Tuesday, June 4, 2013

WILDLIFE PHOTO TIPS THAT WORK FOR ME

I have no photography education and what little I know has been learned by reading and practicing.  A few years ago I became really bored by photographing static images and almost hung the camera on the wall.  Vases, buildings, people, walls and the like just do not light my fire.  I like photographing historical sites though.  I like to imagine the events that occurred at important historical locations like Jumonville, Pennsylvania where George Washington had a misunderstanding with the officer and leader of a French detachment, Joseph Coulon de Villiers Jumonsville, and inadvertently started the French And Indian War - the precursor to the American Revolution.
I started carrying the camera on the boat years ago and found that I loved photographing wildlife.  The boat was the vehicle that could take me into the wild places that were inaccessible otherwise.  A passion for photographing wildlife was born and has grown in importance as time passed.  Today, wildlife photography is part of my life.  
The big beaver held the maple limb tightly in his mouth as he swam back toward his lodge that he built for his family back in the tall water grasses along the river bank.  This limb was a treasure to him and he was rushing home to show it to his mate and babies.  He normally brought back cherry or willow limbs, but this time he actually found a thick maple limb.  There were no maple trees in his territory so the limb had to have floated down the river and became stuck in the shrubbery on the shoreline.  He picked up the scent of the rich bark as he swam up to the limb to inspect it.  With eyes wide he instantly grasped it tightly, his big incisors actually penetrating the bark and wood, and pushed out into the current and half swam, half floated downstream until he reached the narrow channel through the river grass that lead to his lodge.  He dove under water to the subsurface entrance and found the limb too wide to fit through the hole.  He let go his hold on the stick and moved to the end of his prize and got hold of it so he could pull the limb through the opening endways.  
He burst through to the surface inside the lodge holding the end of the stick.  His mate waddled across the dry, loft area and instantly took hold of the stick and tried to withdraw it from the water.  Failing in that endeavor, she started pealing the tasty bark from the wood with her sharp teeth.  The small pile of bark pealing was then picked up in her mouth and she chewed and chewed, mixing the softened bark with her saliva.  She then turned and waddled through the opening that lead to another chamber and laid the soft, moist bark on the floor at the feet of her three babies.  They were just off mothers milk and would soon be on their own.  The maple limb was left sticking out of the water and pointing vertically toward the lodge roof as everyone huddled together comfortably in the warm chamber and awaited sleep.
What a morning!
I thought I would talk a little bit about some of the facets concerning wildlife photography.  As I said at the beginning of this little entry - I am not formally trained to use a camera and I'll certainly not start making technical recommendations about what to buy and what's the best lens, camera, tripod etc.  I do consider myself very competent in finding subjects to photograph along waterways, and that education was acquired by putting boots on the ground or, on a boat.  I'd like to discuss where to find and how to approach some of these mammals and birds and a few situation problems that will be encountered while shooting from the deck of various boat configurations.
I'll mention just a tiny bit of information concerning equipment.  In short - bigger is better when it comes to lenses.  Anything less than a 300 milometer lens will place the photographer at a tremendous disadvantage.  One will have to get closer to an animal than he would with a larger, more effective lens.  The problem here is that very few animals will sit still while a human being attempts to gain close proximity to him.  For obvious reasons a more powerful lens is recommended.  Telephoto or fixed lens.  I like telephoto lenses.  Some photographers will say that they photograph birds and will be shooting at the long end of the lens anyway so the ability to broaden the depth of field is not needed.  That's a valid point if one has the ability to own and carry other lenses on his person.  