chance to get set-up to shoot just one species of bird or animal, I generally shooting targets of opportunity that I see while walking, or driving as I do at the Muskegon County wastewater facility. I do get my best images there at the wastewater facility when I have the time to exit my vehicle and prepare to get the shot though.

I’ve always tried to keep the fact in mind that you don’t need the very best gear to shoot great images, although as I said in a recent post, good gear does make it easier to get good images, up to a point.

I am attempting to shoot as the professionals do more often, as far as limiting myself at the time as to what subject I shoot, and the way that I do things overall. For example, when I’m at the wastewater facility, I’ll often park in an area where I know that certain species tend to hang out. Then, I’ll sit and wait to see if they do show themselves, but I have limited patience for doing that. That’s the way that I’ve gotten some of the recent photos of green herons that I’ve posted, I know where I’m most likely to see them, so I sit and wait for them. Sometimes, I’ll grab my macro set-up to shoot flowers and insects to help pass the time, but then, I may spook the birds that I’d like to photograph.

One thing that the pros universally teach is that you have to use manual mode for wildlife photography. While I do use manual more often these days, in tough situations, it still doesn’t work for me most of the time. That goes back to how I shoot the images that I do, I seldom have the time to dial in the correct adjustments in the manual mode to get the shot before my subject disappears from view. I shoot in the aperture mode most of the time, and allow the camera to set the shutter speed and ISO for stationary subjects. I’ll also make use of the exposure compensation dial on the back of the camera to correct the exposure when shooting a very light, or very dark subject, or for shooting with the sun behind me versus shooting towards the sun.

There are times when I think that the differences between what the pros teach and the way that I do things is mostly a matter of semantics. The pros tell you to shoot a few photos to get your camera dialed in using the manual mode to begin with. Then they will say that they know if one thing happens, they should move the dial two clicks to the right, or if another thing happens, that it’s three clicks to the left. They never specify what setting they’re changing, I assume it to be shutter speed, but that may depend on the situation. I’ve never quite understood what the difference was between their clicks in one direction or another was compared to my changing the exposure compensation dial a few clicks one way or the other was until recently.

One presenter in a video was adamant about not trusting the exposure meter in the camera, and if you did, you’d have to be changing the exposure compensation all the time. He was another that said that he knew how many clicks to spin the dial of his camera and in which direction when certain things happened. Then it hit me, to his thinking, he was adjusting the exposure, not using exposure compensation. I accomplish the same goal by using exposure compensation, which adjusts the exposure for me. To him, it’s not so much the end result, but how you go about getting there. To me, I don’t care how I arrive at the correct exposure, as long as I get there. When the light changes, something in the exposure triad of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO has to change to account for the change in light. Not even a professional photographer can change that fact.

It helped that I had recently set-up my tripod and gimbal head to shoot the swans that I wrote about in an earlier post. While my main goal was to test the gimbal head, I also switched the camera to manual mode to practice what the pros teach. It was the day after a cold front had blown through, and the sky was filled with puffy white cumulus clouds, along with remnants of some of the storm clouds from the front that had passed. The light was changing constantly, going from bright, unfiltered sunlight, to deep shade as one of the large black storm clouds blocked the sun. In between, one of the puffy cumulus clouds in front of the sun often created nice diffuse light as well.

When the light was constant, I had no trouble getting well exposed images in the manual mode, I shot a few test shots, got the settings right, and it worked great. But then, in the middle of one of the times when one swan was chasing another, a cloud moved in front of the sun, and there was a dramatic fall-off in the light. The images that I shot then were under-exposed of course. I admit, I saw it in the viewfinder, but I was lost as to how to correct for it. My shutter speed, aperture, and ISO were all set manually as recommended by the pros, and I forgot which dial changed which setting at the time. Maybe all of that is automatic for the professionals, but I found it much easier to go back to the aperture mode that I usually use, and trust the meter in the 7D to correct when the light changed when I was shooting portraits of the swans. I’d switch to the shutter priority when one of the swans assumed the aggressive posture alerting me that a chase was about to take place. Then, the 7D adjusted the aperture accordingly.

