“Flying Free” by Cheryl Tarr
By Cheryl Tarr
As a young photographer I gorged on a visual diet of great Western landscapes produced by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and other outstanding photographers. As a result, I grew up with the notion that an image should be sharp throughout the entire scene, with everything in focus.
But now, I will purposefully slow down the shutter speed and “shudder” the camera a bit, creating images that are not sharp but rather are unique and expressive. By using slow shutter speeds and moving the camera during exposure — a technique called “intentional camera movement” or ICM — a beautiful blur can be created, resulting in impressionistic landscapes, abstracts and other surprising images.
There are a number of ways we can move our cameras during exposure. The best-known method for introducing movement for ICM is panning — moving the camera either vertically or horizontally depending on the prominent lines in the scene. Vertical panning is often used for trees (image a stand of birch trees), while horizontal panning can be ideal for sunrise/sunset at the ocean or a lake.
Panning does not require particularly long shutter speeds. I don’t use panning techniques very often, but I used what I call “pause and pan” to capture an image of yellow daisies (above) at Arabia Mountain (ISO 64, 52mm, f18, 1/5 sec). I titled it “Flying Free” based on the exhilaration I feel when looking at this image. Pausing before movement, as I did for this image, helps create a basis of definition for the subject matter. That’s why I often incorporate such a pause so that my subject is recognizable. I used my favorite ICM lens for this image, which is a 24-70 mm Nikon zoom lens. Longer focal lengths are easier, as wide angle requires more movement and/or longer shutter speeds.
”Transcendence” by Cheryl Tarr
The motion I utilize most often is what I call “push/pause.” In these cases, I frequently use a shutter speed of about one second. I will pause briefly after tripping the shutter, then push the camera forward one or more times. The image “Transcendence” was captured at Sweetwater Creek State Park one morning (ISO 64, 38 mm, f16, 0.6 sec) when the colorful sunrise I was hoping for did not materialize. I had a NiSi variable neutral density filter on my lens (which reduces light by one to five stops) so that I could slow the shutter without stopping down too much (very small apertures will bring every dust spot into focus).
The push/pause movement created an ethereal landscape. The predominant blue color helps convey a sense of peace and tranquility, and after seeing this image I was no longer disappointed about the lack of a colorful (i.e., red/orange/yellow) sunrise. The image titled “The River Awakens” was also taken using the push/pause movement with a Lensbaby Velvet 85 (ISO 64, 85mm, 1/3 sec, f-stop not recorded because it’s a non-CPU lens). I processed this image using an app called Distressed FX+ on my iPad to add a texture as well as to add the birds flying over the river.
“The River Awakens” by Cheryl Tarr
While sitting in exactly the same spot along the Chattahoochee River but using a different movement, I created a number of distinct images including “Chattahoochee Rising” (ISO 64, 85mm, 1/3sec). These two photographs show that very different images can be created using ICM, even when shooting from a single vantage point.
“Chattahoochee Rising” by Cheryl Tarr
Blending multiple exposures of a scene is another way to create ICM images (as long as you are actually moving the camera between exposures, or at least one exposure captures motion blur). I use a versatile iPhone app called Average Camera Pro (also available for Android phones). You choose the number of exposures (I most often select 4 or 8) and the camera automatically cycles through the chosen number of exposures once the shutter is triggered.
How the images are stacking up on one another can be seen during the exposure series, and you can set the timing between exposures so that you can adjust the position of the camera with each exposure. The app automatically blends the series of images into one final photograph. One of my favorite photographs from the Galapagos Islands was a series of eight shots of a Galapagos sea lion. Yes, you can photograph wildlife with ICM!
“Galapagos Sea Lion” by Cheryl Tarr
Lastly, when photographing with ICM, I often capture still shots because I might want to layer and blend that still shot with an ICM image. Early one January morning near Hiawassee I was photographing sandhill cranes and also capturing ICM images of the river. When I arrived home and started processing, neither the stills nor ICM shots really conveyed how I felt while on the river. I was seeking a soft, impressionistic image of the river but also wanted to clearly show the cranes flying overhead. By layering two images in Photoshop and brushing in the cranes (80% opacity) and the tree tops (40% opacity) from the still shot, I had the soft image I wanted to create, with just enough detail to convey a sense of place and the experience of crane watching.
“Hiawassee” by Cheryl Tarr
The best part of ICM is that each image is unique, and I am always pleasantly surprised at what I capture (sometimes without even knowing exactly what I did to create an image!). I occasionally use a tripod when panning or shaking the camera, but usually I handhold the camera. I often play with more complex combinations of movements such as push/pause followed by twisting or wiggling the camera or zooming in or out. The most important thing is to experiment, look at the back of your camera and then repeat and/or refine your movement(s) if you see something that looks interesting. Also, consider following https://www.facebook.com/groups/icmphotomag for inspiration.
I’ve learned that by using ICM, I can create an image that is more expressive and evocative than any standard still photograph ever could be. If you haven’t experimented with it yet, give ICM a try!
Cheryl Tarr is a retired professional biologist who loves photographing flowers, birds and landscapes both big and small. She enjoys blur, abstracts and impressionism, and ICM enables her to create images that are emotionally stirring and combine them with her own words
All Photos by Eric Bowles
By Eric Bowles
With all the talk about new cameras, we get the impression that focus is suddenly like magic – a new secret sauce that will make all your photos perfectly sharp. Sadly, that’s not exactly the case. Yes, there are new technologies that help with focus, but photographers still must do their part. Let’s take a closer look at what you can do to create more images that are sharp and in focus.
