Getting started in wildlife photography – Part 1

It has been a while since I have written about the technical aspects of photography and I thought it would be good to dive into a discussion about the broad field of wildlife photography. It is a big subject so I'll cover it in two separate postings.

I moved to Jackson, Wyoming last year primarily to be closer to nature and to the amazing wildlife in this part of the country. As a 'nature photographer,' I enjoy all aspects of outdoor photography from landscapes to wildlife to macro-photography, but it is wildlife that really gets me excited. When I write about wildlife photography I really mean WILD-life - not pets, zoo animals, or critters in cages of any sort, but real wildlife out in the open, fending for themselves. I like all sorts of wildlife from large carnivores to birds, grazers, cute little rodents, insects and other invertebrates and each of these families of critters bring different challenges to the photographer.

There are really three 'styles' of wildlife photography and each has its individual rewards. First, and most common, are wildlife portraits. You find a great animal out in a natural setting and are close enough to capture its image close up. Second, there are the beautiful scenic shots (below) with a magnificent animal in the foreground. Third, are the behavioral shots (see blog cover photo)when the critter you have found is doing its thing in an animated and interesting manner.  The preparation and gear required to capture each of these styles of images is modified by the physical size of the animal you are shooting. 

GTNP-5D-4011GTNP-5D-4011Bison - the American Buffalo It goes without saying that a quality digital single-lens reflex (dSLR) camera body is the choice of most wildlife photographers but that doesn't mean that you can't capture great images with a super-zoom or even a point and shoot camera. I remember a few months ago staking out a black bear in Yellowstone for over two hours. I had a 600mm super-telephoto lens mounted on a sturdy tripod ready to go but the bear stayed in the bushes always partially concealed from my view. I packed up ready to move on when the bear took off across the road in front of a car giving the woman in the car a better shot with her phone camera in 20 seconds than I had in hours that cold Yellowstone morning. But good photography requires more than luck - you want to be able to capture good images, reliably, under many conditions. The dSLR is the best choice.

The next issue is the selection of lenses that will give your camera the best image. Wildlife photographers are always looking for the "big glass" but there are two types of 'big' that you must consider. Many times when photographing wildlife you cannot get as close as you would like to be - either because the subject will leave your field of view or the subject is bigger than the photographer and, therefore, demands space. So big lenses are usually part of every wildlife photographer's arsenal but how big is necessary? The answer is, it depends.

Many (most?) times you will want to 'fill the frame' with your subject. So the smaller the subject the closer you must be or the larger your lens must be. Generally, most start with a moderate telephoto lens in the 200-300 mm focal length range. These lenses are small enough and light enough to carry for a significant distance and yet will give a significant 'reach' to your subject. If you are using a crop sensor, rather than a full frame sensor, camera you will see even a smaller angle of view giving the appearance of more magnification. Typically, most APS-C size sensors have a 'crop factor' of 1.5x or 1.6x thus increasing the effective focal length of your lens by the crop factor. Effectively, you get more bang for your buck using a telephoto lens on a crop sensor camera body.

Another way to extend the reach of your lens is by adding a tele-converter (sometimes called a tele-extender) between the lens and camera. These converters increase the effective focal length of the telephoto lens that is attached by a factor of 1.4x or 2x. Doing the math, you can see that a 200 mm telephoto lens on a 1.6x crop sensor and a 1.4x teleconverter give you an effective focal length of 448 mm (200 x 1.6 x 1.4). A 2x tele-converter would increase the effective focal length even more to 640 mm. The increased effective focal length with a converter comes with a significant cost - reduced light to the sensor. A 1.4x converter reduces the maximum aperture of the lens by 1 stop and the 2x converter reduces it by 2 stops. This raises the second requirement for wildlife lenses - they must be 'fast.'

Generally, the best shooting of wildlife is in early morning and late afternoon as the sun is rising or setting. This means a high likelihood of shooting in low light situations. Low light means you will need a large aperture, long shutter speed, or high ISO  for proper exposure.  (See the Exposure Triangle, 2/21/13, and Where to Start with Exposure, 2/27/13 blog posts.)  A long shutter speed is almost never a good option using a telephoto lens because of the chance of image blur due to 'camera shake' or movement of the subject.  The rule of thumb is that the shutter speed should equal or be faster than 1 / effective focal length. So your 200mm lens on a crop sensor camera with a 1.4x converter means your slowest shutter speed should be 1/640 seconds or more practically, 1/1000th second. That is fast enough to eliminate blur from camera shake and to freeze (slow) movement of your subject but how do you get enough light to the sensor? The answer is a large aperture.  So the second 'big' in wildlife lenses is a large diameter aperture - ideally f/4 or larger. The large aperture allows more light to reach the sensor in the time the shutter is open. Unfortunately, a large aperture is the major cost of a lens - more glass equals more money.