I carry one lens and it's on the camera.  It is a 150 millimeter to 500 millimeter telephoto.  I can shoot "some" landscape shots at 150 mm or I can crank it open to 500 mm if I need to photograph birds - especially small birds..  At times the picture is enhanced if one doesn't simply photograph the bird to gain the largest image.  Pretty green foliage or colorful flowers beside or in front of the bird could enhance the image greatly and that type of shot could be accomplished by selecting the 300 mm setting on a 500 mm telephoto lens.  Later, in the computer, the shot could be cropped to eliminate some extraneous material from the image and to enlarge the bird if desired.   Fixed lenses eliminate creativity.  Enough about that.  Remember - this information is what works for me.
There are a few things to think about when photographing from the deck of a boat.  I own a photography back pack that is padded and compartmentalized with zipper access.  This is a great way to carry your photographic gear if hiking or camping.  I use mine frequently when camping.  For me the only way to go is to acquire a Pelican Case of the proper size to house your camera and lenses.  The Pelican Case is water proof (very, very important) and it will float.  I keep the Pelican on the floor beside the seat of the boat.  The lid is unlatched and I can reach down and grab the camera in a second.   I purposely do not allow the case or the camera to lay on the seat area beside me.  It "will" eventually be knocked off the seat to the floor.  That's just the way it is.  The lens cap is always in place on the lens.  Boats have limited room to move around and there is always something to bump into, and catch loose clothing and other things on.  Be very, very careful if you have a camera strap on the camera.  I think everyone has one.  They are mandatory to secure the camera to ones person and to act as a lanyard if used properly.  When a critter is seen - the first thing one does is bend over sideways and down for the camera in the box on the floor while keeping an eye on the animal, grasp the camera and  jerk up to a standing position while swinging the camera in front of the body and positioning the hands on the camera body all in the same movement.  What you don't see is that the camera strap has caught on the throttle arm and as you continue to turn toward the subject, the strap becomes taut and the camera is suddenly torn from your hands and bounces off the console on the way to the floor.  Another culprit that will catch a camera strap is the knob on the steering wheel.  Everything one does on a boat, no matter what, requires intentional thought.  Move thoughtfully and look at the camera (not the animal) as you withdraw it from the case on the floor.  Watch it in your hand as you carefully move it all the way to a position in front of you.  Then focus your attention to the animal after the camera is safe in your hands and ready for use.  I told you I wouldn't talk high tech.  One more little tip.  Light on the water constantly changes.  It's difficult to have a camera all set up for that quick shot and not have to fiddle with this or that adjustment.  I find it very efficient to set the shutter speed at 1/1000th of a second and leave it there.  That's a pretty fair setting to stop motion and it is my known setting for my camera.  I know in advance what the shutter speed is when I'm bringing the camera to my face.  If the lens requires more light, all I have to do is turn the shutter speed selector wheel to the left.  If more than ample light is present and I want to stop action, all I need do is turn the wheel to the right to increase the shutter speed.  These actions are accomplished while the camera is being brought to my face.  Experience usually allows me to have the proper setting dialed in when the view finder reaches my eye - or very close to it.
Look at the photo above.  That is a immature black crowned night heron, by the way.  He is standing on a beaver dam behind thick blades of grass.  The auto focus feature will automatically focus on the blades of grass and not the bird.  The lens must be switched to manual focus so that the focusing process looks past the grass and the focus is placed directly on the bird.  If the bird moves to an opening in the grass, the auto focus feature may have a chance of homing in on the larger image of the bird.  