There are, of course, lots of different cameras. And depending upon when a camera was developed and the intended market for that camera, performances will vary. In general, newer cameras bring better focus performance with a range of scene- and subject-recognition technologies. These new focus technologies mean the learning curve with a new camera may be steeper, and your old settings and techniques may not apply. Part of focusing is knowing what settings to use and how to help your camera focus quickly and accurately.
No matter the camera, there is a limit on how much data can be processed quickly. So the general guideline would be to use the smallest auto-focus area you can accurately maintain on the subject. A smaller focus area means the camera looks for a subject or target over a smaller area, and thus has less data to process. If you use the entire frame for focus, it may work fine in some situations, but if you are having trouble, try reducing the focus area to a smaller group or area of the frame. If the subject is large relative to the focus area, the camera will have a much better chance of sharp focus.
The second way you can help the camera is by making sure the subject is large enough in the frame. Sure, we often encounter distant subjects. But the subject needs to be large enough in the frame to be a target rather than just a few pixels. Try to have a subject occupy at least one-third of the height and width of the frame. If it is smaller or more distant, consider using a longer lens or try to move closer. If the subject is small within the frame, you will much more likely need to use traditional focus methods rather than face or eye detection. Don’t get hung up on trying to make the eye focus detection function work – the point is to focus on your subject and get a good photo no matter what techniques are required.
Autofocus generally works by utilizing contrast within the area you’ve chosen. But if your subject has little contrast or is undefined, your camera may struggle to identify the intended target. There are a number of reasons why you may have low contrast (and cameras tend to cope with this remarkably well), but be prepared to step in and help if necessary.
Conventional wisdom dictates you should always focus on the eye of your subject. And that’s true – you do want the eye in focus. But in many cases the eye is too small, or moving too quickly, to be a good focus target. In this case, you can choose a different focus target within the same focus plane and still capture that subject in sharp focus.
In this photo of a rider on a horse, the eye of the rider and the eye of the horse are small and moving rapidly. Another problem is that, by focusing on the eye of the rider, the resulting depth of field will likely throw the horse’s head and eye out of focus. The solution? Select a good target that is easier to follow, in this case perhaps the knee of the rider, the rider’s hands, or the front edge of the saddle. Even with fast movement, the knee of the rider is relatively easy to follow and the horse’s eye and the rider should both be reasonably sharp. The angle of the horse and rider relative to the camera makes a difference. If the horse is running, say, right to left in front of you, all within the same plane, it’s much easier to keep everything in focus. If it’s running right at you, depth of field will be more of an issue, since the horse’s head and the rider are not the same distance from the camera.
For photographing birds in flight, there are some similar strategies. Focusing on the eye of a moving bird can be difficult, but if the neck or shoulder of the bird is in the same focus plane, it makes a much easier focus target. Even if the bird angles slightly to the side as it flies, the bird’s head and its nearest wing will remain in focus.
What does it mean to have a good focus target? While focus generally relies on contrast, there’s more to it than that. Focus tends to be faster and more accurate with a good target. A good focus target is one with contrasting elements, adequate lighting and sufficient size to fill a meaningful portion of the frame. A poor target tends to have irregular shape and texture, relatively little contrast, low lighting (and therefore minimal contrast), or an indistinct pattern. If you have a poor focus target, auto-focusing will take longer and/or be less accurate, so you may need to identify an alternate focus target.
Let’s consider some examples:
When I photograph a subject or genre, I have a very specific focus target. I’m not focusing on a group of trees or flowers – rather, it’s a specific tree trunk, flower or plant. The closer I get, the more specific that focus target becomes, coming down to a specific petal or part of the stamen of a flower, the near corner of the eye of an owl, or the eye rather than the muzzle or nose of a dog, etc.
I also want to be aware of hyperfocal distance – the distance at which I can focus and make the entire scene sharp, including my subject and the background. With a 24mm focal length on a full frame camera, I can shoot at an aperture of f/8 and the entire scene will appear in focus if the camera focuses on a target 8 feet away. In this case, everything from 4 feet to infinity is in acceptable focus. I’ll typically use f9 for a little extra cushion on my depth of field.
I’ve memorized several focal lengths and the related hyperfocal distance so I can shoot at 24mm, 35mm, 50mm or 70mm and make a reliable guess on hyperfocal distance, which allows me to predict which parts of the scene will appear in focus. These settings are a starting point, and I adjust depending upon my subject and where it is located within that range.
For wildlife, in most cases you want the near eye to be in sharp focus and to contain a catchlight. Depending on the position of the bird’s head, depth of field may need to be increased to bring both eyes into relative focus. But it may not be possible to capture a large flying bird that is in sharp focus from one wingtip to another. So make sure the eye and head are sharp even if your depth of field is relatively shallow. The same would be true for insects, like this butterfly:
Sometimes, however, your subject is partially obstructed, or in such low light that your camera fails to focus reliably. Fortunately, there are strategies you can use for those situations.
My first choice is to look for an alternate focus target near the same plane. For example, I might focus on a tree trunk or branch near a small bird. I may try a smaller auto focus area, such as a small group or single point instead of the entire frame. I might focus on the wing or feet of a bird if that presents a better target than the head. Or I may override auto focus and use manual focus to zero in on my subject. I find that once focus has been achieved, the camera is remarkably good at maintaining that focus on a difficult subject.
In the following image, I focused on the trees and waited for the birds to reach that approximate area in order to have both the trees and birds in focus in the pre-dawn light.+
Many photographers have questions about focusing on fast-moving subjects. Certainly, the degree of difficulty goes up in these situations, but the principles are the same.
