If you've been following me for a while, you know that I love California Condors. I feel so fortunate to be just a few hours away from where they are located in Central California. As some of you already know, they are a Critically Endangered species and North America's largest bird. Recently, the unusual threat of fires in one of their primary habitats in Big Sur has been a point of concern for these flying giants. These fires have killed a few condors and many others scatter to seek refuge. One of the best places to find them originally that also acts as a refuge is at Pinnacles National Park.
PNP is skyrocketing with visitors who are there to hike, rock climb, see the giant spires covered with neon-colored liken, and of course, see the California Condors. This has led to making the already tiny population of condors even harder to find. Although they are more used to people because of how much they are handled by biologists for health checks and subsequently sent to zoos if they are heavily poised by lead ammunition fragments, like all wild animals, they still want their space.
This is why I always feel lucky to encounter an individual from one of the rarest species on the planet in close range.
Camera Settings and Technique
Nikon D500, 35mm, 1/500th sec, f/4.5, ISO 50, WB 5,550k
I sometimes worry that I won't get any images while making a sizable trip to capture a species or landscape that I have my heart set on. But that's just the risk we as wildlife and conservation photographers run. The best we can do is prepare our asses off in hopes that we come back with at least one magnificent image, or maybe just an image that's meaningful to ourselves. This image to me is more meaningful than it is magnificent.
I was already off hiking to the top of the pinnacles well before dawn to try and find the California Condors sun bathing in the first light of the morning. It was so cold that frost formed on my eye lashes in the first ten minutes of the hike. I relished it. If nothing else, the adventurous experience is worth the preparation. I remind myself to enjoy the journey as much as possible while in search of my dream to help California condors as much as possible throughout my career.
I get to the top, round a corner (after rounding many corners hoping to see a glimpse of a condor), and there they are just a couple hundred feet away... a handful of them perched in what looks to be their roost and soaking in the sun. This is what I've been looking forward to! I spend time photographing them from a distance as not to bother their livelihoods. After all, I wouldn't want some stranger getting up close to me while I'm trying to do my thing either. More people more in eventually and they decide to leave the area. Besides, flying to different sites, carcasses to eat and clean up, there's work to do!
I made my way up and around some cliff sides after I thought all the condors had moved on. I hiked into an area where I wanted to stuff my lunch down when I looked to the left and, to my amazement, there was one right there in front of me about 20 feet away. I couldn't believe this juvenile was just perched there still soaking up some sun, its head folded back on itself in a resting position. I took the moment to switch out my telephoto lens for my 35mm that I barely ever use anymore and position to get a shot with the landscape it regards as home in the background.
I'm really working on my composition right now. I have been getting better but my mentor, National Geographic Photographer Sirachai Shin Arunrugstichai (WARNING: his work can be very graphic) completed a portfolio review for me recently, and let me know I need more work. My point is, never be discouraged by the amount of work you'll have to put into creating great images.
With this 35mm lens, I found it pretty difficult to compose the image correctly. One of the biggest keys to getting great images with the lenses you have is to practice with them constantly. This was not the case for me and my 35mm, which I felt like I should give another shot. And I'm glad I did because it allowed me to get the landscape and incorporate a condor that looks semi-close in the frame.
I used the golden ratio composition to focus the condor in the frame. I also wanted the landscape to look more three-dimensional than the 35mm allowed, so I used three different sets of rock formations on the left to build a repeating pattern. The tops of the formations also became leading lines, which pointed towards my main subject. Ironically, the lines also look uncannily like the stripes that form the shell of a nautilus.
It's a good image, not amazing, but good enough to print really big! I accomplished the composition I was going for to the best of my ability without stressing out the juvenile condor. Of course, I'm always thinking about what could have been better potentially. And then there are somethings that are out of my control. Ideally, this image would have been benefited from better natural lighting, rather than the flat, contrasting light of the early, cloudless afternoon.