However, I could see what you wouldn’t want to allow the camera to adjust the aperture if you wanted to limit the depth of field, or to extend it. So, I did shoot in manual mode for a while, but with the ISO set to automatic, so my shutter speed and aperture stayed constant, with the camera changing the ISO when the light changed as the light meter read the scene. I do understand that for creative control of your images, you need to have the aperture and shutter speed set to produce the look that you desire in your images. There are times that you want a wide aperture to isolate your subject as much as possible as I said in my last post.

Male Indigo bunting

There are also times when stopping down the lens to get more of the background in focus is the correct choice, as when you want to show the environment that the subject inhabits.

Great blue heron at home

Actually, I think that I have a firm grasp on how to shoot in the manual mode and why you would want to, especially for birds in flight. The saved settings that I programmed into the 7D body that I use for flying birds are based on the manual mode, and it works very well. The manual mode also works very well when a subject sits still long enough to use it. I can see why the pros use it in the situations that they typically shoot in, larger subjects where they have some control over the light to begin with. However, that’s not the way that I shoot most of my images.

That’s especially true of most of my small bird images. Even at the wastewater facility, I’ll walk through or around the woodlots there to find the species of birds that live in wooded areas.

Great crested flycatcher


Male Baltimore oriole


Male Baltimore oriole


Male Baltimore oriole


Juvenile Baltimore oriole

During those times when I’m walking, whether at the wastewater facility, around home, or anywhere else, I never know which direction that I’ll be shooting in next. I could be shooting a flower…


…or an insect…

Unidentified butterfly

…almost at my feet. A moment later, I could be shooting a bird flying almost directly overhead.

Upland sandpiper in a steep dive

I don’t know why it was doing it, but that sandpiper dove like a peregrine falcon from a higher altitude than they typically fly at. The sandpiper wasn’t coming at me, it dove into the weeds in the grassy cell there and disappeared from view. I don’t know if it thought that something was endangering one of its chicks or what, but I’ve never seen that behavior from a shorebird before. As it was, I got it just as it began to pull out of the dive that it was in when I first saw it coming. I was lucky at the time, thick clouds were obscuring the sun, because I was shooting almost directly at where the sun was behind the clouds. There’s no way that I could have gotten that shot on a sunny day.

Okay, so what’s the purpose of all my babbling so far for, it’s this. If you have the chance to photograph subjects as the professionals do, in situations where your shooting just one subject for the most part, and you have some control over the light, then doing everything exactly like the pros is probably the best way to do things. But, if you’re like me, the average Joe wandering around outdoors looking for things to photograph, then doing it like the professionals may not work for you at all.

I shoot fast and loose, as I usually don’t have very much time to do anything but get the subject in focus, and press the shutter release before it moves.

White-breasted nuthatch

It’s too many photos of the nuthatch, but this series of images illustrate just how I get the images that I do. I shot the nuthatch in four different spots in the branches where it was foraging for food, and each time it moved, I had to move to get a clear view of it.

White-breasted nuthatch

You can also see how much the light changed each time the nuthatch moved.

White-breasted nuthatch

Even when it perched for a few seconds as it debated where to look for food next, it wasn’t motionless.

White-breasted nuthatch


White-breasted nuthatch


White-breasted nuthatch

Any one that’s attempted to photograph small birds knows exactly what I’m talking about. It isn’t easy to get close to them where you also have a clear view of them, and good light as well. There are many more images that I shot in that series, I picked out the best of the lot to post here. Maybe I haven’t mastered shooting in manual yet, but I can’t imagine trying to do so as a small bird like the nuthatch flits about. Maybe that’s why I seldom see small birds like that in the presentations that the professionals give?

I do rely on the light meter in the camera, but maybe I’m spoiled. I think that I raved about the excellent metering system that the 7D Mk II has as much or more than its other features, like its auto-focusing capabilities or that it can shoot at 10 frames per second, when I first began using it. I also relied on the metering system of the 60D, but I’ll admit, I did have to make more and larger adjustments with that body than I do with the 7D. It didn’t take me very long to learn the metering system of the 60D and how to adjust for it though.