Of course, we all like our subjects to be isolated, with the clean backgrounds that are associated with a fast lens and shallow depth of field. But if your subject is completely out of focus and the image in your viewfinder is a blur, your camera will take longer to focus because it can’t readily identify your subject.
However, if you can pre-focus in the general vicinity of your subject, you will likely make it a lot easier for your camera to pick up a fast-moving target. Cameras can make small focus adjustments almost instantly, but large changes in focus distance take much longer. It will usually help if you focus on a fast-moving subject before you are ready to make a photo. Pre-focusing allows the camera to find the subject and will make it easier to maintain focus as the subject gets closer. So try to lock focus on that big bird as soon as possible, and then maintain it as he gets close enough for your photo.
If you are trying to focus on a fast-moving subject, make sure it is large enough in the frame and can be clearly identified and separated from the background. It’s very difficult to focus on a small songbird flying across a cluttered, wooded background, but much easier to focus on a wading bird as it launches into flight or drops to the water for a fish.
Practice, practice, practice! With a difficult subject, it’s amazing at how much improvement you will see with lots of practice. I’ve seen photographers start the week struggling to capture birds in flight, but by the end of the week they are nailing a very high percentage of their shots. Even if you are photographing slow-moving subjects or landscapes, practicing focus and concentrating on your focus targets will provide sharper images.
Eric Bowles is a former president of GNPA, a professional nature photographer, and director of Nikonians Academy. He leads bird photography workshops for Nikonians, Chattahoochee Nature Center and Georgia Audubon in addition to his own programs.
By Peter Essick
Since the first photographic images were recorded, photography has been continuously influenced by technological change. As the technology evolves, the tools available for a photographer improve and expand. Drone technology is a recent example of how such advancements have opened up the field of aerial photography to the everyday photographer.
As a photographer working for National Geographic Magazine, I often took aerial photographs from a fixed-wing plane or a helicopter. These aerials were often critically important to the story, and provided an overview that wasn’t possible any other way. But it’s very expensive to hire a pilot and make all the arrangements to pull off a successful aerial photograph. Now, the availability of drones with an integrated camera has created an alternative.
In 2017, I was working on a commission from Fernbank Museum of Natural History to photograph the Fernbank Forest. This is an urban old-growth forest in downtown Atlanta. After doing photography from inside the forest for several weeks, I realized I needed an aerial perspective to show the proximity of the 65-acre forest to the downtown skyline. At that point I decided I needed to learn how to fly a drone, and it turned out to be the best solution for the job. Not only could I get an aerial view of the forest and the skyscrapers, but I could also fly at a lower level to get more detail of the forest in the foreground.
Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo by Peter Essick.
Since then, I have used my drone for a series on construction sites in Atlanta, for a story about restoration in the Great Lakes and for composites of signs of well-known brands. Drone photography has become a major part of my photographic output in the last five years.
If you want to get started in drone photography, there are a number of considerations. The first question is which drone to buy. There are several different models to choose from, but all of the drones that I am familiar with are made by DJI. Here are three drones you may want to consider:
DJI Mini 3 Pro
This drone has just been released and getting good reviews. It’s a great choice for getting started in aerial photography, and may be the only one that many photographers will need. It weighs less than 249 grams, so you aren’t required to register it with the F.A.A. and it is legal to fly anywhere. This updated mini drone can shoot 4K video and the small sensor can take a 48-megapixels still image using the Quad Bayer technology used on smart phones. It has a fixed 24mm equivalent F 1.7 lens. It costs less than $1,000.
DJI Mavic 3
This is an excellent drone overall, with 20-megapixel still images from a Hasselblad camera with an adjustable aperture. The Mavic 3 includes 360-degree obstacle avoidance, so you’re less likely to collide with something. It’s also easy to fly and folds up into a backpack. It’s about $3,000 with extra batteries.
DJI Inspire 2
This is the drone I use. It is bigger and heavier, but the primary advantage is a larger sensor that produces 24-megapixel still images. There are also four interchangeable lenses available. This is a much more professional-level drone that costs from $6,000- $10,000 with accessories.
Learning to fly is much easier these days, now that the drones feature obstacle avoidance and can hover in place with satellite GPS. The best way to start is in an open field, where you can practice taking off, flying to a low altitude and returning home. At first, most people have a fear of crashing, so it’s best to take baby steps and learn the controls. There doesn’t seem to be any school for learning to fly a drone, but you can do so with practice. If you once flew model airplanes you have an advantage, because the remote control is similar.
Before I fly, I generally scout a location using Google Earth and then find a safe place to launch. I use the AirMap app, which tells me if it’s legal to fly in the location where I am (more on this later). I find it best to always fly with the nose forward, as the controls always remain the same whether you are coming or going.
Abandoned tennis court in Snellville, Georgia. Photo by Peter Essick.
As a still photographer, I approach drone photography by entering into either pilot mode or photographer mode. In pilot mode, I launch and fly to a spot that looks promising and hover in place. I can then start to think as a photographer, beginning to look for a pleasing composition. When I am ready to move on, I switch back into pilot mode and either navigate to another nearby location or return home to land.
Battery maintenance is a key element of drone photography. In general, a battery can last for 20-30 minutes of flight. If you want to do a fair amount of photography before recharging, you’ll need a minimum of about three batteries. You’ll need to find an electrical outlet, and it can take up to three hours to charge a set of batteries. If you are working locally, this isn’t a big issue because you can do your flying and come home to charge the batteries overnight. But if you are traveling, finding the time and place to keep your batteries charged can require some planning.
