Tip #33. Change your perspective

When diving in Bonaire, we’d walk downtown for lunch each day after our two-tank morning dives. The sidewalk was about 10’ above the shoreline, and we passed this iguana on the rocks below us several times. After taking several tourist shots (from the walkway looking down), I realized my images were very mundane. On the third day, I climbed down the rocks and approached the iguana from the ocean side and at his eye level. The iguana was very habituated to people and my presence did not bother him. Plus, using a zoom lens, I was able to keep a respectable distance so as not to disturb him. First, I tried full body shots, which were very horizontal and not that great. Then, I focused in on just the head. In the wild, iguanas can live 10 – 15 years, if they do not end on a local or tourist’s menu. Iguanas may live for more than 20 years, reaching a length of 5 – 7 feet and weighing up to 18 pounds.

Tip #32. Follow the leaders

To get inspiration for good images look at what professional wildlife photographers are showcasing. Study their images to get a better idea of animal behavior, composition, and lighting. Websites and galleries are superb for viewing great images. When visiting SW Florida I came across several really great images in a gallery from a professional photographer of pairs of egrets in the air in a dance-like formation. To emulate this composition, I visited the Audubon Rookery in Venice, Florida. Although the herons and egrets were spending most of their time working on their nests, from time to time there seemed to be a courting dance between different birds. I positioned myself and camera in an area where I could hopefully capture the ritual with a very neutral background. Being this focused on what I was hoping to achieve caused me to miss other opportunities, but finally the dance occurred in the right area and I got this shot. 

Tip #31. Watch for unusual behaviors

I am fortunate to have a photographer friend outside Minneapolis that lets me use his blind on the edge of a large slough. A few days ago while photographing from the blind, I saw these two Wood Ducks preening each other. Although I have seen males and females preen each other, it was the first opportunity I had to watch to two males preen each other. Preening is a bird’s way of grooming its feathers to keep them in the best condition. While preening, birds will remove dust, dirt and parasites from their feathers and align each feather in the optimum position relative to adjacent feathers and body shape. The Wood Duck is one of only a few American ducks that can perch and nest in trees. They will also use man-made nesting boxes in areas where tree cavities are scarce. They tend to build their nests within one mile of a lake shore, river bank, or other body of water.

Tip #30. What’s your forte?

There are no shortage of superb wildlife photographers or great images. To set your wildlife photography apart from all the rest, consider a specialty or focused theme. In addition to my regular wildlife photographs I strive to catch “feeding” shot of birds. The feeding shot is much tougher to achieve and takes a ton of patience. I’ve watched great blue herons go for 30 minutes or more without catching a fish. What I have learned to do, is watch the behaviors that telegraph an impending lightning-fast strike. With herons it tends to be them lowering their head slightly and then freezing all motion. For such shots you need a high shutter speed such as 1/1000 second or higher and shot in the cluster mode to get maximum frames per second. Once the heron spears the fish, you have two to four seconds to capture the shot before the bird swallows the fish. I especially like this image as per the eyes of the speared fish. Not only are the eyes of the heron important, but sometimes the eyes or expression of the prey as well. As a side note, after watching and photographing numerous herons do this, I learned that a heron spears a fish with its beak, it does not catch the fish between the upper and lower bill. But, once speared, the heron will flick the speared fish and then grab it between the upper and lower bill before swallowing it.

Tip #29. Do not disturb

One of the most frequent mistakes I’ve seen with wildlife photography is photographers who get too close to the subject. Often times their lens is not long enough to get a good image so they try to make up for it by moving too close to the animal, which in turn often spooks the animal into running off or birds flying away. Some of this photographer behavior borders on the line of harassment. There are few set guidelines for proper distance, but always error in the favor of the animal. If the animal is looking at you intently, he is probably wary and ready to bolt. If your proximity causes the animal to take flight, you got too close. This is very important for animals feeding. I’ve seen careless photographers spook an entire flock of geese by moving in too close. The birds exhibited signs of distress, but the well-meaning photographer kept moving closer. All animals, especially migrating birds, need to feed to refuel for their long treks. Scaring them off a feeding or resting ground is a great disservice to them. Likes always appreciated.

