Monday, August 20, 2018


When it comes to photographing animals, and that includes winged fine-feathered friends, non-technical abilities and attitude are as important, if not more so, than the technical skills. I include these among the top of that list:

1) Patience--go ahead and get that first impulsive shot, but wait.....wait. Something else might happen!
2) Anticipation--most of us are not trained in animal behavior, but we can predict the probability that something might get their attention and thus give us a better shot. We can also watch them for a few minutes and see what behavioral patterns they exhibit.
3) Composition--cropping on the computer is not composition. We can carefully position ourselves to get the best possible compositions in the field--backgrounds; perspective; elements to include or exclude; eye flow; "center of interest" considerations; etc.
4) Pre-shoot preparations. What will the right brain instruct the left brain to do? What exposure, ISO, f/stop, shutter speed, focusing point, shutter release mode (etc) will work best for what I want? The key here is what I want; not what the built-in light meter thinks I need.  

With that introduction, let me share some examples of how I approach photographing animals. It's not just the animal or bird I photograph, but the experience, environment, the moment, the animal's characteristics/mannerisms, etc.

A note of caution regarding the technical data I share. Do not use the data as formulas or recipes--it doesn't work that way. There are several variables involved, and they don't give us the same identical settings. Those variables are: Cameras are calibrated differently, different lenses react differently to light, weather conditions vary, and even the direction of the sun varies. Additionally, 
I "dial in" my settings based on the look I want.

For this first example of elk at Nymph Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, patience and anticipation paid off. I took some exposure test shots then made some adjustments. I waited to see if the elk were going to do anything other than graze. I had my composition, f/stop, exposure, and shutter speed ready to go--all I had to do was wait for the right moment. Then, in a flash, one of them put both feet in the lake. Click! 
You can't just "take" a picture when something happens--it's too late then.

f/10, ISO 500, 1/125, 300mm lens. Exposure: -2/3

This was at a drive-through nature preserve in Grand Prairie, Texas. When I saw this guy resting in shallow waters, I quickly shut the engine off, rolled down the window and quickly got my shot. You have to overexpose a scene with this much white/bright area. Technical data not available, but I used a small f/stop (wider aperture) to blur the background.


Late fall in Colorado can be lots of fun. Fall colors are still present, but early snowfalls are almost a sure thing. When I saw this coyote camouflaged against fall colors, I knew it was going to be a good image. I had to move very slowly so as not to startle him.
f/9, ISO 500, 1/800 (hand-held), 400mm lens. Exposure: -1 1/3

This little guy was not going to let a little snow ruin his lunch. He kept breaking through the snow until satisfied. There was a lot of snow around him, so I overexposed slightly.

f/8, ISO 400, 1/1000 (hand held), 210mm lens. Exposure: + 1/3

Sand Hill Cranes are fun to photograph. Every year, during their migration, they make a stop at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. The backdrop is the majestic Sangre de Cristo mountains, one of my favorite mountain ranges in the state.

I knew where they were going to land. All I had to do was decide on my composition, f-stop (depth of field desired), and my exposure. The rest was just a matter of waiting for some to come in for a landing. It was interesting to see how some opened their "landing gear" sooner than others. All I had to do was click when the moment was right.

f/11, ISO 400, 1/1600, 400mm lens. Exposure: - 2/3

I saw this mysteriously still crocodile in the water at the Fort Worth (Texas) zoo. I wanted to emphasize the menacing teeth more than anything else. Technical data not available, but I used shallow depth of field to bring attention to his mouth and teeth. 

For this mountain goat and her calf, I wanted to highlight their high altitude habitat and topography (14,000' above sea level). I included not only the edge of Mt. Evans (Colorado), but the distant mountain ranges as well as part of my composition. Technical data not available, but I used a high f/stop (small aperture) to make sure I covered the entire area, from near to far. They were moving slowly, so a fast shutter speed was not necessary.

Hummingbirds are difficult to photograph, mainly because they don't stay still. When you think you have the right shutter speed to "freeze" them, then click, they've moved positions! This is where the continuous shooting mode (I shoot TIFF for that) comes in handy. But, just like with any other scenario, I get my composition, determine what f/stop I'll need to cover any movement of the birds, and decide how I want the lighting to look--my exposure. Then I patiently wait and wait and shoot and shoot. If I walk myself through these steps, I can improve my chances of going home with some keepers. 

Luckily, there was a nice dark background behind this hummingbird feeder. I like this image because he looks like he's going, "Ahhh. That was good." 

f/10, ISO 2000, 1/2500, 150mm lens. Exposure: -2/3 (to darken the background)

I saved the most unexpected guest for last. We've heard of people portraits, but rooster portraits? I visited an acquaintance last month. While I was visiting, along comes this white fluffy rooster casually walking along the carpet! What? Fred says something like, "Oh don't mind him. That's Lord Brisbane, my pet rooster." Pet rooster? I had never heard of such a thing. After I got over the shock of the surreal moment, I composed myself. I could not let this opportunity slip through my fingers. 

In my Right Brain Photography book, I talk about impermanence--nothing, especially moments, last forever and life is ever changing. We should not wait when we have a one-of-a-kind moment. Lord Brisbane was one of those moments. 

I asked Fred if I could return the next day with my camera. I told him what I had in mind. We would build a makeshift stage for the Lord, cover it with my large piece of velvet-like non reflective material, then see if the rooster would pose for me. To my surprise, it worked! 

I used a simple on-camera flash, but underexposed its output by a -3 stops. I was very close to the rooster and didn't want to overexpose him. I used the TIFF setting (for continuous shooting), with Picture Control set to "standard" (not vivid)-- I didn't want to warm up those beautiful white feathers. Then I clicked and clicked. I was amazed to get three awesome images. This one is my favorite. I introduce you to Lord Brisbane.  

f/11, ISO 800, (flash), 24mm lens. Exposure: flash set for -3

So, even if you already have images of animals and birds and such, go out and see if you can find something different, or photograph the same type of animals in a different way. Go look for chicken coops, farms, ponds and lakes, or even a nearby 14,000' mountain.

Want a 1-on-1 lesson? Give me a shout!     Visit me on my Facebook page (Eli Vega Photography)