If you fly a drone larger than the DJI mini, you will need to register it with the F.A.A. at a cost of $5. If you fly commercially, you are required to get a Remote Pilot License from the F.A.A. This written test costs $150 and covers the various airspaces when you can and cannot fly. This is good information to have, and as a drone pilot myself, I would recommend that you get the license if you are serious about flying drones. However, as a practical matter, the AirMap drone app gives you all the information that you need to safely and legally fly.
Here is a short list of the rules that you need to follow:
- Maintain a visual line of sight with your drone, usually no greater than a distance of 2,500 feet.
- Fly to a maximum of 400 feet above ground level.
- Don’t fly over people.
- Fly between a half-hour before sunrise and a half-hour after sunset.
- Obey all restricted areas, such as airports, military installations, national parks and areas with temporary flight restrictions.
Construction site at Stone Mountain, Georgia. Photo by Peter Essick.
It is important to realize that there are certain areas where you cannot fly a drone. But I have found it best to focus on the many places where I can fly and not worry about where I can’t. As a nature photographer, the most obvious place where drones are off limits are all national park properties.
I’ve found drone photography to be a very creative way to see the world, and it can also be a lot of fun. No doubt you will experience some anxious moments at first, but you should eventually get over your fear of crashing. And if you do crash, Thunder Drones is a good repair company here in the Atlanta area. No worry — just get your drone repaired so you can keep learning, flying and taking great photos.
The history of photography can be seen as a series of technological advancements that allowed photographers to see the world in new ways. A drone with an integrated camera gives the photographer of today a range of views that photographers of the past could only imagine. I’m confident there will be many more advances in 3D and other methods of image capture in the years ahead. It will be up to artists in the future to learn to use those tools to expand the frontiers of photography even further. For now, I am happy using my drone to see the world in a new way.
Peter Essick is a photographer, teacher, editor and drone pilot with 30 years of experience working with National Geographic Magazine. Named one of the forty most influential nature photographers in the world by Outdoor Photography Magazine UK, Essick is the author of three books of his photographs: The Ansel Adams Wilderness, Our Beautiful, Fragile World and Fernbank Forest. After many years of traveling the world as an editorial photographer, Essick decided to focus his work on a more personal documentation of the environmental and cultural changes in his hometown of Atlanta
By Emil Powella
Have you ever told yourself that if you could travel to exotic destinations, you’d be able to shoot the kind of amazing photographs that you see on social media? Well, for most of us, the opportunity to visit exotic places is seldom possible. But we can all photograph somewhere close to home, and we can all find great photographs.
Like many of you, I live in a conventional subdivision. I do enjoy the luxury of having trees behind my house, but most everything else is pretty normal. As a photographer, my challenge was to utilize what I had in order to set up a fun bird studio.
My backyard photography is mostly songbirds with the occasional hawk or owl venturing in. My wife, Nancy, has been a lifelong birder, and she has feeders filled with good seed strategically placed to attract different kinds of birds. We also maintain several birdhouses that attract a lot of bluebird activity, as well as hummingbird feeders during the hummer season.
Some of the ideas I used for this studio came from a YouTube video posted by David Akoubian.
My deck is at second-story level, which puts me looking into the trees at about 25 feet up. That’s where I’ve created my bird studio. I’ve salvaged several tree limbs I found in the woods and attached them to my deck, creating staging areas for the birds as they wait their turn at the feeders.
There are trees about 25 feet behind the deck, which is far enough away to add a soft-focus background to my images. I don’t have as sophisticated a setup as David, but I still am able to create quality photographs that I enjoy sharing with others. In fact, my photos have been used by conservation organizations such as the Keep Georgia Beautiful Foundation, a group for which I serve as the point of contact as part of my responsibilities as a GNPA Conservation Committee member.
These photos will show how I’ve fixed some of the limbs in place and provided multiple natural-looking places for the birds to land.
Deck, looking into the woods.
Closeup of limbs attached to the deck.
Closeup of limbs attached to the deck.
You can also create resting places for birds at ground level, just by mounting a few vertical logs or limbs to metal posts that can’t be seen by the camera.. Strategic placement of the limbs will help deliver excellent photo opportunities.
Regardless of your setting, these concepts can be adapted pretty easily. Give the birds comfortable places to land and stage as they wait to get to the feeders. Observing and learning their habits will make you much more prepared to get the shots you want.
I’m able to photograph birds in the trees behind the deck, as well as those that pose on the limbs I’ve positioned. I can also photograph birds on the deck from inside the house in my kitchen as well. Sometimes that feels a little like cheating, but in rough weather it can sure be nice.
So don’t give up planning and hoping to go to exotic bird photo locations. But while you’re waiting, have fun with the challenge of adapting your deck or yard into a working studio and hone your bird skills right there at home.
As you do, please consider donating photos to our GNPA conservation partners such as Keep Georgia Beautiful and the Wildlife Resources Division of the DNR. These organizations need good photos of local wildlife, and GNPA members can be a valuable resource for them. Plus, members receive credit whenever those photos are used.
Emil Powella is a GNPA member who lives in Lilburn. He serves as the co-coordinator of the Decatur Chapter.
All Photos by Mark Buckler
By Mark Buckler
I’ve spent nearly 40 years (I started at a young age) working with wildlife in one professional capacity or another, either by performing field research studies or through photography. When it comes to photographing animals, my preference is to capture their behavior in some type of action. I’d much rather photograph a flying bird than one perched on a branch, because it’s a much more dynamic image. This doesn’t mean that I won’t shoot wildlife portraits – just that my priority has always been to capture action.