In the above images I was able to use auto focus because I had a clear focus shot to the birds head.  No obstructions were present.
Remember what I said about the versatility of using a telephoto lens to gain greater depth of field, or more narrow depth of field and a larger image.  The photo above was taken at about 150 or 160 milometers.  There is more foliage in the shot which, I think, enhances the image of the bird.  Below is a shot at 500 mm.  The bird was very much hidden behind obstructions.  Only his head was visible.  It was a chancy shot but it worked, kind of.  
See the difference?
I'd like to say a word about photography from the deck of a boat.  Big boats obviously allow more room to move around and are a much more solid platform to work from.  The fact that they are big makes them very obvious to critters who really don't appreciate the intrusion of large, unknown monstrosities into their environment.  Large boats have large engines that make large noise.  Four stroke engines are the preferred engine as they are quieter than two stroke engines.  All that said - large is large and big boats can be seen coming for a long ways off.  Large white boats are a no, no.  Of course, I'm usually on a large, white boat that has a large two stroke engine and I am usually seen coming a long way off by the critters.  Size, color and engine type and size were not my choice to make.  Those things are provided me and I ain't complaining.  
A small 14 to 16 foot boat with a 15 to 25 horsepower four stroke engine is the way to go.  Make the color green.  Actually, I've just described my Gheenoe.  The Gheenoe is 16 foot long, green in color and the engine whispers.  It is equipped with an electric driven prop and will travel over 8 inches of water.  It really is a great boat to sneak up on critters with.  It does have its downfalls.  Small boats are very susceptible to current speed and rough water and wakes from other boats.  In short - they bob and bounce around easily. Higher shutter speed selections are required to overcome the unstable photography platform.  No, the uni-pod and bi-pods won't help.   That is the price to be paid for the ability to sneak around in the habitat of the wild critters and remain unseen - temporarily.  What about canoes you ask.  Canoes are the ultimate boats for sneaking up on any critters.  They are dead quiet.  The major downfall is that they literally go where the wind blows, as well as whatever direction the current flows.  It is very difficult to hold a long lens on a critter, do camera adjustments and maintain concentration on what one is doing while a canoe is rotating out of control in the current and the wind.  The paddle must be grasped and inserted in the water with one hand while the other holds the camera.  It can be a frustrating experience.  But, they are quiet and I'd suggest not the best platform for photographing from.  I love em though.
I would be negligent if I didn't mention a word or two about the critters themselves.  Remember - I'm talking about river and lake mammals and birds.  It's highly advised to read up on the wildlife that inhabits the area you are going to be searching.  It is possible to run onto wildlife accidentally as one moves over the water, but some beforehand information about the wildlife you can encounter will help immeasurably as to your success.  I photographed the black crowned night heron earlier in this little instruction piece.  The night heron, aptly named, is primarily a nocturnal bird.  It hunts by the light of the moon while its other heron species brothers are sleeping away the night.  The black crown night heron is a wading bird and will eat small fish, frogs, insects and even baby mammals as well as snakes.  They can be found in the day time jumping from branch to branch deep inside and behind the foliage of trees where it's shaded and cool.  They will move about in bright sunlight but will usually fly to and land toward the shaded center of trees and thick bushes.  This is why I become excited when I see one.  The river I run on seems to have a lot of immature black crowns.  Evidently there is a particular place where the adults nest and I think I have found that place.  The immature s do not resemble their parents in color whatsoever.  Immatures are blond in color but identical in stature to the parents.  These birds are a real treat to find and photograph.
The immature night crowned night heron above is very near to reaching adulthood.  He still retains some of the lighter coloring of an immature.  Notice that he is not perched out in the open.  Night herons most always perch in and behind foliage.  A tough shot to get, by the way.
I could see he was getting nervous and I thought I was ready to catch him with wings in action.  As you can see below, he was quicker than I was.   
Even when you're ready, you're not ready.  The critter is always in control.
 Eastern Wood PeeWee
 Shots like this with the subject against a blue sky are a cinch using average metering - as long as the sun is behind you.  When shooting into the sun it is advisable to use spot metering.  It's easy to find on the camera.
The Eastern wood pee-wee is very similar to the flycatcher.  The only obvious difference is the coloration on the primary feather colors and pattern - more pattern than color.  A lot of the excitement in bird photography is rushing home, downloading the images and trying to figure out what you photographed.  It's fun!

