“There is only one thing that makes a dream
impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
-Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
ONE SHOT is about seizing the day and being prepared for it. Each feature focuses on just one main image and goes in depth with the settings, the techniques, and the journey.
Wildlife photography is a difficult art form, precisely because we, as photographers, never know if we’ll actually find the wildlife we’re looking for. We might try our absolute hardest to guarantee positive results, but I think we all know that sometimes our days end with lessons about not forgetting how to be in the moment. That’s why I created ONE SHOT, so when that rare opportunity to photograph an amazing scene happens, perhaps it’s even the shot of a lifetime, this will help nudge you into a more prepared direction.
Thankfully, I’ve been afforded some amazing opportunities to photograph wildlife, like in the sub-zero temperatures of the ancient and volcanic High Andes, Argentina to the underwater ocean world of sea grass plains and kelp forests right here in my home state of California. Those experiences combined with help from some incredible people has led me to become sponsored by Nikon USA and with some good publications under my belt. And that whole time, spoiler alert, I’ve been messing up.
Maybe you can relate to this: I’ve forgotten memory cards, input the wrong camera settings, not been prepared for changing weather, fell sick or injured while in-the-field, even burned bridges with people. In other words... failing. So let’s put the classic, positive spin on it--failing helps recognize weaknesses in ourselves and leads us on a path to become stronger photographers and overall human beings--embrace it.
Beyond forgetfulness or having the wrong settings, we need to fail creatively through experimentation so we can grow infinitely. Now let’s look at how we can approach wild animals and our cameras the right way to create the best possible outcomes for our wildlife photography using classic techniques in this post-modern era.
1/2000th sec, f/7.1, ISO 500, 500mm, WB 5,250K
Quickly, I have to thank a great and trusted wildlife photographer who tipped me off to the Black Skimmers, a specialist of urban environments, Jouko van der Kruijssen. These birds are rare visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area and since the moment I learned about their existence, I’ve wanted to photograph them. Skimmers have a unique hunting style found in no other species on Earth. Their lower mandible is much larger than their upper, which they use for dipping into the water while flying at high speeds to tactfully snatch up any unsuspecting fish. When Jouko told me about their local presence, I leaped at the opportunity to photograph them. It’s critical to waste as little time as possible when you hear about wild animals you want to photograph, especially if it’s a migratory species like this one; who knows how long they are going to be around!
Now being there, I knew that to really capture the skimmers in the moment, I would have to use a fast shutter speed, as is the case with most birds in flight. For a great freeze-frame, where even the wingtips are frozen in place, 1/2000th of a second is the lowest shutter speed I want to use. However, I recommend pumping up your speed to anywhere from 1/2500th to 1/8000th of a second if there is just that much good light or your camera can afford handling higher ISOs.
Gathering light in this situation is also paramount. A telephoto lens that gives you f/2.8 or f/4 aperture for some awesome light gathering means faster shutter speeds, but the wide-open aperture also acts as a way to reliably separate the subject from the background and foreground. Alternatively, I know by closing
my aperture slightly to f/8, my camera will give me the sharpest images at the cost of gathering light. If there is great light, f/8 is a completely viable option in my book and it will open the depth of field (DoF) slightly deeper for more detail in my feathered friends, which I love. It’s not just the eyes that are captured, but also perhaps the full beak, wings, feet, and tail feathers. Keep in mind that the closer the subject is to your lens, the smaller the DoF is. Since the Black Skimmer was generally flying very close to me while hunting, the DoF was tiny. So, I closed my aperture to counteract the chance of loosing critical detail in the skimmers face and wings. Ultimately, with the fading light, I decided to use an f/7.1 aperture so I could gather enough light to use my minimum requirement of 1/2000th of a second.
The key to photographing birds in flight successfully is to predict their flight path and have eyes in the back of your head. When I got to the location, I learned fast that these Black Skimmers fly swiftly with purpose and sometimes like to “thread the needle.” In all the time that I watched them, whenever they took off, that meant it was their intention to go hunt. In flight, they make big, sweeping gestures and then without wavering, dive at the water’s surface and suddenly break off before hitting it, barely skimming above with their lower beak dipping in, feeling for fish. I knew I would apply the same technique to photograph this species as I do with capturing raptors.
Holding your camera and lens in hand, brace your arms by firmly tucking your elbows into your body and then rotate your torso at the hips, following the direction and speed of the animal. Don’t forget to hold your breath as well, that will minimize the shake of the camera. Sometimes I love to have my subject backlit for a nice glow along the edges of the animal, but in this case, I wanted to show off all the glorious detail of the hunt. So, I made sure the sun was at my back while I tried to keep the bird in front of me. Now work the scene as much a possible to develop a strong image.
Sometimes my ego tells me, “Hey, you got enough shots.” Wrong. Ego is always wrong. You can almost never have enough shots as long as the animal is comfortable with your presence. More time spent = more opportunities for creative shots. Since I had the opportunity to spend the last few hours of light photographing the Black Skimmers, I experimented with different settings, angles, and took time to really study their lives, which brought me closer to achieving an impressionable and award-winning shot. That’s one of my goals, after all.
It wasn’t too long after I started photographing the Black Skimmers’ hunting techniques that I realized the water streak they create can be used as a leading line to draw the eyes towards the “hero” of the image, which is the flashy orange beak that also shows off as a unique and useful biological feature. Then I placed the beak as close to the golden ratio origin as possible, which creates a satisfying, pleasing composition. There’s also something nice about the slight pattern of the lower wings and how each wing also contrasts from each other in color. When it came to the background, I tried to position myself to have the water reflect as little light as possible, which can look ugly and often distracts from the rest of the image. And I’m going to cap this with a little self-critique. In hindsight, I would have used a faster shutter speed at the cost of a higher ISO to freeze the water droplets better in place.
It’s important to study up on the species you’re about to photograph. The more a photographer knows about their wild subject, the better the feel for what happens when it comes to photographing that animal. This includes being able to read the warning signs of a particular species, which will help you make the right, ethical decisions to keep safe what we love to photograph. If the presence of any one of us impacts any wild animals ability to live, it’s important to make the right decision to immediately back off. Our photos are never more important than the health of the animals we photograph.