But to get those compelling action photos, I’ve learned that you need to be properly prepared. Here are a few suggestions that can help:
Pre-set Your Camera
Contrary to what you see in many documentary films, wildlife action can happen without much warning and is often very fleeting. If you’re not prepared, you will likely miss it. That’s why you need to preset your camera in order to capture these wild moments whenever they occur, because you won’t have time to adjust your camera each time. This means presetting your camera to faster shutter speeds, larger apertures and higher ISO settings. Larger apertures will allow more light to reach the camera’s sensor, which in turn allows you to shoot at faster shutter speeds. Those wider apertures have the added benefit of reducing your depth of field, allowing the background and foreground to fall out of focus and therefore draw more attention to your subject.
Faster shutter speeds, of course, will allow you to “freeze” the action in front of you. Determining the necessary shutter speed depends on how quickly your subject can move. For instance, for most birds in flight, I like to shoot at a minimum of 1/2500 second, because this will freeze the flapping wings of most birds. However, much of the time (if the light allows) I will be shooting at speeds even faster than that. It’s important to realize that, in many situations, sharper images are the direct result of faster shutter speeds.
Consider Your ISO
If you’re going to photograph wildlife, you will need to get over any fear of shooting at higher ISO settings. Wildlife is often the most active early and late in the day, when there is little available light, so you will need to shoot at higher ISOs in order to achieve the faster shutter speeds you need to freeze the action.
Many photographers are overly concerned with the increased noise levels associated with shooting at higher ISOs. I don’t worry much about my ISO level; I simply shoot at whatever ISO is going to give me the proper exposure at my desired shutter speed and aperture. It is critical, however, to get proper exposure at high ISO settings so that you don’t end up revealing excessive noise and artifacts in the shadow areas. Modern cameras have sensors that are much better at handling noise at higher ISOs. Noise reduction software can also be used during image processing to help alleviate that pesky digital noise.
Autofocus and Frame Rate
You will want to rely on the power of autofocus to capture sharp images of moving animals. Specifically, you will need to use continuous autofocus when photographing a moving subject, which will help keep the focus locked on your subject. Continuous AF, coupled with a high frame rate (number of frames per second), will help you capture stunning images of wildlife behavior and action. If you are using a mirrorless camera, however, you need to make sure that you are shooting within a frame rate that is compatible with your continuous AF. Just because your camera is capable of shooting at 60 frames per second doesn’t mean that continuous AF will function at that level.
This is a topic for a more detailed article, but I am a firm believer that shooting in full manual mode is the best way to photograph wildlife, especially action. If the light is consistent and you have the right manual settings, you will get the right exposure in manual mode regardless of the tonal composition of the image and the background. With wildlife photography, the tonal composition is often changing because the animals are in constant motion, with backgrounds that change from shadows to sunlight and back again. In essence, manual mode allows you to set-it-and-forget-it and not worry about changing shutter speeds, apertures and ISO; you can simply concentrate your effort on the animal’s behavior.
Know Your Subject
As with any genre of photography, the more you know about your subject the better you will be able to portray that subject in an image. This is particularly true with photographing wildlife action. Many animals provide clues that can indicate a particular behavior is about to happen. This can be something as simple as reading the body language of an animal or maintaining an awareness of certain types of actions that will allow you to anticipate specific behaviors.
For instance, a bathing duck is likely going to sit up on the water and flap its wings to expel water from its feathers. And of course, a photo of a wing-flapping duck is much more compelling that one of a duck simply sitting on the water. If you are hoping to photograph a bird taking flight, it’s important to know the wind direction, because birds are almost always going to take off (as well as land) into the wind. The more you learn about your subjects, and watch for cues, the better you will be able to anticipate their actions and capture them in motion.
Mark Buckler is a professional photographer who leads photo tours around the world, including near his home base on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. His background in wildlife biology and teaching promotes immersive and engaging photographic learning adventures. You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram (@markbucklerphotography) and Bucklerphoto.com
Scarlet Tanager. Photograph by David Akoubian.
By David Akoubian
Each spring, as daytime lengthens and the nights grow shorter, migrating birds return to Georgia. Those that headed south last fall to their winter grounds – some as far away as South America – will begin reappearing in our landscapes, full of color and songs. As nature photographers, many of us strive to capture images of these the birds as they pause on their northward migration, or settle in to take up summer residence.
If you want to make the most of this annual opportunity, here are some ideas to help you attract those birds and bring them closer to your camera…
Black and White Warbler. Photo by David Akoubian.
Whether the birds are returning to their summer breeding grounds or just passing through, how do you get them to stop so you can photograph them? Well, it’s fairly easy – you invite them! Birds prefer environments where they feel are safe from predation, and they will seek out areas that have a safe “feeling.” What do I mean by that? They search for areas where other birds are frequenting, like feeders in yards. Migratory birds as a whole (or at least the Warblers, Vireos and Tanagers) are primarily insect eaters and don’t really land at feeders. Some other birds, like Grosbeaks, will feed alongside your regular birds. But the insect eaters will often fly into a feeder area to see what all the fuss is about. Getting them to stay there long enough for photos is the tricky part.
A few years ago we had our yard certified by the Audubon Society as a Wildlife Sanctuary. To do so, we had to meet certain requirements, like having a food and water source, providing cover, and providing nesting options when possible. Out of all of those requirements, the most important to me is providing cover. We leave brush piles, and have created sections of small trees and shrubs where a bird can hide and feel safe. Once they feel safe, they will explore an area and search for food.