I’m not saying that there aren’t advantages to using the manual mode when you can…

Green heron in flight

…I saw the heron coming, and had the time to switch the camera to the saved bird in flight settings based on the manual mode for these. The heron had been flying almost directly at me, I got a good focus lock on it, and fired off a few short bursts as it approached. Just as the heron got close to me, either the heron saw me, or a boat going up the river right behind me, and the heron veered off.

Green heron in flight

That’s when shooting in manual works well, although it took me a while to get the right settings saved in the camera for just such an event.

Green heron in flight

There were a number of green herons flying around the area, so I was keeping an eye out for an opportunity to catch one of them in flight. But to pass the time, I was shooting other things, like the series of the nuthatch, and these subjects also as I typically do.

Unidentified dragonfly


Unidentified dragonfly


Unidentified dragonfly


Backlit berries

There’s another reason that I’d prefer to retain my ability to shoot fast without having to make any adjustments, identifying the birds that I shoot through the aid of my photos. But, that’s another post, since this one is too wordy already.

I’ll sum this one up by saying that there are two things that you really have to do to get great images, one is spend time outside, the other is to master the photo gear that you have. When you have the time to make full use of the manual mode, then do so, it’s probably the best way to get exactly the shot that you’re after. But if you’re like me, and it takes you too long to get all the settings correct in manual, then you can shoot in either aperture or shutter priority and get almost the same results.

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


20 responses

  1. You are too self critical, you take just as good images as any I have seen. Keep on posting them please. That dragon fly was wonderful.

    July 14, 2017 at 11:58 am

    • Thank you very much Susan! You’re too kind, my images continue to improve, but they haven’t reached professional standards all the time, yet. 😉

      July 14, 2017 at 8:36 pm

  2. You are right.

    So often I find myself taking photos and forgetting why am I taking photos anyway. All sort of ideas and thoughts come into my mind and I get confused.

    Many years I was so obsessed with gear… I was frustrated I didn’t have a ‘good’ camera. But now I understand so well it’s not only about the camera, it is more about me, as a person who visualizes and takes a photo as a interpretation of reality. It is something personal, it’s not about capturing all the details, it is much more than that. And yes, knowing the settings of our own camera improve the way of expressing what we really want to say through our photos.

    I really appreciate your sincerity.

    July 14, 2017 at 1:16 pm

    • Thank you very much Cornell! You are correct as well, it isn’t so much the gear as the person behind it. I don’t have your natural gift of composition and seeing the lighting, so I have to shoot mostly birds and critters for my images.

      July 14, 2017 at 8:44 pm

  3. Amazing photos – I especially love the dragonfly and the nuthatch series of shots and the indigo bunting shot is delightful. Hope you make a How to Video one day!

    July 14, 2017 at 3:12 pm

    • Thank you very much Marianne! No one will ask me to make a how-to video, because I’m not selling anything. But, I have fun doing what I do, and that’s all that matters to me these days.

      July 14, 2017 at 8:38 pm

  4. It’s the difference between taking pictures of the things that you see when you see them and deciding what you want to take a picture of and going to see it.

    I always mean to do the second thing thing and get set up properly and take really good pictures but them I think, life’s too short and go for a bike ride instead.

    You seem to have got a really good balance between the two schools of thought and as a result we get to see a really good range of interesting and well shot pictures.

    July 14, 2017 at 6:39 pm

    • Thank you very much Tom! You said what I was trying to say, but much better, and with a lot fewer words. 😉

      Like you say, life’s too short to sit in a hide day after day after day, hoping for one great shot. So, I’ll continue to do a little of both ways doing my best at each.

      July 14, 2017 at 8:41 pm

  5. Well, I have always liked the photos that you post here, and they keep getting better all the time. Photography requires a lot of patience and time, and for me time is the limiting factor. A friend of mine who owns almost the same camera and lenses that I have, insists on doing everything the old-fashioned way. He spends so much time focusing manually that he misses quite a few wildlife shots, and even then his photos are not any sharper.