Tip #28. Sometimes a good photo is literally right at your feet

When diving in Bonaire we would often spend time on a stone peer in front of our lodging between our morning and afternoon dives. I noticed these small crabs working their way through the rocks looking for food. Since a shot looking down at them didn’t seem very appealing, I laid on my stomach to get at their eye level. Then I positioned myself so I could zoom in as close as possible to the crab.

Tip #25. Know your subject

Beemer’s Pond, a borrow pit pond just west of Webster City, Iowa, has the largest concentration of Trumpeter Swans in Iowa in the winter. The rectangular pond is approximately 20 acres in size, and more than 200 swans winter there each year. Several aerators are located at the south end of the pond and keep a small patch of water open throughout the winter. It is this open water that acts as a magnet to the swans. A few years back, I made my first trip to this Iowa treasure. Not knowing Trumpeter Swan winter behavior, I arrived about 2:30pm on a January day with the temperature just above freezing. When I arrived, there were hundreds of ducks and geese in the open water and on the surrounding ice. Unfortunately, there were only a handful of swans. I set up on the east side of the pond in the fence row and waited, and waited, and waited some more. About 5pm I was froze to bone, in a fowl mood (odd pun), and ready to call it quits. The air was heavy with moisture and visibility had become about 200 feet. Just as I started to take my camera off the tripod head, I heard the unmistakable honking of swan overhead. In the winter fog I could not see them, but could somewhat follow their honking. The swans came from the east where they had been out feeding, flew over the pond, and then landed on the pond facing east. Luckily, I was able to grab a few images of them coming out of the fog, as they landed into the wind and facing me. Five minutes later the light was so bad I had to call it a day. Now, when I go back there to shoot, I set up about 4pm, and wait for them to come back to the pond. Had I known their feeding habits, I could have timed my first shoot there much differently. Now, I do as much research as I can before visiting an area to learn what the animal’s behaviors are to better time my photography. This is one of my favorite photos and is a good inspiration to me to be patient.

Tip #24. Working with the wind

Although light is extremely critical for a good image, sometimes the wind can be beneficial as well. When arriving at a wildlife photo location, I often throw some grass or other foliage into the air to see which way the wind is blowing. Since birds land into the wind, I try to position myself upwind from them so I can photograph their heads, rather than their butts, as they take off or land. Unfortunately, that is not always possible. I was watching a pod of pelicans feeding on a fairly windy day when I noticed that when they turned from going into the wind into going away from it, the wind literally ruffled their feathers. The ruffled feathers provided some interesting texture to the image which was not there when the same pod turning in to the wind. If you’ve never watched pelicans feed, it is quite interesting. Pelicans often group together to feed when they are near shore. They drive schools of small fish into the shallows and then in unison they dive or “tip over” with their butts in the air, scooping up the fish in their fleshy throat pouches.

Tip #23. First light

For reference, please see Tip #22 to view an image photographed less than five minutes prior to this one. As direct light from the sun slowly comes across the horizon, you have but a few minutes to get an image where the bottom of a bird’s wings are lit. This phenomenon is very short lived and I was lucky enough to have Sandhill Cranes flying near me For this image I was positioned in a ditch next to a slough in Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin. Since I took this image a few years ago, I have tried to recreate it to no avail. In order to duplicate this shot, I need to find birds flying precisely at the right time and the right height. This might be that one-in-a-million shots.

Tip #22. Shooting before the morning golden hour

To maximize the great light of the golden hour, normally the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset, you have to be in position ahead of the time to get everything set up. Often times I will be at the desired location at least a half hour before the golden hour. For this image, I was positioned in a ditch next to a slough in Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin. I was at a bit of a disadvantage as the Sandhill Cranes were to the east of me, forcing me to shoot somewhat into the rising sun. Before the sun rose over the horizon, I noticed the eastern sky turn this incredible golden orange. Luckily some of the cranes were leaving the slough they spent the night on to fly over the road to an area to feed at. Being in position early and the the predawn sky allowed me to get several silhouette images. Five minutes later the sky lost this color and turned to dull gray.