Nature Photography - My why and how

Egret feeding in sequence138.jpg

There are a lot of different “genres”, if you want to call them that, that make up nature photography. I’m not an expert in the discipline, no, I just practice it to stay current and work with my cameras. A friend who also follows me on social media dubbed me a “nature” photographer so it stuck in my mind.

I have always been more of a people photographer or even a product guy but more people than anything and I crossed a lot of specialty areas. I did headshots, I photographed musicians, a few celebs, a bit of fashion/glamour types of things, in short I just enjoyed working in my studio, or wherever, just taking pictures and loving the challenge each project or opportunity presented. That all changed recently with me having to shutter my studio due to a personal need at home. I mean, I still sign on for the occasional headshot gig, and some glamour style work and am engaged in working on a photo workshop with a few friends. But by and large, if I wanted to continue to shoot (I do) I needed to be satisfied with what is readily available to me and that was nature. meaning, a lot of birds and other critters that roam across my little 3+ acre patch in Yorkville. I do expand that patch to Brookfield Zoo, areas along the Fox River, and other forested places around the area.

I’m not new to the outdoors, having spent many years camping, hunting and fishing, using my feet to hike, horses, trucks, jeeps, and once even a helicopter to get me around in the outdoors. I have traipsed a lot of ground throughout the U.S. and a few other continents. But all that only has a bit to due with nature photography. What is similar is being where an animal you want to capture with pixels exists. You do have to understand the area and features and how a subject animals or “thing” will use them. You need the same patience to wait an animal out to get a shot you covet. In the beginning, its just cool to snap a pic of an Oriole or Cardinal perched in a tree because they are colorful and seemingly quick to flit about AND you don’t have any of those birds in your archives. It’s new. This goes the same for deer, other types of birds (larger or predatory), many other critters and even domestic animals such as horses, cows, rabbits, alpaca’s, etc. Zoo’s are wonderful places to practice and see animals in an almost wild setting even though it could be argued those animals are somewhat domesticated as well. Still, I have taken a few pictures I really like which shows an interaction with other animals and how the animals cope with being in a captive environment. Similar to street photography in capturing humans wondering the cities and catching them in their everyday captivity.

Momma and baby at the Zoo.

Momma and baby at the Zoo.

Even with my knowledge and experience in nature, and my fairly extensive knowledge of photography, lighting, and composition, it was not nature based and if you want to get beyond snap shots of pretty birds, you need to work on a style and technique. The same as if you are a portrait photographer or food photographer.

Being a people photographer and working with lighting, I am very used to creating the light I need. In nature, its not that way. I like to photograph subjects that are 70 to 100 yards away. Sometimes I cannot get any closer. I do often mount a flash on a stand or on my camera for some images but those are more special occasions where I am actually “staging” around a feeder or other feature I hope the targeted subjects will use. Like hummingbird shots, or especially in winter at feed stations I set up to draw birds and other animals in. But 90% of the time, I’m using natural light and I often have to “see” a scene and watch the light as it moves across it. I often have to wait for deep shadow areas to lighten and more often than not, the subject decides to leave so I spend hours sometimes waiting only to get the light I want and the animal I’m after wanders or flies away.

Other times, you see a lowly dandelion in a field of wet grass, and think “wow, that would look pretty sweet in an early morning light”. And you wait for an early morning with the right light, wait through 3-4 days of rain or clouds and when you get the light you want, the dandelion has wilted like a bad salad. This is very common in the Fall when trying to capture those few days of peak color, or a sunrise over Lake Michigan. Light doesn’t often cooperate. Weather is even more temperamental. I remember arranging a bikini shoot with models in late June for a beach on Lake Michigan, figuring for solid temps in the 70’s or 80’s. I got the blue sky and clouds I wanted but also got highs of 40 and winds at 20 mph. But this is about nature…and I have dozens of similar examples I could cite where the weather sucks. You learn to make lemonade in all cases. Thats just photography, in general.

Jaylinn is freezing in this shot. I felt sorta bad but she was getting paid!

Jaylinn is freezing in this shot. I felt sorta bad but she was getting paid!