We will address the last of the exposure issues and other ways to improve your wildlife photography in the next posting. Until then happy shooting.

Getting started in wildlife photography – Part 1

It has been a while since I have written about the technical aspects of photography and I thought it would be good to dive into a discussion about the broad field of wildlife photography. It is a big subject so I’ll cover it in two separate postings.

I moved to Jackson, Wyoming last year primarily to be closer to nature and to the amazing wildlife in this part of the country. As a ‘nature photographer,’ I enjoy all aspects of outdoor photography from landscapes to wildlife to macro-photography, but it is wildlife that really gets me excited. When I write about wildlife photography I really mean WILD-life – not pets, zoo animals, or critters in cages of any sort, but real wildlife out in the open, fending for themselves. I like all sorts of wildlife from large carnivores to birds, grazers, cute little rodents, insects and other invertebrates and each of these families of critters bring different challenges to the photographer.

There are really three ‘styles’ of wildlife photography and each has its individual rewards. First, and most common, are wildlife portraits. You find a great animal out in a natural setting and are close enough to capture its image close up. Second, there are the beautiful scenic shots (below) with a magnificent animal in the foreground. Third, are the behavioral shots (see blog cover photo)when the critter you have found is doing its thing in an animated and interesting manner.  The preparation and gear required to capture each of these styles of images is modified by the physical size of the animal you are shooting. 


It goes without saying that a quality digital single-lens reflex (dSLR) camera body is the choice of most wildlife photographers but that doesn’t mean that you can’t capture great images with a super-zoom or even a point and shoot camera. I remember a few months ago staking out a black bear in Yellowstone for over two hours. I had a 600mm super-telephoto lens mounted on a sturdy tripod ready to go but the bear stayed in the bushes always partially concealed from my view. I packed up ready to move on when the bear took off across the road in front of a car giving the woman in the car a better shot with her phone camera in 20 seconds than I had in hours that cold Yellowstone morning. But good photography requires more than luck – you want to be able to capture good images, reliably, under many conditions. The dSLR is the best choice.

The next issue is the selection of lenses that will give your camera the best image. Wildlife photographers are always looking for the “big glass” but there are two types of ‘big’ that you must consider. Many times when photographing wildlife you cannot get as close as you would like to be – either because the subject will leave your field of view or the subject is bigger than the photographer and, therefore, demands space. So big lenses are usually part of every wildlife photographer’s arsenal but how big is necessary? The answer is, it depends.

Many (most?) times you will want to ‘fill the frame’ with your subject. So the smaller the subject the closer you must be or the larger your lens must be. Generally, most start with a moderate telephoto lens in the 200-300 mm focal length range. These lenses are small enough and light enough to carry for a significant distance and yet will give a significant ‘reach’ to your subject. If you are using a crop sensor, rather than a full frame sensor, camera you will see even a smaller angle of view giving the appearance of more magnification. Typically, most APS-C size sensors have a ‘crop factor‘ of 1.5x or 1.6x thus increasing the effective focal length of your lens by the crop factor. Effectively, you get more bang for your buck using a telephoto lens on a crop sensor camera body.

Another way to extend the reach of your lens is by adding a tele-converter (sometimes called a tele-extender) between the lens and camera. These converters increase the effective focal length of the telephoto lens that is attached by a factor of 1.4x or 2x. Doing the math, you can see that a 200 mm telephoto lens on a 1.6x crop sensor and a 1.4x teleconverter give you an effective focal length of 448 mm (200 x 1.6 x 1.4). A 2x tele-converter would increase the effective focal length even more to 640 mm. The increased effective focal length with a converter comes with a significant cost – reduced light to the sensor. A 1.4x converter reduces the maximum aperture of the lens by 1 stop and the 2x converter reduces it by 2 stops. This raises the second requirement for wildlife lenses – they must be ‘fast.’

Generally, the best shooting of wildlife is in early morning and late afternoon as the sun is rising or setting. This means a high likelihood of shooting in low light situations. Low light means you will need a large aperture, long shutter speed, or high ISO  for proper exposure.  (See the Exposure Triangle, 2/21/13, and Where to Start with Exposure, 2/27/13 blog posts.)  A long shutter speed is almost never a good option using a telephoto lens because of the chance of image blur due to ‘camera shake’ or movement of the subject.  The rule of thumb is that the shutter speed should equal or be faster than 1 / effective focal length. So your 200mm lens on a crop sensor camera with a 1.4x converter means your slowest shutter speed should be 1/640 seconds or more practically, 1/1000th second. That is fast enough to eliminate blur from camera shake and to freeze (slow) movement of your subject but how do you get enough light to the sensor? The answer is a large aperture.  So the second ‘big’ in wildlife lenses is a large diameter aperture – ideally f/4 or larger. The large aperture allows more light to reach the sensor in the time the shutter is open. Unfortunately, a large aperture is the major cost of a lens – more glass equals more money.

