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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
…almost at my feet. A moment later, I could be shooting a bird flying almost directly overhead.
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.
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.
You can also see how much the light changed each time the nuthatch moved.
Even when it perched for a few seconds as it debated where to look for food next, it wasn’t motionless.
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…
…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.
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.
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.
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!