Nature Photography

Pelican Detail

Heading in to our recent trip to Baja with Lindblad, I was a complete nature photography novice. As I have only had an SLR for six months or so, I’m pretty much a novice photographer.

After the trip, I’m still a novice, but I feel that my skills have vastly improved. Fortunately, this was not entirely through trial and error! In the full story, I’ll offer a few bullet points of what I have learned with full knowledge that there is a probably a better way.

Joining us on the cruise was one of Lindblad’s undersea specialists, Carlos Navarro. Beyond his naturalist skills, Carlos is an accomplished photographer with credits in many publications, including National Geographic magazine.

His photos were used for a number of daily expedition reports including this, this, and this. The DER photos are scaled down and overcompressed. The originals were awesome!

On the evening before the last two days on the ship, I had the opportunity to sit with Carlos and several other passengers while he showed a bunch of his photos. Incredible stuff. He was also kind enough to answer a bunch of questions and critique some of my photos. I know that the quality of my photos vastly improved in the last two days, as a result.

Prior to the trip, my photography focused on things that either didn’t move much, portraits, or relatively close action (parties). Taking photos of animals moving quickly at a distance is a whole new game.

Some of the things I learned (thanks, Carlos!):

Owl Detail

A fast lens is critical
I ended up using a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens for almost all of the animal photos. Why? Because at f/2.8 — a wide open aperture — the thing sucks down light and allows for a faster shutter speed. Now, f/2.8 implies a very narrow depth of field. The focus plane is narrow. But it just doesn’t matter when you are shooting something moving quickly dozens of yards away! The DOF required to keep the subject in focus is extremely narrow.

Dolphin Detail

Crank down the shutter speed (or live with blurry animals)
A modern digital SLR has program modes that will make a very good attempt to optimize the camera settings to the shooting environment. Of course, this optimization is intended for the most general shooting situations. In particular, the camera will generally try to lower the aperture a bit to increase DOF while keeping the shutter open a bit longer to compensate for the resulting decrease in light.

Animals don’t tend to stay still. Dolphins bounce through waves. Birds fly. Crabs Scuttle. Cats pounce. All of this action tends to happen quickly and often at a distance.

Go for a faster shutter speed. 1/1000th of a second seemed to work pretty well. Most cameras have a “shutter priority” mode where you set the shutter speed and the camera figures out the rest.

If I had shot the dolphins riding the bow wave with the default camera settings, the dolphin and the waves would have had motion blur, but the top part of the boat would have been in focus. In this case, there was enough light that the camera stopped down to f/4 anyway. This improved focus on the anchor. Convenient.

Turn on continuous shooting mode
The whole point of digital is no film. Every shutter press does nothing more than consume a few million bits that can easily be erased and recycled with only a couple of key presses. As long as you get yourself a really fat memory card (I’m using a 2GB compact flash card), take as many pictures as you possibly can and home that some turn out OK.

Nature moves fast. It is best to aim and simply hold down the shutter button while tracking the action as best you can. Human reaction time is incredibly slow in comparison to flight, a pounce, or a jump.

You are far better off firing off shots any time you expect action in the next second or so and simply deleting the garbage when nothing happens.

Pelican Dive

For the owl in flight shot, I only got that shot because I started shooting as soon as I saw the owl flinch and held the shutter button down while I tracked as best I could. All in all, I had probably 15 frames stored. Of that, most were shots of sky, blurry bird, rocks, or half of an owl. But two frames came out OK and that was more than I would have gotten if I had not been shooting in continuous mode.

Prior to my chat with Carlos, I had tried to shoot a pelican diving for fish. One frame at a time. You can see the results to the right. Nice splash, but not much pelican.

Turn on automatic focus tracking
The photo of the owl in flight was only possible because my camera (digital rebel XT) took care of focusing for me. As soon as the owl took flight, I had about a second to point and hold down the shutter button.

Normally, holding down the shutter button triggers auto-focus and then locks the focus on the focused used for the first frame of the continuous shoot. A bird in flight does not tend to fly in a line equidistant from your lens!

The AI servo mode on the Canon will constantly auto-focus as long as the shutter button is held down (even halfway, for single shot mode). It sets the exposure automatically with each frame taken and does a remarkable job of tracking objects moving towards or away from the camera.

Use a long lens
I was using a 100mm fixed focal length lens for most of my photography, save for landscapes and a handful of other situations.

It was really not sufficient. I would have been much better off with a 300mm or 400mm lens. With the 100mm, shots like the owl flying or a gray whale’s fluke required a lot of cropping to bring out the detail.

Of course, a variable focal length lens would also have been awesome. A 70-200mm lens would also have been a vast improvement because I could have used the zoom to gain significantly better control over composition. But for shooting something far away, a 400mm f/2.8 lens would be ideal.

Of course, at $1700 and $6500, that ain’t happening anytime soon!

I don’t feel that I would have used them effectively anyway. I still need to work a lot on my framing and general shot mechanics with the equipment I have before I could warrant any kind of a significant upgrade.

For me, all of the above combined vastly improved the quality of my photos. Compared to prior photos I have taken, anyway. I don’t pretend my photos are anything remarkable in comparison to professional work.

While I like the resulting work better, it also increased the volume of photos I was taking by more than an order of magnitude. Even with the rather casual, family participation oriented, approach to photographer that I took, I still shot upwards of 300 or 400 frames a day on the peak days I’m sure that would grow to a thousand+/day if I were doing nothing but photographer in an area with lots of action.

Fully half of the photos were deleted outright because they just plain sucked. What remained had to be quickly rated and sorted to find the handful of decent photos in the noise.

In other words, the above workflow can really only work if you also have something that allows one to quickly process the huge volume of resulting images.

Fortunately, I had Aperture. Without Aperture or something like it, there is no way I could have actually enjoyed taking such a huge volume of photos. I was able to sort through the hundreds of frames quickly, toss together slide shows and review the days events with family over drinks in the evening with zero stress.

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3 Responses to “Nature Photography”

  1. Amie says:

    Thanks for sharing your insight! And how wonderful to get this kind of feedback from a bona fide National Geographic Photographer!

  2. Fraser Speirs says:

    I always keep my 350D on continuous shot. Always. It’s great for taking pictures of toddlers too!

  3. nature pictures says:

    very nice. thanks for sharing.

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