We will address the last of the exposure issues and other ways to improve your wildlife photography in the next posting. Until then happy shooting.

Our Partner – the Art Association of Jackson Hole

From the beginning, the Teton Photography Group recognized the need for strategic partnerships to become a viable, long-term organization in the greater Teton region.  Discussions with established photographers, community and organization leaders, and existing ‘brick and mortar’ institutions helped us to understand why previous photography ‘clubs’ had struggled and ultimately failed.  We explored many partnerships with existing not-for-profit organizations in the area with a goal of avoiding the expense and time needed to become an independent organization with federal 501(c)3 tax status and to acquire a stable venue for our meetings and programs.  These discussions all pointed to an obvious and critical partnership with the Art Association of Jackson Hole.

The AAJH is a stable, 50-year old organization that has been the community leader supporting the arts in all forms.  They have strong community support, a proven financial base, and a versatile and flexible location that can support activities from small group meetings to large educational programs.  They also have a well-established communication and community education history.  In a word, the AAJH is a perfect partner for the TPG.

Over the past six months the AAJH has hosted our monthly public presentations, planning and organizational meetings, and our first large educational symposium.  They have provided infrastructure, staff, equipment and supplies, and communications to support our activities. They serve as our bank and financial resource to help us pay our bills.  Our partnership sounds good, but over the last month, it has changed – for the better.

Detailed planning for our first Outdoor Photography Symposium exposed some issues with the infrastructure of both organizations and the AAJH immediately stepped up to the plate to address these issues in a very positive way. We have had discussions about the computer equipment and software in the photography lab and the AAJH developed a plan to update hardware and software to a state-of-the-art system that will better serve their educational programs and the needs of our members. The AAJH has carefully listened to the TPG needs for improved video projection and audio systems for large programs. They have found methods to meet our short-term needs and expand their long-term capabilities. We have had discussions about the AAJH membership database that will better support partnering organizations with their communication and financial needs. But more important and longer lasting changes have also begun.

We have entered in strategic planning initiatives with the AAJH that will help optimize community educational goals of both organizations by streamlining and coordinating our respective programs.  This will be evident in the new AAJH catalog to be released this winter.  There will be expanded coverage of the TPG programs and marketing and promotion for our major educational activities. This will start with the support of two new educational symposia in February and April.  Based upon the feedback from members and attendees of our first symposium, we will present a more basic and a more advanced symposium this winter and spring. The basic symposium will address introductory issues of how to make better images with dSLR cameras. The advanced symposium will explore the details of post-processing image editing software.  Additionally, the AAJH has committed to support for our monthly public presentations scheduled on the third Monday of every month. We have a plan to expand the breadth of the photographic subjects presented and expand our membership using resources of the AAJH.  We hope that these initiatives will allow the TPG to explore cutting-edge introductory programs that will lead to expanded educational classroom activities from the AAJH.

Our partnership with the Art Association of Jackson Hole has been a win-win proposition for photographers in the region.  The membership in the TPG has grown steadily from about a dozen last April to more than 150 in October. The partnership is stronger than ever and I hope that every member of the TPG will support the AAJH by becoming a supporting member – only $35 per year – for full membership and all of the benefits provided by the Association as well as full privileges of the TPG.  It is a win for art and photographers in the region, the community, and you as someone who wants to improve photography as an art through education and networking.

Once in a lifetime

Every once in a while life throws something at you that is so unexpected and yet so wonderful that you can't pass it up.  That is what happened to me in mid-August as I was planning my sixth photography trip to Yellowstone National Park since April this year.  Several wildfires were burning in the park and some of the campgrounds were on a short evacuation alert so our plans changed several times but we finally settled on a "safe" campground at Canyon Village. As we packed the RV for the two-week trip we were notified that the road between Fishing Bridge and Canyon was closed due to smoke and the threat of the Alum Creek fire. That meant a two-hour detour and a trip over Craig Pass on the western side of the Grand Loop. Well, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do and we made our plan to leave on a Tuesday.

On Monday I received a call from a friend who is a Regional Director of the Yellowstone Association and who was in need of some part-time help to replace two employees who had to leave on urgent family business. We could come to Yellowstone, bring the RV, camp for next to nothing, and get paid in exchange for working part-time at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. It took about 30 milliseconds to say "Yes" and we cancelled our Canyon plans and drove to Old Faithful for a 6-10 week stint living in Yellowstone.