Eastern Bluebird. Photo by David Akoubian.
This is where it pays off for a nature photographer to create an outdoor “studio.” I usually set up only a few feeders, such as a sunflower seed feeder, a suet feeder and another feeder where I place mealworms and suet nuggets inside. Around those feeders, I place “T” bars driven into the ground, each with a stick, branch or small tree trunk attached to them with wire. The birds will land on these strategically placed posts and wait for their turn at the feeder, or in the case of the migratory birds, will pause to check things out. The reason the posts are important is that birds follow a social tier, with the most dominant birds feeding first, thus the term “pecking order.” It’s when birds land on these posts that I capture most of my images. I also have small trees near the feeder that serve the same purpose. Either place is perfect for creating photos of the birds.
I don’t use a blind when photographing birds; I simply sit on my porch drinking coffee and eating breakfast. Birds get accustomed to you sitting there, and they are unaffected by your presence unless you make any sudden movement. My posts are set up from 8-12 feet away from my seating location (I chose that distance because it’s roughly the minimum focusing distance of my Tamron 150-600mm G2 lens).
When I position my posts, I try to create some separation between the post and the background, which in my case is a row of trees and shrubs. I do this to allow the lens to drop off focus fairly quickly, even at my preferred aperture of f8. To accomplish this, I aim to allow a minimum of 4 feet between the objects. Behind the row of trees and shrubs I have a buffer of 20-40 feet, which will give the background a smooth, out-of-focus pallet of color to create the visual separation needed to make the birds stand out.
Cerulean Warbler. Photo by David Akoubian.
I prefer longer lenses, like my 150-600mm at 600mm or my 150-500mm at 500mm, when I am creating images in the “studio” area. This approach provides a sharp subject, then drops off to a smooth color background, creating an almost 3D effect. I shoot in manual mode, at f8, and I begin with a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second, with Auto ISO selected. I use the Auto ISO feature simply because the birds are constantly flitting back and forth between light and dark areas, and the variable ISO will help compensate for this. My subjects are mostly front-lit, so this works really well. But if I am shooting in the evening, the subjects can be backlit, so I will step my exposure compensation up +1 to compensate for backlighting. And while shooting I will use either a monopod or a tripod, because the weight of the lens can cause fatigue and shorten your shooting time dramatically.
As the morning goes on I will increase my shutter speed to an eventual 1/1000 of a second if needed. Usually, though, by the time the light warrants even a speed of 1/500, the light is pretty harsh and I am finished for the day.
To help enrich the studio site, I plant flowers around the yard that will attract insects. That’s because attracting insects means attracting things that feed on insects, which includes birds! I let the flowers die and decay in place as well. Why? Decaying plants attract insects, which attracts the birds. Do you see a pattern? I also don’t use any insecticides or pesticides in my yard because – you got it – I want the insects to be there. Each year I get good number of Scarlet Tanagers feeding on Japanese Beetles in the trees and shrubs in the yard, and that is the direct result of inviting the birds into the landscape.
This process will continue until the birds are ready to fly south for their fall migration. Often I see a greater variety of bird species in the fall than in the spring as numbers increase each year. You can pretty much count on the birds that come through one year to return again the next year, as they recognize a safe place where it’s easy to feed. This past summer alone we saw 27 varieties of Warblers, 5 different Vireos, plus Tanagers and Grosbeaks, all from the back porch.
This same setup can be adapted to smaller areas, such as a porch or even a common area in an apartment complex. The payoff can be many hours of photographing a variety of birds, which I find extremely rewarding. And most of what needs to be done actually requires less work than maintaining a pristine garden. So consider “letting things go” a little, and in return you’ll find more birds in your area than ever before.
David Akoubian is a professional nature photographer and a longtime resident of Georgia. He has been photographing professionally since 1992, and conducts workshops around the U.S. and Iceland. For more details on David and his workshops, check out his website at www.bearwoodsphotography.com. He is also active on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.
By Lee Friedman.
This year, aside from all the wonderful speakers each chapter brings to our members, we are augmenting them with a new set of speakers we recruited. These speakers are nationally known and award winning nature photographer. They come by special invitation for the benefit of our members. We have established a schedule for the entire year, bringing our members at least one of these speakers each month. Here is the schedule:
||Lightroom New Masking and Selection Tools
||Photographing Wildlife Both Near and Far
||The Art of Flower Portraiture
||Creative Bird Photography
||Macro Photography 101: How Macro Photography Can Change Your Perception of the World Around You
||Painting with Cameras
||Nature Photography along the Chattahoochee River
||Getting Creative with Motion and Multiples
||Black Oystercatchers (a Pacific coast shorebird and species of special concern)
||Is Your Flower Photography Boring, Let Me Help You
Watch for these speaker announcements each month on Meetup and on the Members page for registration. They are for members only as an added benefit of GNPA membership.
Not a member? Click here to learn more about joining GNPA!
By Jenny Burdette
2021 12-30 Edited Follow Instagram
By John Mariana
From my perspective, successful nature photography is comprised of two very different elements. Understanding the role that each one plays in the process is critical. Capturing the photo is clearly important, but so is our thought process for presenting that image.
The camera, of course, is only a tool. Yes, it is the tool we use to capture nature images, but the tool itself does not create the image or provide the final presentation. Our own in-the-field experiences, our training in composition and the understanding of the elements of “good images” are the critical aspects for the capture. Composition, special light, depth of field, shutter speed and good exposure represent the craft of the capture. These should become second nature to you, so when a special nature opportunity presents itself, you are prepared to capture it.