OK - I'm going to say this is an orchard oriole.  The black throat, beak and black around the face seem to match the bird guide photos and descriptions.  I'm from Pennsylvania and the Southern birds are a bit different.  The bird guide maps indicate this bird should be common here in Tennessee.  I never saw one in the 11 years I've lived down here.


But, back to the photography stuff.  
Lets go over otters and beavers.  Both dwell in burrows dug low on river embankments.  The open hole leads straight into the cliff and abruptly turns verticle where a flat ledge is dug out.  This ledge is used for drying off and general rest.  Lunch and dinner are also served here.  Another room or cut out is made adjacent to the dry-out ledge.  This addition is a sleeping chamber.  It is designed to accommodate an entire family.  The sleeping arrangement where all are pressed against each other guarantees a warm, dry, space in which the Winter season can be spent in comfort.  A second and sometimes third entrance is dug vertically from the drying chamber to the outside as an escape route in case of predator intrusion or the flooding of the den by high water.  Otters and beavers are primarily nocturnal critters - especially otters.  Beaver can be seen swimming along close to the river banks early to mid mornings and again near dusk.  Otters will forage primarily at night, but in a wilderness setting without human intrusion, they will be active at any time of day.  Otters are wary and shy, but curious.  One has to be quick to put them in the camera.  Beavers, on the other hand, seem to be not so much aware and lumber on through the water even when the boat is in close proximity.  When they finally become concerned, they may reverse course and swim back the way they came.  If pressed, these particular beavers will slam their tail down onto the water and instantly disappear below the surface.  Both otters and beavers can stay submerged for long periods of time, up to 12 minutes.
Above is the opening to an otter lodge.  I say this because I saw an otter go in this hole last Fall.  I have not seen him since trapping season ended.  Notice it is shaded by foliage.  It is also located under trees and not easy to see from the water.
The above is a hole used by beavers.  Beavers can dwell in river bank dens or lodges built anywhere there is a piece of land on or near the water.
I'll say here that an indispensable piece of equipment is a good pair of binoculars.  They can be used to peer into the shadows under the trees along river banks and search around logs and bushes that are shielded in heavy shade.  Use them even if your 25 feet away from shore.  An entirely different world exists under the trees on the river bank at water level.  It's a dark, shaded world and your eyes can not possibly see the differences in brown shades that designate mud from life.  Binoculars open up this dark world and will reveal the critters who live there.   Otters will not give much time for photography.  As I stated before, they are skittish.  They will stay put for only seconds until they can clearly see you as an intruder.  They may gather together side by side and stare at you.  They'll raise and lower their heads all the while holding their stare on you.  A quick movement on the photographers part will send them into the water faster than lightning.  They may pop their heads through the surface momentarily for a parting look at what scared them.  That's the curious aspect of otters.  But, in general, they will not stand for human intervention.  Both otters and beavers will become aware of the large boat - any size boat, but if you move quickly they will catch that movement and flea.  The boat is a curiosity of sorts.  The quick movement signifies danger to all wild critters - birds included.  Did I say I only wanted to say a few words about wildlife photography at  the beginning of this entry?  Whew!


Mallard ducks seemed to be the predominant water bird of the day this morning.
Of course, cormorants are always present.
I noticed a bunch of water contrails on the surface near the shoreline.  Little silver streaks of color behind what appeared to be little sticks poking through the water were everywhere.  These little sticks turned out to be turtle heads.  There were no less than twenty.  Turtles are the most secretive of all river critter.  By the time I got the camera to my face only one turtle head was visible.
Ah Ha!  I finally got a good picture of a king bird.  
There is so much more.  Actually, I'm kind of surprised that I have so much information to write down.  The point is to remember that you are dealing with wild critters that are free as the wind and are keyed to survive in the natural world.  You and I as intruders are very obvious to them and they will evade our eyes.  Do some homework and learn about them.  You will enjoy your photographic experience much more if you do.

Shade broke my heart big time this morning.  She did something I haven't seen her do.  I took her out with me yesterday and I guess she expected to go this morning.  I had the gear in my hands and she was at the front door waiting for it to open.  I said "no, no, stay here."  She instantly ran up the steps and disappeared.  I couldn't believe it.  I sat everything down and went upstairs.  She wasn't with Chestnut or Happy on the bed or in the bed room.  She was under the computer desk, sitting with her head hung very low - her nose almost touching the floor.  She was crushed and hurting.  This is a first.  I was very, very hurt by this.  All she wanted to do is be with me.   So simple and so honest!  I was to be on the river which afforded no place for her to be off the boat.  She would  have had to sit, lay or walk on the boat deck all morning long.  This is the difference living over here in peopleville as opposed to the national forests back west. I coaxed her out and sat on the floor and put my arms around her and squeezed her to me.  Her eyes closed and she pressed the side of her head against my chest.  I've heard stories about labs having the ability to show deep emotion.  It's true.  I had to get her mind snapped back to life.  I said in an excited voice, "treat, treat!  Shade wants treat!"  That did it.  She snapped out of it and ran excitedly to the kitchen and waited dancing all about the room.  I gave her a crunchy treat and while she was enjoying it I sneaked out the front door and left.  Think of all the dogs tethered to dog houses or linked to cables running from tree to tree for all their lives - their spirits broken as well as their hearts.  And, they'd all but die just to be with their humans who are too ignorant and dense to see it.  To grow old and die at the end of a chain must be the most horrible existence imaginable.  See ya....