The campground was a hidden gem for employee housing about 1/2 mile from the OF Visitors Center by bike or a 2 mile drive by car. It had full hook-ups, a laundry, the employee's Pub, and its own collection of wildlife from Snowshoe Hare, to Grizzlies, to Bison - every day was an adventure.  Can you imagine calling into work that you will be late because there is a bison blocking the bike path?

Work was generally fun - working with the public and retail sales was far outside my realm of experiences but the Rangers, employees, and a brief orientation made jumping-in a positive learning experience. We worked about 30 hours a week on a schedule that allowed photography for several hours every morning or afternoon and two and a half days off for more extended landscape and nature photography each week.  Needless to say that we had a great time, met some interesting people and shot a lot of photographs.

We had the opportunity to learn more about the history and operation of the park and more about the thermal features at the major geyser basins that we had ever known - that in spite of our combined many months in other parts of the park.  We hiked new trails, saw new geysers erupt, explored back roads, and found new animal locations that were previously unknown to us.  I was able to shoot photos from locations that I had never visited before and travel leisurely in the huge park.  The Yellowstone Association allowed us to purchase maps and books at a discount and see the inner workings of the Association from its Gardiner, MT headquarters to the Lamar Buffalo Ranch.  We were even able to book free courses from the Yellowstone Institute and will be back to the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in January and February to enjoy these employee benefits.  

We had hoped to stay into mid-October or even early November but cold weather, snow, and, finally, the government shut-down and closure of the park shortened our time to "only" 6 1/2 weeks. What a wonderful, unexpected experience that will leave a warm spot in our hearts for the rest of our lives. I am finishing the processing of the photos and hope to have some posted in the National Parks and Public Lands section of this site soon.

Thanks for visiting.

 

Once in a lifetime

Every once in a while life throws something at you that is so unexpected and yet so wonderful that you can’t pass it up.  That is what happened to me in mid-August as I was planning my sixth photography trip to Yellowstone National Park since April this year.  Several wildfires were burning in the park and some of the campgrounds were on a short evacuation alert so our plans changed several times but we finally settled on a “safe” campground at Canyon Village. As we packed the RV for the two-week trip we were notified that the road between Fishing Bridge and Canyon was closed due to smoke and the threat of the Alum Creek fire. That meant a two-hour detour and a trip over Craig Pass on the western side of the Grand Loop. Well, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do and we made our plan to leave on a Tuesday.

On Monday I received a call from a friend who is a Regional Director of the Yellowstone Association and who was in need of some part-time help to replace two employees who had to leave on urgent family business. We could come to Yellowstone, bring the RV, camp for next to nothing, and get paid in exchange for working part-time at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. It took about 30 milliseconds to say “Yes” and we cancelled our Canyon plans and drove to Old Faithful for a 6-10 week stint living in Yellowstone.

The campground was a hidden gem for employee housing about 1/2 mile from the OF Visitors Center by bike or a 2 mile drive by car. It had full hook-ups, a laundry, the employee’s Pub, and its own collection of wildlife from Snowshoe Hare, to Grizzlies, to Bison – every day was an adventure.  Can you imagine calling into work that you will be late because there is a bison blocking the bike path?

Work was generally fun – working with the public and retail sales was far outside my realm of experiences but the Rangers, employees, and a brief orientation made jumping-in a positive learning experience. We worked about 30 hours a week on a schedule that allowed photography for several hours every morning or afternoon and two and a half days off for more extended landscape and nature photography each week.  Needless to say that we had a great time, met some interesting people and shot a lot of photographs.

We had the opportunity to learn more about the history and operation of the park and more about the thermal features at the major geyser basins that we had ever known – that in spite of our combined many months in other parts of the park.  We hiked new trails, saw new geysers erupt, explored back roads, and found new animal locations that were previously unknown to us.  I was able to shoot photos from locations that I had never visited before and travel leisurely in the huge park.  The Yellowstone Association allowed us to purchase maps and books at a discount and see the inner workings of the Association from its Gardiner, MT headquarters to the Lamar Buffalo Ranch.  We were even able to book free courses from the Yellowstone Institute and will be back to the Lamar Buffalo Ranch in January and February to enjoy these employee benefits.  

We had hoped to stay into mid-October or even early November but cold weather, snow, and, finally, the government shut-down and closure of the park shortened our time to “only” 6 1/2 weeks. What a wonderful, unexpected experience that will leave a warm spot in our hearts for the rest of our lives. I am finishing the processing of the photos and hope to have some posted in the National Parks and Public Lands section of this site soon.

Thanks for visiting.