Capturing moving animals and birds in flight requires good depth of field as well as a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. For flying birds, I typically use f11 at 1,000th of a second to capture sharp details from wing tip to wing tip. I will try to focus on the eye and use focus tracking for multiple captures as the bird or animal is moving. Also, I always shoot images in raw format. You can capture both raw and jpeg images simultaneously, but those raw images will provide many more pixels. And those extra pixels will give you the ability to crop the image and still produce quality prints.
Positioning yourself is also critical, but too often overlooked. Locate a position where the background is simple, distant, or shows an environment that brings special meaning to the capture. Then you are prepared.
Once you’ve captured quality raw images, the next step is determining your final presentation. This step is accomplished with software, not in the camera. Certainly, today’s cameras have very good software for adjusting light, shadows, color and more, but the best method is to simply capture the best raw pixels in the camera and then use software to enhance the captures. I use Photoshop, Topaz Modules, DXO modules and Luminar NEO to enhance my images. Those enhancements involve cropping, sharpening, color enhancement, vignetting, dodging shadows and burning some highlights. I use these tools to bring the eye of the viewer instantly to the main subject. Post processing is the difference between just presenting an image and presenting an image with real impact.
Happy Little Green Frogs
Darcy Elleby Pino conducts workshops in Costa Rica, where I assist her. This image (“I’m So Happy”) was one of several that I captured as a 3-inch tree frog was climbing a Bird of Paradise plant. Timing is everything with these opportunities. I made sure I had good depth of field for the frog’s body, and I darkened the background with a small amount of highlight behind the frog. The face is highlighted to bring the viewer’s eye instantly to the frog’s face. Compositionally, the frog dominates the center of the image, breaking the rule of thirds, but is in the upper third of the image.
Images with instant impact are the most appealing. This image has been cropped, and the highlights increased, so that the viewer looks instantly into the face. This presentation also has increased contrast to emphasize the three-dimensionality of the frog and the entire image. The frog seems ready to jump out of the image. This elicits emotion in the viewer. Winning images are those that have great composition, instant impact and elicit emotion.
The next image (“Hi Honey, I’m Home”) is a composite made from two separate frog photos. I created this image to tell a story and elicit amusement. Still, the image demonstrates the use of highlights, dark background and good depth of field to capture the details. The very dark bakcground creates the three-dimensionality of the frogs.
It is quite easy to capture a beautiful bird when it’s just sitting on a branch. This image was captured at a zoo, of a bird behind glass. However, it’s been enhanced in many ways. Originally, the image contained distracting branches, the background was not appealing, and the light was from above. Using the gradient background emphasizes the erectness of the bird. Meanwhile, enhancing the color of the head and beak immediately brings attention to the upper portion of the bird.
Hummingbirds are perhaps the most difficult bird to capture well. The best hummingbird images show detail in the wings and are difficult to capture. Understandably, depth of field and shutter speed are critical. Place yourself in a position where the bird has been flying and you have a good background and light. Then, patience and timing are required to seal the deal.
Note the sharpness of the wings, the body and the head in this photo. The curve of the stem on the flower brings the eye up around and back to the hummingbird. Capturing these tiny speedsters requires lots of time watching the same flower and waiting patiently as the bird flits around. But if you’ve done your homework, that patience will be rewarded.
From early September to late October, the male elks in Cataloochee Valley, Tennessee, offer a great opportunity for photographers. This is a prime location to capture big bulls as they gather their females. They often butt heads with other large elks to protect their territories. The best time to capture images is the early morning, just as the sun is rising and casting beautiful beams of light. This image is a panorama of three images as the elk turned to look at me. I had positioned myself near the open field because of the light rays there, and I waited. Timing is critical.
Early morning mist often fills the fields before the sun rises high enough to burn it off. This large elk stood very close to the female and searched for other females to add to his group. For this photo, I waited until the bull stopped eating, lifted his head and turned it toward the female. It made for a special moment.
This image was captured during early spring in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Again, I found the position I wanted, on a hillside with the farm in the distance and the sun creating a burst through the tree limbs. Patience, patience! I knew the location from previous occasions, positioned myself and waited. Eventually, a doe brought her young offspring into the pasture to feed.
One of the most delicately beautiful flowers is the Magnolia. But the special beauty of this flower can be fleeting. Once the bud opens and the flower unfolds, it is pristine for only one day. By the second day the inner areas begin to fall out. I first tried to capture pristine magnolia blooms on the tree, but it’s very challenging to be in the right position at exactly the right time. So, I recommend removing a bud from a tree, taking it home and placing it in water. The next morning the flower will begin to open. Place it in front of a plain background, near an open window with soft light. With the camera on a tripod, make several captures at different levels as the petals are opening. This first image was placed against a white backdrop and the close-up capture emphasizes the beauty of the shape of the flower.
In the next photo, using a black backdrop emphasized the overall shape and beauty of the bloom. It was critical to preserve the detail in all the white areas. This was accomplished by utilizing very soft light from a side window. As the bloom continued to unfold, multiple images were captured. When all the petals have unfolded, a beautiful gold center pod is revealed.
The Magnificent Beauty of Yosemite National Park
Yosemite is one of the most beautiful of all the national parks, and I have visited there at least 50 times. As you enter the valley and look at the 2,000-ft.-high cliffs all around you, you understand why this park is so special. The Merced River runs through the center of the valley, providing great reflections of the famous mountains and waterfalls.