    July 15, 2017 at 8:31 am

    • Thank you very much Hien! I do manually focus occasionally, sometimes in low-light for landscapes, or when I’m using a tele-converter that prevents the camera from auto-focusing. I sure wouldn’t want to do that all the time as your friend does, for one thing, the focusing screens in most cameras are no longer designed with manual focus in mind. But, to each his own I suppose.

      July 15, 2017 at 3:46 pm

  6. You’ve got some real beauties here, Jerry.

    The dragonfly photos are interesting to study. It’s amazing to see all the little hairs on their legs, the little claw on the end, and the way all the pieces and parts seem to be fused together.

    Even though I know I’ll never shoot any worthwhile video, I sure would like to have a perch alongside an Alaskan river watching bears grab salmon. Seems like that would be the perfect vacation.

    As always, I enjoy your musings. Nice portrait of the great blue heron at home.

    July 15, 2017 at 8:45 am

    • Thank you very much Judy! I love dragonflies, I photograph them trying to figure out how all the pieces work together, especially how they can flap their wings so fast, and rotate them as well, they’re amazing critters.

      I’d like to spend a day or two watching bears fish, but that would be enough for me, too many other things to photograph nearby. Besides, I’ve heard that the skeeters are really bad at that time of the year.

      I seldom find a heron willing to pose for an uncrossed head shot like that, it was a young one or it probably wouldn’t have posed either.

      July 15, 2017 at 3:51 pm

  7. My goal as you know is to get people into the woods to see nature for themselves and though good photos help do that they aren’t the primary objective of my blog. In other words it’s a nature blog not a photography blog, so I don’t worry too much about what the pros are doing. They have to make a living at it and how very thankful I am that I don’t!
    I spend most of my time with a camera trying to decide what a flower’s best side is, or whether the light is right for a shot of a slime mold or a landscape, and I’ve learned a lot over the years. And so have you! Your photos are leaps and bounds ahead of where they were just a few short years ago, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t still enjoy your blog back then. I used to love your walks around the housing complex you lived in.
    For today though, I love the color of that indigo bunting and the close ups of the dragonfly. And the great blue heron too; for some reason I’m not seeing any this year.

    July 15, 2017 at 7:10 pm

    • Thank you very much Allen! I know that I have to get back to talking about nature and stop the photography related posts, but if I hadn’t gone on the photography binge, then I wouldn’t get the great shots of the indigo bunting that you liked.

      I wish that I could go back to walking that old apartment complex again, I saw more wildlife in less space than anywhere else that I go. The man-made lakes next door still yield a surprising number of rare bird reports for the county that I live in. There’s something special about that area that I’d like to find in a place where I could wander about free to shoot photos.

      There’s no great blue herons there because they’re all here this year. Their numbers seemed down the past two summers, this year, they’re everywhere. I got head shots of three juveniles in less than 10 minutes last weekend, hard for me to believe.

      July 16, 2017 at 7:51 am

  8. I personally think there is more skill and excitement in the kind of photography that you do than in any of the professionals’ shots. Just keep doing what you do so well. I liked the dragonfly shots and the green and great blue heron photos too.

    July 16, 2017 at 6:04 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! I plan to continue what I have been doing, shooting the things that I see when I see them, and with my photos improving all the time. There’ll be more of the great blue herons in my next post, along with a few other subjects as always.

      July 16, 2017 at 10:24 pm

  9. Jerry, your shots have a real quality about them that I find refreshing. There are so many ways to approach photography. For me it will always be heavily weighted towards being in nature and getting the shots that come my way. Love your Indigo Bunting!

    July 17, 2017 at 5:43 am

    • Thank you very much Bob! Being out in nature is my favorite thing to do in the first place, having a camera along makes it even better.

      July 17, 2017 at 7:28 am

  10. Amazing Photos 🙂 Birds are very beautiful 🙂

    July 21, 2017 at 2:34 pm

    • Thank you very much!

      July 22, 2017 at 6:41 am