In my other people based photography, camera settings were fairly even across the board. Shutter speeds rarely over 1/250th sec unless I needed a high speed sync shot for some reason. The norm is around 1/30th to 1/125th. Apertures of f/1.2 to f/5.6 or f/8 for group shots. ISO in the 100 to 400 range depending on camera and location. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. (What does that really mean anyway?) I’m just using it to denote safe, normal easy settings to work with. In nature, I’m never at less than 1/500th with shutter speed and usually even faster. Birds flying or standing are always at 1/1250th minimum. Birds shake and shimmy ALL the time. I have stabilized lenses and one camera body with stabilization built in and while it works, it works for stationary subjects and is more to calm my handshaking and movement more than anything else. Any stabilization does NOT work on moving subject. It’s for capturing a still subject in low light. Stuff in nature just seems to move and oscillate. Flowers are blown by the wind. Same for leaves. Animals play and scurry about. I tend toward fast shutter speeds (1/1600th for birds, at least 1/500th for deer and similar) and apertures of f/6.4 to 8. Tip: Use the old rule of thumb of always using a shutter speed that relates to the focal length in use. Meaning if you use a 400mm lens, you need to use a shutter speed of at least 1/400th sec. If you shoot a crop sensor camera, take that into account and if using the same 400mm, use 1/600th sec. since that’s a similar focal length view. This means ISO over 1250 most days due to the limitations of my telephoto zoom in use 95% of the time. Tip: Use auto ISO set from whatever your camera’s low value is to ISO6400. In rare cases I have used ISO12,800 but I really try to never get sensitivity up that high. And I normally convert those to B&W to make use of the grain as an “enhancement”.

This is an ISO 12,800 shot inside the Monkey House at the Zoo.

This is an ISO 12,800 shot inside the Monkey House at the Zoo.

Which segues us nicely into equipment. Remember I am a people photographer by design. I use medium format cameras and lenses, lots of lights, reflectors, stands, and all that stuff. Nature photography came about as an “add-on” so I have limited equipment and investment in gear explicitly for shooting nature. I’m using what I got. I use Fujifilm X camera bodies along with the medium format GFX50s. The GFX50s is not really useful although I have captured hummingbirds with it. But I prefer the crop sized sensor of the X bodies, the X-T3 and X-H1. Nature imagery, especially anything involving telephoto use, is perfect for APS-C sensors and their 1.5x crop factor. This gives you a narrower angle of view reducing the need to crop as heavily for a finished image. I use a Fujifilm XF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 telephoto zoom for almost everything. At the 400mm end, the setting I use the most, that’s like looking through a 600mm full frame tele. Nature photography glass starts around 400mm in my mind. The 100-400 is much lighter and the X bodies are way lighter than the DSLR’s I used to use. Light weight matters for me since I shoot mobile all the time. I bring a bean bag (filled with walnut shells) with but forgo the monopod unless I want a walking stick. Holding the X bodied camera and the 100-400 for up to 20-30 minutes at eye level is possible and required to get a particular shot. I also use the Fujifilm XF50-140mm (75-210mm full frame angle of view) almost always with the TC 1.4x teleconverter. The teleconverter works with the 100-400 quite well but just not for tracking subjects moving quick and erratic. I use Fujifilm’s now excellent wide tracking and zone tracking for moving subjects like birds and I’m always in AF-C. I have settled on a frame rate of 3 fps for me. It just works better. I use Fujifilm’s focus settings #2 and #4 and my own custom #6 setting. These settings assign values for different situations when using continuous auto focus. This is programmed onto my D-Pad on the back of the camera and I use them without taking the camera from my eye. I switch to single point focus for critical or up close needs when continuous focusing. Fujifilm has an ALL setting for AF Mode and I use that, the focus lever detent and the front command dial to toggle thru single, zone or tracking modes. It’s easier than it sounds. You really need to know your equipment. I often have less than 30 secs total to capture a shot of a bird in flight. I stalked egrets for days trying for flight pictures, missing opportunities because I wasn’t quick enough to respond. Once I got my settings dialed in and understood what I was doing, I started getting better results. I’m almost there.

Egrets in flight2115.jpg

A final word about composition and exposure. I shoot nature with the thought of post processing. I still tend to get it right in camera but some shots are taken with an idea of what I want to do in post in mind. This is different from the way I work in studio or on location with people. I find that I can take more artistic license in nature shots versus being true to the scene with people. I don’t go in and photoshop the crap out of a picture. Never. Actually I use Ps for it’s high pass sharpening filter which works wonderfully by the way, for nature pics, but little else. Everything is done mostly in Capture One and color changes are subtle. But that subtle grading in tone and color make a big difference to the finished look. View the scene, and “see” the composition. You may wait for a while for it to realize and truly, it may never do so. The opening picture above, came about that way. I waited for 35 minutes tracking the egret along the shore, in a tree, and finally it flew to the spot and from watching the bird for so long, I knew it found something to eat. Within less than 20sec after landing, it poised for the strike, struck and caught it’s prey. I had the camera up watching the whole time passing on other scenes/activity with a twittery shutter finger until I saw what I hoped for and wanted. Those 20 secs were like like 20 minutes it seemed passing shot after shot. Once I pressed the shutter and rattled off 3 shots, I felt like I hadn’t breathed in forever but once I looked at the LCD, I was a happy camper.

So that’s how I do it. I hope this helps someone. As always, hit me up with questions, your own thoughts on technique, and ideas.