Winter is spectacular in Yosemite. The mountains are covered with snow, creating a stunning three-dimensional look, and the pine trees are highlighted by the clinging snow. Panoramas are the best way to capture the entire scene. Depth of field is critical for all the details from foreground to background. As I studied Bierstadt paintings, I discovered a compositional “must” for photographers. I call it “a place to stand.” When the viewer has a place to “stand” in your image, that viewer will feel the emotional experience of being there. But if there is not a place to stand, the viewer is only looking at an image.
The Coastal Lights
The coasts of Massachusetts and Maine are filled with special lighthouses, stretching from Boston through Acadia National Park in Maine. Morning light is very good for capturing these iconic structures, and late day can be special when the beams from the lighthouses can be seen against the darker sky of sunset. A A tripod can be used to capture several images at different exposures, with a high dynamic range image. This provides details in the shadows and in the highlights. You never want to have photos with “blocked up” shadows or “blown out” highlights.
These are a few of the ways I approach capturing and presenting images. By concentrating on the nuances of these two different steps, I believe you can continue to improve as a photographer.
John Mariana is a well-known photographer and educator who has conducted numerous workshops across the United States, Scotland and Tuscany, as well as volunteering time to speak at functions, museums and photography groups. He has specialized in large print images and published two books. John is also a founding member of the Booth Photography Guild at the Booth Art Museum in Cartersville, GA. You can find his website at: www.marianaphotography.com
Photo by Eric Bowles.
By Eric Bowles.
As nature photographers, we need to be prepared for just about anything out in the field. That’s why, through the years, I’ve learned that one of the most important things I can pack for any photo outing is my Spares & Repairs kit.
What’s that? For me, it’s a zip-lock bag that contains solutions for all the problems I might run into in the field (and for all the workshop participants or friends who may be with me). It goes beyond just a spare battery and memory card. Instead, it’s a small bag with all the replacements and tools for things I might lose, break, or need to repair on a trip. My kit is like an insurance policy covering all of the problems I’ve encountered through the years – including the solutions I wish had been with me at the time.
You should put together a Spares & Repairs kit that suits your particular needs. But to get your started, here’s what’s in mine.
My kit starts with the thing I lose most often – lens and body caps. It’s such a nuisance when you lose a cap, and it adds some risk that you will scratch your lens elements or expose your camera body to dust. I carry a rear lens cap that fits all of my lenses, and the 1-3 most commonly used front lens caps. I also have an extra camera body cap. These items don’t need to be branded OEM parts. You can buy a set of three third-party lens caps for any size at about the same cost as one lens cap from your camera’s manufacturer. I carry 82mm, 77mm, and 62mm spare lens caps. That’s not enough for every lens, but it covers the ones I use most frequently.
Next for me is a set of tripod wrenches. You know, those small wrenches you need to tighten or adjust your tripod legs or the hub. A floppy tripod leg can be a horrible nuisance, so you need to be prepared. Gitzo uses a special star-shaped wrench, while others may use hex keys or Allen wrenches. Just be sure you have the types and sizes you need. Also be sure to carry the wrench you need to tighten or remove camera and lens plates if necessary. After all, a good camera plate doesn’t do you much good when your camera is spinning around loosely. I also pack a spare tripod foot; it’s not something you need often, but it can be a real nuisance if you lose yours.
On the subject of tools, a handy item for me is a set of small screwdrivers. This is an easy-to-find item often used for computer repairs or eyeglass repairs, but it can be very useful for tightening a screw on your camera mount or on a lens foot. On my 70-200mm lens, for example, the foot mount is attached to the lens with four small screws, and if they are loose my lens will not be stable even on the best tripod. If you are dealing with a loose screw, there is a risk it will loosen again, so I also carry a small tube of Blue Loctite as a thread locker. Just a fraction of a drop is enough to hold a screw in place. Don’t use the Red Loctite, which requires heat to loosen.
I like carrying some basic cleaning supplies as well. Start with a bulb blower to clean your sensor. Dust can be a problem, so at the very least, carry a blower in your bag. I use a Giottos Rocket Blower to handle most dust on my sensor. It’s also great in the field just in case you get something on your lens or camera that might scratch the glass if you rub it. Add a small microfiber lens cloth as well. This is an all-purpose item that not only cleans lenses, it can double as a lost lens cap. For lenses, I carry a handful of Zeiss lens wipes, the small alcohol-based wipes intended for optical lenses. These wipes are perfect not only for removing dust and fingerprints, but they work very well with rain, mist, snow or frost on your camera or lens. Alcohol is used in anti-freeze to prevent freezing, but it also dries more quickly than water.
Let’s remember a few basics that are probably already in your bag. These are items you can’t live without and are probably not in a Spares kit, but you better have them. Start with an extra battery and memory card. If you use more than one type of memory card in your cameras, keep at least one old card for each format (this is a great use for old cards). Have you ever left your camera battery sitting in the charger at home, or a memory card in your card reader? Having spares of these items can save a lot of stress. If you are traveling, the other critical item is a battery charger with any cables required. Finally, if you wear glasses, be sure you have an extra pair in your camera bag for emergencies.
So, what’s in your Spares & Repairs kit? Everyone will make their own decisions about what is important. But before your next trip, make sure you have the supplies you need to handle the unexpected.
Eric Bowles is a former president of GNPA, a professional nature photographer, and director of Nikonians Academy. He leads bird photography workshops for Nikonians, Chattahoochee Nature Center and Georgia Audubon in addition to his own programs.